America: Foreign visitors refocus us at Grand Canyon

South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona. Many of the visitors this year are traveling from foreign countries. They bring fresh perspectives about America’s beauty. Photo: David Crumm.GRAND CANYON, Arizona. This 277-mile-long, jaw-dropping gorge is one of America’s iconic symbols of natural grandeur and our second-most-visited National Park, but this week the park seems to be packed with more foreign visitors than U.S. residents.

In a slow walk along the canyon’s southern rim, jotting down accents of visitors talking with each other, the list came out: Italian. German. Japanese. Australian. American. Italian. Italian. Indian. Japanese. German. German. American. American. American. German. French. Indian. Japanese. Then, we hit a group of Brazilians who wanted help taking group photos and the reporter’s pad was exchanged for a fistful of small cameras.

Grand Canyon is a crown jewel in the National Park Service’s crown, ranking second only to the much more accessible Great Smoky Mountains. Not even Yellowstone outdraws this dizzying chasm and its dazzling lighting effects from brilliant sunbeams to slate-gray platoons of rain clouds marching across the mesas to jagged lightening strikes even in a nearly clear sky. And that short list of natural effects was all in just three hours spent on the rim.

“Oh, God! I just got it up on Facebook!” squealed a blond teen standing so far out on a rock ledge beyond the safety barricades that her joyful bouncing gave others weak knees. “I got enough bars and it’s up! It’s up!”

Many young Americans experience the Grand Canyon through their handheld devices, like these two young women at the South Rim.Most Americans under 30 seemed to be furiously thumbing phones, snapping pictures and texting friends from overlooks, often spending more time focused on their palms than the multi-hued gorge. Most foreign visitors, who comprised the great majority of tourists on the afternoon we visited, took a few photos of friends and family on more traditional cameras and seemed to spend more time simply drinking in the thunderous show of nature’s power.

Enrico Hubert and Astrid Barth from Leonberg, Germany, took turns photographing each other against the vast canyon. “Just amazing,” Hubert sighed in German-accented English as they paused shaking their heads in disbelief.

Asked why they had made Grand Canyon a part of only three weeks in their overall U.S. tour, Hubert and Barth looked surprised at the question. “Oh, we had to come here, of course. Grand Canyon is one of the most important things in the U.S.A. People have to come here, then, don’t they?”

They were surprised to discover that the majority of visitors weren’t from the U.S. Barth said, “I don’t know why that is. For us, we had to come. Perhaps it’s that this is a landscape you just can’t find in Europe. It’s part of what makes the U.S.A. unique.”

A young Japanese traveler and his girlfriend who declined to give their names but said they’re traveling the U.S. all summer on a break from school near Tokyo, said, “We see this with different eyes.”

Asked to explain that, the couple conferred in Japanese a long moment, then he said, “We see the land with a deeper meaning, I think.”

Tom Riker, an engineer from near Sydney, Australia, said, “I may take a job in Texas later this year and I wanted to see what I’m getting myself into. We hear lots of bad news about what’s going on over here, but I’m definitely thinking of moving over for a couple of years now that I’ve seen it for myself.”

Hefting the camera he’d been using to photograph mesas, Riker said, “I think I can convince my girlfriend to come with me, now.”

Riker said he wasn’t aware that the vast majority of Americans say they’re worried about the future for themselves and their families. “That true? Yeah? Makes sense, though. They probably see the same news we see and they probably believe what they see. Far as I can see on the ground here, there’s a lot for you to be proud of, right?” 

(Today’s photos and story by Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

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