Notes from the edge of the wilderness
GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — On a warm, sunny New Year’s Day at Plateau Point, hikers noticed a tiny chair, table and old-fashioned typewriter perched precariously overlooking the Colorado River. Stop for a moment, it beckoned, and leave a message about what this moment in this place means to you.
The typewriter was placed at the point by interpretive ranger Elyssa Shalla, intended as a way to engage with visitors who don’t always attend ranger programs or special events. Shalla said it’s new way to look at how her department can enhance the visitor experience.
“Proportionally, a very small number of visitors are interested or have the time to attend ranger programs,” she said. “These little pop-up projects are a way to engage with visitors out in these more remote areas and get them thinking about this place and what it all means.”
The typewriter sat at Plateau Point for three days, during which time Shalla collected just under 80 messages. Some were long poems dedicated to the mighty Colorado River. Others were small dispatches, haikus and even documentation of a marriage proposal. Some pages are tidy, some are marked with evidence that very few of the writers had ever used a vintage typewriter.
Shalla said that’s part of why she chose it.
“Digital devices are really touch and go down here,” she said. “It’s not a place for technology.”
It is a place, however, for savoring the moment and considering time on a grander scale.
“When people come here, they’re in this moment,” Shalla said. “I wanted them to think, as they were looking out into the Canyon, about the vastly different scale of time and how little 20, 30, 40 years means in this place.”
The moments mean something different to everyone.
For Maia Hoffman, it’s a moment with her dad, and a reminder that the human body can do remarkable things.
“To me, this is a geologic pilgrimage and a reminder of what my body can do,” she wrote. “For all of this, I am grateful, especially because I get to share it with my dad.”
To others, it was a moment taking in one of the greatest wonders the world can offer.
“If life is like a box of chocolates,” wrote Tyler Mackenzie, “this must be the candy shop.”
Still others pondered their own lives in the absence of other human beings.
“Oh Colorado how do you feel?
Do you change color with the seasons?
Do you like your coffee black?
Do you get jealous?
Have you ever had a midlife crisis?”
After collecting the dispatches, Shalla combined them into a website for others to enjoy.
It’s novel, but it’s not the first project of its kind, and Shalla hasn’t ruled out placing the traveling typewriter elsewhere in the future.
Stationed in the inner canyon most of the time, either at Indian Garden or Phantom Ranch, Shalla said rangers have found many innovative ways to connect with hikers who have come a long way.
Indian Garden particularly is a small, literary hotbed, with a collection of more than 200 haiku poems left by visitors. It’s also home to an alphabet book, where children have left their own messages and drawings.
In the end, Shalla wants to bring a sense of wonder and connection to a place that it at once inconsolably lonely and at the same time a part of everyone who through its towering canyons.
“This is a place that’s just barely civilized, it’s not completely wilderness but it’s right there on the edge,” Shalla said. “For most people, it’s the closest they will ever get to true wilderness.”
A project site created by Shalla with more dispatches from Plateau Point can be found at https://spark.adobe.com/page/eFn3B4yJMriLa/.