TIME. THE WORD, the thought, often makes me
A few days ago - a few units of time into the past - I happened upon a copy of Life magazine and opened it to a fabulous three-page photograph of the Grand Canyon. The sweep, the color, the texture brought a mental response that was anything but eloquent. Something like, ''Wow, man. Wow.''
That night, I knew, I would be on an airplane heading for Arizona and the fulfillment of a dream - I would see the canyon. No more pictures; the real thing, laid out for me to . . . to what? To see, yes; but it seemed like something larger - something not at all simple - was in the offing.
And soon there I was, standing very near the spot where that Life photographer must have stood, looking at the color and the texture and the sweep.
And looking at time, laid out in front of me like a map in color code.
Soon I was sitting, because I realized this demanded some of my time. This had to be absorbed, somehow; two billion years of work by upheaval and wind and water and shellfish and creeping insect, even burro hoof.
A broad, flat rock just off the tourist path was the perfect perch. I could edge right up to the rim, get a face full of wind that was gusting up cool from the canyon depths, taste an occasional burst of grit that was time at work. And to my left, I caught flashes of a snowy white-trimmed black softness, as a dozen or so swallow-like birds darted in and out of a spindly juniper tree rising from the terrace below.
The trill and flutter of the birds were interrupted sporadically by a shuffle of rubber on gravel, an engine hum abruptly silenced and the thud of car doors as yet another car pulled off the main road to see what this little side road had to offer. They came maybe every five minutes, groups of two or three or four people clambering out. The people paused, said their ''Wows-'' and snapped pictures. Shortly, though, I'd hear a murmur - sometimes more of a whine - ''But it's almost 10:30 (11, noon) and we need to be. . .'' over there, over here, somewhere else, soon, very soon.
The footsteps would retreat to the parking area, the doors click, creak and slam, the engine retreat down the hill.
I turned back to the time map before me, trying to isolate that bit of blue showing between streaks of dramatic orange red and green-gray, trying to remember from the guidebooks I had not brought with me. Rummaging for sequences, dates, millenniums, usually coming up empty-handed (or should I say ''empty-minded''?).
So I tried to relax into it, just burn the picture into some spare brain place to make up for the snapshots that I knew, even as I took them, would be pretty feeble story-tellers.
Looked, felt the wind and waited for that something larger, that something more than seeing.
Still, a little ugly crept in. It was a smugness, a little twinge of pride every time I heard the cars back out. I knew better - I was taking time, a whole couple of hours, for goodness sake.
I have always moved a bit more slowly than the world around me, often much to the annoyance of my companions. I recognize that this is sometimes, well, obnoxious. There are moments when a stroll is wholly inappropriate and must defer to a more brisk pace. A more normal step.
Still, sitting and pondering remain my idea of a good time - an activity at which I believe I have enhanced my skills greatly over the years.
But on the edge of this elaborate display of nature, I couldn't help laughing at my little flash of self-congratulation. This vista, the fallen-away rock, the soaring peaks, the bizarre shapes left bulging from the top of a crest while the middle was carved to a mere spindle beneath it; this was time, in quantities unfathomable.
And my piece of time, the pieces of time allotted to all of us internal-combustion-machine-driving voyeurs here, what were they? Easily no more than that bit of dust, the long-ago mountain, that had just blown into my left eye, setting off its own mini-river of tear to flush it out.
I too, had to be somewhere in a certain amount of time, meet up with my friends by late afternoon. Five, six hours; a leisurely stretch to me. But how puny, how inconsequential, by the canyon's reckoning.
What was there in giving two, three hours to consider two billion years?
There were blue hazes, first settled deep in the canyon and all morning rising, slowly but measurably up the walls of time. On the walls, blues and greens seemed to trade places; tan burned deeper and deeper until it became red.
There was comfort in 2 billion years, and in having two hours to watch, to be still. To say: This is how I chose to pass this small piece of my small piece of the billions of years. My piece of time.
White and black flashed and flitted and trilled around me, other creatures passing their dust-mote of time on the edge of eternity. We were a tiny part, a part that would not last long.
But a part, nonetheless. And this was good.