A storyteller's sandbox
Tales of the Kaibab squirrel and other embarassments of riches
“Are Americans Afraid of the Outdoors?” Scientific American asked readers in a 2008 article.
The question was prompted by a National Academy of Sciences study indicating that, after peaking in 1987, visits to national parks and other outdoor resources have been in steady decline. Among the reasons cited is an increasingly tech-centric culture that has people hogtied to the internet. Indeed, a decade after the Academy of Sciences study, “smartphone slouch” — habitual hunching over mobile devices — has emerged as a serious health concern.
But the appropriate, literal answer to the question, “Are Americans Afraid of the Outdoors,” is “not nearly as afraid as they should be,” judging from the woman in the black hoochie shorts and strappy wedges creeping ever closer to a 700-pound elk with her iPad in front of her face.
Elk are vegetarian and not terribly aggressive, according to the rangers on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Therefore, they pose little threat to park visitors … unless said visitors get up in the elk's grill. And if you’ve ever tried to get a close-up with the wide-angle lens of an iPad, you might have some clue as to just how near this lady was straying to real danger. With those massive antlers, elk could pick up a rural UHF station transmitting from the far side of Mars. I certainly wouldn’t want to get tangled up in them for lack of attention while trying to choose between the Juno filter or the Gingham.
Fortunately, there are so many visitors to the South Rim, the elk seldom pay the people much heed. Or maybe they just have a hard time picking a target. It’s mid-afternoon, the sun blazes overhead and cars are parked on both shoulders for a quarter-mile stretch of this two-lane road. Everyone is traipsing through the ponderosa pine trying to get a shot of one of the half-dozen elk, who seem to be splitting their time between lounging in the shade and nosing around for grass.
I stand amongst them — the tourists, not the elk — albeit with a considerably longer lens than ol’ hoochie shorts’.
I must admit, I am as prone as anyone to forget my surroundings while looking through the viewfinder. I’m constantly composing, constantly evaluating light, constantly oblivious to things like cliff ledges and rattlesnakes. But I’m only mildly oblivious today. The sun is casting harsh shadows and won’t yield a shot that is anything more than merely passable. I fire off several frames, anyway, because we’re staying only one night on the South Rim and I know I might not see elk again. After several shots, I bring the camera away from my face and look again at the woman in the strappy wedges. If she is fortunate enough not to piss off an elk, with those shoes on, she’ll still be lucky not to break her ankle in a gopher hole.
“Jesus, lady. This isn’t an effing zoo,” I think to myself.
I suppose it would be understandable if she thought otherwise. This is what happens when the technology that once tethered people to the great indoors goes wireless and begins coaxing them outside again. In the interim, we have unwittingly domesticated ourselves. It’s not merely that we can no longer live on our own in the wild; it’s that we think elk should appear at our beck like an Uber drive and give their full cooperation as we snap selfies. Citified tourists who want to play Grizzly Adams for a weekend are yet another emerging health concern.
(STORY CONTINUES AFTER PHOTOGRAPH)
You can see that I'm not wearing hoochie shorts. And I promise I'm not wearing strappy wedges. Also, note I'm keeping my distance and positioning myself behind a brush pile. I've been outdoors before. :-)
Here’s the bottom line: Mother Nature doesn’t give two shits about your social-media feed or your vacation itinerary. That much was clear a few days later as we chatted with the camp host at the North Rim campground.
We approached her because she was staying in a teardrop camper manufactured by the same company as the travel trailer we had purchased about two months earlier. The host had a model with a bathroom that ours lacked, and Debi wanted to peek inside. Graciously, the host gave us a glimpse. One can only discuss toilets and black water so long, however, so soon the conversation turned to the animals we’d seen during our two days on the North Rim. We told her about the elk on the South Rim and the dozen or so bird species we’d added to our life list just five days into our trip. In fact, we had added a black-throated gray warbler that very morning.
We chose a trail that wound past the campground because we read in one of the Grand Canyon nature guides that it is a great place to spy a Kaibab squirrel — a tassel-eared critter whose range is confined entirely to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park and the adjacent Kaibab National Forest. So far, no luck, however.
And we weren’t the only ones with this unfulfilled longing.
“I haven’t seen one all season,” the camp host told us. Though plentiful a few years back, their numbers seemed to be in steep decline. She wasn’t sure why.
She gave us some advice about other points of interest to check out before departing the North Rim, which we planned to do bright and early the next morning. We thanked her and continued our hike back toward our cabin. It sure would be cool to see one of those squirrels, we agreed as we strolled along, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we didn’t. You can’t see everything. Besides, we’d already been treated to so much on this trip. The phainopepla and Woodhouse scrub jays on the Oak Creek Canyon trail near rusty-red Sedona. Endless, flat plains interrupted by the magnificent Vermillion Cliffs. The previous night’s exquisite sunset, which looked like an iMax production through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Grand Canyon Lodge dining room.
As our minds began to drift back over the past few days, we were nudged back into the present by rustling in the dense understory about 10 yards off the trail. There, a plumbeous vireo — another species for the life list! — carried insects back to a nest that hung in the fork of a sinewy sapling. We watched through a narrow opening in the branches as the little gray bird flitted about and fed chicks for 15 minutes or so.
We took pride in our attention to detail as we pointed out the activity to a family that happened down the trail, walking in the opposite direction. It was, after all, a find that required some visual gymnastics. In the midst of this landscape of such broad scale and sweeping vistas are these little curio, tucked into tight niches. We would have missed this all together had we been walking any faster.
(STORY CONTINUES AFTER PHOTOGRAPH)
A plumbeous vireo pops in on its nest. Its chicks are squawking, but in this photo, their heads remain down.
Arriving back at our cabin, we began planning our departure the next morning. Our next stop, Winslow, AZ, was 4 1/2 hours away if we drove straight through, but we wouldn’t be doing that. There were a couple of good birding spots along the way, as well as a scenic drive through the Painted Desert if we chose to drive through the Hopi Reservation, rather than taking Interstate 40. Thus far, our drives have taken nearly twice as long as indicated on Google Maps because of all the stops to see the sights, search for birds and fly the drone. We could pack the car with everything but our toiletries the night before, but even with an early departure, we probably wouldn’t be in Winslow until mid-afternoon. We wouldn’t want to get there much later because we’d still need to get checked into the hotel, clean up, see a few sights, then find a place to watch fireworks. And who knows what sort of Fourth of July traffic we’d encounter along the way.
Debi and I are early-risers, but we had a devil of a time beating the sunrise on this trip. We awoke at about 5:30 a.m., still more than 15 minutes after first light, so we could already see squirrels darting around in the pine straw outside our cabin when we opened the door and started making our way to the car. We stopped dead in our path when, no more than 30 feet away, a pair of Steller’s jays came buzzing in low. This was one of the target species that had thus far eluded us.
“Crap! I gotta go get my camera out of the car.”
I power-walked ahead of Debi, trying to move quickly but smoothly, so as not to scare off the jays. It took me a moment to get the camera out of its bag and the monopod screwed on — I’d definitely need stabilization in this low light — and by the time I was ready to rock, the jays had flown about 40 yards up the road, back toward the lodge. Debi wasn’t far behind them. I managed to make up ground and got a few frames of backlit birds, with my ISO cranked up to about 10,000. Well, at least we could add this bird to our list, even if I wouldn’t have a great photo of it.
Then, we noticed in the tree to our right a white-breasted nuthatch collecting nesting material. Unlike the Steller’s jays, this little fella was popping out into the morning sun, affording me a decent photo. We paused five minutes or so as I shot photos. Then, in the branches above us, we noticed several yellow-rumped warblers. Like the nuthatch, we have these birds in the Lowcountry, but we only see them in winter plumage, not in the striking shades of breeding season, when they’re dressed to impress. Yellow-rumps come in different varieties — adult male myrtles have white throats and a white eye stripe; adult made Audubon’s have a more uniform gray on their head and a yellow throat. Both varieties look like a different bird than what we see back home.
Before you know it, we were wandering down the Bright Angel Trail, as we had the morning before. We stopped and looked at each other: “We’re already about a half-hour behind schedule. Wanna keep walking?”
Yes, we did. We wandered around another 45 minutes, pausing to watch once more the house wrens we had spotted a day earlier, making a home in the eaves of a rental cabin. We encountered a pair of hairy woodpeckers, too, and from quite a distance, a Swainson’s hawk soaring over the canyon. Finally back at our rental car, it was another five minutes before we would get in and drive away because a pair of pine siskins — the first we’d seen on this trip — were hopping around on the juniper bush in front of us.
Finally, with the ignition turned and the wheels turning, we looked at each other and laughed. All that planning the night before went right out the window.
“I’m glad we stayed,” Debi said. Me, too.
Our heart rates slowed as we wheeled past the campground. Then suddenly, it appeared. I slammed on the brakes as a flash of white streaked across the road. Wide-eyed, we looked at each other:
I pulled quickly onto the shoulder, shoved the car in park and didn’t waste time turning off the engine. I reached into the back seat for my camera, then semi-sprinted through the woods, keeping trees between me and that fuzzy white tail, so that the squirrel could not see how much ground I was gaining. I stopped and took a few frames from about 50 yards away, just so I could be sure I had something. Then, I began moving more slowly, more stealthily, to get a closer shot.
Unfortunately, I had given away my position, so the Kaibab squirrel would scurry 20 feet farther for every 10 feet I gained. But finally, it took up post on top of a felled pine log that had been stripped of its bark. The squirrel held its position as I began firing off frames and captured video. Meanwhile, Debi exited the car, as well, and trained her binoculars on the squirrel. I was glad she got out of the car to see this. Often, the ever-selfless Debi will stay put to minimize disruptions and increase the chance that I’ll get a decent picture.
Those tufty little ears were just too much to resist, though.
After several minutes, the squirrel bounded away toward the canyon. Tensed in predator mode for the past 10 minutes or so, we stood upright and relaxed. The car was still running and unattended about 40 yards back. As we began our return, three more Steller’s jays flew in. They were better lit than the birds we’d seen an hour earlier, so we paused again to photograph and observe.
This was turning into a magical morning. Several miles up the road, we saw buffalo for the first time. We pulled over and watched a large herd graze. Just outside the park gates, we pulled over to get some drone shots of the meadow that stretches flat and long between two ridges. As I brought the drone down, another Swainson’s hawk — this one close enough to photograph in flight — came soaring out of the trees on the meadow’s edge. Stopping again to fly the drone through a lower-elevation ponderosa forest, I managed to get some pretty good video clips, then western bluebirds appeared for the first time in the trees across the road. They were later joined by a red-tailed hawk.
Taking our foot off the throttle, we made our way down from 8,500 feet enjoying every mile-marker along the way. We arrived in Winslow much later than planned, but we still found time to stand on a corner for a while, then catch the sunset and fly the drone once more over the Little Painted Desert.
Mother Nature might not care about your itinerary, but she often rewards you for following hers.
Filling the Grand Canyon with my weird thoughts
The sun was getting high, the birds were retreating into the shade, and my attention was waning. I peered at the floor of the North Rim one mile below as I stood on a rocky promontory (honestly, probably not the best place to let my attention wane). It’s nearly impossible to look at the Grand Canyon without a sense of awe for its utter vastness, but presently, that awe mingled with odd and morbid thoughts.
I wasn’t thinking how easy it would be to tumble to my death, though; I was pondering all the weird things you could fill the canyon with.
Like other people’s dead bodies.
I’ve read that a lot of communities are running out of space for cemeteries. What if we just piled them up here?
I know, I know; like I said, morbid stuff.
But I was curious, so I tucked the thought away, then did some back-of-the-envelope calculations when we returned home.
Here’s what I got when I crunched the numbers: The Grand Canyon is more than 275 miles long and as wide as 18 miles at certain junctures. It has an average depth of 1 mile. Someone a lot smarter than me at the National Park Service figured out that the canyon has a volume of about 5.45 trillion cubic yards, which equals 4.17 trillion cubic meters.
Now, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 2,813,503 registered deaths in the United States in 2017. If you can believe Shrestha Ranjit of Kathmandu University — and I guess I’ll vouch for him — the average human body is .0664 cubic meters. So that's about 186,816 cubic meters of American stiffs per year.
Assuming a constant rate – which, I know should never be assumed, but we’re spitballin’ here – we’ve got enough space in the Grand Canyon to bury folks for the next 22.3 million years. Whew! With the cemetery problem now solved, journalists are now freed to shine their spotlights on other grave problems, such as links that don’t open in a new browser tab.
Maybe there are other productive uses for all this space, though — say, converting the canyon to a giant landfill.
Americans produce about 3.5 pounds of trash per day. With about 300 million people, that equates to roughly 682,732,566 cubic yards of trash per year. That’s a lot. If you made the pile as tall as a 40-story building, it would cover more than 1,000 acres of land. By my calculations, we could use the Canyon as a repository for the materials that presently go into the landfill, and we wouldn’t fill it up for another 7,983 years.
Even if we put in all of our trash — including what is currently incinerated, composted and recycled — the space would last about 4,230 years.
As you can see, I’m nothing if not a problem-solver. I shared my thoughts with Debi and asked her what she thought.
She told me to shut up about it, or she'd push me off the ledge.