In the summer of 1989, I was a roadie for a British classical orchestra that was touring the American southwest. My job was to get their delicate instruments from one town to another, often overnight while they slept in their hotel rooms. After a week of this, we were all ready to take a break when we found ourselves at the southern end of the Grand Canyon. I had never been there before and was raring to go on a hike, but I couldn’t convince anyone to join me. Despite what Noel Coward said about mad dogs and Englishmen, this group of British musicians were keen to keep out of the mid-day sun and instead stay inside to watch a film about the Grand Canyon rather than actually go exploring.
So I set out on my own, with a small backpack containing a bottle of water, some snacks, and my camera. At first, I stayed on the marked trail that went along the canyon rim. From there, I could look down, way down, and see groups of people on horseback working their way along the side of the canyon. And even though they were only about halfway down, they still looked the size of ants. I figured that, if they made it all the way to the bottom, I probably wouldn’t even be able to see them anymore.
It was already later in the afternoon when I started. I tried to take a few pictures, but the sun was maybe 30 degrees off the horizon and I was getting a lot of long shadows. I didn’t see many other people on the trail either, but at one point, a motion caught my attention, I looked out beyond the railing and saw a goat. It was an old mountain goat with inquisitive eyes, just looking at me. We stared at each other for a few seconds, but as I reached to get my camera, he turned around and walked away from the trail I was on and around a rock outcropping where I could no longer see him.
I cursed my luck for a moment and then, looking around and not seeing anyone else nearby, I stepped over the railing and followed the path of the goat. I figured that I would just see what was on the other side of the rocks, take a quick picture, and then get back to the trail.
As I came around the outcropping, I did see the goat, but only for a second as he continued walking around another outcropping further down. I decided to keep on going. The path was steep on either side, but I still had light, and I was young and brimming with curiosity, and I just really wanted to get a picture of the goat.
This continued for several minutes. I’d come around an outcropping of rocks, see the goat momentarily, but then he’d disappear before I could take a picture. I did start to wonder if he was doing this on purpose. I finally came to a section where the side of the canyon turned into a cliff and the goat was nowhere in sight. I sat down on a rock, took a few pictures, and wondered where the goat had disappeared to. After a few minutes, I knew it was time to leave, so I turned back the way I had come … and the path was nowhere to be seen.
There was no path, no footprints, nothing to guide me. Just a sheer rock wall, nearly straight up one side, and straight down the other. I saw a ledge maybe 25 feet away and I was pretty sure that, if I could make it there, I could safely work my way back to the trail. But it seemed a long way away, and I had no idea how to get there without ending up sliding all the way down the Grand Canyon.
So I sat on my rock, ate my trail mix, and looked down the canyon walls. The sun was now low enough that the bottom of the canyon was in darkness, and I knew that I would be soon too. I could just barely see the tiny people on horseback below. I tried calling out a few times: “Hello … hello …”. Then “hello” became “help … help …!”, but all I heard back were my own echos: “help…help”. I knew I was on my own. The sun was going down, no one could hear me, and no one knew where I was.
I stared at that ledge and realized I had one choice. I had to get back there, and soon, or literally die trying. If I slipped and fell down the Grand Canyon, that would probably be it. But if I tried clinging to that rock all night, it would get cold, I’d pass out, and probably fall in my sleep.
I looked around at the canyon, the rocks, the sun setting in the distance, and thought “this is a good view. I’m glad I did this.” I told myself that I should stay calm, but I could feel my heart beating faster and I knew I had to just move. So I packed up my food and my camera, took one last swig of water, focused on the ledge … and ran!
How did I not notice on the way out how steep it was? My right shoulder brushed the side of the sheer cliff as I raced along. I didn’t look up, I didn’t look down, I kept my eye on that ledge and I. just. ran.
When I reached the ledge, I skidded and came to a stop. I looked back the way I had just come and I still could not see a clear path. I could not even see how I had made it back to the ledge. But I did. And as I stood there, panting, my heart still racing but starting to slow down, I felt a small shower of rocks fall onto me. I looked up, and there, looking down from the top of the cliff above, was the goat. I said “Hey!”. And he said “Bhaa! Bhaa-ha-ha-ha…!”
I walked back to the trail and back to the visitors center just as the Brits were loading back onto the bus. They told me I had missed a really good film. And I told them that they had missed a really interesting hike. And I never did get a picture of that damn goat.