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Spending a semester studying in Europe, I have had the privilege to explore many countries abroad. Despite my extensive foreign travels, I have ventured to only a small fraction of the states in America. For years, I have longed to go to the Grand Canyon, and this past week I was able to add not only a new state, but also a natural wonder to my travel list!

I arrived in Phoenix, Arizona around 8pm and proceeded onto a four-hour drive to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. By this point, the sky was pitch black and I went straight to bed. Now, if only I could explain to you in words my amazement when I woke up to see the Grand Canyon outside my window! I couldn’t wrap my head around how such a massive rock formation was created naturally, and even more astoundingly, that it was standing right before my eyes.

On my first day, I was led by a Native American guide into Antelope Canyon, where I was able to squeeze my way through over a half mile of continuous underground caves. Quickly after, I embarked on a raft tour on the Colorado River, passing Horseshoe Bend, one of the most scenic and most photographed areas of the Grand Canyon. After driving to the North Rim of the canyon, my next few days consisted of hiking various trails that defied the typical reward structure of hiking as I began at the top of the canyon at each trail, and finished my hike climbing upwards in the heat.

 

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The trip was truly one of my favorite vacations as it involved the outdoors, natural beauty and hiking- all in one! Upon returning, I initially thought I would write an entire blog post about the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and all the trails and sights to see, but then I realized I had the opportunity to highlight an even greater, environmentally related issue.

Though the Grand Canyon may be one of the seven natural wonders of the world, this global landmark is strikingly juxtaposed with its surroundings.

Phoenix is one of the most unsustainable cities in the world. Except for spasmodic floods, the Salt River hasn’t really flowed through the Phoenix Basin since the early 20th century. As a city in the middle of a desert, this is a huge issue, which is only exacerbated by its increasing water demands. The 17,000-square-mile region, referred to as Greater Phoenix, relies upon a water supply pumped 300 miles uphill from the over-allocated Colorado River (which runs through the beloved Grand Canyon). This water source is now in its second decade of a drought, which has shrunk its volume to unprecedented lows. On top of these water issues, from 1990 to 2007, Arizona added fossil-fuel pollutants faster than any other state, with a rate of increase over three times that of the national average.

Another major issue is extreme pollution resulting from the area’s cheap land and laissez-faire regulation. For many years, Phoenix was used as a dumping ground for all types of waste. Some of this waste was even exported from neighboring states like California because of its oversight regarding disposal hazardous materials, unlike Arizona. A second consequence of the vast available land is nearly unprecedented urban sprawl. Ranging across Phoenix’s valley are 1,000 square miles of low-density tract housing, with little signs of greening. This is not a surprise, however, because of the economic free fall of a region that had been mostly dependent on a successful homebuilding industry. The property values in sections of metro Phoenix have declined by 80 percent, and some neighborhoods are close to being declared, “beyond recovery.”

These facts clearly do not shed a positive light on Phoenix’s history or its future, but they are vital in understanding the potential American cities can have on creating a sustainable future. While the Grand Canyon has for the most part remained in pristine condition, we can only hope that its surroundings will recognize their unsustainable ways so it remains intact. Though this history is anything but bright, at the same time, visiting the Grand Canyon did give me hope. From sight to sight, I encountered a diverse mix of people from all different backgrounds, countries and ages, coming to embrace not a huge building or a technological innovation, but the untouched, yet almost unreal, beauty of nature. I thought, if people like this exist, despite our growing fascination with consumption and technology, humanity’s connection to nature will persist for generations, and there will always be people willing to fight to preserve all that nature has given to us.