Friday, October 1, 2010

Death of a Stranger

Fair warning:  This story was on my old website for years and is probably the most powerful piece of writing I've ever created...about a tragic day at the Grand Canyon back in the summer of '97.  I'd written a version of it in the following days but later Kirsteen showed me a debriefing written from her point of view, and I knew the story could not be complete without it.

Death of a Stranger
by Eric J. Anderson and Kirsteen E. Anderson

          Toroweap Overlook would, I think, qualify as the grandest view of the Grand Canyon, if not of all views everywhere. Out at the remote western end of the canyon on its north rim, it isn't a place that most tourists get to. Many people are deterred by 60-plus miles of gravel road across a very lonely strip of Arizona. But a few people know where they're going, and a few people do discover.
          I've made the trip to Toroweap three times. The first time, it took me five years to get there. That is, plans to include the visit on various trips never came to be—given the late snowstorm one year, just no time next time, and so on.
          It was worth the wait.
          Mere words cannot describe the experience of first walking up to that unguarded precipice. Standing on the edge of the inner gorge, 3,000 feet deep and barely a mile wide, no one can not feel the vertigo as their vision is pulled ever downward. The Colorado River can be seen for miles, providing fine views for the less courageous, though many people will risk a close-to-the-edge stance to see the river directly below. It's a move that takes control—and a certain faith that this part of the canyon won't become a little wider today.
          On that first trip, a camping buddy and I discovered Toroweap together. Braver than I, he was amused by my final crawl to the very edge. A full moon preserved our view throughout the night; with added features of a lunar eclipse and a little Pink Floyd to highlight the experience. By morning, I knew that I had found my altar—my place to contemplate the soul and define existence.
          On my second visit, I introduced close friends to Toroweap. Having had my moment, I relished in watching their first experience. We ate well that night, sat around the fire and toasted the fitting end to an adventurous trip.
          On my third visit, I introduced my wife to Toroweap. Her experience was the most powerful of all, though it wasn't what I had imagined it would be.
          It was the last night of what had been an ambitious, and testing, 3-week road trip. Arriving just before sunset, we snagged one of the two campsites at the overlook. Another young couple were quietly going about their routine in the other campsite.
          Knowing Kirsteen would be more prone to fear than awe, I was not surprised when she did not boldly stride up to the edge. And I sensed that she did not necessarily agree that this would have been a great place for a wedding, even if we could have gotten her mother out there.
          The sunset was magnificent. We slept well that night, better than we had for most nights of our trip.

“Excuse me.”
          I wake up. The sun is on the horizon. Pictures! Grab my camera. Wait. There's somebody out there...huh…did he wake me up? Kirsteen is stirring.
          “Excuse me, please can you help me?” There is a man standing outside the tent, his polite accented words in utter contrast to the distress on his face. “I think my girlfriend has fallen off the edge.”
          Kirsteen and I look at each other thinking there is no way he can be serious. “What?” I answer groggily. He says it again. And he is serious.
          The grief-stricken man paces as we dress and scramble out of the tent. No girlfriend in sight. He explains they were sitting near the edge, waiting for the sunrise. He went back to the car for a blanket and a cigarette. When he returned she was gone. There was no scream. Nothing but what he described as a distant sound of tumbling gravel—not enough to convince him, or us, that she had fallen. Did she just get up and wander along the rim? He looked for her. Is she hiding, is she lost? He had run both directions along the rim, searching, calling for her. She was nowhere. Then he had driven to the ranger station, seven miles away, but there was no one there. So he came back—it must have been an hour.
          An hour? I decide not to ask how dark it was when they were sitting so near the edge. He is frantic and doesn't know what to do.
          We have awakened to a surreal world. The only link to the reality of the situation is the woman's complete absence. We hadn't seen her face the night before but we had seen a she. And now she is not here. There is no way to see down the cliff where she would have fallen, not without risking ourselves. Within minutes we decide that I will drive to Fredonia, over 70 miles away, there being the nearest telephone I know of. Kirsteen will stay with the man, as we cannot simply leave him alone out here. He asks me to bring cigarettes, “I told her I would quit, but..." his voice cracks, "I can't...not today.”
          As I quickly unload supplies from the truck, I can't help but think to myself, “What if he pushed her? What if he's an evil lunatic? And I'm leaving Kirsteen...?!” But his grief seems genuine and there's no time to dwell on it. I leave, pretty sure that we're doing the right thing.

          So Eric is to drive for help. What do I do now? “Run! Get in the truck, drive as fast and as far as you can away from this horrible place,” my brain says. I glance at the man, weighing the haunted look in his eyes. How long would he be here alone? Would he trust us to bring help?
          The decision is made. As I watch our truck lurch slowly over the ridge, I have the sinking feeling that my lifeline has been cut—my last connection to a normal world where people go quietly minding their own business, and young women don't fall off cliffs.
          “Would you like a cup of coffee?” I ask.
          He looks up eagerly. “Yes. Yes, I'd like that.”
          As I busy myself making coffee, he curls up on the bench in a fetal position, his face buried in a towel, weeping steadily. I want to offer reassurance, but how to comfort a total stranger? The stock, “Everything's going to be all right,” won't cut it. Whatever happened, things most certainly are not going to be all right. I know the best I can do is to remain calm, hoping to temper his hysteria.
          As I pour coffee, he looks up out of his cocoon. “How far down is it? To the bottom.”
          “About 3,000 feet.” He looks confused. “About 900 meters.”
          “Ohhhhh. No one could survive that.”
          “No, but there are many ledges. She won't have fallen all the way to the bottom.”
          He looks hard at me. “Do you think she could be alive?”
          I can't meet his eyes. . . . “I don't know.”
          He gets up and walks to the edge, pacing slowly back and forth, staring down, down. Dear God, I pray, please don't let him do anything stupid. I walk halfway toward him, not sure whether to intrude on his grief, not sure what I'd do if he suddenly disappeared from sight. He doesn't seem suicidal. I'm sure that he's as afraid of the edge as I am. But he's not thinking very clearly, and the helplessness, the forced inactivity is weighing heavily on him.
          Eventually, he turns and walks back to his bench. We both sit down, and I give a silent prayer of thanks. Quiet again.
          A couple walk over the ridge, having come from the main campground about half a mile away, gazing in awe at the view and chatting happily. They're still in the normal world, oblivious to the emotional turmoil they've just walked into. The man walks toward us. “Excuse me, did you know somebody left a blanket and a walking stick by the edge? Are they yours?”
          “Please don't touch them. We think someone may have fallen over the edge, and we need to leave everything just where it is until the sheriff comes.” Even I don't believe what I'm saying.
          The couple look at each other, stunned. “Did you hear that? She said someone fell! ... Can we help?”
          I wish there was anything anyone could do. I want to do something too. The waiting is gnawing at my insides. “My husband has driven to Fredonia to get help. If there's anyone at the campground with a cell phone, and if it works out here, they could get help faster.” The couple scurry off on their mission.
          Alone again. He had hardly looked up from his towel. To break the silence I ask, “Do you know what you'll do now?”
          “What should I do?” he asks, obviously irritated.
          Okay, stupid question. I'll shut up now.
          We hear a motor. It's too soon…it couldn't be…but we both look eagerly at the ridge. Dale and Cheri Johnson have driven over from the campground with their cell phone. Dale climbs the low ridge above the lookout and circles slowly with the phone. No signal. They carefully search the drop-off around the blanket, but they can see no more sign of what happened to her than we could. The man says he keeps thinking she'll appear on the ridge, laughing at the clever practical joke she's played on us. But there is no sound of laughter, just the wind whistling up canyon and periodic heaving sobs.
          I go over to talk to the Johnsons, trying to keep my armor up against the waves of grief around the table. They tell me that the Bureau of Land Management station at Mt. Trumble—not 30 miles away—has a two-way radio. If only we'd known! They're driving out that way, and offer to call in the alarm from the BLM station. “Yes, that sounds like a good idea.”
          Dale glances over at the huddled mass at the table, then looks closely at me. “He's been like that the whole time,” I say.
          “Do you want us to stay?” He's weighing the suicide risk too.
          “No, it'll be all right. Just call for help.”
          Their truck, too, slowly lurches out of sight. The minute hand on my watch inches toward 8:00. I decide it can't have stopped after all.

          I run into a carload of visitors within minutes of leaving Kirsteen at the overlook. “Anybody have a cell phone?” Yeah—no signal. So much for modern technology. Twenty minutes and I'm at the vacant ranger station considering (a) there's probably a two-way radio in there, should I break in? (b) I probably wouldn't know how to operate the damn thing anyway. So I leave.
The gravel road is in good shape most of the way and I make excellent time. But even with minding the quick pace, the drive allows for idle thinking, and that's the last thing I need to do. When music isn't enough I play an audio tape, the story providing moments of distraction.
          By the time I reach the highway, I'm starting to have trouble believing what I am doing. I have found myself dialing 911 a few times in my life, but nothing like this. My call will set into motion a dangerous and expensive rescue effort. What if she is already found and alright? What if it is a joke?
          The operator is silent for a moment. She is in Kane County, Utah, and is taken aback by a report from Toroweap. Recovering quickly, we proceed with morbid efficiency. “My guess is that it's a body recovery,” I tell her. She assures me that she will alert the proper authorities and I ask her to relay the message that I'm on my way back.
          My mission complete, I refill the gas tank and, oh yeah, cigarettes. I sit in the truck for a few minutes. It's 8:15.
          The return trip is slower, but still urgent in its way.

          A distant sound. We both turn and scan the skies anxiously. I'm sure it's an airplane, not a helicopter. Besides, there's no way Eric could have made it yet. ...but maybe, maybe. A small plane heads straight up the middle of the canyon. Sightseers! Every five minutes after that, the same sound again. Each time, I check my watch and look up. I know exactly what I'm going to see, but I seem powerless to stop myself. Damn, the skies are busier than Sky Harbor. I thought Babbitt put a limit on over-flights.
          I'm in the outhouse when I hear the unmistakable reverberation of a chopper at close range. At least 2½ hours have passed by external time. A lifetime by internal time.
          The man is already crouched at the edge, watching the helicopter sweep back and forth as it slowly rises to the rim. It disappears over the ridge and we hear the motor die.
          An orange jumpsuit appears over the ridge. They can't find her either. The woman in the jumpsuit starts asking questions, obtaining a complete description. He goes to get their passports. There it is in black and white. A smiling face with carefully curled hair, probably done specially for the photo. “We haven't seen her since sunrise. We think she fell.” he says. They're from Sweden.
          The woman asks him to try to sit calmly at the table and stay away from the edge. As soon as he's out of earshot, she asks me, “Has he been like this the whole time?”
          “Yes” I reply. I think to myself that he may be a little calmer now that help is here.
          “Did you hear anything last night or this morning? Loud voices, arguing, anything unusual?”
          “No. In fact, my husband and I commented on how quiet it was. It was almost like we had the place to ourselves.”
          “I have to ask these things, you understand?”
          I start to walk away.
          “What do we need to do for you?” jumpsuit says.
          “What's with your leg?”
          “It's cerebral palsy. There isn't anything you need to do for me.”
          “And you're out here camping? You certainly manage very well.”
          There's no real reply to that, and I don't need to go there anyway, not right now, with everything else going on.
          Orange jumpsuit asks, could we both write out everything we remember, while it's still clear? As if I'm likely to ever forget… but it's something to do. I rip some pages out of the register and grab a pen.
          As the jumpsuit starts cordoning off the area around the blanket with yellow “crime scene” tape, I hear another vehicle approaching. It's the Johnsons. They'd radioed from Mt. Trumble and been told the Park Service had already been notified. They came back to reassure us that my husband was headed back and help was on the way.
          The three of us have a conference with the orange jumpsuit. What happens now? “Well,” she says, “that's up to the lead investigator, ranger Michael Nash. Probably they'll take him over to Park Service Headquarters for questioning. If it's clear he didn't have any criminal involvement, they'll probably fly him back over here and drop him at his car.” She is serious, “We've done it before.” The rest of us quickly decide that we aren't leaving till we get a better answer than that.

          On the trip back to the overlook, I keep expecting an emergency vehicle to come racing up behind me. I even allow myself the luxury to stop and photograph some wildflowers, but no clouds of dust appear on the road near or far behind me. I'm not surprised when I arrive, though still impressed, to see a helicopter behind the ridge and rescue people scurrying about.
          I join everyone at the table under one of the few shade trees. It's a hot August day and there is already a small but quickly-growing thundercloud over the canyon. I give the man his cigarettes. He is grateful though looking as distressed as when I had left. Kirsteen is calm but I know the time has not been easy on her. I’m introduced to the Johnsons from Hurricane, Utah, and a few moments of idle chat follow. A break from the silent world for all of us.
          I check in with park-rescue ranger Nancy Mecham when she returns. Soon, she ties herself off, using the rope to lean and rappel over the edge to get a better look at the cracks and ledges directly below. Her bravery and concentration is very reassuring—we are in the hands of professionals. But they still can't find her.
          The thundercloud unloads a sheet of rain onto the far rim of the canyon. With a guilty thought and a convenient excuse, I leave the table to pack up our gear in the other campsite. Kirsteen comes over and I hug her out of view. I did not want to openly display my relief that it was not one of us who had fallen, with the other having to go through what he was going through.
          A moderate spitting rain lasts only minutes, it will not hinder the operation.

          Eric is back. I get up to help him break camp, hoping it will help me leave his nightmare world and return to the normal, everyday world just beyond the ridge. “Are you all right?” Eric asks, “You look pretty shell-shocked.”
          “It's just being around him for so long.” How do I explain that the grief is like a living thing? That it's contagious? That it's permeated my soul?
          “I know, I could feel the waves off him. That's why I got up from the table.”
          It's after 11:00 now, and still no sign of her. Nash has ordered a ground search as well, in case she did wander off and get lost. Still, nothing seems real.
          I go back to the table to distract him from the small crowd of lookyloos that has arrived. They're having the time of their lives. What better interruption of a routine camping trip than to find that Rescue 911 has come to life at your doorstep? Finally, I get up and go over to interrupt an idiot with an ASU ball cap and very penetrating voice. “Listen, it's that man's girlfriend they're looking for, and he really doesn't need to hear how far you think she fell.”
          ASU looks blankly over at the table. “Sorry…I didn't realize.”
          No. They're all still in the real world. Where people don't fall off cliffs except on TV. Where the viewers get the adrenaline rush without the pain. Where you feel secure that nothing that bad could ever happen to the people you love.

          One particular idiot has been hanging around near the edge since I got back. Nash and Mecham have enough to worry about without his testing Darwin's theory on natural selection. They have asked him several times to stay back, but he doesn't.
          Some time later, the idiot gives out a shout. I walk over, near where he and Mecham are sprawled on their bellies with their heads over the edge and scanning with binoculars. It takes him several minutes to explain where he sees the body.

          “Code 11 at 11:30 a.m. Can you confirm?” A voice crackles over the radio.
          “Yes, based on no movement and an 800 foot fall,” orange jumpsuit replies.
          I look at her. “Are you sure she's dead?” I ask blankly. Inside I know the answer, but it's all so surreal.
          “Eight hundred feet is eight hundred feet,” comes the uncompromising reply. I picture a fall off an eighty-story building onto concrete and I get some inkling what the body must look like.
          Orange jumpsuit is walking over to tell him the news. I start to hurry after her, somehow feeling the need to protect him from what she has to say. Eric's hand on my shoulder stops me. “It's best to leave them alone.”
          Yes. After all, we're complete strangers. We have no place in his private grief. I hear a wail like the death throes of a wounded animal from the table. “Just stay calm. Detach,” I tell myself.

           She's dead. That's all I need to know. Now all I want to do is leave. Kirsteen is being torn apart by his grief. I find it bad enough and I haven't been here half the time she has. I should feel guilty, and maybe I do. We don't know what is going to happen to him. Kirsteen fills me in on Mecham’s comment about leaving him here. Perhaps it is possible to take emotional detachment a little too far.
          Nash assures us later that there was never any question of leaving him alone on the north rim in a state of hysteria. He had radioed for a crisis counselor to stay with him while they try to figure out the safest way to recover the body. The counselor shows up about 2:00 and we leave her alone with him. She seems a very decent person.
          The helicopter has just returned from reconnoitering the site where the body came to rest. Mecham fills us in. There is no question that her spirit is gone, but swirling winds make it impossible to get her remains by helicopter. They are going to send hikers down.
          “Don't leave yet. You'll have to be interviewed and sign a formal statement,” Mecham tells us. So we all wait still longer. Half an hour later, she returns. “What? You're still here?” She radios over to Nash. What Kirsteen wrote on the back of the log sheet is sufficient. If she'd just sign and date it, we're free to go.
          The park service has already put his and her belongings aboard the helicopter. The Johnsons offer to drive their rental car back to St. George and the rangers agree to release it to them—the rental company will be grateful for not having had to come fetch it.
          We say our goodbyes.

          Sometime around 2:00 a.m. we arrive home in Tucson. It's over. We are both safe.

          We talked to Nash a couple of days later and learned that her body had been recovered late in the afternoon. The counselor stayed with the man until the next day, her day off, then drove him to Phoenix and saw him onto a flight to Sweden. We trust he, too, is safely in the loving circle of his family and friends.
          Nash offered to forward a card from us to the woman's family in Sweden, but we never heard back. We aren't sure if it made it, or if we should have even expected to hear back. Who are we but strangers? What price their closure for ours? And so we write.

          Life wouldn't have the same value if it weren't so fragile. One minute, the world is the same as always, the next minute, you're dead. True, most accidents have an element of stupidity in them—but a stone cast in that direction may not go far for many of us.
          While tragic, this event reminds us to treasure every day that we have together and to always take care when near the edge. We'll never be the same, but we can find peace with our memories. It does seem we were meant to be there, in that special place, at that terrible time.
For him, for us,
For Maria

Peace be her journey…and yours.



Speaking of crazy shit we did!  We got this idea around the campfire the previous night...the tent is empty (and tied to the rocks) but we wanted to photo-fake a campsite on the edge.

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