Every worthy vision is panoramic in nature. How is it that we esteem what is most important and what is most valuable? We place it in the highest position possible! If you’re a winner you’re on top…if you understand things fully you have a 30,000-foot view…if your influence in the world is palpable you are a “high-status” individual. The apex position provides the clearest and most powerful vantage point. But if you’re struggling with that goal in the abstract—in the everyday doing and undergoing of things—let’s represent it in a different way. Let’s remove it from the world of metaphor and analogue and discuss its presence in the concrete world…or, shall we say, the world of shale, stone, limestone, basaltic rock, and fast-flowing waterways!
Mount Everest…Mount Kilimanjaro…Angel Falls…Victoria Falls…Iguazu Falls…the Himalayas…the Alps…and the Rockies. All sites of immense beauty, sublimity, and picturesque wonder! Unfortunately, though, I haven’t yet had the good fortune to visit them in person, so I can only give them a preliminary shout-out. The places I have had the good fortune to visit I will expand upon further. Let’s begin in Ireland…the beloved Emerald Isle!
On Northern Ireland’s northeastern shore in County Antrim (3 miles from the town of Bushmills), the Giant’s Causeway reigns supreme! 40,000+ interlocking (hexagonal) basaltic columns extend out along the coast1,2. From a certain vantage point, you could mistake them for the skyline of a concrete jungle like New York City or Hong Kong. Ancient, volcanic fissures that erupted gave rise to them (literally)1,2. The site- declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 and a National Nature Reserve by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland in 1987 – contains columns as high as 12 meters (39.4 feet)3. In some places within the shoreline’s cliffside, the solidified lava is at least 28 meters (91.9 feet) thick.
Approximately 50-60 million years ago (during the Paleocene Epoch), highly fluid molten basalt intruded through chalk beds and formed an extensive volcanic plateau1. The lava cooled and contraction occurred4. Horizontal contraction fractured the plateau like drying mud, and cracks, which propagated down as the mass cooled, left pillarlike structures (“biscuits”) in its wake4. The horizontal fractures resulted in a bottom face that’s convex, while the upper face of it took on a concave shape—producing “ball and socket” joints4. How fast or slowly the lava cooled determined the columns’ heights.
The Irish had a different narrative interpretation for this Great Thulean Plateau: Scottish giant Benadonner challenged Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhail (Finn MacCool) from the Gaelic Fenian cycle of mythology to a fight. Some say Finn created the Giant’s Causeway to travel to Scotland and meet his foe. In another version, Finn chickened out. His wife- Sadhbh- disguised him as a baby, swaddled him in cloths, and put him in a cradle. When Belladonner saw the size of this “baby” he became terrified5. He sprinted back to Scotland, destroying the causeway in the process (minus what appears on the Northern Irish coastline). Identical columns were discovered at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish Isle of Staffa6.
Travel to the other side of Ireland where the Cliffs of Moher rise majestically from the (western) Atlantic shoreline. The cliffs are comprised of Namurian shale and sandstone7. 313-326 million years ago, a river dumped sand, silt, and clay into the ancient marine basin of present-day County Clare, Ireland (the Burren region)8,9. Over the course of millions of years, sediments collected at the mouth of the delta, and compacted and lithified into a sedimentary stratum preserved in the 200 meters of now-exposed cliffs. Two types of trace fossils can be found in abundance at the cliffs- Scolicia (worming trails) and burrow marks10.
At the south end of Moher, the peaks rise 120 meters (349 feet) above the Atlantic Ocean (Hag’s Head), and at O’Brien’s Tower (the north end) they rise at least 214 meters (702.1 feet)11. Visitors can see the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, the Maumturks, and Twelve Pins Mountain Ranges to the north in County Galway (as well as in Loop Head to the south)12. Sealife at the Cliffs of Moher includes grey seals, porpoises, dolphins, minke whales, basking sharks, Atlantic puffins, and razorbills13,14,15. Various films, such as Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Leap Year, and the Princess Bride, were filmed at the Cliffs of Moher16.
Now let’s trade in our tams and raingear for cowboy hats and spurred boots. Saddle up there, partner, get yourself a drink from the old saloon, and refill your canteen. We’re heading to the dry, hot, cactus-filled world of the American southwest. Hike through the flat deserts for a long enough time, and you’ll stumble upon its many canyons. Antelope…Bryce…Zion…and, oh, yes, the greatest one of all…. the Grand Canyon!! The Grand Canyon stretches for 277 miles17. It is over a mile deep and 18 miles wide17.
According to the emerging scientific consensus, the Grand Canyon’s multiple segments formed at different times. The Grand Canyon was part of the Colorado River Basin, which developed over 70 million years ago18,19. The “Hurricane” formation came first (50-70 million years ago), the “Eastern Grand Canyon” (15-25 million years ago) came second, and the “Westernmost Grand Canyon” (5-6 million years ago) came third20,21.
At a time when the American shorelines were rapidly advancing and receding, the Colorado River Basin deposited many formations into warm shallow seas, near-shore environments (beaches), and swamps. Uplift steepened the Colorado River’s stream gradient (as well as its various tributaries). During the ice ages, weather conditions increased the amount of water to the Colorado River, and the river responded by cutting channels faster and deeper through the terrain. About 5.3 million years ago, the Gulf of California opened and lowered at the river’s base level, and an increased rate of erosion cut nearly all the Grand Canyon to its current depth22.
Who called the Grand Canyon their home? Initially the Ancestral Puebloans and Anasazi did during the 1200 B.C.E. Basket-maker Era23,24. Between 500 and 1200 C.E., the Cohonina (ancestors of the Yuman, Havasupai, and Hualapai) lived there as well (just west of the Grand Canyon)25,26,27. The Sinagua inhabited the region between 500-1425 C.E. (just southeast of the Grand Canyon, near the Little Colorado and Salt Rivers).
In September 1540, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado set out upon an expedition to find the Seven Cities of Cibola28. Coronado, alongside Captain Lopez de Cardenas and various Hopi guides, traveled to the south rim of the Grand Canyon between Desert View and Moran Point28. Pablo de Melgrossa, Juan Galeras, and a third soldier descended into the canyon and saw rocks “bigger than the great tower of Seville, Giralda!”28 Fathers Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante explored southern Utah, the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and Glen/Marble Canyons (alongside Spanish soldiers) in search of a route from Sante Fe to California.
In 1826, James Ohio Pattie and a squad of American trappers and mountain men set out for the Grand Canyon29,30. Jacob Hamblin, a Mormon missionary (whom Bringham Young dispatched) and advisor to John Wesley Powell, sought out suitable river crossing sites thirty years later, and made his own voyage to the Grand Canyon. Hamblin established good relations with the local Hualapai and white settlers, and he reached the Crossing of the Ferries and Lee’s Ferry on a raft in 185831,32.
In 1857, Edward Fitzgerald Beale, superintendent of an expeditionary survey, led a small party in search of the Coconino Plateau near the South Rim (Grand Canyon). He “never saw anything to match or equal this natural curiosity.”33 That same year, the U.S. War Department sent Lieutenant Joseph Ives on an expedition to assess the feasibility of upriver navigation from the Gulf of California. Ives and his men embarked from the mouth of the Colorado River in a stern wheeler steamboat (the Explorer) on December 31, 185734,35. They reached the lower end of the Black Canyon on March 8, 185834,35. After continuing via rowboat past the mouth of the Virgin River, their Explorer struck a rock34,35! The crew traveled east into the canyon, and they were potentially the first Europeans to enter the Grand Canyon’s Diamond Creek drainage36.
In 1869, John Wesley Powell set out to explore the Colorado River down the Grand Canyon. He ordered four reinforced Whitewall rowboats from Chicago (to be shipped via the new continental railroad), hired 9 men (including his brother Walter), and set out with 10 months of provisions from the Green River (Wyoming) to the American southwest37,38. Powell and his men lost one of their boats, a third of their food, and other necessary supplies39. They passed through and portaged around dangerous rapids and eventually reached a confluence with the Colorado River (present-day Moab, Utah) on July 17, 1869 (subsisting on their survival rations)39,40.
On August 29, 1869, the crew reached apparently impassable falls. Three men- Seneca Howland, Oramel Howland, and William H Dunn- left for a settlement 75 miles away, but the Shivwits group murdered them (mistaking them for violent prospectors they had encountered)41. John Wesley Powell eventually became the Director of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution (1879-1902) and the Second Director of the U.S. Geological Survey (1881-1894)42,43. Powell was the first to coin the term “the Grand Canyon” (previously people just called it the “Big Canyon”)43.
In 1903, outdoor enthusiast, adventurer, and U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt visited the site, and he established it as the Grand Canyon Game Preserve on November 28, 1906. Today, at least 5 million people visit it per year. Hiking, biking, rafting, camping, and wildlife-watching are many of the leisurely activities people visiting take part in. But simply gazing upon the vast and sublime chasm, its incredible depths, and its varying bands of vermilion, orange, violet, and brown is a deeply meaningful activity all on its own!
Honorable mentions go to the snow-capped Salkantay peaks in the Andean Mountain range (South America), Mount Denali in Alaska, the Pacific coastal cliffs, and El Capitan in Yosemite (California), but, outside the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls takes the top spot!
Niagara Falls appears to be the exact opposite of the Grand Canyon- not arid, dry, or dusty in the slightest. Nothing but a misty and refreshing waterway. So pristine…and yet so frighteningly powerful!! Niagara Falls is a group of three waterfalls that coalesce at the southern end of the Niagara Gorge (which spans the border between Canada’s Ontario province and the state of New York in the U.S.). The largest of the three falls is Horseshoe Falls (which straddles the Canada/U.S. border)44. The American and Bridal Veil Falls are on the U.S. side.
The Niagara River (which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario) has the highest flow rate of any waterfall in North America, and the longest vertical drop at Niagara Falls is 50 meters (160 feet). More than 168,000m3 (5.9 million cubic feet) of water flows over the crest of the falls every minute45. Horseshoe Falls is about 57 meters (187 feet) high, while the American and Bridal Veil Falls vary between 21 and 30 meters (69 and 98 feet, respectively)46. Horseshoe falls is about 790 meters (2,590 feet) wide, and the American and Bridal Veil Falls are 320 meters (1,050 feet) wide.
10,000 years ago, Wisconsin glaciation helped create Niagara Falls47. A massive ice sheet left behind an enormous volume of meltwater which flowed into Lake Algonquin, Lake Chicago, Glacial Lake Iroquois, and the Champlain Sea. It then filled up the basins it carved out. This formed the Great Lakes we know today48,49. The ice then melted, and the upper Great Lakes emptied into the Niagara River, which then aligned with the Niagara Escarpment. The river cut a huge gorge through the north-facing cliff (“cuesta”). Because three major rock formations interacted with one another, the rocky bed eroded unevenly50.
Beneath the waters that flow over the precipice are caprock formations. They are composed of hard, erosion-resistant limestone and dolomite, shale, limestone, and ancient fossils50. The river eroded the soft layers that supported the harder layers (undercutting the hard caprock), giving way to great chunks, and (repeated countless times) carving out the falls.
Frenchman Samuel de Champlain initially visited the area as early as 1604 during his exploration of Canada. Members of his party reported to him that they had seen spectacular falls, and he subsequently noted their observations in his journals.
Belgian missionary, Father Louis Hennepin, alongside French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, first described the falls in 1677. French Jesuit missionary Paul Ragueneau likely visited the falls several decades before Hennepin did, and Jean de Brebeuf may have also visited them as well while he was spending time with the Neutral Nation51. Finnish-Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm explored the Niagara region in the early 18th century and allegedly provided the first scientific description, while British Army officer/artist, Thomas Davies, surveyed the area and painted a watercolor image of it (“East View of the Great Cataract of Niagara”)52,53,54.
Aaron Burr’s daughter, Theodosia Burr Alston, and her husband took the first recorded honeymoon in Niagara Falls, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Jerome visited there with his wife as well55,56. Explorer John Franklin visited the falls while en route to the Arctic circle, and English industrial chemist High Lee Pattinson took daguerreotype photos of it57,58. In August of 1918, an iron scow became stuck on the rock above the falls, and in the 20th century, the falls were used to harness hydroelectric power57,58.
Numerous daredevils have jumped, plunged over, and even tightrope-walked across Niagara Falls. Englishman Captain Matthew Webb (first man to swim the English Channel) drowned in 1883 when he tried to swim the rapids downriver from the falls. On October 24, 1901, 63-year-old Michigan school teacher Annie Edison Taylor became the first person to go over the falls in a barrel59. Many followed suit but were killed. Nowadays, anyone who attempts such a stunt (on either side of the border) faces serious fines! During the “Miracle at Niagara” (July 9, 1960), seven-year-old American Roger Woodward swept over the falls after the boat he was cruising in lost power60. Several tourists pulled his 17-year-old sister from the river and plucked him from the pool beneath Horseshoe Falls60. Their uncle unfortunately died in the incident.
Over 20 million people (at least) visit the falls each year. Visitors catch a glimpse of the falls from the nearby Skylon Tower, the Whirlpool Aero Car, and, perhaps most notably, the “Maid of the Mist.” The eponymous character (whom Jim Carrey played) from Bruce Almighty (2003) loses his cool (no pun intended) on the Maid of the Mist. Niagara (1953)– starring Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten- encouraged many honeymooning tourists to visit the falls, while other films- including Superman II, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Bubble Boy– were shot there. The latter, though critically and commercially panned, featured the main character (whom Jake Gyllenhaal played) sweeping over the falls in a plastic (bubble) suit. Various famous artists, including Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, and William Morris Hunt painted the falls, and H.G. Wells featured it in his novel, The War in the Air.
Niagara Falls glistens and shimmers in the daylight. Its thunderous whooshing can lull people to sleep. The mist that floats over it can seem fantastical and unreal, and the site of it alone can leave you parched. Don’t let its picturesque appeal fool you, though. It’s a monster of nature. It could crush a car or slice off your hands, and the rapidity with which it flows over can leave you frozen in your tracks.
The apex…the summit…the precipice. So many descriptors! We used to think this earth itself had one, but, despite that, so many places on earth can make you feel like you are at the edge of the world. What a sublime, clarity-inducing, powerful, and terrifying feeling! Your entire scope of worldly appreciation extended out in front of you in one unified canvas. Reserve a window seat on a plane and peer out at the tiny little roads, mountains, and cars…or jump out of an aircraft with a parachute. Travel into outer space…or bungee-jump off a cliff…or even leap off a high-dive, and the same experiential enlightenment will envelope you!
What occurs is the realization that even the highest multitude of perceptions, thoughts, memories, predictions, epistemological appreciations, and more can funnel down into a single experience or a singular vision! And therein lies the natural beauty of it…the Giant’s Causeway, the Cliffs of Moher, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, and countless other earthly vistas and beyond!
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