Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon (A Short Rim to Rim Trip)

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Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Before you get the wrong idea…

It’s the title of the book next to this lady sitting calmly on the edge of a cliff with who I presume to be her son.  I have to admit, as I was walking by on the “Trail of Time” and looked over and saw this, I was a littlllle…awestruck?  Maybe, just by the view alone.  Shocked?  Definitely not.  People do this anywhere there’s a ledge and a view.  Just…yeah, it was a site to see.  Maybe more than anything my first thought was “Get the shot before they get up!”

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Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Contrast that with the outright contempt some people expressed upon walking by as I snapped away.  Many audible gasps followed by that reflexive judgement parents love to dish out.  The boy turned at one point and said something to his mom about me photographing them.  Probably heard the chatter too.  She didn’t seem to care, but because I could tell he did, I moseyed along shortly after.

Accidents happen all the time in places like these.  It was only within the past week and a half a 23-year old California kid fell to his death at Mather Point.  And as I write this now, fetching that link, here’s another from Friday.  I left on Friday.  When I was at Mather Point there were two teenagers, very Beavis and Butthead-ish, one of which I was positive was going over as he crept up to a ledge while the other took a photo, both joking about falling.  It was cringeworthy because it would’ve been so predictable.

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Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

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Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

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Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Oh, and there’s the whole ‘how close can I get to the wildlife before I’m gored?’ opportunities…

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz


National parks are some of my favorite places to visit, though I imagine not for the same reasons as most of the folks there.  Growing up in the west, I’ve had the chance to visit the best of them from an early age, including the Grand Canyon.  But the single main reason I like visiting national parks at peak season is that I love to watch people interacting in and with these “natural” environments.  Overhearing the little family dramas, feeling the excitement of kids playing in the campgrounds, meeting other travelers, drinking beer in the lodge with a beautiful view- forgetting about the “real” world, right?  Maybe my reasons aren’t so different.

It’s odd then, as you’re driving to the Grand Canyon from Flagstaff on AZ64 to get away from it all, you’re reminded that you won’t be getting as far away as you thought.  Or at least I was.

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

A few open hillside mines and Mickey D signs just outside the park boundaries.

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Once inside, though, I’m a happy tourist, too.  Click on these…

I took the bus that goes out to Hermits Rest.  (By the way, where is the possessive apostrophe in some of these names on the park maps?  Another curious one is Wotans Throne.)  I had heard Hopi Point was a good sunset spot so I wanted to check it out and see if it would be worth bringing more equipment later on.

This guy sealed the deal for me though.  Nope, not worth it.  The bus goes relatively slow, but it’s easy to imagine (for me) a catastrophic brake malfunction sending the bus, and us, to certain death right over the cliff only a few dozen feet from the road in places.

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

I was the last one to board this full bus and so I stood behind a white line right next to the driver.  Almost immediately after we started going down a hill past a 6% slope sign he began glancing (in what I perceived as a confused manner) at the brake and accelerator pedals, repeatedly as he stepped on them.  It was like he had to make sure he was stepping on the right one each and every time.  The bus jerked forward at one point and I know I wasn’t the only one freaked out by the whole thing.  (Look at the wide-eyed expression on the other guy behind the driver.)

Anyway, I’m sure he knew what he was doing, but I wasn’t compelled to go back later.  More so than the bus ride, I didn’t feel like the photos would be worth the hassle.  The weather was beautiful, but with an almost cloudless sky and nearby fires, it seemed more risk than reward.  If landscape photography was my bread and butter, yeah, I would’ve gone.  But I’d rather have a beer on the porch of the Tovar Hotel and see what I could find nearby as the sun finally set.

The Trail of Time…

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

I’ve been to the South Rim a few times, but never the North.  Reason being- even though it’s only 18 miles across, it takes about 4 hours along some pretty desolate roads to drive there.

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Closer to the North Rim and people are back to bad habits.  Somebody venturing out to tempt a herd of bison…

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Because of its remoteness, the North Rim receives only a fraction of the visitors as the South.  And there’s not as much development either.  What makes this cool is that any time of the day it seemed you could find a chair to lounge in, read a book, and take in the view.  For a good chunk of the day, this is exactly what I did.

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

The North Rim has a winding 22-mile drive with a bunch of viewpoints along the way that I knew I’d take out to Cape Royal for sunset.  Besides getting a couple good shots and chatting with several people, I met this guy, too.

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Francis X. Driscoll…Fran, is a fine art landscape photographer from upstate New York.  We chatted a bit after the sunset and ended up having a lot in common.  He’s a former state employee, and now full-time photographer traveling around the country chasing light.  As it was time to head back to camp Fran joked that he’d see me in the morning for sunrise.  I had already mentioned I’m not a landscape photographer and not nearly as dedicated as he for getting those shots.  I laughed and told him I’d be trying to sleep in.

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

The next morning I was using the wifi at the campground store (which, by the way, was slow but free for a change) and who but ol’ Fran came along joking that he missed me for sunrise.  We sat, drank coffee, and chatted for awhile, and ended up crossing paths one more time later that morning.  Seemed like a real good dude.


When I left the South Rim I had asked a young ranger….they’re all young these days, right?….if there was anything I needed to know about traveling to the North Rim.  You know, services, gas, food, etc.  He told me there wasn’t any gas at the North Rim.  So on my way in, because I knew I wanted to take that 22-mile drive, I made sure to fill up at a Chevron at the junction of US89a and AZ67.  The price was significantly more expensive than anywhere else along the way but whatever.

You can imagine my dismay when I found a service station right next to the campground, and $0.50 less a gallon.  (They should require the rangers to visit all areas of the park at which they work, because I talked to several on the South Rim who had never been to the North.)  I stopped to fill up on my way out and ended up meeting another cool dude.

Chuck was born and raised in Fairbanks, AK.  Worked construction most of his life there before he finally had enough and headed south.  He said he used to trek the canyon every year until his knees started giving him trouble.  He’s happy visiting the tropics these days so I don’t feel too bad for him.

It’s a full service station and I didn’t mind at all that Chuck took his sweet time cleaning my windshield.  He looked pretty classic and after I thanked him and pulled away I immediately regretted not getting a photo.  After driving a few miles I forced myself to turn around with the added excuse that I’d check one more time if any camping spots had opened up for the night (only had a reservation for the one). Chuck looked busy as I drove by again, but after I checked on the campsite (none available) there was just one car pulling off and the timing was perfect.  I stopped and asked if he’d mind if I made a portrait of him, explaining that’s kinda what I do, and being the nice guy he is he was happy to oblige.  I told him it’d take me a few minutes to set up.  And in the meantime, several cars came through.

When I was finally ready for him, Chuck says to me, “Let me show you something kid.”  We walked into the office and right there on the desk was a July 2014 issue of Arizona Highways magazine opened up to a big picture of Chuck.  I got the biggest kick out of it, telling him they beat me to it.  He said they had him hamming it up for an hour and a half with a full production team.  (I was a little surprised by the amount of motion blur in their final photo selection, given what Chuck said about the production.)

Anyway, I told him where I wanted him and he did the rest.  I joked that he’s a pro, after all, and it would be a piece-a-cake.  I got five frames before another car rolled up and he had to go back to work.  I knew I had what I wanted.  But I didn’t have time to ask him about the train back there!  Next time.

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz


So there you go.  A long overdue rim to rim trip at Grand Canyon.  It’s strange to think of the different ways people can complicate what can be a fulfilling, if not a bit manufactured, experience with nature.  But unnecessary risk-taking, irresponsibility, or just plain old unawareness are all “natural” as well I suppose.  And so are freak accidents.

Grand Canyon is one of the deadliest park destinations in the country, relatively speaking.  What’s the Park Service’s responsibility to prevent accidents?  Signs are posted and rails are in place at popular lookouts.  But you can’t hold hands across the whole 277-mile rim, right?  People will always push their own boundaries, regardless of the ones imposed on them for their own safety.  (Though my prior public sector experience taught me citizens always resent the expense for, use of, and most importantly, the risk to emergency responders who assist those that have taken unnecessary risks and found themselves in need of help.)

Chances are overwhelmingly in your favor that you’ll be fine if you go.  I’m not criticizing or judging anybody either (unlike the helicopter parents I heard before).  I’m dependent on people to complete what I consider to be good landscape photos.  Just be careful out there, and maybe pickup a copy of that book, too, so you can know what not to do while you’re “getting away from it all”.

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Mintz

Copyright 2016 Marc Allen Miz

A few more in black and white….(and be sure to view the large version of the pano!)

Epilogue

Over the three days I was there a few horrific events occurred across the country.  Maybe more a sign of the times, I hate to admit, but the twisted thought crossed my mind- wonder what crazy shit’s going to happen while I’m gone.  Sure enough.  Not surprisingly, around the Canyon there was absolutely no sign of these events occurring.  No TVs or newspapers, that I saw, to remind people just how un-removed from reality they actually are.

It’s a privilege to escape to places like the Grand Canyon.  With all the other madness going on in the world, it’s even more of a reason to take care of yourself when you finally do get the opportunity.

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3 responses to “Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon (A Short Rim to Rim Trip)

  1. You asked, “…where is the possessive apostrophe in some of these names on the park maps?”

    And, the answer:
    “The United States Board on Geographic Names, which has responsibility for formal naming of municipalities and geographic features, has deprecated the use of possessive apostrophes since 1890 so as not to show ownership of the place.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostrophe#Possessives_in_geographic_names

  2. Pingback: Car Doors and Campgrounds | my american myth

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