Interview: David Roberts, Author of "Below the Rim"

Author David Roberts talks about what he found surprising while exploring the Grand Canyon.

Did you visit the Grand Canyon when you were a kid?

I went to the Grand Canyon with my family when I was about 8 years old, and I had a very blah experience. I think the scale of it is too huge--you don't appreciate it. Even back then it was very managed, and the Skyline Drive on the South Rim is all that we did.

Do you remember anything that stood out about that trip?

On the same trip we had gone to the Black Canyon on the Gunnison in Colorado, which is far less well-known, and that really impressed me, because my dad held my brother's and my ankles as we inched up to the edge and looked over, and my mother was shrieking--and you don't do that with the Grand Canyon.

If you had no particular love of the Grand Canyon, what drew you to this story?

Bill Hatcher, the photographer, talked me into it. Bill really knows the Grand Canyon, and he's one of a small number of climbers who have devoted themselves to discovering these prehistoric trails--which is, needless to say, a part of the Grand Canyon that almost no one's ever seen.

It sounds like you found a whole new canyon.

Yes, it's just astounding what a difference there was. I'd rafted the Grand Canyon with a commercial company, about 10 years ago, and though that's a wonderful experience, that's limiting too. For liability reasons they don't let you hike very far, so we would stop for some gourmet picnic, and even though I was an experienced climber the guys would say, "Okay, you can hike up this little side canyon but don't go more than a quarter mile, because we have to keep track of you." And that really frustrated me. So I had never had any real hiking experience in the Grand Canyon. Plus, unless you go down to Havasupai, you don't run into the Native Americans--you don't have any sense of the Indian presence.

The things you uncovered there were surprising, then?

Yes, I guess one of the things that's really surprising to me still--and I've written a lot about the archaeology of the southwest--is that places like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde are much better understood than the Grand Canyon. This is a place with four million tourists a year, but the archaeology is still just barely getting sorted out. It's probably because it's such a hard place to do archaeology. There have been these helicopter-accessed digs, but there's nothing going on like that right now.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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