I was told to check my tires, fill up my gas tank and allow plenty of time just in case I found myself in a predicament. I was also told I needed a high clearance vehicle. I didn’t think they knew what they were talking about – they did.
Tuweep overlook lies along the western edge of Grand Canyon National Park. Between Fredonia, Az. and St. George, Utah off Hwy. 389. If you’re not looking for it, you can drive right past the turn. When I had stopped by the North Rim’s backcountry ranger station to ask for directions the ranger had told me, “You look for the billboard advertising tire repair, its good placement, since you’ll probably need one after going out there.”
He had eyed my two-wheel drive Isuzu Hombre pickup with a raised eyebrow. Despite his concerns, his enthusiasm was genuine, it was obvious he loved Tuweep.
I found the turn, crossed the first of many cattle guards and settled in for the long drive. Tuweep is a section of the Grand Canyon rarely visited – at least in comparison to the more popular North and South Rim National Park entrances. This could be in part because of the 61 miles of dirt road crossing ranch lands, BLM, tribal lands and turn offs for regional uranium mines. Those who make their way to the overlook are primarily the adventurous, the brave and perhaps the naïve.
The surrounding countryside is worth the two to three hour drive. There is nothing quite like the glow of the desert after the summer rains. The area has been designated a day use only area, those planning an overnight or extended stay need to purchase a backcountry camping permit from the park, prior to driving to Tuweep. For this trip, I was not planning to camp, I was on assignment – to find out more about the volunteers and the ranger who call Tuweep home.
Somewhere around the fifty-four mile mark I reached the sign marking the entrance to the portion of the Canyon encompassing Tuweep. The sign stated ‘Day use only, area closed and entry prohibited 30 minutes after sunset until sunrise.’
Another mile down the road the ranger station positioned itself in front of me. A tall, lanky man wearing a broad hat and park volunteer badge watched my approach from the shade of the garage door. The sun bore down on us…it was hot.
A few minutes later I found myself sitting in the open garage, surrounded by an air compressor, tire jack and a variety of other tire repair tools. In the far corner a dirt bike rested on its kickstand – waiting to be put to use.
Stewart Smythe a park volunteer from Moab, gave me a serious look as I asked about the tire repairs and motorcycle.
“We do a lot of tire repairs – fixing flats, patching holes,” Smythe said.
I nodded back seriously, glancing at the clock – 3 o’clock.
“How many visitors have you had today?” I asked.
“You’ll be my third visitor today,” he said.
It had been two years since Smythe started volunteering at Tuweep. His leathered skin and piercing eyes exuded the confidence of a veteran backcountry outfitter. He was comfortable with his surroundings, which at that moment included a lot of open area and a small volunteer cabin he stayed in.
Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Smythe moved to the west coast in 1977.
“My first trip out west was as a passenger on a river trip,” he said. “I fell in love with the Grand Canyon, quite my job back east and moved out west to be a river guide.”
In 1985 he moved to Moab, where he worked as a jeep guide in Canyon Lands and Arches National Parks.
An adventurer, explorer and backcountry hiker Smythe discovered, upon retirement, he could live off his social security, without touching his savings. He wanted to return to the Canyon and checked nps.gov to see what kind of volunteer opportunities the park offered.
“My first love has always been the Grand Canyon,” Smythe said. “When I went to nps.gov, I looked and saw these vegetation programs. I signed up for a couple of those and last year they had one that was a week here at Tuweep. I had always wanted to come here, but never did. As soon as I saw the place, I was hooked.”
After talking to Tuweep’s park ranger, Todd Seliga, Smythe spent the month of July at Tuweep.
“Volunteering here, you have to be more independent,” Smythe said. “Just because you want to be a volunteer here, doesn’t mean you’ll make a good fit.”
As the only backcountry ranger for the western half of the Grand Canyon, Seliga is selective of his volunteers. They need to have day-to-day skills, top-notch communication and creativity in order to handle every situation that arises at Tuweep.
“People skills are huge, the ability to talk to folks and keep calm,” Seliga said. “One of my volunteers is a retired teacher…they’re able to deal with all types of situations, because you never get the same thing twice – everything you kind of have to scratch your head.”
Usually about twice a year, in the fall, Seliga will have volunteers work on bigger projects at Tuweep. This year he hopes to have volunteers help with painting and litter clean up on about 250 miles of roadway.
Having volunteers – long and short-term at Tuweep is essential for Seliga. In addition to his duties at the ranger station, he patrols the western half of the park – around 500,000 acres. Being in communication with the park and his volunteers allows him to spend time in the field and attend to essential backcountry duties.
Smythe is familiar with the area and the importance of communicating and working with Seliga. For Smythe and Seliga, facilitating the experience of every visitor to Tuweep is important.
“The whole volunteer program is so essential to Grand Canyon,” Seliga said. “I always appreciate the great work they are always doing.”
In the hour I have spent talking to Smythe, three more vehicles have checked in at the station.
As I pulled away, heading down the last six miles to the area I’ve heard so much about I wonder at the beauty and consider the great responsibility Seliga and all volunteers at Tuweep and the Grand Canyon have.