Weak in the Knees

Program Note: I know there are a few people waiting to read about the birds we saw on our trip out west, but that will be the next post. No birds in this one, but I promise it’ll be worth the wait.

The fear of heights is one of the most common phobias among human beings. Like me, you may even have this fear yourself. I knew before our trip to the Grand Canyon last week that I might have a problem with some narrow trails, but I had no idea how much this would affect me. I can go up in a skyscraper to an enclosed observation deck and look down on a city without much difficulty. I’ve been to the top of the Sunshine 60 building in Tokyo (60 floors) and even the Empire State Building in NYC (102 floors). No big deal. But recently I started having mini-panic attacks when crossing long bridges like the 5-mile long Mackinac Bridge here in Michigan.  It’s only 200 feet above the water, but feels like miles. Last year I drove across that bridge with two kayaks strapped on top of the car, fighting strong winds and gripping the steering wheel as if my life depended on it. Not a fun ride at all!

So on this trip, as Eric drove us toward the North Rim visitor center on a steep winding road, I kept remembering that scene in Thelma and Louise where they drove their car into the Grand Canyon. I thought, “That’s not really possible, right? There must be guardrails along the roads near the canyon, right?” Wrong. It’s completely possible, and would be very easy, to drive right over the edge. It would just take a split second of inattention or an animal running across in front of you and you’d be a goner. I had to look down at my lap whenever I caught a glimpse of the canyon from the road. I felt panicky before we even got out of the car.

You can’t see my knees knocking here, but they were!

Then we arrived at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim visitor center and walked down the first path to a viewing platform — with safety railings — and I felt weak in the knees even there. I had to force myself to go out to the railing so we could have our photo taken by fellow tourists. (It didn’t help that the kind man who took this photo told us a story of a young Japanese girl who was killed at Niagara Falls while sitting on a wall to have her photo taken. Apparently she was holding her opened umbrella to shield herself from the spray of the falls and the wind grabbed it and pulled her to her death. That story still gives me chills.) Little did I know that many of the hiking trails around the canyons have narrow paths that aren’t fenced at all, with sheer drop-offs of hundreds or thousands of feet.

Contrary to what you’d expect, the cliffs at the Grand Canyon rim were less scary than those at Bryce Canyon. I think that was because there were more trees and shrubs along the GC rim, whereas at Bryce there were long expanses of just loose dirt with nothing to mark the edges.

Bryce Canyon: See the tiny people walking on the rim on the far side of the amphitheatre? They’re just a step or two away from a big fall into the hoodoos!

I wish I’d been able to take a photo looking straight down into Bryce Canyon to show you what it was like, but if I even saw someone ELSE walking near the edge my legs got all rubbery. Imagine my surprise when I read that the deepest part of Bryce Canyon is only 800 feet. It felt like miles. (Technically it’s not really a canyon but a series of amphitheatres; whatever…it’s still deep.) One of the best views at Bryce was from Sunset Point, so we spent quite a bit of time walking along the rim there taking photos, me making sure to stay as far from the edge as possible, while Eric liked to live on the edge, literally. I know he got irritated with me constantly begging him to get away from the edge, but I couldn’t help it. (Even he would admit that he’s not the most attentive person, and I could easily see him falling into a canyon while he looked at birds through his binoculars. It’s not funny, it could happen!)

Zion National Park: I like this view much better — on the ground looking UP! (Click this picture to see it much larger — you’ll like it!)

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw people willingly walking out on unfenced promontories on the rim to have their photos taken. I kept thinking of the gust of wind and the Japanese girl at Niagara Falls. And even more incredibly, I watched a man, with his infant child in a carrier on his back, walk out to the edge of one of these cliffs and pose while his (stupid) wife took photos. I wanted to make a citizen’s arrest for child endangerment, I tell ya. I’m still flabbergasted at the risks some people are willing to take. Maybe I’m just turning into a scared old lady, but I don’t know. They told us that people die every year from falls at the Grand Canyon. So it does happen.

Here’s something interesting: While the roads at the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon are on top of the canyons, at Zion the road is down inside the canyon, right alongside the Virgin River. That’s why I found Zion less scary I guess. It’s much nicer to look UP at towering cliffs than to look DOWN into an abyss, that’s for sure.

You might think it odd that my first story about these beautiful parks is about how scary they are, but that’s honestly one of the main things I think of when I look back on our trip. Well, that and how miserably hot it is in Arizona and Utah — how do people live out there? And more importantly, why? Don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad we took this trip. The landscapes are larger-than-life, and beautiful in their own way. But I constantly missed our green, leafy trees and the water we have all around us here in Michigan. By the way, another interesting thing we learned: When we asked at our hotel at Jacob Lake (Arizona) if they had a guest laundry service, they told us that they have to have their water trucked up to them, so they can’t afford to use any extra for things like that. Wow, that really brought home the fact that living in the American West has some very real challenges when it comes to H2O. Imagine living on a mountain top at 9000 feet above sea level and having to depend on trucks driving water up to you periodically. I still can’t believe the hotel didn’t ask us to restrict toilet flushing or take short showers. The woman at the visitor center next door said the hotel complains to them when they have to use their water to fill up the fire trucks. Can you imagine?

I’m very glad to be home, where it’s suddenly sweater weather and the leaves are turning beautiful colors. Travel is wonderful for exposing you to new ideas and ways of life, and I’d be heartbroken if I couldn’t visit new places sometimes, but for me there’s really no place like home.

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5 Responses to Weak in the Knees

  1. I am preparing to go to Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon in mid-October, my first time for seeing both of them. I wonder how I will react to the heights–I am somewhat nervous about them too. Hmmm… I look forward to reading about the birds you saw there, though!

  2. I get queasy when people get too close to an edge, and even queasier when it’s me! I’m proud of you for facing your fear!

    I could never understand why anyone would want to live in the hot, dry, water-deprived Southwest either.

  3. littlesundog says:

    I too am terrified of heights, but each year I try to overcome the fear in some way. FD and I hope to visit Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Grand Canyon someday before we’re too old to do some of the hikes. There is a hike to Angel’s Landing in Zion that I am determined to achieve. I have heard it is not for those with a fear of heights… but something deep in my soul wants so badly to try it. After reading about your experience, I wonder if maybe I have set my sights way too high!! I’m glad you had a great trip! Getting out in nature is always a great experience!

    • Kim says:

      Lori, the Angel’s Landing hike would definitely be a challenge to your fear of heights! We rode the shuttle bus with a group of 20-something guys who had just done it, and one of them was saying how he tried not to use the safety chains as much as possible. But he also said that near the top he came to a point where he had to go around a corner where all he could see was blue sky all around him — he turned back because it was too scary. I know there’s no way I could do that kind of hike. Nope, no way. But I hope you guys decide to do it, because I’d love to hear about it from your perspective.


      • littlesundog says:

        Aaaaagh! I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach just reading that!! Hmm, I will have to research it more and decide whether I could accomplish a hike like that or not. Still, in my soul… there is this nagging need. It almost seems to be a “Bucket List” type desire!

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