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.

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