''Just you wait till you see it,'' friends told me. ''Just you wait. Pictures don't tell half the truth. It's really something.'' We were on a transcontinental car trip, passing through Arizona, and we had decided to stop in Flagstaff overnight so as to rise early the next day and see my boyhood dream , the Grand Canyon.

A light snow was falling as we pulled in. I looked up in disbelief. ''It's cold,'' I said. ''This is supposed to be Arizona.'' ''Of course it's cold,'' came the patient reply. ''This is Arizona.'' I shook my head, got out of the car in my short-sleeved shirt and California souvenir windbreaker, and checked into the motel. ''Does it always snow like this?'' I asked the clerk. ''Not always,'' she said, handing me the keys.

I went outside and looked up at the sky again, trying to remember if I'd ever seen it snow in Arizona in a John Wayne movie. I hadn't. My friends smiled. ''Just accept and enjoy.'' But there was supposed to be warm desert and sage, not pine trees and snow. ''You've seen too many movies,'' they consoled. ''You've got to get those westerns off your mind. Just wait till tomorrow. The Grand Canyon will be worth it. I shrugged my shoulders and went inside, hoping for warmth and maybe a Clint Eastwood film. I had waited since childhood to see the canyon; I had read books on it, seen pictures of it. A little snow wasn't going to deter me now. ''I hope it lives up to expectations,'' I said to my friends.

''Depends on what those are,'' they responded.

Morning came much colder than it should have, but at least the snow had stopped, leaving only a quarter-inch of powder behind. My breath showed in the air. ''You sure we didn't make a long left to Colorado?'' I asked as I cleaned the snow off the car. My friends laughed. ''Hurry up. The canyon is waiting.'' I sighed, certain that John Wayne never had to endure anything like this.

We headed out of Flagstaff, north across the desert. And finally I began to see the West of my youth, the West I'd been expecting. The snow disappeared. Purple crags burst from the ground, and scrub dotted the parched land. The cracks and crevasses around us gave the earth a taut, lean look. Occasional houses marked the homes of isolated Indians; and roadside debris, the remains of last summer's jewelry stand. ''Ah,'' I basked, ''this is Arizona. This is what I want. This is what I've dreamed of.''

But as we rose in altitude, the snow started falling again. Great white flakes streamed past, burying the land around us. I pulled my windbreaker tighter and wondered how common the sense was that had told me I wouldn't need a down jacket in the desert, and began to wonder if it were possible to be snowed in. ''Keep going,'' my friends said. ''You can't miss it.''

Soon the park gate came into sight, already disappearing under a thick layer of snow. I held my breath, sensing the canyon just over the next ridge. I could feel it waiting. All the books, pictures, and movies were at last to be made real.

But all the books, pictures, and movies had never prepared me for reality.

''Where is it?'' I asked. ''Out there somewhere,'' my friends said, pointing. ''I don't see it,'' I said. ''No,'' they agreed, ''but still, it's out there, somewhere in the fog.'' The snow blew in my face. The clouds below twisted and turned, filling the canyon, extending the whiteness of the landscape around me out into forever. I stood on the edge of limbo, at the terminus of reality - beyond me was the void. ''If the Earth were flat,'' I said, ''the edge would look like this.'' My friends shrugged. ''It may still clear up,'' they said. ''Let's wait. You have to see the canyon. You came to see it.''

It took a little while for me to realize I would never see the Grand Canyon I had come to see, or the Arizona I had come to believe in, either. They were things of movies and books. The reality was different than I had expected, but it was real. The reality was vastly more beautiful than any expectation ever could be.

I met The Canyon on its own terms that day. It was unwilling or unable to meet me on mine. My preconceptions didn't exist for it. The canyon could not mold itself to them. I needed to alter my ideas and see what the canyon really was. Gradually, through the fog, I did. I became aware of its beauty and mystery , its majesty and power. I felt them through the fog, sensed them without seeing.

Momentarily, however, the canyon did grant me an audience. It opened its veil , and revealed its face. A brilliant strip of turquoise blue wound through the crenelations it had carved. An eye of cloud floated far beneath my feet. I grasped the vision that I saw, then the fog closed in. The vision was gone.

That brief glimpse was all I was allowed, but more glory poured through that small breach in the clouds than I have yet understood. As I watched my boyhood illusions melt like snow in the sun, my befogged thoughts prepared for the light.

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