Remembering a ‘free man’ who died at the Grand Canyon

A transient outdoorsman, he only wanted to be in the mountains or down some canyon.

 

It’s a delicate evening on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Late-day sun bleeds on the canyon walls in a hundred shades of red, rust and gold; visitors crowd the railing at Mather Point and fiddle with cameras. A dozen blocky inner-canyon mountains throw shadows on the ancient rock.

Far across the canyon to the northeast, the most prominent peak, Vishnu Temple, shimmers in the rich light. Arguably the most famous of the canyon’s 130 named summits, Vishnu rises nearly 4,000 feet from its massive base near the Colorado River, narrowing to a tiny chunk of Kaibab limestone floating in the Arizona sky. I tried climbing the thing once, and failed.

That was in 1994, not long after I learned that my friend Jim had died in a 360-foot fall from Mather Point. The headline said Grand Canyon victim was trying to gather coins. The story read like this: A transient had been living in the woods near Mather Point, where tourists make wishes and toss coins across the safety rail. Park rangers had ticketed him in the past for climbing out to the rock where the coins land, but he returned again and again — until his luck ran out.

Vishnu rises nearly 4,000 feet from its massive base near the Colorado River, narrowing to a tiny chunk of Kaibab limestone floating in the Arizona sky.
Adam Schallau

Police hadn’t found the dead man’s next-of-kin, so his name was not in the paper. At first, I doubted that it was Jim. He was too good a climber to fall from a place he knew so well, and too proud to let tourists see him scramble after change. And I certainly didn’t think he would be drunk. But he was.

The booze was 10 years behind Jim when we first met in 1991. A one-time street alcoholic, he had turned his life around — twice — to become that rare and dignified thing: a free man. “I can’t live in a box,” he used to say. Getting sober had given him back the house, the job and the credit cards, but that stuff didn’t mean much to him. “All I wanted was to be in the mountains or down some canyon. So I had to let it all go, you know?”

So he did. He lived out of a cheap backpack, finding homes across the West in bright and rocky places. Odd jobs bought beans and rice. The Grand Canyon was his winter camp that year.

We met on the rim trail near the tourist lodge where I worked back then. It was late November and snowing, but he wore just a T-shirt, a cheap windbreaker and cut-off Levi’s. His legs were built for steep, lonely places. His beard was winter-colored and big enough to hide a bird’s nest, his skin weathered like good boots.

We struck up a conversation and found we had the same basic addictions — to alcohol, wild places, and solitude. I was 35 then, just back from the Wyoming Rockies and wondering if I would cut the last cord and finally disappear into mountains. Jim was 50, and had surrendered to wandering.

For the next couple of years, we would conduct our friendship in chance meetings on that trail, standing for an hour or two of talk or walking for miles while sun fire flared off the canyon walls.

Tonight, while the sun begins to drop and the tourists frame their photos, I’m remembering those talks. Jim used to say that we should hit the backcountry together, maybe climb Vishnu Temple. I imagine what that might have been like. Deep in my memories, I don’t notice the young man approach me.

“Excuse me, sir,” he says. Our eyes meet. “Would you help me and my family? We’re here to spread my brother’s ashes in the canyon. Would you film it for us?”

I follow him back to the overlook. His mother and two brothers stand next to the railing. They have come from North Carolina, she says, because her lost son loved this place.  “He passed five years ago. His name was Jacob.” Her eyes are shining. “We came here on vacation when he was 15.” When she hands me the camera, she takes my hands in hers, and looks straight into my eyes. “He was a beautiful boy.” I nod.

She turns back toward the canyon and the setting sun. The brothers gather around her, they say a prayer. I push the button and a golden cloud of ash appears on the tiny screen. In the background, Vishnu Temple turns coppery in the dying light. The woman sobs, the sons wrap her in their arms.  When I hand back the camera she thanks me, then asks where my home is. "Here," I say.

Then I point to Vishnu Temple. I tell her that in the Hindu trinity, Vishnu is known as the sustainer of all life. I tell her about my friend, Jim, and that I always remember him when I take this walk. I promise her that from now on when I stop at Mather Point, I will remember her son, too.

Michael Wolcott is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He works for Grand Canyon National Park and dedicates this essay to Jim Merriman.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Mike McLaughlin
Mike McLaughlin Subscriber
Aug 26, 2016 02:06 PM
 I knew Jim Merriman. From the description, it was surely the same person.

I knew him when he first was captivated and liberated by Yosemite's astounding Valley; and know something of his life between times he was struggling with alcohol and that overpopulating culture of urban life.

He was several years older than the friends he discovered while they were in prison against a coercive and hierarchical culture's attempt to create a slave army (this is literal - the US draft was expressly intended to do this). Singular all, the errant companions who met and traveled with him, as if leaving footprints in sand or snow, radiating into meetings, circlings, departures.

 None ever asked Mac what had brought him to be imprisoned. Upon release he traveled with free spirits of the time, who, whether professional or just living lives of discovery, all share that impulse to freedom. Yet they naturally congregated, a fission-fusion society, restoring somehow original human nature and ecological fit.

Jim (known as Mac, or Big Mac at a certain period) discovered the richness of natural beauty back in about 1972 when he traveled with them to the Valley, which was not quite as smoggy and overwhelmed as it became later. He, by the way, had the capacity to run for miles, and learned some hatha yoga to keep himself more flexible for the natural clambering in the real world we all so love.
 
Mike McLaughlin
Mike McLaughlin Subscriber
Aug 26, 2016 02:06 PM
Here's a seminal story he once told me:
Prone to depression, alcohol, and not understanding the anhedonic urban world (the words here are mine, meant as insight) he once took a taxi out to the Golden Gate Bridge in the night, got off (this was before the preventative fences, in the 1960s), and jumped over the rail, knowing no other release. He landed on that broad beam just below, changing his mind, and since he couldn't get back up, crawled along it until able to return to earth.

I suspect that just about every friend who felt attached to him, also pursued natural freedom. Some, like myself, cycled between school, learning natural skills, and the wild, but mostly our home, the wild. All, I think, share a tendency to split from established trails, preferring to explore where few or none walk.

Since the article brought up a cultural structure - in this case, that of the Hindu, we can better understand Jim through the concept of sannyasa. The young sometimes feel to travel life's paths or stages without going through a narrow domestic period, instead driven to experience natural freedom and enlightenment.

As a student of cognition and behaviors, I can tell you that the main difference of the human brain from others is its focus on social interaction; yet pursuit of this alone leads to severe problems; our more natural impulse is to share the earth with a few of our kind and the many of other species.

Brains, you see, evolved for movement, and that Jim kept moving was a courageous triumph.
Mike McLaughlin
Mike McLaughlin Subscriber
Aug 26, 2016 02:07 PM
His triumph was that while he was not so directly connected to tribal culture nor born next to the wild, yet he found his way, even in a world overpenetrated by a dissociated, and dissociative society.

He reminds me of a captive-born wolf I love, who shared this imperative: Living life on his own terms.
Jim's continuing integrity reminds me of That Wolf who taught and learned and shared, knowing by nature how to live true to oneself.
While we can only read your tale of long ago now, I want to reiterate Jim's triumph, coming farther than we can know.

A part of my life has been tracking, discovering species present, absent, at risk, from Northern Rockies to desert ranges, and on the other sides of borders and seas. Jim's tracks hint of issues of ultimate importance for our kind. If we do not pursue and find our relationship with all nature, what then, ask the sages - the long-absent wolf and the high-foraging great bear, are we?
Mac did more well than most we see around us. Sounds like he had fallen one more time since I last saw him, but rose again in the morning to follow a very sure scent. It's of this tenacity that the French call courage, that his life's story tells us.
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick Subscriber
Aug 30, 2016 09:01 AM
Thanks to the author and to the commenter above for the tribute and elaboration. Inspiring recollections about someone whose profound life story would have passed many of us by.