Randy Merrell has been making boots for as long as anyone can remember. He was so good at it that he became a leading maker of outdoor footwear in the United States.
But by 1986, he’d had enough of the corporate life. He walked away from his post as president of the company bearing his name to go back to making orthotics and high-end boots.
“Life was crazy,” Merrell told the Deseret News in 2012. “The last year I was there, I traveled a full 100,000 miles-plus in one year. The relationship between my wife and I was strained. My four boys would wonder who was the stranger who occasionally walked in the door. I didn’t enjoy corporate life.”
The Merrells settled in Dry Fork Canyon, northwest of Vernal, Utah, near the Colorado border. Like many in the area, they loved outdoor adventure, and were avid hikers.
Merrell was hiking with family in Grand Canyon National Park last Saturday when two members of his party lost their footing while crossing Tapeats Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River. His 62-year-old wife, Lou Ann Merrell, and her 14-year-old stepgrandson, Jackson Standefer, were swept away by the current.
Search crews have been combing the remote area ever since to no avail. On Friday, their efforts will be scaled back, a heartbreaking decision for family members to hear, though one that they support.
“After carefully considering all the information available to us, and based on our personal knowledge of the search area, we support Grand Canyon National Park’s (GCNP) decision to scale back the search,” said a statement released Thursday by the Merrell and Standefer families.
The families “are still praying for a miracle,” said the statement, which also extended thanks to all who had helped in the search.
The family had been hiking at the bottom of the canyon near the North Rim, a less-traveled area of the park. At one point, three teams combed the grounds along the creek and the river, while the National Park Service searched by helicopter and motor rafts with assistance from the Arizona Department of Public Safety as well as county search and rescue crews.
The Merrell Shoe Company as well as the Standefer family sent volunteers and other assistance as well.
“In an effort to bolster the existing search efforts, the Merrell shoe company has been working over the past several hours to provide climbers and rescuers to continue the search. These volunteers will help speed the search efforts, and we are grateful for their assistance,” a family statement said.
The Standefer family sent “a specialist with Chattanooga-based Skytec Aerial Data Specialists to deploy a Sky Ranger military-grade drone equipped with extra capabilities to aid in the search,” WRCB-TV3 reported.
The Grand Canyon attracted nearly 6 million visitors last year, according to National Park Service data. Some 1,000 medical emergencies, 15 deaths and 318 search and rescue incidents in 2015, which is the latest data available, the Associated Press reported.
Standefer, an eighth grader at McCallie School in Chattanooga, is “very well known and very well liked,” Jim Suddath, middle school chaplain, told the Chattanooga Free Press. He said school faculty and counselors are helping students cope with the uncertainty.
“The school has been keeping up with the reports that have come out, and we have prayed, a lot,” Suddath said.
On his website, Randy Merrell says that boot-making has been more of a craft than a career to him.
“Although my father was not a bootmaker, my grandfather, like many rural men of his time, repaired footwear for his family in addition to the harnesses and other horse tack,” he said.
He honed his skills at Lynn Shoe School in Massachusetts, studying abroad with artisans. He later opened Merrell FootLab in a building on his father’s ranch in Dry Canyon Creek in Utah.
Merrell became so good at his craft that Backpacker Magazine once called his shoes “the most comfortable and functional boots in North America.”
In 1981, he teamed with two partners to found the outdoor shoe company that bears his name. In 1996, the company became a subsidiary of Wolverine World Wide, which acquired Merrell’s assets.
He also launched the Merrell Institute of Bootmaking in Utah to train 30 or so people a year in the skill. “That’s about as many boot-makers as existed in all of the United States a generation ago,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1997.
Added his wife and partner, Lou Ann Merrell: “People want something that’s real and personal. They come here from all over the country to study. And they all say the same thing. They seem to be feeling an urgency to build something of value and worth.”
When it came to values, the Sun-Times notes, Randy Merrell’s priorities were obvious.
“To Randy Merrell, the important things in life are family, faith and comfortable feet.”
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