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Scott Thybony’s Canyon Commentary: The Circus

Grand Canyon park volunteer Sueanne Kubicek spotted a man walking his goat a couple miles below the South Rim, claiming the sign at the trailhead only said, "No dogs." She quickly turned them both around.
Sueanne Kubicek
In 2007, Grand Canyon park volunteer Sueanne Kubicek spotted a man walking his goat on a dog leash on a trail a couple miles below the South Rim. He justified bringing the animal below the rim by saying the sign at the trailhead only said, "No dogs," not "No goats." She immediately turned the man and his goat around.

With tourist season in full swing, traffic often backs up at the Grand Canyon entrance stations. Scott Thybony recently found himself caught up in the crowds at the South Rim and overheard a visitor say, “It’s a circus!” In the newest installment of his Canyon Commentary, Thybony recalls how some people over the years have done their best to turn the Grand Canyon into a spectacle.

Millions of visitors converge on the Grand Canyon each year with most ending up at the South Rim. During peak season visitors have to wait in long lines, hunt for parking, and face viewpoints packed with people taking selfies. Usually I manage to avoid the crowds. But when relatives from out of town arrived we headed to the South Rim at midday on a holiday weekend. It took us an hour and twenty minutes to get through the entrance station. If you happen to hit the Canyon at the wrong time, it’s a circus. And over the years some people have done their best to turn it into one.

In 1927 Clyde Eddy took a black bear cub named Cataract down the Colorado River as a mascot. It had the distinction of being the first bear to run the river—and the last. A few years earlier a crowd of tourists watched from the rim as a barnstormer took his biplane into a tailspin. Spiraling into the gorge, he pulled out of his dive and landed safely near Plateau Point. Even more surprising, he managed to take off again.

The Bubble Boat attempted to descend the Colorado in 1961. A clear plastic sphere carried a single passenger and operated on the treadmill principle. The pilot had to run like a caged hamster to propel the boat, and it was impossible to steer in strong currents. Somehow he managed to get it down the San Juan and Colorado Rivers as far as Lees Ferry where he called it quits. At that point the boat designer took command and climbed into the bubble. He made it as far as the first riffle, having covered a distance of one mile.

One of the more ambitious stunts involved professional daredevil Robbie Knievel in 1999. He announced his plan to jump the Grand Canyon with a motorcycle. Unable to get a park service permit for what the media billed as “The Grand Canyon Death Jump,” he secured permission from the Hualapai tribe to use their lands. Knievel ended up leaping 200 feet across an unnamed ravine on the rim and landing hard. An impressive jump, but not the Grand Canyon.

When I first began hiking below the rim we would tear down the Bright Angel Trail as fast as possible to get into the wilder backcountry. But the parade of hikers funneling down the main trail has its attractions. Among them are the bucket-listers and park baggers, first timers and those on their last legs, the heat zombies and the rim-to-rimmers or even the rim-to-rim-to-rimmers. A woman once attempted to hike down the Bright Angel in high heels. I passed her on the way back up carrying her shoes and walking barefoot. Others have worn everything from flip-flops to wingtips. And in the summer heat an elderly German man was hiking in a three-piece wool suit. But a thumbs up to all of them for giving it a shot.

The park rangers might disagree. They have to handle everything from mothers pushing babies in strollers to a tourist pulling his wheeled luggage behind him. Whenever the rangers think they've seen it all, another surprise turns up. A couple of miles below the rim, park volunteer Sueanne Kubicek spotted a man leading his goat down the trail on a dog leash. And the mule train was rapidly approaching. If the skittish mules spotted the goat, pandemonium was certain.

“What are you doing?” she asked the young man from Kansas.

“Well,” he answered, “the sign at the top said, ‘No Dogs.’ It didn't say, ‘No Goats.’” Without arguing the point she quickly turned him, and his pet goat, back to the rim.

Scott Thybony is a Flagstaff-based writer. His Canyon Commentaries are produced by KNAU Arizona Public Radio.

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.