Computerized canyon


The Grand Canyon is already a public spectacle, with good reason. Every time I’ve visited I’ve been humbled by the frisson of insignificance I feel when peering into its vast orange depths. Ashamedly, I’ve only done the Canyon-lite tour – driven slowly around the car-accessible parts of the south rim, stopping at the viewing points to jostle for a good photo angle - but I still feel touched by the place, and have hopes of hiking into the chasm before my knees give out.

Soon, people will be able to take an even less strenuous tour, and get up close and personal with the canyon’s inner realms without even paying the $25 to get through the park’s gates, let alone making sure they can get past those morbid signs that warn of imminent death if one attempts to hike the Canyon in one day. 

In its undying quest to digitize as much of the human experience as possible, Google has sent its Street View team down the Bright Angel trail to photograph the canyon for the internet giant’s popular Google Maps application. In coming months, potential hikers, and those with no interest in setting foot on the trail, will be able to virtually navigate their way down the trail using their computers and smartphones.

To snag the shots that will be put together online, the Google team trekked into the canyon with cameras strapped to their backs that Wired described as looking “like a Ghostbuster’s Proton Pack with an oversized soccer ball mounted on top and a USB-connected Android smartphone in place of a particle blaster.”

The technology is impressive. But the idea that anyone with an internet connection will be able to scroll around the Canyon’s intimate depths without strapping on their favorite hiking shoes is somewhat saddening too, and begs for a line about John Wesley Powell rolling in his grave. There's a certain thrill in corralling a bunch of friends to cram their packs full of back-breaking quantities of supplies and schlep them down a calf-killing trail under the warm gaze of a southwestern sun. Sitting in a stuffy apartment and staring at a monitor seems a one-dimensional experience. What about the elevation of spirit that comes from heading into the outdoors and slowly, high on fresh air, coming to that point where one realizes that work and life stress can be put into a mental compartment and dealt with once the trip is over?

Those were my initial doubts. But then the idea of a digitally mediated Canyon experience started to make more sense.

That giant hole in the ground is a national treasure. There are many people in the U.S. and even more in other parts of the world that will never travel to Arizona to see it firsthand. I’ve got friends in Colorado who “just haven’t got there yet.” Likewise, I’ve had family members come visit me from South Africa that still didn't make it out there, in part because I couldn't find the time to take them. (Tying up a thesis and graduating from university will do that to you). This provides an opportunity for people like my aunt to see one of the wonders of the world, virtually. 

Also, I don’t think the Grand Canyon's inner views should be reserved for the fit and able-bodied. There are some folks just don’t have the physical capacity to hike into the canyon, even if they really want to. Allowing those who can’t hike in to spend time deep inside this majestic place, even if there’s a glowing screen mediating their experience of the Colorado River, can help spread the appreciation others who’ve been there in person share. The online version could also be of value in the classroom and might help geography teachers instill a new found love for sedimentary rocks and erosion processes in their pupils. Visitors contemplating whether it’s worth hiking down to Phantom Ranch could spend time on the digital trail before taking the plunge.

And it’s not like Google is lifting the lid on a secret corner of the world only seen by hardcore explorers. The numbers of those that do make it to the Canyon each year is about 5 million. The online version might even keep the crowds down a little.

Brendon Bosworth is a High Country News intern.

Images: Google product manager Ryan Falor with the Trekker, courtesy Google.

Grand Canyon heat exhaustion warning sign, courtesy flickr user brewbooks.

Grand Canyon in winter, courtesy Brendon Bosworth