Writers on the Range: Grand Canyon takes a break from the crowds


By Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff
Special to The PREVIEW

Usually, I work as an educator at the bottom of Grand Canyon National Park. These days, because of the coronavirus, the park remains closed. It’s a good thing, because for some unknown reason, visitors here seemed to feel immune to a disease that thrives in crowds.

In mid-March, at Phantom Ranch at in the bottom of the canyon, 40 hikers shared a table, merrily passing dishes around with their bare hands. A week later, one of the hikers reported on social media that she had come down with C0VID-19. 

Concessionaires were concerned enough to close the hotels and restaurants. There. Done. Except the train and buses dropped off a few hundred visitors at a pop. Parking lots were full. People jostled shoulder-to-shoulder at the lookouts and flocked onto the trails. 

Our tiny general store was crowded with tourists until the end of March. Normally, visitors purchase a six-pack and chips. But the virus worried them enough that they loaded carts full of our meager supplies. Finally, the store limited visitation to 10 shoppers at a time, locked all but the front door and marked 6-foot intervals for the line, which went halfway out the parking lot. 

Ah, but surely the trails were free and clear. No longer on the job, I hiked into the canyon to see the flowers in bloom, taking an early start to avoid the crowds. Except for that group of 30 kids on spring break. And that extended family of 10 and, eventually, 300 other hikers. 

The Bright Angel Trail is about 6 feet wide with a cliff on either side: one going up and one going down. You want to be cautious stepping aside. Alas, no one was stepping. I would see someone coming, cram in next to the cliff and hold my breath. 

Except many of them wanted to chat. “How far to the river?” “Mmmm, don’t know, keep your distance. “ 

Six feet is surely not even sufficient when one is exercising hard. Panting, gasping, coughing and spitting send the nasty droplets of virus as far away as 12 feet. 

I made it to the off road camper trailers area where the redbud trees grow and idly watched a camper talking with a park ranger. “Overnight permits had been admitted,” said the astonished camper, “yet rangers were still on patrol?”

He contended that a bus driver told him he wouldn’t need a permit. The ranger assured him he was grossly misinformed and told him to move along. A half hour later, the camper was still proclaiming that he meant no harm and should stay, while the ranger was insisting, from 10 feet away, that he get out of Dodge. I left before she pulled out the citation book.

By late March, the park tried keeping only the main road open and blocking off roads to residential areas. But people just parked along the road and walked in or simply moved the cones. This enraged laid-off workers, who posted photos on social media of out-of-state license plates — many from virus epicenters. 

On April 1, the park closed: Nobody here now but us mostly unemployed chickens. The occasional entitled individual still manages to sneak in, only to be ratted out quickly. 

I would like to be working. I have sewn 50 face masks and sorted through 20 years of photos. I even vacuumed the rug. But I do not want to share cooties with hundreds of visitors from infected areas who laugh at me when I clamber up rocks to get out of their way. Or who sneer at my face mask as they crowd behind me in line until I fix them with my patented basilisk glare. 

Our opening date has been moved back twice. Permits and reservations have been negated. My classes were canceled for April, then for May, then for June. 

To reach any national park in the West, people have to travel. Travel is risky and helps spread the virus. As for the imagined wide-open spaces at Grand Canyon, you might want to picture a different reality. Just before the closedown, the park was more of a mosh pit with elk and squirrels. 

People are understandably antsy and anxious to get outside, and the Grand Canyon is a wondrous place to visit. But the canyon will be here when this epidemic is but an unpleasant memory. If we do not treat this pandemic seriously, many of us may not be. 

Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to WritersontheRange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She works as an educator at the bottom of Grand Canyon National Park, when it’s open.