How did you come to write the book?
Chicago born and bred, the closest I ever got to a canyon was the Kennedy Expressway. In my early 30’s, I took a trip to Phoenix with my sister and her family. We did one of those guided tour bus deals up to Grand Canyon National Park, just for a day. We drove through the desert and took a pit stop at the Little Colorado River Gorge.
“Tall,” was all I could manage.
“You ain’t seen nuthin’,” the tour guide drawled.
We drove through the rim forests. It snuck up on us, revealed itself in a plummeting dive, sucking every molecule of air from me. That tour guide was right. I wondered what the first man or first woman who ever saw this place felt. Were they in awe of it like me? Or were they like Coronado and his men, seeing it as a ghastly hole, an abyssal obstacle that would yield no gold, no silver. The Spanish, looking for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold and led by a Meso-American guide who told them he knew where the cities were, thought that some of the monoliths mid-canyon were maybe as tall as a man. They got a dose of the true scale of things when they tried following some of the Indian trails down into the gorge and it took them over a day. They thought the Grand Canyon was an accursed place. For me, it was blessed.
The next few years, the love affair unfolded. Every spare moment and dime I spent for and in the Grand Canyon. I camped it, hiked it, and spent untold hours drinking in the soft yet ineffable quiet. I read everything I could about it. I described it in journal after journal.
In studying the human history of the Canyon, I discovered fascinating accounts of miners gone missing, suicides plunging over the rim, and of maleficent honeymooners trying to murder their lovers. I found out that a major airliner smashed into the side of a butte in the 1960’s, killing everyone aboard. There was a culture and a rhythm endemic to Grand Canyon Village—drifters and romantics, artists and cons, they came and they went. Fugitives hid out beneath its rims. And I met some real life characters along the trails.
In one of those life-changing moments, it flashed: Why not take all that history, natural and human, all those robbers and lovers, the miners and ne’er-do-wells from the remote past, the Rangers I’d met in campgrounds and seedy loners I’d skirted in bars, and make a quilt out of them?
Are any of the stories true?
The stories are entirely fictional, though some draw on actual events. The Exile, a murder mystery, draws on the fugitives that have holed up in Grand Canyon, often meeting a punishment in a way more inexorable than human justice might mete. The Grand Canyon draws all types of folks, often acting as a U.N. of the Southwest. Grand Canyon National Park seldom attracts robbers and killers, but it does happen. Similarly, the Canyon does from time-to-time attract the occasional suicide or bluebeard. Every year, jumpers jump and fallers fall, though the fictionalized account of Thelma & Louise was set at Canyonlands National Park many miles to the northeast. The fictional, would-be suicide in the The Abyss draws on myself, of all people. Yes, I once came to dive, but fortunately for my reading public, I couldn’t do the dance.
The faller in The Bridge could also be one among the dozens who meet or nearly meet their deaths in the drink at the bottom, a decidedly cool place at around 47 degrees F most of the year.
What, in your opinion, is it about the Grand Canyon that draws us?
There’s canyon’s bigger (Copper, for example, just south of the border), and deeper (Hell’s, north of us), but none sculpted quite as profound as the Grand. It’s often been likened to a mountain range turned inside-out. It does seem as if some giant created a vast range and set its stone farther east or west, then discarded the mold for his mountains right here, upside down, where seeds lodged and a river flowed. I think we see in the vast outscape of the Canyon the supernal nature of ourselves, turned inside-out. The lining of our souls. That draws me. I suspect it’s the same for many of the people who end up falling in love here, not with another, but with a gorge.
How have you been changed by it?
In the world of individuals, in cities and towns, I compare myself and find someone bigger ‘n’ better and end up feeling small. The world of the ego, of status, thrives on comparisons, doesn’t it? You’d think I’d do the same out here on the rim or beneath it, laying the length of my puny body against this 277 mile serpent. You’d assume I’d end up feeling quite tiny. Many people I’ve encountered along the trails have told me they feel that wayhere. Yet spending time here, I end up feeling much more profound inside, realizing the fundamental rule of perception: I look within before looking without, and end up seeing that which is within me projected on the slate of the world. So the Canyon helps me contact my own vastness. That draws me like nothing else, like no mountain system and no ocean on earth. It changes the way I see myself. And yet I must continue to return and be replenished by the inner vision.
What’s your experience with the Grand Canyon? In other words, what qualifies you to write the book?
My life experience, unlike the Grand, is a mile wide and an inch deep. The self-effacement evident in the previous statement is well-earned. I have been and always shall be a wanderer. I’ve sojourned from career-to-career the way some meander from coast-to-coast or relationship to relationship. I’ve been an attorney (with a general practice, of course), an actor, a screenwriter, a teacher, professor, seminar leader and trainer, and I actually went to back to school and retooled to become, of all things, a psychotherapist. Throughout all of this, I’ve written and I’ve travelled. My interests in nature, science, mysticism and drama helped me to connect these experiences in fictional and nonfiction accounts. Mostly, I talked to the people I met there—people who live and work in and near the National Park. Eventually, I moved within driving distance to explore the Canyon, its unbelievably vast North Rim territories, and other canyon-country of the southwest.
Beneath the surface, what’s life like for the people who live and work there?
The short answer is that I’ll leave it to them to respond to that, since I’ve never lived and worked there. The longer answer is that some find it difficult after a time, while some find it to be heaven. I met the man, Mike I believe his name was, who had the distinction of being the longest non-NPS employee living on the rim. He left several years ago. He was in charge of employee housing. A native North Sider of Chicago like me, Mike teared up when he spoke about his relationship with his father. He let me know that the average tenure of non-NPS people who come here to live is short, probably less than a year. I think people come here for the view, perhaps believing life might be better here, but end up bringing themselves along. The story is similar for many who move to the Mountain West or Southwest. It’s difficult here. There’s not much to do unless you really really love this place and can handle a lot of alone time.
There are others, though, who crave the silence. I’ve written about some of them in Canyon Calls. For example, in The Hunted, a man fascinated with mountain lions understands his destiny as a loner and uses it to pursue his passion: cougars. In the solitude, he finds himself. Life’s like that for many people down here. Down at Bright Angel on the bottom, an NPS volunteer lived down here by himself for years. He remained in love with the place even though it required him to give much og himself. Just this year, while I rested at Cottonwood Campground on my way down to Phantom, the NP volunteer who lived at the stationhouse at Cottonwood came out to talk to me. Late twenties, I guessed. I asked him how long he’d lived down here.
“All my life,” he said, tossing his dark, shoulder length hair.
“Your whole life?”
“Yeah, my parents were rangers down here until ’06. They retired and moved out. I’m the volunteer down here now. Have to head to the South Rim to spend the winter next week.” He’d leave with some regret. He loved the aloneness that much even though he’d been enwrapped in it all his life.
He seemed a little different than the rest of us, tuned in to something deeper, slower, a bass rhythm maybe most of us don’t frequently hear, like a frequency only a certain species hears. Imagine how his perspective differs from yours and mine.
What was researching the book like?
Research was a multi-year process. It’s ironic, but Canyon Calls is the first thing I ever written with a specific market in mind. Everything else I’ve ever done—screenplays, shorts stories, nature essays, book-length fiction and nonfiction—it’s all been on spec. On spec, or speculation, that someone would need to fall in love with my completely wonderful idea and pick it up. Canyon Calls wasn’t like that at all. I had a specific audience in mind when I wrote it.
But the research process began many years earlier, before I even had the idea to write the stories. I’d been traveling all over the country, from National Parks to BLM land to Cook County Forest Preserves. Every time I had an experience I considered interesting enough to write about, I’d do just that. I came up with dozens of essays and compiled them into what will be my next book, The Accidental Naturalist. You can read some of these essays, the ones that relate to the Grand Canyon, from this manuscript on this website. Since I spent so much of my time at Grand Canyon, I needed to research this plant or that little furry thing trying to break into my backpack. Field identification, I found, was notoriously difficult, so I had to study a lot of those. I also fell in love with geology. Not just with Grand Canyon geology , but with geology itself. In Chicago, there’s no need for geology since tyhe world’s all zipped up in wonderful black soil. Out here, the world’s nothing but hued stratification. So I studied up on that for a long time, wandered the Grand Staircase, of which the GC is the bottom stair. Probably the most fun was reading Death in Grand Canyon, a book well-stocked on Grand Canyon gift shop bookshelves. I’m highly indebted to its authors, Dr. Thomas Myers and Dr. Michael Ghiglieri, PhD.
Tell us about mountain lions.
To me, probably the most remarkable creatures that transit the Canyon. They used to wander the whole lower 48. Even last year, they found a wild male wandering the heart of the North Side of Chicago. In prehistory, the contiguous states had North American lions, cheetahs, sexy felines called scimitars, jaguars and mountain lions. Today, aside from the occasional jaguar wandering over the AZ border from Mexico in search of love, only the mountain lion remains. You’ll find them from low south in South America through the high north of North America. They may be the most widely distributed large carnivore in the world. Like the coyote, they’re expanding range despite the scope of human settlement. Found throughout the Park, they need big territories and so are comparatively rare. Still, the Canyon makes great habitat for them. They’re like spirits, if you believe in those – unseen yet felt. You just won’t see one unless one wants you to.
People worry about attacks but these, too, remain rare. Most attacks occur on the Island of Vancouver, believe it or not. They’ll most likely go after children and small adults, even people on horseback. And they stalk from above and behind. They know when and how to hit. You can fight them off. But unless they’re sick, wounded or starving, often because they don’t have a territory of their own, they won’t bother with you.
How have people come to die here?
I’ve mentioned this earlier. There are jumpers. One story in Canyon Calls, The Abyss, traces the account of a long premeditated suicide. The Abyss is also a ghost story. One thing that makes that story of interest to editors is that it’s mostly true, based on me. Back in my darker days, I planned a suicide at Grand Canyon. You’ll find the undressed autobiographical account of this in a companion essay on this website called The Place of Suicides. Every year the divers come. Sometimes, I suppose, it’s hard for investigators to determine whether the decedent accidentally fell in or went down with the genuine mens rhea.
One account is of a man who shot himself in the chest on the South Rim, but the bullet didn’t kill him so he tried to slash his wrists. That didn’t work either. A miserable failure at suicide, he finally decided to commit life. One woman tried driving over the edge Thelma & Louise style, but her truck crapped out so she got out and jumped. She only fell 20 feet to a bench. Then she jumped again, plummeting 400 feet. She made it the third time. This woman used a rather popular suicide point—The Abyss: the largest vertical drop in the Canyon. That’s the setting of the story of the same name. I’ve got to admit, it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. You can see the rim forests stretch out in a plain to the south, bending like a gigantic knee fromthe vertical. I think that being in a place like the Abyss changes you. It changed me. It helped me decide that I wanted to live.
The book has a story about a fugitive held up in some of the more remote reaches of the National Park for many years.
Have fugitives really held up in the Grand Canyon?
Yes, it’s happened. It’s a great place to get lost in. As I’ve mentioned, in my story, The Exile, a murderer-bank robber does exactly that. The problem for a fugitive, as for the killer in Exile, is that the Grand Canyon can become a prison, too. Mostly, though, it’s a death sentence to those who wander into it without the proper preparation, and bank robbers usually don’t come with their camelbacks topped off.
What about the romance-murder angle in one of your stories? Any truth to that?
Yes, as I’ve mentioned, there have been bluebeards here before. We’ll never know the true number since, in my humble, non-forensic but mystery writer’s opinion, it’s easy to disguise a murder as a fall. That’s the premise behind one of the stories, Honeymoon. However, I suppose that if the couple were (1) newlyweds, (2) with mutual life insurance policies, then the National Park police might become a scad suspicious.
How long did it take you to write the book?
About 8 weeks. Once I decided on the concept, the stories came pretty easily. Novels take me forever to write. Short stories not very long. I think Canyon Calls came fast because it’s a concept piece. We’re not talking literary fiction here. These stories, which range from murder (Honeymoon) to mystery (The Exile) to hauntings (The Abyss) to suspense/thriller (Cache) to soft sci-fi (Night at the Bottom of the World) to humorous romance (Leftovers.com and The Gender Gap) to humorous fantasy (The Miner), are all designed to entertain. They contain some serious moments and some a fair share of inspiration, but mainly, they’re fun.
To whom would Canyon Calls appeal?
The audience for Canyon Calls is as diverse in age, ethnicity, education, income level and background as are the characters in the stories themselves. Its evergreen stories would appeal to younger readers since themes of inspiration and self-transformation are often carried by younger characters in the stories. In addition, the book looks at Grand Canyon from a multi-cultural framework. It is peopled with characters drawn from all over the earth, since so many of the tourists in Grand Canyon are from far flung nations as diverse as China and Germany. It’s a book as at home on the shelves of bookstores of gateway towns such as Flagstaff, as it will be in far flung cities or nestled in the cozy gift shops of Grand Canyon Village or North Rim Lodge.
How is Canyon Calls unique? How does it differ from other books on the subject? What are its strengths?
Canyon Calls differs from competing titles in that there is very little, if any, short fiction written about the Grand Canyon. It has 8 strengths that separate it from the competition:
1. Canyon Calls is inspirational
Aside from the humor and from the darkness of some of the pieces, I wanted to inspire, too. I wanted to leave readers feeling as if they tapped into the deeper parts of themselves. Almost every story contains morsels of hope, courage and love to nourish the human condition. I want readers to close the cover feeling as if they’ve been transformed as well.
2. Canyon Calls is fun!
Francis Ford Coppola, director of such hits as Apocalypse Now and The Godfather trilogy, once remarked to his screenwriting collaborator that if a writer tries to be profound but misses the mark, he risks looking silly. Though Canyon Calls has its share of profound moments, I go to great pains not to take my audience too seriously. Nature is fun, not just inspiring. By portraying nature and Grand Canyon National Park as a vast playground, albeit one that must be respected, Canyon Calls can reach young adult audiences as well as those with more seasoned sensibilities. This approach has the advantage of introducing the joys of nature and our National Park system to a new generation of readers. Canyon Calls is funny. Many of the stories are humorous. The light tone of some of its pieces balances the dark, haunting tone of others. People are often in the mood to laugh as well as cry, to be frightened as well as to be inspired. Canyon Calls tries to take readers on an emotional journey through the full arc of human feeling.
3. Canyon Calls is accessible
The downside to profundity is inaccessibility. Many of us don’t get the sublime, or sometimes we gag on its sanctimony. For many of us, we understand only what we can see and feel, what we can suck in through our nostrils or savor on our tongues. So I made a conscious attempt to intersperse my narratives with more everyday experiences that each of us can access. Not all readers can journey to the floor of the Inner Gorge. But almost all of us can pick up on an easy-to-read character who may be going through something similar to herself, such as divorce or falling in love. Most of the characters are ordinary, everyday people who get plunged into an Inner Gorge experience beyond their depth. The ironic juxtaposition of “fish out of water characters” is meant to resresh and startle. And yet, almost anyone should be able to access the emotional experiences of the characters in Canyon Calls.
4. Canyon Calls is self-effacing
In keeping with the desire not to take myself or my subject too seriously, I injected some of the darker passages with a self-effacing style and none-too-serious characters to relax the reader. A lot of nature fiction today intimidates the reader with technical jargon or hard-to-reach theories. Me? I’m only an amateur naturalist. Though I researched the stories, I tried to draw the characters and themes in an all-too-human (and all-too-animal) style. I wanted to put the audience at ease and make them feel at home here. It’s a pretty intimidating place. The tone is invitational.
5. Canyon Calls is written by an everyman for everyone.
Canyon Calls is written from the standpoint of mostly non-expert characters. Although often educational, I tried to ensure that the prose doesn’t have a pedantic feel. The book’s designed to increase readership by writing from the perspective of an average person. I try to make the audience feel safe.
6. Canyon Calls is wide-ranging
Okay, I wanted to say ‘eclectic’ but my editor wouldn’t let me because she said it sounded too pretentious. I tried to make the characters, genre, subject matter, experiences, locales and perspectives taken in Canyon Calls as diverse as possible. The stories hold something for everyone, which I think is a real plus since many travelers to the Canyon are in the mood for everything from romance to adventure. This means that even if you’re an armchair adventurer, you ghet to explore here, too. There are stories of humor, adventure, suspense, fantasy, mystery, romance and murder. I tried to vary the prose, too.
7. Canyon Calls should appeal to a wide market
This book should appeal to all ages, from 18 to old age. Part of the entertainment readers might experience is based on the fish out of water experience of many of its characters, who are thrown together from different ends of the earth, untried and often inexperienced, and, using the Canyon as their trial by ordeal, grow together through the experience.
8. Canyon Calls is fantasy and fact
I try to describe the geology, plants, animals, and the human history of the region, whether recent or remote. I wanted to leave readers feeling as if they’ve gained some knowledge along the way, as if they’d been to the rim whether or not they had.