When I was a teenager, I was standing alone one day in the rain, and in a moment of youthful angst I felt overcome with the feeling that I was never going to live to see 30. Through the years I have seen this is a fairly common teenage phenomenon, but I didn't know that at the time. Some of it came from the media, and the exposure to the James Deans and Jimi Hendrixs and Jim Morrisons and Kurt Cobains of the world. All the cool people died young. And some probably comes from anxiety about getting older and watching our youth and vibrancy disappear, becoming more like our parents and teachers. But no matter where it came from, it weighed on me and I set out to live a life with the time that I had, with a sense of purpose and urgency. And I did.
My youthful desires were actually pretty easy to fulfill. At 16, I needed a car and wanted an old Mustang, so I bought a 1968 classic 289 and have driven it since. At 20, I wanted to live at the beach and see what that was like, so during my last two summers in college and for a full year after I graduated, I lived in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and partied like a rock star. I found out I liked it and have lived on quite a few beautiful beaches in my life, but that's a different story from the one I'm trying to tell here. At 23, I wanted to learn to build houses so I went to work for a friend’s contracting firm and started out as a laborer and worked my way up to a junior carpenter. When I left that job, my partner and I had just put the finishing touches on a million dollar addition we had made to a beautiful home in Virginia. Perhaps most of all though, from the time I was a kid, I wanted to see America. Fulfilling this goal wasn't as easy as the others until, one day, it was. At 24, as I set off on my career running nationwide tours, I saw my dreams become reality. Once I had seen the major American landmarks I had always been enthralled with, I set out into smaller towns and rural communities.
My interest in travel sparked a desire to see some of the world’s iconic places, so I crossed the Atlantic to see the Eiffel Tower and the Coliseum and Big Ben and Sagre Familia. This experience and the people I met along the way left me hungry to see more places like Ayers Rock and Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu. I saw them all and many many more as the clock ticked and my twenties rolled on. Every day was full because it was one in a finite time period, and every night needed to be cherished and celebrated. And that was how I lived for many years, feeling my time was quickly coming to an end and wanting to make the absolute most of every day I had. I knew in my head that it was foolish, but it gnawed at me nonetheless.
And then it came, The Day Everything Changed. October 6th, 2004 – 23 days shy of my 29th birthday. It was a cool clear day, and I was on my way to Grand Canyon. The Canyon was a pretty routine stop at that point in my career - it was probably at least the 20th time I had been there. There was nothing alarming or different about the day – just another beautiful day in the Desert Southwest. Stopping with my group at Yavapai Point on the South Rim, I walked them out to the edge to take some photos and soak up the gorgeous views. Everything was going as planned until I went to take a seat on the ledge. I accidentally stumbled, catching my foot on my pants leg and fell forward. Unfortunately there was nothing there to break my fall.
An instant later I somersaulted over the edge of The Canyon and began rolling down the ever-steepening slope. I wouldn’t say my life flashed before my eyes in that moment, but I distinctly remember feeling that that long ago prophecy was coming true – I would never see 30. The only other thought that went through my head was ‘what a stupid way to die’.
As I rolled, I picked up speed, careening towards a different ledge which went at a steeper angle into the depths below. I fought with whatever strength and instinct I could, grabbing at bushes and rocks and trying to do anything to slow my descent. At one point I felt my legs go over a ledge and I grabbed an outcrop with all my strength to hold on – it really was just like you’ve seen a hundred times in the movies. Unlike in the movies, though, when my body went over the ledge and my weight caught up with me, despite the strength in my grip, every one of the fingers in my right hand pulled out of its socket with such a painful ‘pop’ that I had to let go. Over I went, and careened again downward into the abyss.
By some miracle of fate, I rolled through a few sturdy desert bushes which slowed me down considerably, and I was able to turn my body and dig in with my feet and hands and face, trying in my subconscious, survival bent mind to create enough friction to stop myself. And somehow in a ball of dust and scree, I did. I had fallen about 80 feet in total, and came to a stop about 10 feet from where things would have gone from bad to worse. I was conscious and, more importantly, I was alive.
I got quickly to my feet and began scrambling up the slope towards the rim. I couldn’t believe it - I was banged up, but uninjured! At least that’s what I thought until the first drops of blood dripped on the brown dusty rocks in front of me, bright red in the desert sun. As I brought my hand up to cover the gaping wound in my head, I saw my fingers which had completely left their sockets and snapped back, leaving them much shorter and fatter than they should have been. That was not good, but I lifted them anyways, and put pressure on my head to stop the gusher of blood which was now spraying rhythmically all over the desert. I stumbled upward until I came to the base of the initial ledge I had toppled over. Thankfully, someone on my tour had had the wherewithal to alert a ranger immediately, instead of stopping to watch, and help was already there. They told me to sit still, which I did.
A rescue team was there so fast it was hard to believe, and a medic quickly rappelled down to me. He did a quick check and told me they were going to send down a back-board and strap me in and pull me out. That image did not sit well with me, and I told him I was going to walk out, or I might never walk back in. He told me he understood, and I could refuse the back-board and he would help me, but his job was to recommend it. I refused the back-board. Tied in and with help from above and below, I climbed my way slowly back to the canyon rim.
Once there, I was immediately strapped in and taken in an ambulance to the clinic. There, they cleaned me up and re-set my fingers in place with a lot of painful pulling and tugging. I was prepared as quickly as possible for the 3 hour ambulance ride to Flagstaff. Before I left, I went to use the bathroom. The nurse told me it would be best if I didn’t look in the mirror. Somehow I managed not to.
Their ambulance brought me halfway, where Flagstaff’s ambulance picked me up and took me the rest of the way to the city. Once there, I was brought into the ER where the nurse teased that she could see my skull (although she wasn’t joking). They wanted to cut my shirt off and I told them they couldn’t – it was my lucky shirt. They asked how that could be – I had just fallen off of The Grand Canyon. I told them ‘exactly, and I’m still here’. They understood and helped me off with it.
I was prepped and wheeled into the operating room where they did major reconstructive surgery on my face including somehow reattaching the nerves I had severed. That night, all patched up and heavily sedated, I slept without dreaming.
The next day, I talked to my doctors and told them I was ready to go – I had a tour to get back to. They said since I hadn’t had a concussion that they couldn’t keep me, and I was cleared to drive. My hand was put into a special splint to allow this. I called my boss and updated my situation, thanked everyone profusely, and got in a cab heading 3 hours back to Grand Canyon.
I finished that tour, and the next and the one after that. I returned to The Canyon many times, and felt no bad feelings towards it. I had walked out, so I was able to walk back in. We have a respect for each other that goes deeper than most. I have read a lot about falls in Grand Canyon since then - several books have been written on the topic. Quite a few people have fallen off the edge over time. Not many have survived. I was one of the lucky ones.
Whenever people ask me why I am the way that I am and why I live life the way that I have, there are a lot of reasons I can give. But when I am alone, and when I really think about it, there is only one. There is that day in Grand Canyon. Before that day, I lived for every second, convinced I was going to die before I turned 30. Since that day, I have lived every second forever grateful that I didn’t…