Driving west on Highway 50, travelers are often surprised by how unremarkable the landscape of the Gunnison River valley is. The mountains that flank the road on either side are neither tall nor especially beautiful, and basically treeless. A harsh, nearly desolate stretch of land frowns at the traveler until the appearance of the Blue Mesa Reservoir on the left begins to soften the view. Soon the character of the land changes. More vegetation clings to the mountain slopes, which are lower and rounder—almost hills in places. The influence of the water, no doubt. Once the reservoir has been left behind, the green begins to fade again, as quickly as it had appeared. Scrubby brush covers the river valley floor now, but the mountains are mostly dirt once more.
In mute witness to who-knows-how-many-thousands of passersby, an unassuming wooden sign indicates where to turn north onto State Highway 347: “Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.” First-time visitors begin to worry they have fallen prey to some cruel joke perpetrated by generations of family, friends, and fellow tourists, all sworn to secrecy, all longing for each new gullible traveler to experience the same crushing disappointment they did at discovering Gunnison’s guilty little secret. “Surely this can’t be right,” they mutter to themselves. “Smaller but more breath-taking than the Grand Canyon, they said.” Meanwhile, climbing almost imperceptibly, the long, loose curves lead on, more like a county road meandering across Central Texas than the entrance to a national park.
Suddenly, travelers are greeted by an incongruous sight—flat, lush green, cultivated fields watered by giant irrigation sprinklers. Just as suddenly, rows of tree-covered hills reappear, the fields ending as abruptly as they had popped into existence moments before. All the while, the slow wandering ascent continues, even more gradually if that were possible. Drivers sense that they are nearing the top, but of what they aren’t sure. Plains covered with short, dense brush reach in every direction. A small wooden kiosk stands in the middle of the road, marking the official “South Rim” park entrance, but still no canyon in sight. “Rim of what?” drivers muse, now committed to seeing the ruse through to the end, if for no other reason than so they can join the initiated and, hopefully, pay the trick forward on future generations. A sign indicating an elevation of 8400 feet—meaning the driver has somehow climbed 1800 feet since leaving Highway 50—completes the illusion. “No detail overlooked,” the now-savvy traveler notes.
The entrance road intersects “South Rim Drive,” with signs pointing out alluring destinations in either direction, but since the majority of them seem to lie to the west, drivers usually turn left, compelled now by a kind of madness. Nothing else matters but seeing the promised but elusive canyon. At the first parking area, for Tomichi Point Overlook, drivers finally learn that they have not been deceived. At their feet lies an incomparable work of Nature that, as they will learn just down the road at the Visitors Center, can boast “the greatest combination of depth, steepness, and narrowness of any canyon in North America.” So steep, in fact, that parts of the canyon floor see less than thirty minutes of direct sunlight per day—hence the name.
* * *
On a particular Friday in late August of 2013, a tourist by the name of Major Porter followed this very same path from Gunnison and found himself at the Visitors Center in the late morning. The day was particular because it was Major’s 60th birthday, and he was spending it alone, away from his family back in Texas. To treat himself and ward off loneliness, he had decided to visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a dream he had harbored for more than forty years. The dream was born while he was in college, in the living room of a family who had “adopted” him for the summer while he did youth work at their church. Glutted on King Ranch Chicken and endless glasses of sweet iced tea, he sat on their gaudy floral sofa watching an interminable slide show of their family vacation to the canyon the previous summer. Having yet to see anything spectacular in his nineteen years on Earth, Major drank in the images that flashed across the screen. Off and on through the succeeding years, he had recalled those images, promising himself he would witness them in person someday. And on this particular day, on the drive from Gunnison, the images were as fresh in his mind as they had been forty years earlier, when they first beckoned to him from their celluloid prisons.
In spite of the elevation, the air was already growing warm as a hostile sun stared down from a fiercely blue late summer sky. Major was already regretting his decision to wear blue jeans instead of shorts this morning. On the sidewalk in front of the Visitors Center, a uniformed man stood beside a telescope, so Major walked toward him after parking his truck.
“Would you like to look?” the man asked.
“What will I see?” Major asked.
“Solar flares. We’re in a period of high activity right now, and the telescope is equipped with a special filter that blocks most of the light coming from the photosphere so the edge of the disc is more visible. You can see a really good flare right now in the lower right quadrant.”
Major closed one eye and peered into the telescope. At first, he saw little more than a well of darkness at the bottom of which danced a flash of reddish-orange color. Gradually, the flash resolved into an image, and eventually the image stood still. It was the Sun, but someone had hooked up a dimmer switch to it and turned it most of the way down.
“I can see the sun!” Major blurted out.
“Yes, you can,” the volunteer said.
“I mean, I’m actually looking at the Sun. Not like when I was a kid, and we’d try to look at it but had to turn away after a second or two with a searing pain behind our eyes. I’m really looking at the real Sun!”
Major was so excited, he didn’t notice the small crowd that had gathered around the telescope in response to his cries of childlike joy.
“Now, hold your head as still as you can and look toward the lower right-hand part of the disc,” the volunteer said in a patient, almost parental voice. “Do you see what looks like a bright orange fountain shooting away from the surface?”
“Yes, yes, I can see it!” Major exclaimed.
“That’s a solar flare.”
“Wow. Wait a minute. How big is that thing?”
“There was a massive flare about this time last year that was seven times the size of the Earth,” the volunteer offered. “This one isn’t nearly that big, but it is reaching thousands of miles beyond the corona.”
The volunteer knew there were others in line, eager to look through the telescope, but Major’s enjoyment was so obvious, he was reluctant to end it. After another moment, Major stepped away from the telescope on his own and asked the volunteer a question:
“How did you get this job? I’m about to retire, and doing something like this would be a dream come true.”
“There’s a website that tells all about the Senior Volunteer Program and its requirements. You apply, tell them what your interests and skills are, then wait to hear back from them. I’m a retired high school science teacher and amateur astronomer. I wanted to start years ago, but their summer season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day, so I could never make it fit the school year. But as soon as I retired, my wife and I signed up, and here I am.”
“Does your wife volunteer too?”
“Not in the park, but she’s involved in stuff several days a week in Montrose.”
“That’s great. My wife has trouble with altitude. That’s why I’m here by myself . . . on my birthday.”
“Today’s your birthday?”
“Yep. Sixty years old today.”
“Well, Happy Birthday, Mr……”
“Porter. Major Porter. Given name, not rank. Thank you, Mr. Stevens. It’s on your nametag. Seeing that solar flare was a gift I’ll never forget! Now, what do you recommend for seeing the canyon at its best?”
“Just follow the rim road west and stop at every viewpoint. Each one has its own wonder to reveal. And if you have time before you leave, be sure you go all the way to the east as well. You can drive down to the river level and see the dam.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Major shook Mr. Stevens’ hand and walked back to his truck. Just before he got in, he remembered he had promised his wife to get something stamped with the official seal for this national park. She collects them in a little blue souvenir book modeled after a U.S. Passport, along with other mementos of each visit—even if she doesn’t go. As long as either one of them makes the trip, it counts and goes in the passport.
Major found the stamps and ink pad right beside the cashier’s counter in the gift shop, but he didn’t have anything to stamp. So he bought a couple of postcards, stamped one of them with the “Black Canyon of the Gunnison” seal, and addressed it to his wife. The message said only, “I finally made it! Love, Major.” It’s Wednesday, he thought, so this should reach her before I get back home. But I don’t have a stamp.
“Do you sell postage stamps?” he asked the cashier.
“No, sorry, we don’t. And that box gets picked up only once a week anyway, on Wednesdays, but the truck has been here already this morning. You’d do better to mail it in Gunnison or Montrose, depending on which way you’re heading when you leave.”
“If it’s as beautiful as they say, you may never want to leave,” said a voice from behind Major.
He turned his head to see a peculiar-looking man standing at one of the display tables off to the right of him. And next to the man was another figure, with the body of a young man but the face of a child.
“That good, is it?” Major replied, mostly not to seem rude by ignoring the stranger.
“It will set you free,” said the man, followed by what sounded like part high-pitched giggle and part low, groaning croak from the man-child, “Set you free!”
Major turned back to the cashier, who rolled her eyes, as if to say, “Yeah, we get all kinds in here.” Major thanked her for her help, tucked the unstamped postcard in the back pocket of his jeans, and turned to leave. Just as he reached the door, he turned again to look for the two strangers who had spoken to him, but they were gone. In their place were a perfectly ordinary-looking, middle-aged man thumbing through a guide book and a typically dull-faced and disinterested teenager standing inert next to him. Just a father and son on vacation together, nothing more. But, as Major turned his head away and stepped out the door, the man looked up and smiled, placing a hand on the boy’s arm.
Major headed for the parking lot, giving the telescope man and the large crowd he had now drawn a wide berth as he passed. Back at the truck, he took a few minutes to unfold the park guide map and check the location of all the viewpoints, then pulled out of the parking lot and headed west.
As Major was walking from the parking area to the first overlook, he saw the middle-aged man and teenage boy from the gift shop on the pathway heading toward him. Puzzled by how they had gotten there ahead of him, he determined to walk by them with neither a glance nor a word. But when they were still about 50 yards apart, the boy croaked out something that sounded like, “Go back!”
Continuing toward him, the man called out, “The overlook is closed. Police tape. Crime scene.”
At that point, Major’s curiosity won out over his determination, so he stopped and waited for the pair to reach him and then repeated the man’s final words as a question, “Crime scene?”
“Somebody jumped,” croaked the boy.
“What!” cried Major. “Someone committed suicide?”
“That’s what the police say,” the man offered calmly. “Not a frequent occurrence, but it has happened before. The Park Service tries to keep it out of the news. Bad for business.”
“Thought he could fly,” croaked the boy, this time with the giggle at the end.
“That’s enough, Wash. You’ll upset Mr. Porter.” The man spoke to the boy slowly and evenly, putting the same emphasis on each word. More like a nurse or a therapist calming down a mental patient than like a father correcting his son. “We don’t want to spoil Mr. Porter’s birthday.”
“How do you know my name? And how do you know it’s my birthday?” Major blurted out with a start.
“Heard you speaking with the Ranger. That’s all. Wash wanted to take a look in his telescope, so we were in line behind you. Nothing odd or mysterious.”
“And how did you get here before me?” Major insisted, his voice still edgy, but calmer now. “You were still in the gift shop when I left.”
“So you were spying on us too, it seems,” the man returned, with an unsettling smile that restricted itself to his eyes, never approaching his mouth.
“I wasn’t spying on anybody! You just called so much attention to yourselves with what you said, of course I remember you. But you were the ones eavesdropping.” Any control Major had gained over his voice had abandoned him now.
“Was that us?” the man asked coyly. “Are you sure? Were we in the gift shop, Wash?”
“Gift shop,” the boy bleated. “Thought he could fly!”
“So, we’ll see you later, then, Mr. Porter,” the man called back as he and the boy walked away.
“Hush, Wash. No, Mr. Porter, I don’t think you saw us in the gift shop at all. Maybe you mistook someone else for us. After all, Wash and I are so ordinary looking, we often remind folks of someone else.”
“Maybe that’s it,” Major said, more to himself than out loud. “That’s the only way this all makes sense.”
Major tried to remember the faces from the gift shop, but they all ran together. Was it two different fathers and sons he had seen, one peculiar to an unsettling degree, like something sinister and barely human, and the other too ordinary to recall? Or were they the same? Could seeing them from opposite sides account for such a marked difference in appearance? And was either of them the same as this pair with him on the overlook footpath now?
Starting suddenly awake from his reverie, Major saw that he was alone. Under the strong impression that he had been speaking with someone just moments earlier, he took stock of his surroundings. No one on the footpath. The only sound was muffled conversation coming from the direction of the overlook, beyond the yellow crime scene tape. Never having been especially susceptible to the effects of too much sun or altitude, he ruled out hallucination. And as far as he knew, he was mentally sound, so he ruled out delusion. What was left as a possible explanation, he demanded of himself, but came up empty. So, after deciding there were plenty of other overlooks, he headed back to his truck.
Sometime later, Major spotted the father and son again, at Devil’s Overlook. The father was in an animated conversation with a man about his same age, while the son was throwing rocks at the chipmunks and marmots skittering along the rocky edge of the canyon. Luckily for the wildlife, the boy’s aim was terrible, so Major decided to forego reprimanding him for his cruelty to these animals. While Major was still watching the marmots, the father, son, and the father’s conversation partner started up the path back to the parking area, this time taking no notice of him.
Major resolved to set the morning’s events behind him and make the most of this special birthday treat he had given himself. He had been waiting over 40 years to see these views in person, and he wasn’t going to let a couple of crackpots deter him.
At the Painted Wall viewpoint, he struggled to steel his nerve and walk closer to the guard rail, so he could take in a fuller view of the canyon.
“Howdy, Major!” the boy brayed, adding a mock salute.
“Don’t be rude, Wash. Never call a gentleman by his first name until he invites you to do so.”
“Sorry, Mr. Porter.”
It was the father and son again. Somehow, they had both sidled up beside Major without his even hearing them. Having shed their earlier companion, they looked at Major appraisingly, cocking their heads simultaneously but in opposite directions, evidently deciding to glom onto him, as the only body around.
“You must face your fears. You must move right to the edge and look over. Lean out far enough to see the entire cliff face all the way down to the bottom. Trust me, it will set you free.”
“I’m not afraid,” Major snapped back. “Just cautious.”
“Trust me,” the man confided. “I was a terrible acrophobic, just like you. It was so crippling, it destroyed my marriage. And I nearly lost my boy here.”
“You from Texas?” the boy brayed, having apparently exchanged his frog for a mule.
“How would you know that?”
“We’re also from Texas, but not the part you’re from,” answered the man, cutting off his son’s would-be response. “You have very little accent that I can detect. Just a smidge. You probably learned all your pronunciations from listening to national TV news anchors. They all have that perfect….ly insipid Midwestern non-accent. People should know where a man is from by listening to him speak. Now, Wash here has such an atrocious drawl. I tried to break him of it, but the more I beat him the worse it got. I guess that was his Mother’s revenge for the acrophobia. Anyway, where was I?
“Embracing my fears?”
“Oh yes. You must dangle your legs over the edge of the cliff or you will go home a bitter and unfulfilled man. And you wouldn’t want to feel that way on your birthday.”
Major was so overwhelmed by the torrent of words coming from his new acquaintance, he momentarily set aside that faint itchy feeling he always got just behind his eyes when something bothered him but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. Inspired by the testimony of a former-but-now-redeemed acrophobe, he climbed over the guard rail and stepped cautiously to a flat spot about five feet from the cliff’s edge. Sitting down, he began to scoot forward almost imperceptibly, until finally his heels reached the edge.
“Not close enough,” said the man. “Closer.”
“Closer,” echoed the boy in a corvidian caw.
Fighting his fear, Major kept scooting forward until the underside of his knees hugged the rough, dirty edge of the stone and his feet dangled over the side. Having done this without catastrophe, he relaxed just a bit and tried to slow down his breathing.
“That’s it. You’re doing great. Now, lean forward.”
Knowing that he could not simply lean forward, could not will his body to do so, Major placed his left hand on the rock behind him and bent sharply at the waist. He could see the top portion of the cliff face. The familiar sick weakness in his gut tried to overwhelm another, unfamiliar sensation—exhilaration.
“It won’t work unless you lean far enough to see all the way down the cliff face to the bottom. That’s what unleashes the magic. That’s what sets you free.”
Surprised by his own temerity, Major bent as far forward as possible, compressing his belly against the tops of his thighs. He struggled to keep the palm of the hand he had placed behind him flat on the rock surface, but it began to lift just a little. His butt was still in contact with the rock, but he could feel the pressure lessen slightly. Just as he was about to give up and resign himself to remain a prisoner of his fear, Major caught a glimpse of the bottom. The sight empowered him to compress his belly even more, making it possible for him to drop another inch in his bent-over position. Now, he held the place where the cliff face meets the rocks along the river bank in a steady gaze.
“I did it!” he cried out.
“Yes, you did,” said the man calmly and quietly. “Look Wash. Look what this 60-year-old man accomplished just by setting his mind to it and overcoming his fears.”
“I see it, Papa. It’s time to set him free, isn’t it?” asked the boy.
The father said something in reply, but Major couldn’t make it out clearly. He thought he felt a nudge on his back, then watched as the world turned upside down, then right-side up again. Disoriented, he instinctively shut his eyes, but opened them again after a few seconds when the toppling motion slowed. Observing dispassionately that the river at the bottom of the canyon, the Gunnison River, that had carved this unique wonder of Nature (for that’s truly what it was—he knew that now and smiled when he remembered the uninspiring drive to get here and the pitiful sign out by the highway) and given it its name, was much closer than it had been just moments earlier, he concluded that he was falling. He should have been terrified and screaming incoherently, but he wasn’t.
He was weightless, totally free from all encumbrances.
He was filled with an anticipation that trembled with joy.
He was totally alive.
He was flying.
And then he wasn’t.
* * *
Some hikers discovered his body on Sunday morning, floating in a spring-fed pool by the river’s edge. Clutched in his hand they found a crumpled postcard. The addressee was illegible, but the message was still faintly visible.
© 2017 Keith A. Jenkins
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This story or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a review.