The guy standing next to me on the rim of the Grand Canyon had an aging hippie look but for his bookish, black-rimmed glasses. His gray hair was pulled back in a straggly ponytail, and his eyes were blue and bright as, quietly, we urged the two condors hunkered on a rock far below to take wing. The giant birds were not listening and refused to show off their 10-foot wingspan.
As was a ritual with everyone encountered on our trip, the man and I exchanged stories about our experiences at the parks we’d visited. I told him about the condor expert in Zion and his plea to pass along word to any hunters that they switch to steel bullets since the commonly used lead shot was lethal to scavengers. Having chatted awhile, and feeling I was on reasonably safe ground, I murmured, sotto voce, “I’m not a fan of hunting.”
“Me either,” he said. In fact, he was well aware of the perils facing wildlife from human activity given his work as a veterinary pathologist.
“Ah. It must be hard to be immersed in the harm inflicted on creatures, whether intentional or not,” I said.
“Yes. Certainly. But my hope is that my findings will make a difference by increasing awareness. The restoration of condor populations is one of conservation’s great success stories.”
“We learned from that condor guy that their numbers had sunk to 12 breeding pairs. A near-miss in terms of extinction.”
“Speaking of, have you seen the sign over at The Lookout about not throwing coins into the canyon?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Obviously not safe to hikers passing below to throw anything, and again, condors are scavengers. They’ll go for the coins, and the zinc can poison them.”
“Exactly! Yet while I was reading that sign, a few feet away a kid was tossing stones over the side.”
Incredulous, I looked at the pathologist. “They were stones, not coins, but still. What the hell? He was 11 or so, old enough to know better. I had to say something. In my nice –but-concerned-grown-up voice I said, ‘did you read this sign?’ Judging by his expression as he scurried away, he had.”
We shook our heads. Humans. Sigh.
While some signs at the canyon offered alerts such as the one about coins and condors, others conjured … novel images. In one hotel restroom, a sign urged visitors not to drink the toilet water, and another insisted that guests not stand on the toilets. Hm. Surprising.
Along the popular Bright Angel Trail, the signs were cartoonish, but ominously clear: people have gone over the side. Dehydration creeps up on you. Pay attention. You could die here.
Personally, I needed no warning signs. The Bright Angel is narrow and sinuous, the soil, dry and sandy. It is well-traveled by seasoned hikers laden with enough equipment for a week and folks like Dave and me who just want a lovely experience of the canyon beyond the rim. I was mindful that an errant sneeze, a misplaced foot, or an inadvertent hip check from an over-large passing backpack could mean a fatal plummet.
The canyon is staggering in its immensity and vibrant hues. Rock faces layered in pink, white, and red plunge a mile to the shining ribbon of river below. Our human status as relative newcomers to the planet — perhaps with self-imposed, short-lived tenancy — felt evident while in the presence of this massive fissure in the enduring, still-evolving Earth.
When first Dave and I hiked the trail, I hugged the cliff wall and crept with an old-lady caution that prompted a passerby to ask sympathetically, “Afraid of heights?”
No. Afraid of falling. The evening before, when I returned to the bus after a stunning sunset tour, I’d asked our guide how many people die in the canyon each year. He responded, “Maybe three or four? Not bad given the millions of people who visit annually.” As my eyes met those of my fellow passengers when I walked down the aisle to my seat, it was apparent that none of us liked those odds.
Dave and I had already witnessed some risky behavior: I’d had to resist the urge to hover around a toddler who was cheerfully collecting stones near the precipice while his parents enjoyed the view. And there was the couple we encountered while resting along the trail who were visiting with their teenage boys. “The twins have already run down to the bottom. If you see them on the way back, tell them you saw us and their dad’s still alive.”
Ha, ha, ha … but this pleasant fellow had had open-heart surgery six weeks before. He was huffing and puffing and needed that rest stop. Was it really wise to hike the canyon so soon? I tell you, I was relieved to see him later in the gift store.
Then, there was the young man — dark hair, 25-ish, loose white shirt, jeans — we met on our way back up Bright Angel on another afternoon. He came prancing down at a solid clip … in bare feet. He had no water with him. After we chatted a bit — he had just arrived that day for a job working in one of the restaurants for the summer — I told him, again with the nice-but-concerned-grown-up voice, that sneakers and water were a must. He dismissed my worry with a laugh. We offered him one of our water bottles, but he turned it down. Then he noticed a hat caught in some shrubs about 20 feet over the side. “Look! A cap! I’m gonna climb down and grab it.”
“Ah, no. You’re not,” I said. My tone was light, but I meant it. Not on my watch was this foolish kid going scrabbling over the side. “You can come back and get it once I’m gone.”
I know you’re thinking who the hell is she to boss this guy around? I totally get that, but if you’ve stood on that trail and gazed out over the vast majesty of the canyon and peered inches past your feet to the dead drop to the bottom, you know. The Grand Canyon is no place to mess around.
But it IS a place to glory in the elements that have shaped the Earth. A spectacular place of beauty where upheavals and erosion have banished seas, carved craters and uplifted pinnacles.
A place where condors now swoop and soar.