The Grand Canyon: A Majestic Mystery

I like to buy books when I travel—books and awkward-sized souvenirs that my husband has to figure out how to transport home. Try as I might, however, I couldn’t talk him into buying a siesta man statue when we went to Arizona last week. At twenty pounds, it was just too heavy. But I did purchase four new books.

I was at the Bright Angel Lodge, on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, with my daughters when I picked up a book I had glanced at many times: Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon. I was thumbing the pages when a clerk surprised me by saying, “I don’t know why you guys buy that book. It gives you the number on the back.” By “you guys” I assumed he meant “tourists” and by “the number” I assumed he meant “deaths.” My youngest daughter answered, “Oh, my mom’s a mystery writer” as if that explained everything. But obviously lots of people who had bought the book weren’t mystery writers, and so the question remained: why was it “the most popular book in the Grand Canyon”?

The Grand Canyon has an awesome power that cannot be denied. It would be very easy to die here. I kept thinking that as I walked the trails. Maybe it was having my daughters with me. They couldn’t get as far as the security railing before I was tugging them back to a safer distance. Even other people’s children got stern looks from me when they wandered too close to the edge.

Or maybe it was my penchant for mysteries. Death is the ultimate mystery, and unlike villainous characters in books, nature can kill without reason. According to Over the Edge, approximately 700 people have died in the Grand Canyon. If this were a mystery conference and not a national park, we’d be discussing the “Jessica Fletcher effect,” (i.e. too many people dying in one place to be plausible). Yet 250 people are rescued from the Canyon each year. This is another ubiquitous number associated with the Canyon. On signs posted everywhere, a young, athletic hiker is pictured next to the warning. Consequences can be deadly.

When we left the Grand Canyon via the Grand Canyon Railway, the guide asked each of us to describe the Canyon in one word. As she read our words back to us, “Breath-taking” was the adjective used most. I was the only one who described it as “dangerous,” much to my youngest daughter’s chagrin. (She rolled her eyes and said, “Mom” as if I should be able to come up with something better than that.) But when you think about it, the descriptions could be synonymous, couldn’t they? To take one’s breath away, literally, is dangerous. But to arouse curiosity, that’s intrigue. And maybe that explains tourists’ fascination (and mine) with books like Over the Edge. They bring us to the brink without allowing us to fall in.

Readers, what trips have you taken this summer? Please share!

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