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What doesn't kill you gives you something to talk about

I tried my best to keep my camera from banging against the wall or the other tourists as we trundled up the stairs, nose to inseam. We moved slowly and carefully toward the promise of a more expansive view.


The staircase hugging the inner wall of the Grand Canyon’s Desert View Watchtower is simply too narrow for a man and his shadow to pass at the same time. But each flight opens into a wider balcony, where bright murals and petroglyphs adorn the walls and narrow shafts of light slant through small, irregularly spaced windows. The observation deck on the top floor offers more floor space, yet feels nearly as cramped with so many people wedged in … until you press your head into one of the large, glazed windows that offer a view of all compass points. Standing before one, a half step forward unbridles your eyes for a wild chase of the turquoise ribbon on the canyon floor, which darts hither and yon until absconding into the craggy rows of plateaus stretching to the horizon. 


I can’t imagine many places on earth can pull off this neat Desert View trick — a simultaneous offering of panorama and claustrophobia.


The Desert View Watchtower comes highly recommended by the volunteers staffing the entry gate to the Grand Canyon National Park's South Rim. There are at least a couple of good reasons for this: First, when you pass through that gate, you're still a good 20 miles from the main developed area of the Grand Canyon Village. That's far too far if, like us, you're Jonesing for your first view of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.


Second, the watchtower itself would be worth seeing even if it had been erected in the parking lot of a suburban Walmart. It was designed by Mary Colter, renowned for so many iconic buildings in and around the park. The four-story stone structure is her interpretation of an ancestral Puebloan watchtower. Built in 1932, it looks as though it could have been standing there since 1432, except that it is far larger than any known Puebloan edifice it ostensibly imitates.


"Far larger" is a relative concept, however. The tower is a veritable tourist zapper. Like tank-topped mosquitoes, we lumber forward, mouths agape, selfie-sticks poised, inextricably attracted by the opportunity to climb just a bit higher for a lily-gilding view. Everywhere you look, you see impossible breadth; but everywhere you stand, you feel the encroachment of elbows. 

Indeed, the entire acre surrounding the tower buzzes like a hive.


While waiting patiently for the crowd on one of the tower's exterior patios to part and afford me an unobstructed view of the canyon floor, I noticed a man and a his young son standing on the opposite side of a low fence. At first glance, the fence seemed intended to segregate — tourists on one side, the wild on the other. But looking about more closely, I saw no sign to reinforce that first impression. To the contrary, a park ranger walked right past and didn't say a word to the man and his son. It must be OK for them to be there, I concluded.


Looking more closely, still, I noticed a footpath winding atop the rim’s talcum crags. It seemed to stretch in a direction with no buildings in sight, toward several promontories. More significantly, there were no people in sight, either.


Whether this path was real or a mirage, Debi and I thirsted for solitude and decided to follow it once we were finished in the watchtower. 


As we walked, the crowd's buzz gave way to the hum of cicadas, a siren call that lured us forward. We took photos. We watched a squirrel hunt for food and shade between the rocks. We admired several varieties of cacti and wildflowers.


And, as always, we were on the lookout for new avian species. 


Mostly, we saw birds we had seen elsewhere on the trip — several common ravens, a rock wren, a Eurasian collared dove. We also spotted swallows or swifts that we were unable to identify in the field. Then, above the din of the cicadas, Debi homed in on the call of a towhee. 


At first, we thought it might be a canyon towhee — you know, this being a canyon and all. Scanning the treetops below us, however, Debi caught sight of the bird. It looked very similar to the Eastern towhees with which we are quite familiar. However, the Grand Canyon is outside that bird's range. Consulting the Merlin Bird app, we discovered it was a spotted towhee — new bird for our life list.


Debi got a good look at the towhee through her binoculars, but I failed to photograph it. We watched it dart from a spot in a treetop — an odd place to find a ground-dwelling species — toward a cluster of lower-lying vegetation about 200 yards up the trail.


We gave chase.


About 100 yards ahead, we took a seat on the rock and tried to locate the towhee, whose call rose above the cicadas. Until it didn’t. Figuring it must have flitted away undetected, we arose and decided to walk a little farther up the trail. 


I took one step forward, passing a small pile of rocks next to the path, when I heard buzzing near my right foot and Debi squealing behind me. Instinctively, I hopped forward, then took two more quick steps. My first thought: That wasn’t a cicada but some sort of stinging insect. Though I couldn’t see her, I could tell by the sound of those squeals that Debi had taken a few steps in the opposite direction, back up the path the way we came.


“Oh, my God! I don’t know how that snake didn’t bite you!” Debi exclaimed.

Snake? What snake?


“It struck at your leg, Jeff! You’re sure it didn’t bite you?!”


Apparently, that was no cicada, and no stinging insect, either. It was a pinkish-brown rattler that whiffed as it tried to take a chunk out of my right calf. 


“It blended right into the ground. I almost didn’t see it at all,” Debi panted, still highly agitated. 


Reconvening about 20 yards from the spot where a trip-ruining disaster was averted, I listened as Debi recounted the past 30 seconds in horror. I felt robbed. I had nearly been bitten by a rattler but never laid eyes on the dread serpent. 


I wanted to go back and find it, but Debi pleaded with me to take our leave from this tightrope trail along the canyon’s rim and take the service road, which suddenly appeared ahead of us, back to the tourist hive. Turns out, we weren’t as isolated as we first believed. I gave in and walked away without ever laying eyes on my would-be assassin. 


Fortunately, however, I could see him through my wife’s eyes. To hear her tell it, she nearly lost a husband. In reality, she had picked up a whopper of a story … which she told probably 100 times over the next few weeks. To relatives on the phone. To cashiers at the Watchtower snack bar. To passing tourists and restaurant waitresses. To anyone who cared to listen, and probably to a dozen or so who didn’t.


It was sweet, really. This episode — and Debi’s constant re-telling of it — didn’t ruin the trip. It made the trip. Like any good travel companion, she constantly steers me toward fun and away from danger that I’m too dumb to notice.

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