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Wed, Dec. 11

For author and tour leader, Grand Canyon really rocks

If you assume that geologist Wayne Ranney's quest is for the ultimate answer to the ultimate question about Grand Canyon ­ How did it get there? ­ you'd be wrong.

For Ranney, the wonder of the canyon is in its paradoxical nature ­ iconic in its familiarity yet still essentially unfathomable.

As he writes in his book, "Carving Grand Canyon," "I am glad to have lived a good portion of my life in a time when the canyon is not fully understood. It is comforting to know that there will always be significant parts of its history that will remain forever unreachable and unknowable to us."

That doesn't mean that he doesn't look for answers and explanations, however. A 1975 hiking trip with friends through Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon turned into a 30-year stay and the beginning of not just a career but a vocation.

"We were sitting there at the grocery store figuring out expenses for the trip," he said. "My friends got up from the picnic table and went to the car and I didn't. I stayed behind."

While he didn't have the scientific background at the time to explain the excitement of being surrounded by over 130,000 square miles of horizontal, stratified rock, he did know he didn't want to leave.

Within two days, the California firefighter was hired on as a backcountry ranger, working in the inner canyon. As he tells it from there, "after three seasons, I had enough rocks in my head that I wanted to be a geologist."

He enrolled at Northern Arizona University, earning the first straight As of his life as well as a profound sense of connection.

"This has turned out to be a spiritual guidepost for me in my life," he said. "For me it's not just a career or something I do, but something that was woven into my fabric."

While other geologists pursued specialties like earthquakes or paleontology, he specialized in the Grand Canyon, not in a traditional research sense but with the mission of opening up its mysteries to the non-geologist.

"The time that I might have spent doing original research on Grand Canyon, on the geology, I sort of spent my time doing research on how you can get those stories out to people in ways that they can understand and be turned on to it," he said. "I like to give people the sense that this is an active, exciting place."

For example, his book, "Carving Grand Canyon" takes readers past the simple answer of how the canyon was formed ­ the river carved it ­ and makes the science behind several theories accessible. It was the product, said Ranney, of telling the story to tour groups and classes for 20 years.

"The first 15 years weren't pretty," he said.

His love for teaching extends from the classroom to the field, to all corners of the globe. He has led tours and explored the geology in 65 countries, teaches at Yavapai College in Sedona and is a trip leader for both the Grand Canyon Field Institute and the Museum of Northern Arizona. He has also written three other books ­ "Sedona Through Time," "The Verde Valley: A Geologic History" and "Canyon Country."

Though he has made his home in one of the most spectacular places on earth, he maintains that there is no such thing as boring landscape.

"I have a joke on my backpack trips," he said. "One day I hope to lead a seven-day field trip to Kansas. Now Kansas doesn't have much of a landscape, yet the fact that that there are no landscape features there is a very interesting story."

He even finds excitement in the most dreaded of drives, on Interstate 40 through the Mojave Desert.

"It's one of the most exciting drives in the world for me. I meet people all the time who talk about how that drive is ridiculous I ask, have you ever really looked at what you're driving through?," he said. "They're just focused on the destination. They need to be focused on the journey to the destination."

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