Stepping off the plane in Flagstaff, I’m greeted by thirsty air. It takes what it needs from me, knowing I have no defense. It’s my first time visiting. Probably my last, too. I enter the comically tiny space that somehow serves as an airport and I am finally able to put into words what I must have known all along; I have come here to die.
My traveling companions are here on vacation, celebrating a milestone birthday at Grand Canyon. While this wasn’t on the top of my list of places to visit, it does seem like a very American thing to do. Also, it’s a cheap vacation. As our plans fill in, though, in the weeks before the trip, my unease begins to grow.
Birthday boy wants to ride a mule along the edge of the canyon. Who wants to spend a bunch of money and join him? I’m amazed to hear that everyone is on board with this. I was on board, myself, until I read the myriad requirements. Then I began to have some concerns. Why would anyone put themselves at the mercy of frustrated slave labor, for hours, along the edge of the biggest pit in the world? The plan was to rise before the sun, then travel to certain death on the backs of smelly beasts our very first (and last) morning there. We would take our first glimpses of the canyon as we plunged to our deaths, a mile below.
The next morning, disclaimers signed, sufficiently oriented and mounted on our respective beasts, we began lumbering toward the crumbling edge of the canyon. After a few minutes travel along a dusty path worthy of that old western, Bananza, our fearless guide indicated that we should rest. The mules pulled up neatly parallel to each other, overlooking our grave. I sat for a moment in contemplation. This was it. One more step and off we would tumble. No guardrail. No pavement. No respectable trees, even, to break the fall.
I carefully unwrapped the canteen’s cord from my saddle horn and took a drink of the plastic flavored tap water. I took a deep breath, noticing all the details of my surroundings. This vast canyon really was a remarkable landscape feature. I replaced the canteen, careful not to accidentally nudge my mount forward, over the edge. Other riders were taking pictures and chatting about the landscape, in denial of their imminent deaths.
Suddenly, the guide directed us to move on and before I knew what was happening, my mule, of his own accord, had backed away from the treacherous cliff and fallen in line with the rest of the mules on the trail. Our ride continued without incident. My mule showed mercy that day. He must have sensed my desire to live and decided against throwing me off the cliff after all. No one knows how close we came to tragedy that day.
I was interested in The 12th Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest held by Geist magazine, which required an image and a 500 word or less short story. Having recently returned from Grand Canyon, I looked through the photos for inspiration. I chose the image above and decided to write about my fear and how it turned out to be unfounded.