“I can’t watch,” My Lovely Wife said as she turned on her heels and briskly walked away from the glorious view afforded those who ride the cable car to the top of the Sandia Mountains, outside Albuquerque. A young woman had just scooched over a railing to get closer to the edge of the 10,000-foot peak.
I’ll tell you right now, she didn’t fall. But during my vacation to the Southwest last month, I had plenty of opportunities to ponder why it is that so many people are tumbling off mountains or into canyons these days.
It’s because they’re idiots.
This woman in New Mexico looked like she was on some kind of amateur modeling shoot. She was dressed in a chic pantsuit and a long silky scarf and was accompanied by a sheepish, camera-toting boyfriend. He protested mildly as she threw one leg, then the other, over the railing. I could tell she wanted a shot unsullied by the ugly barrier, her arms akimbo, her scarf billowing in the chill breeze, the distant valley floor spread out below.
“I’m outta here,” my wife said. Watching someone plummet off a cliff isn’t her idea of a good time.
We would have heard if the young woman fell, so I guess she survived, no doubt emboldened to skate a little closer to the edge next time. As for us, our next stop was the Grand Canyon.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, our daughters had been texting us cautionary notes, sending links to stories about recent deaths, four so far this year, from a 70-year-old woman who fell 200 feet near Pipe Creek Vista to a Chinese tourist who fell 1,000 feet while taking photos on the Hualapai reservation, outside the national park.
My family knows how much I like photography and how when I’m snapping pictures, I’m always saying, “One more, one more.” They didn’t want me “One more”-ing my way into the abyss — or telling their mother to back up.
I last visited the Grand Canyon when I was 10. I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the intense memories of my childhood. Of course, it did. Photos cannot really capture it. Or words. Imagine a void that stretches to the horizon, populated inside with towering drip castles, a stony parfait in a rainbow of shades that change color under a shifting sky.
About 17 people die each year in this stony parfait. Most of the deaths are because it’s a hot stony parfait. People perish of heatstroke or dehydration in the convection oven that is the canyon’s interior. We weren’t going anywhere near that, content to gaze down at the canyon from the South Rim.
Fear of heights is called acrophobia. Does that apply to fear of depths, too? I wasn’t afraid, but I was physically moved by the Grand Canyon, both by its beauty and its uncanny gravitational pull. Looking into it, I felt a tensing of the stomach, a twitch of the hairs on the back of the neck. I was possessed by a longing to see more, to be down there.
In other words, I could understand why people might want to get closer. But I could not understand them actually doing it.
We stopped at every vantage point along the South Rim, and at every one we saw behavior that could charitably be called “unwise.” There was the mother who wore her beefy toddler in a backpack and hiked away from the rail-encircled viewing area and toward the edge to give them both a better look. And the Eurotrash dude who clopped down a narrow trail in artfully unlaced tennis shoes to grab a selfie. And the guys doing pseudo yoga poses on a distant pillar of rock where a single misplaced foot would have brought on eternal relaxation.
My Lovely Wife and I decided it’s a miracle that only four people have fallen in so far this year.
Before we left, I bought “Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon,” by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers. They point out that it’s impossible to idiot-proof the entire canyon, what with its 2,757 miles of rim. Besides, “a more obvious danger posing a more obvious deadly menace, but also one so easy to avoid would be hard to find elsewhere on this planet.”
The only way to stay safe, they conclude, is to practice common sense. That seems to be in short supply these days.
What about you and your vacations? What unsafe, troubling, annoying, disrespectful or cheesy behavior have you noticed (or, be honest, indulged in) while on holiday? Send your memories — with “Vacation Nonsense” in the subject line — to me at email@example.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.