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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: The Wild Rim

Scott Thybony

Each generation has to discover its own wilderness. For me it has always been somewhere just out of reach, around the next bend of the river, or at the far end of the last branch of the deepest canyon. But wild country can also be found without having to descend into the Grand Canyon. The serrated edge of the South Rim runs for more than 1,300 miles, most of it remote and waterless and rough-cut. In the deep solitude, I could walk along the brink of the immense gorge for a thousand miles and not come to the end of it.

A few friends and I were walking the rim along the upper reaches of Grand Canyon and stopped to take in the stunning vistas. The gorge formed an unbroken wall, dropping 3,000-feet to the Colorado, one of the great rivers of the West. Field biologist Chuck LaRue sat bracing his binoculars while studying the far side of the canyon 2.4 miles away. Handing them to me he said, “Take a look. It has to be a ruin.”

At such a great distance I couldn’t be sure. It had the straight sides of a masonry wall, but appeared too perfect to be a prehistoric construction. Back at the truck, Chuck pulled out a spotting scope and confirmed it was a structure of some sort. The stone walls stood on the very edge of the gorge in such a dramatic setting we decided to check it out.

A few days later Chuck and I were lugging backpacks toward the far rim. We took a rough track branching off the main trail and passed several steep ravines before cutting cross-country following a compass bearing. Knowing the difficulty of hitting our destination dead-on, we aimed for a point slightly to the south so we would know which way to turn at the rim.

Trees obscured the canyon edge until we were right on top of it. In an instant we reached a threshold between the broad plateau and the deep verticals of the gorge, between all or nothing. The river below had carved out a sunken world where promontories extended from each side, alternating like the teeth of a zipper. As we worked our way along the edge, the cliff house right below us. We left our packs on top and pieced together a route through the caprock to what was definitely a prehistoric site.

The masonry walls, made from the same rock, blended in with the cliff face. They reached from the floor to the ceiling of the overhang, enclosing a space about 6-feet deep by 12-feet long. A square-cornered entryway faced downcanyon, and I ducked inside the darkened room. Beams placed side-by-side formed shelves likely used for storage. And the walls, not blackened by smoke, suggested the room had served as a large store house rather than a living site. The remarkable structure had stood intact for centuries without a sign of weathering as if the forces of obliteration had been suspended. Not a stone was out of place. It was the most perfectly preserved cliff house I had seen in Grand Canyon.

Next morning we returned to the site and waited for the light to strengthen. Without warning a Merlin shot overhead and disappeared into the void, bringing life to a still world. Chuck decided to name the site, Merlin House, after the small falcon, but realizing it sounded too Arthurian he went with Falcon House. As sunlight angled deeper into the canyon, we left the wild rim country and headed back. A few hours later we found ourselves in a line of traffic behind a recreational vehicle larger than the cliff house we had seen. The name on the back read, “The Wilderness.” That works for some people, but I prefer mine somewhere far away in the back canyons.

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.