Why is this place here? What is its purpose? Did it please God to set a canyon here, the country’s deepest river gorge for His own delight? Is it here to remonstrance with our pride? Does its name, Hell’s Canyon, speak to its nature? Is there something diabolical about these vistas?
No answers present themselves as I watch the rapids a little way down the river, and hear their hushed but visceral roar. Perhaps there’s little use in asking them, but now that I’m here I yearn to know.
I am not ken to any of the history of this place, but the names tell me things. Names, as my friend SW likes to say, have power. For the pioneers who named these places, perhaps it was a hellish canyon. I cannot imagine making this journey in the circumstances that the first settlers did. They risked their lives and families to obtain, I imagine, a little dry geometer of the Palouse hills beyond to call their own. Perhaps this is Hell’s Canyon because it was passed over. No one could make a living for themselves here, except perhaps as whitewater rafting guides in this thrill-seeking age, or as fishermen if that monstrous crawdad jetting about in the shallows has many burly brothers and sisters, affable aunts and kissing cousins.
So maybe Hell’s Canyon means passed over. But there are other factors. It is a bleak place, filled with life without being lush. The mountains here are starkly majestic, not verdant. The dark rock and dun-colored grass are not Edenic. One cannot imagine Adam, in the days before clothes and those troublesome details about death and sin, happily herding a skipping band of sheep on his way for a date with the mother of all the living.
What did this place look like before the snake became something that would dwell in a canyon named for Hell? And what will it look like after?
Perhaps not very different. Maybe not even the name will change. Maybe there is a place for places like this in Christ’s perfected Kingdom: the place they inhabit now.
Why, if this place is redolent of His enemy, would Christ allow it to remain, to not be torched and ground down into glory by the purifying fire?
Because He, the God-man made a journey here. He travelled through the valley of the shadow, even unto the canyon of Hell. Eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani was his plea as he entered, but in the moment when impregnable granite and a leaden sky had rended the Godhead, something changed.
We will not all die, but we will all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, Hell’s Canyon was broken and Christ was raised.
Geologically, I am raving. Christ never came to this canyon, in the flesh, whatever the Mormons may say. But as we have been redeemed, so perhaps has this place. Christ had to go through Hell, and we come to Hell’s Canyon to see its beauty and worship Him in it. Something, then, must have changed.
Perhaps it is proof of redemption that we can come here as tourists. We could go to the place of the skull in the same way. These places have lost the power they had, the power they took on after the Fall, to endanger the souls of men. Christ made it through the canyon alive, and we bypassed the angry rattler on the trail. The pioneers had a hard time of it, but they survived and founded Seattle, where their descendants avidly smoke away their brain cells. But we know what they have forgotten: that a belief lies latent within all of us, an urging to give this place meaning in a bigger story. I am giving in now: maybe I have answered all my questions.
Hell’s Canyon this may be, but it became, long ago, with us, the world, and everything else, forever and ineluctably God’s. There is no power in this place to keep us from worshipping Him, and reeling in the beauties of this place with wondering hearts, we will.