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.

It's right at the joining corners of various prehistoric peoples, and it's just a real puzzle. So it's sort of amazing that one of the iconic national places to visit has such a mysterious prehistory. The park really trumpets the geology, but not the human history.

What about the Havasupai?

People do visit the Havasupai village, but 99% of the people who go down there are Spring Break types who just go for those magnificent waterfalls.

And the Havasupai are perfectly happy to just channel them through there and take their money. But because we hired guides we got a whole different experience of going to the ruins and the secret places.

When you were there, did you ever feel like just another white tourist?

No, not at all, because we immediately went to Rex Tilousi and explained who we were and won his trust, and we felt very much like we were not just tourists.

Why do you think the Native Americans treated you differently?

When we first tried to get an entree with Rex, who was then the tribal chairman, he put on this show of making us wait in his outer office, shuffling paper and acting really busy, too busy to see us. But after a couple of hours, do you know what finally got to him? It was the name Smithsonian--he knew about Smithsonian and he realized that it was an important magazine. And at one point he said that if it had been another magazine he would have told us to get lost. So he slowly warmed to us and then actually took us on that walk, which was just wonderful--but even then, he said, there was plenty of stuff he wasn't going to tell us, there was plenty of ancient lore that none of us white boys had any right to know about.

Some of the hikes you describe in the article sounded pretty dangerous--did you have any close calls?

We didn't have any close calls, but it was definitely serious scrambling.

But maybe we should put in a disclaimer--don't try this unless you're an experienced climber.

Do many people even try to attempt the trails you explored?

No, we didn't see anybody on any of our hikes, not one other person. But the ten years ago, when I rafted through the canyon, they had everybody hike out the Bright Angel Trail, which is the most popular trail. It's 5000 feet and it takes about 5 hours. So as we were hiking up it, I decided to count the number of people coming down--how many people I crossed paths with. And it was 396. That's the typical hiking experience in the Grand Canyon. It's not a wilderness experience at all--you're in this magnificent place, but you might as well be going into the subway.

What is it about the Grand Canyon that draws all these tourists? You mention in the article that early white explorers saw it as an obstacle rather than a natural wonder.

Yes, it is striking how recently we've learned to see the Grand Canyon as beautiful. There's that wonderful quote from Lieutenant Ives, "This is the most profitless locality." That's even after romantics had taught us to see nature as beautiful, and to Ives this was just simply disgusting--ugly.

It's not at all naturally human to see something like the Grand Canyon as beautiful.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.