Sam McManis

Discoveries: Grand Canyon Skywalk offers new perspective – for a price

Grand Canyon’s Skywalk, shown above at its opening in March 2007, juts out above the Colorado River by 4,000 feet.
Grand Canyon’s Skywalk, shown above at its opening in March 2007, juts out above the Colorado River by 4,000 feet. Associated Press file

Unshod and slightly unhinged, you lift your right foot encased in a surgical bootie and take a tentative step. Then, by force of will, the left bootied foot follows. Another step and then – audible exhalation – another. Now, you are out beyond terra firma. Now, you are on your way to being 70 feet past the Grand Canyon’s west rim. Now, the only thing keeping you from a Wile E. Coyote-like 4,000-foot plunge to the world-famous chasm below is a steel-enforced, horseshoe-shaped protruding walkway featuring five layers of glass as its floor.

Don’t look down? No, make yourself look down. That’s the point, after all.

You are paying $80.94 for the novelty – perhaps a rip-off, perhaps a life-changing experience? – of being suspended over this natural wonder. Might as well muster the intestinal fortitude and gaze directly down upon the serrated sandstone cliffs and the winding Colorado River directly below. You console yourself by thinking of the thousands of tourists who have donned the clownish booties – to keep the glass from scratching – and blotted out encroaching acrophobic thoughts to experience the Skywalk, the $30 million edifice built by the Hualapai Indians in 2007 to draw visitors to their remote reservation and maybe siphon some tourist dollars from Las Vegas three hours to the west.

If grandmotherly types from Iowa, families from Bangalore and Stockholm, college girls from Brazil and honeymooners from Latvia can make the walk and take time to gawk at Grand Canyon West, surely you can do it. Man up, dude.

You think back minutes before, to the long, cattle chute-style walk up to the Skywalk itself, how people ahead of you nervously giggled as they passed a series of informational signs suspended from the ceiling, meant, no doubt, for reassurance: “Supports Over 71 Million Pds.!” “Can Withstand Magnitude 8 Earthquake!” “Constructed with over 1 Million Lbs. of Steel!” If it’s so safe and secure, you wonder why workers made you store your cellphones and cameras in lockers and administered the ol’ airport-screener wand swipe. Answer me that, pal.

Out on the walk, all becomes clearer. You are herded with bovine passivity near the center of the semicircle, where several red-shirted workers donning digital cameras go all Annie Leibovitz on you, setting up shots and snapping pictures in all sorts of poses.

“You, sir, yes, lean back on the rail and lift your arms in the air, yeah, like you’re falling,” one photographer intones. “And, ladies, you lean forward like you’re pushing them. You’ll be fine, I promise. Now everyone look in the camera. One. Two. Three. Perfect. You can view these in the gift shop ...”

Of course, they can get the pictures in the gift shop – $65 for a portfolio. The tourists in front you nod enthusiastically, apparently feeling not the least bit manipulated. You sidestep the paparazzi and, still avoiding that first vertiginous downward view, check out fellow Skywalkers.

A young, sunburned couple, hailing from a state that’s rethinking the whole Confederate flag thing, lay prone on the glass, trying to resurrect the Plank meme that died in 2014, as a photographer clicks away. Two Canadians, Olivia Vandenhelm and Mikayla Alexander, keep a grip on the 5-foot-high railing, Alexander noting with an anxious titter, “There are little holes in the cracks between the glass pieces! You can see through it!” A group shuttled over from Las Vegas gives, in unison, a cheesy thumb’s up gesture to the omnipresent Hualapai-employed shutterbug. Miami tourists Oriel Patino and Lidia Rodriguez stroll as casually as if they were cruising the South Beach boardwalk.

“This is amazing,” Rodriguez says. “I’m not at all afraid of heights.”

You finally succumb to peer pressure and brace for the initial spasm of vertigo. You look down and … see lots of red, jutting rock, tall spires casting shadows on the river below. It looks much like the view 70 feet back on the rim, albeit from a more extreme angle. You do not have that dizzying feeling of falling. You aren’t freaked in the least. Nor do you particularly have that breathless, sublime emotion wash over you from viewing arguably the world’s most famous geologic marvel.

All you’re thinking, frankly, is what a nice pair of shoes, or maybe a fleece sweatshirt, you could’ve bought with the $80.94 you plunked down for a two-minute walk on a platform. Your credulity fades into buyer’s remorse, and you start noticing the more blatant touristic touches.

Between the Skywalk – you aren’t even allowed to keep those scuff-proof booties; you specifically asked – and the gift shop (the only exit, by the way) is something of a touristic way station replete with stands selling churros, funnel cakes, hot dogs and Skywalk Fudge, because you apparently cannot go more than a few minutes without a meal. An LED sign scrolls the message, “Please be seated until your group is called,” in five languages. There is no water available during your wait in what often is triple-digit heat but – ca-ching! – there’s a lemonade cart here to serve.

Once you retrieve your smartphone from its selfie solitary inside a locker, you must wade through the gift-shop masses to be released back into the open air – and the shuttle buses that will carry you to the next attraction. Exiting the shop is almost more vertiginous than the Skywalk. A row of six computer monitors flash images of Skywalkers in action, and the line to purchase said shots stretches eight deep. Even if people aren’t going to spend $65 to buy the images, they at least want to ogle them. Many feel the social-media pressure to fork over the cash, given the “pics or it didn’t happen” present-day cultural ethos.

Patino, the Miami tourist, is one who gives in.

“Yeah, we got the whole package,” he said. “One picture was $27, but what can you do? That’s the way they do things here.”

But you feel compelled to spend the money. You know it’s kind of a rip-off. You know that everything seems tinged with the phony and cheesy. You even feel a bit sullied by a commercialism that far exceeded that of the South Rim and relatively ascetic North Rim, both run by the National Park Service. But people come because, as the old saying about Mount Everest goes, it’s there. As Waylon Honga, chief operating officer of the Grand Canyon Resort Corp., told reporters at the 2007 opening, “This is the only one of its kind in the world, and it’s on our reservation. … Now, we have the world’s attention.”

Just because people arrive anticipating a more natural, quasi-sacred Indian experience doesn’t mean they will turn around and hightail it back to Vegas (125 miles) or to the South Rim (233 miles).

“It was overpriced and too touristy,” says French visitor Philp Gernerone, traveling with his wife, Sandrine. “But we wanted to say we’d done it. I must say that, even here, the Grand Canyon is amazing.”

That “even here” modifier may rankle the 2,300-member Hualapai tribe, which reportedly has seen a nice return on that $30 million investment. A spokesman declined to provide figures, but a worker in one of the several gift shops confided that the attractions – Skywalk, aerial viewing of the canyon via plane and helicopter, rafting tours, pontoon-boat excursions, horseback rides on the rim, room accommodations at on-site cabins and a hotel in nearby Peach Springs – “do really well.”

If there are critics among tribe members who wonder about the perception that the Hualapai may be exploiting the land for profit, nobody is bold enough to publicly say so. Broach the subject with workers, some in traditional native garb, most in jeans and red polo shirts, and you get a collective shrug. Steve Hockey, whose job is to portray a gunfighter at the ersatz Wild West town Hualapai Ranch, cocked an eyebrow (staying in character) and spat out, “We’re just trying to make a living and have fun.”

The thing about fun is, it’s so subjective. Some might find the 80-minute drive from Kingman (the nearest real town) to the assiduously branded and logoed Grand Canyon West either deadly dull or a scenic cruise past desert terrain studded with pinon pines and occasional Joshua trees. Some might find the sudden stark transition from quietude to cacophony either rattling or invigorating.

What’s inarguable is the vastness of the operation on Hualapai lands. In the span of just a few miles, you go from seeing nothing much besides roadkill to fleets of white buses and squadrons of pink tour Jeeps. Light planes and wide helicopters flit about like insects hovering over a cotton field. As you pull into the paved parking lot, you could barely hear the parking attendant’s instructions, what with an intense thwack of chopper blades not heard since the fall of Saigon.

You look for the Skywalk, that doughnut looped over the West Rim. It is still several miles, and two shuttle-bus stops, away. First, you must enter an inflated domelike structure not unlike the bubbles that house indoor tennis courts. That’s where you pay for admission ($43.42 for the bare-bones stops at the “ranch” and two non-Skywalk viewpoints; the aforementioned $80.94 to add the Skywalk and various VIP packages that run hundreds more and include a swooping canyon helicopter sortie) and get bombarded with Grand Canyon West souvenirs, the usual snow globes and mugs-with-your-name-inscribed stuff.

Crowds teem at this hub, officially called The Terminal. Restroom lines snake outside the building. Foreign tourists, deprived of cigarettes too long inside the bubble, light up with impunity al fresco.

It’s a relief to get on the shuttle bus, finally. But it doesn’t immediately take you to the Skywalk. First, it stops at Hualapai Ranch (sign: “Food, Ropin’ Great Western Hospitality”), where you enter under a wooden awning and are plopped in an “Old West” town with a “Jail,” “Assay Office” and “Trading Post” (sarcastic quotation marks solely mine). Actually, the trading post is not a facade; you can, of course, buy gewgaws galore, including your own Wanted Poster.

There is “entertainment,” too. A “sheriff” picks one unsuspecting soul from each bus to go to jail. In this case, it’s Janeks Belajeus, from Latvia, who really isn’t sure what’s going on because his English is sketchy.

Sheriff: “Sir, what’s that around your neck?”

Belajeus: “Camera.”

Sheriff: “Sir, that strap says Canon. You can’t bring a Canon into this town. I’m going to have to put you in jail.”

The “Sheriff” tries to convey to Belajeus that all he would have to do to be sprung from the pokey is warble a song. Something is lost in the exchange, and Belajeus sits behind bars for a full five minutes.

Sheriff: “You can sing in your language. I can accept that.”

He eventually belted out a few tentative Slavic lyrics, like a karaoke singer forced to perform by his friends.

Elsewhere, Hockey, the gunslinger, has no one to battle, but he does pose for scores of photos.

“Normally, we do quick draw and everything, but the guns have been broken,” he says, breaking character. “Gotta get ’em from the shop.”

The mechanical bull sitting in the middle of an inflatable bouncy house goes unused. No one sits astride a real live pony, either.

The shuttle bus to the next stop couldn’t have come quickly enough. That stop is Eagle Point, where the Skywalk awaits. You can tell this is the big attraction, because of the convoy of food trucks, the Native American crafts store, the amphitheater where three children dance in native attire, and the hordes of people lining the canyon rim to snap pictures they will be prohibited from taking on the Skywalk proper.

You stand in the packed bus as it pulls up to the Skywalk, and you overhear retiree Ralph Brockway, 76, of Vacaville regaling a man across the aisle with a tale that seems made up, given the vast infrastructure before us.

“We came through here 50 years ago, and all this was free,” he says. “I mean, this wasn’t here. You could just drive up and look out into the canyon. No one stopped you. You paid nothing.”

The Grand (Canyon) Tour

Each year, nearly 5 million visit the Grand Canyon National Park, and thousands more make a trip to the Skywalk at the West Rim, run by the Hualapai Indians. The Bee recently visited the three most popular Grand Canyon destinations and provides a primer:

  • Today: Grand Canyon West Skywalk
  • July 26: South Rim
  • Aug. 2: North Rim

If you go

Grand Canyon West Skywalk

  • Cost: $43.42 (ranch and observation points); $80.94 (includes Skywalk); $337.49 (VIP; tour guide, lunch, gift); Other offerings: helicopter rides: $202; horse ride along rim ($37-$81)
  • More information: grandcanyonwest.com; (888) 868-9378
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