Skydiving virgin, Grand Canyon style

Skydiving virgin, Grand Canyon style

Up until a year ago I was a skydiving virgin. But I was not a Grand Canyon virgin. Before this gets awkward, let me explain.

IMG_9116I’m a hiker. I love the outdoors and exploring uncharted paths and blazing new trails. I’ve spent a significant amount of time in and around the Grand Canyon. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get to know the skies above Grand Canyon. At least not freefalling from 15,000 foot and reaching speeds of over 125 mph.

After my first jump, the tandem pilot told me skydiving is like deleting your mind. If only for a few seconds, your brain and body are in total overdrive and nothing can interrupt or break through those few heart stopping moments. IMG_8486Whoa buddy. Deleting your mind? Can we even do that? And, if so, why haven’t I tried it before?

Since we’re not all allowed to delete our minds every day, let me explain what it was like to skydive at the Grand Canyon.

It turns out I’m hooked. I love skydiving and what is better than skydiving above one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World? That doesn’t happen every day, unless you’re the tandem pilot, then it probably does.

To skydive the Canyon, you have to drive from either Flagstaff or Williams, a 50 to 80 mile one way trip. When you arrive in Tusayan, a small gateway town of 500 people located one mile outside of Grand Canyon’s gates, you’ll find a small state run airport. Paragon Skydiving operates a modest counter and storage area inside the airport. Paragon, is an international skydiving company operating drop zones around the world.

IMG_8479When I arrived, Paragon had me sign my life away, followed by a very thorough safety video. I was then suited up in a jumpsuit and taken to the runway where I climbed into a Cessna 206 airplane and prepared for take-off.

By the time we lifted off the runway I started to feel the butterflies in my stomach.  I promised myself I wouldn’t throw up I forgot to tell the pilot I get motion sickness so I focused on looking out the window where I got my first glimpse of the Canyon from the above. I almost entirely forget about those butterflies. For that kind of view, a few butterflies were totally worth it.IMG_8483

During the 15 to 20 minute flight along the South Rim, I got a spectacular view of the Canyon. I watched timeless layers of rocks, stacked in reds, browns and yellow pass by while the Colorado River snaked its way in an effortless dance through the geological wonder.

“It’s like looking at a painting,” said tandem pilot Owen Ross.skydiving views at the grand canyon

Ross has lost count of how many jumps he has. All he knows is that it’s well over 5,000. Originally from a small town outside of Melbourne, Australia, Ross has been skydiving since he was 19. He’s a seasoned pro and it shows. You know you’re with a professional when you’re ready to jump out of an airplane and the guy you’re strapped to can still make you smile. And he was right, it was like a painting. I couldn’t take my eyes off the Canyon. I didn’t want to.

Before I knew it, the plane was circling higher…staying well out of the restricted airspace over the Canyon. Paragon offers tandem only skydiving because Grand Canyon has some of the most restricted airspace in the U.S.

Suddenly it was time. The moment of truth had arrived. We sat on the floor of the plane and Ross pulled the harnesses tight. I gripped his leg trying to decide if it would be me, the adrenaline or Ross who projected us out of the plane.

“We’re going to do this together,” Ross said as he and I deliberately rolled up the canvas separating us from the open sky.  “Now, cross your arms and tuck your feet under the plane. Are you ready?”

Ready? Absolutely. Paragon only hires pros and before I had time to change my mind my feet were hanging outside the airplane and we were rolling forward in a somersault before straightening out and plummeting toward Earth, freefalling at 125 mph.

Mind deletion.

I couldn’t stop screaming. Not from fear, but from sheer, uninhibited pleasure. I felt like Superman, shooting toward Earth. Death and fear didn’t even enter my mind. For those 35 seconds of freefalling I felt free and I realized I was seeing the Canyon like I had never seen it before.

Grand Canyon is a natural wonder for a reason. Seeing it from the top, with the wind screaming by your face and your heart in your throat, is the only way to go.

After pulling the rip cord for our parachute I had another five to seven minutes under canopy to take it all in.IMG_7319

Landing at the airport was a breeze. At least Ross made it look that way.

“Trust the landing,” he said.

GOPR9436_0.06.26.19Skydiving doesn’t take a lot of guts. It takes trust. Trust in your tandem pilot, trust in your equipment and trust in your sanity 
 you don’t want to lose it when you’re free falling from 15,000 feet. As long as everything is operating smoothly, the odds of making it back to earth in one piece are pretty good.

It’s been said you have a more likely chance of getting struck by lightning than dying in a skydiving accident. Trust me on this, skydiving plus the Grand Canyon are two opportunities that don’t come along every day and I promise you don’t want to miss it.

Hiking heroes: saving lives and time

Hiking heroes: saving lives and time

untitled-3They can’t tell you to stop but they can give you some life-saving suggestions.

Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR) rangers are trained EMTs, whose job is to provide guidance on preventing self-injury and hiking smart on Grand Canyon’s trails. When you’ve decided you can’t take one – more – step, they’re there to help you make it to the top.

“It is scary down here and it should be. It’s serious.” Josh Weiner, Grand Canyon PSAR ranger.

Josh Weiner and Ashley Butts, PSAR rangers at Grand Canyon National Park take their job serious. They enjoy what they do – hiking Grand Canyon’s trails, talking to strangers, hanging out … all while calculating in their minds – determining if you are prepared for the hike in and more importantly the hike out.

“Everybody has a different tactic but we all have the same goal,” Butts said. “We are talking to people going down. We say hi to people going up but in my mind, if people are going up and they’re not on the side of the trail puking, they’re doing ok.”

Weiner agreed.

“There’s a big mental aspect down here (in the Canyon),” he said. “People are looking up at the walls and you’re feeling tired… and then we are there telling someone here are electrolytes, mix this in your water 
 it’s scary down here and it should be. It’s serious.”

I caught up with the two of them in August, for an article I was writing for Grand Canyon News. I wanted to get a first hand glimpse into what their job is all about. We hit the trail a little after 8 a.m.

We decided to go down the Bright Angel Trail on the Canyon’s South Rim. As we set out, hikers meandered down the trail, pausing for pictures and peering over the edge. A mule train rounded the corner and the guide gave a warning hello and directions to stand clear.

The corridor trails – the Bright Angel and South Kaibab are top priority for PSAR. Butts explained how the rangers and volunteers spend the majority of their time canvassing these trails. Other trails they patrol on a daily basis are the Hermit, Tonto and Grandview trails – all on the South Rim.

“A typical morning on the Hermit you see less than 30 people,” she said. “A typical morning on the Bright Angel you’ll see three or four hundred.”

untitled2As we hike they explain, what to me sounds like common sense, but what they say a surprising number of people don’t pay attention to when planning to hike the Canyon. Their first tip – get an early start.

“You can hike to Indian Garden if you’re going downhill early. But if you start now (9:30 a.m.) you’re going to be going uphill at noon and that’s just brutal,” Weiner said. “We encourage people to sit out that entire part of the day (hottest time, typically between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.).”

The people who start their hike super early in the morning they are not as worried about. It’s those who start late in the day, when the heat becomes unbearable and exhaustion sets in, that can later turn into a rescue.

In 2015 almost 29,000 preventative actions were carried out by PSAR rangers. These actions could be as simple as suggesting an alternative route or distance of a planned hike and handing out a package of Fritos. They could also be much more serious, where a PSAR ranger spends eight hours hiking out with a distressed hiker or providing basic emergency services until help arrives.

In 2015, PSAR made contact with 117,267 hikers, made 29,000 preventative actions to help a hiker and helped with over 350 hiker assists.

PSAR at the Canyon has been a jumping off point for other preventative operations in the NPS, including Yosemite.

“Grand Canyon’s PSAR program has been in existence for about 20 years now,” said Ben Cooper, PSAR supervisor at the Canyon. According to Cooper, in its infancy Grand Canyon’s PSAR was much less established until a spike in heat related incidents in the mid 1990s caused the NPS to consider the idea of getting rangers on the trails to assess situations before they turned into full-scale emergencies.

This is Butts second year as a seasonal PSAR ranger. PSAR offers an opportunity to do what she loves – put her EMT training to use and work outside.

untitled-5We pause and Butts asks an older man with a full pack and sweat drenched shirt and bandana how far he’s going.

“I’ve got a backcountry permit for Bright Angel Campground,” he responds, leaning heavily on his hiking poles.

Butts looks at him closely and gently explains it’s a 10 mile hike to the campground and how right now, the going down is the easy part. The hard part is coming up the trail, after you’re exhausted and filthy.

He nods, taking in what she’s telling him. A few minutes later he turns around and is headed back up the trail. Confirming that only a mile in, his knees are already aching and his pack is too heavy.

Butts and I make eye contact and I knowingly nod my head, silently agreeing with her – that could have turned into a bad situation.

We reached a good turn around point and ready ourselves for the uphill trek. On a daily basis Butts and Weiner each carry a hiking pack weighing between 25 to 35 pound, depending on how far down the trail they’re going.

untitledLater they dump their pack and show me what’s inside; a medical kit, radio, snacks – Fritos, Cheez-Its, Goldfish, an MRE (meals ready to eat), compass, GPS, electrolyte packages for water, two headlamps, tarp, hiking poles, spray bottle of water and personal food and water.

“You should always carry enough water for yourself, for the day (and) water is important but so is food,” Butts says as she explains the ‘Drink to Thirst’ which is new verbiage the NPS is using on trailhead signs around the park.

We continue on, the rim growing steadily closer. Hikers pass us and Butts and Weiner greet each of them with a friendly smile and a pointed question. Where are you headed today? How far are you going? How are you feeling?

“It’s hard to know how effective you are but it’s safe to say we are effective,” Weiner said. “It’s not a ridiculous assumption to say that one of these people would have died if they had gone on.”

“We have a big thing we call psychological first aid,” Butts adds. “Which is a huge part of job. We encourage people, help them get there in their head to be able to keep going. It’s a huge deal and I’d say most of the time when we’re called down trail for a hiker assist that’s what it is. They need someone to encourage them to make it and help them and be with them.”

untitled-4As we reach the trailhead Butts and Weiner head off, their packs full, their mission clear – saving lives and reminding visitors to stop and smell the roses.

ÂĄViva MĂ©xico! Dipping into Puerto Vallarta

ÂĄViva MĂ©xico! Dipping into Puerto Vallarta

DSCF3437mexico 35Mexico is a country of contrasts. It’s a sexy country – as most Latin American countries are. The women are unashamed of their full, curvy figures and the men whistle their approval in unabashed public displays of attention.

It’s true, there’s something to be said about the country itself – how it’s sizzling hot summer sun beams down on half naked bodies as they bake themselves golden brown on the sandy beaches of resorts and how it settles on the bent, brown backs of laborers making steady stops to peddle their wares day by day to those same scantily clad bodies. At the end of the day, tourist and laborer dream of Corona, ceviche and top shelf margaritas. mexico 23

Yes, Mexico is full of contrasts, which is half of its charm and one reason it has always been close to my heart. Either that or growing up a few hundred miles from the border has made me dream of the country below ‘the wall’ more than once.

DSC00185
The Wall built along the U.S./Mexico border to dissuade illegal immigration and activity. There is around 2,000 miles of border between the U.S. and Mexico.

 

Mexico has more than one scene, which is all dependent on where you visit – there’s the dirty border crossings which separate the U.S. and Mexico. These crossings can make your skin crawl and is one reason tourists can be easily deterred from visiting. With border guards carry Ak – 47s and watching you like you might be smuggling next year’s supply of coke into the U.S., it makes you think that maybe you should have listened to your parent’s advice and road tripped through New Mexico because, ‘it’s practically the same place.’

But if you’re smart and willing to go further into Mexico, it is a country full of surprises. mexico 25Once you get past the border (take a plane, it’s safer and easier!) You’ll find a world of bronzed bodies, toothy smiles, delectable margaritas and flavor popping Dos Equis waiting to be explored.

mexico 5
One of the top tourist destinations in Mexico is Puerto Vallarta, a resort town on Mexico’s Pacific coast. As a tourist destination it’s got a lot going for it. There are any number of adventure tours that will take you high into the tropical canopies to go ziplining or take a horseback riding adventure. The ocean is a steady presence and offers whale watching, swimming with dolphins, snorkeling, parasailing, sea kayaking and sailing. There’s no end to historical and cultural tours to nearby mountain towns including San Sabastian, a two hour drive that lets you explore the countryside. The lazy beach town of Las Caletas gives you the opportunity to hone your surfing skills or take lessons and try surfing for the first time. Of course a number of walking tours let you discover the city on foot.

For the adventurous I suggest going to a public beach and getting your feet wet with the locals. Dive into the food! Make sure you try Pescado Vallarta – a melt in your mouth marinated fish I had at a beachside cafe during an afternoon at Mismoloya Beach. Fish Tacos and margaritas are always a must have and lucky for the tourist, Mexican’s know exactly what most tourists are after and are happy to oblige.

DSCF3574DSCF3605The tacos really are to die for. And if you spend very long in Puerto Vallarta you’ll find your way to the MalecĂłn, a 12-block, mile-long boardwalk of beachfront properties. The MalecĂłn is a shoppers paradise, a foodies dream and a boozers haven. DSCF3588DSCF3536DSCF3879DSCF3890It offers a little for everyone. During the day the MalecĂłn and all of Puerto Vallarta is a bustling city filled with life – tourists lying stateside of luxury pools outside manicured beaches while locals hustle to make a peso, urging their children out the doors of their casitas. It’s a city and a country of contrast, with tourists hidden behind marbled floors and ceilings and locals looking out for their own.

The city itself is a municipality in the state of Jalisco, a western Mexican state known for its mariachi music and tequila. It’s said both originated in Jalisco.

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When visiting Puerto Vallarta – or anywhere, really, it’s always smart to get outside your comfort zone, throw around some words in the local dialect and try and make a few new friends. That’s where you’ll find the true heartbeat of the city and see where it’s pulse starts. You’ll have a much truer sense of exactly what the country and culture are.

When you get up early to see the sunrise over the ocean you might be lucky enough to see a fishermen get the jump on the first catch of the day. If you’re really lucky you might get invited to be a guest and share a meal or a cerveza in a neighbor’s home. That’s where the magic happens – watching or helping put a pot of frijoles on the stove to soak or using car rims to barbecue carne asada and pork for tacos.

It’s worth it to spend time away from the beach and glamour of what most tourists experience to get a deeper look at authentic Mexico. Who knows, maybe you’ll spend your birthday in a new friend’s casa and have a birthday party and a haircut in the living room all in the same afternoon. mexico 50 mexico 19 mexico 36

Like much of Mexico, Puerto Vallarta is full of contrasts. It is a city boasting of relaxation and pampering on one corner and a city of everyday complexities on the next. mexico 28mexico 10mexico 22 mexico 21mexico 3DSCF3811mexico 30DSCF3703mexico 2mexico 39

Making my passion my paycheck

Making my passion my paycheck

IMG_7944All weekend I absorbed the discussions, the pictures and the dramas that unfolded. They played out before me in the form of short films, interviews, photographs and conversations.

The weekend was heavily laden with information – which I had anticipated. What I had not predicted was the footprint it would leave in my subconscious or the light bulb moment I would experience.

For the last 14 years Flagstaff has held its annual Mountain Film Festival and this weekend I attended many of the films, coffee and bar talks and spent time conducting interviews and networking. One of my interviewees was a filmmakers who does truly spectacular work. His company, 4cornerfilms, helps with logistics, planning and production for film companies like the BBC, HBO and National Geographic. Any company who wants to work in logistically challenging and particularly hazardous parts of the world – including and specializing in the Grand Canyon.

IMG_7906I also met several renowned Grand Canyon artists, National Geographic correspondents and photographers and many local filmmakers. The topics of the films were fairly diverse with all of Saturday night’s films highlighting various aspects of the Grand Canyon.IMG_7904

 

 

It was an enriching experience and an event that should be attended with someone who enjoys discussing politics, the environment and has an appreciation for the talent of those behind the lenses, pens and brushes of the event.

There is such passion at film festivals. It come deep from within the artists and the works they create.

This film festival was extremely politically charged since many filmmakers and high profile guests were focusing on developments and uranium mining that is encroaching on the Grand Canyon.

IMG_7931It was heavily environmental and liberal, with little to no conservative or right wing views expressed. To each their own.

However, one of the things that struck me over the course of the weekend was the passion, creativity, depth and devotion the artists put into their causes and their work.

IMG_7894I realized it’s the kind of passion I want to have in my walk with Jesus Christ. He is my passion, He is my cause. He is my savior. He deserves to have all of my devotion and passion.

All weekend as I absorbed the discussions, the pictures and the dramas that unfolded before me I thought about the time and energy everyone has given the Grand Canyon.

As much as I love the Canyon I still see it as just a landmark.IMG_0025

Is it grand and majestic beyond adjectives? Yes. Should we should protect and preserve it? Absolutely. That’s our job as stewards of this earth. But what if all the energy and passion that is given to one of the world’s most remarkable landscapers could be focused on humanity and saving souls and doing the work of the son of God?

Can you imagine the lives and people that would be impacted?

What I slowly came to realized is that the idea that has slowly grown stronger inside me each year is a passion for Jesus Christ.

I want to filter – nay capture, that same intensity and passion the filmmakers and artists and activists put into their causes and use it for Christ’s benefit. I want to use it and make it my work.

I want the one life I have to live to be about our Creator and His cause.

I want to take the opportunities and talents I have and turn them into movements. I want people to be passionate and excited about the savior of the world. I want to share hope and Christ’s story in jails and prisons, in foreign countries, to the displaced and the discarded of the world. To those who are seeking answers and to those who don’t know yet that they need answers.

I want to serve God with my talents and I want to have the passion and the faith to follow Him fearlessly.

braceletsGod gives us talents and desires. Mine is to write and to travel and live fearlessly. I believe God already has and will continue to turn my passions into my paychecks.

Because that’s what He does. He has a plan. We (you, me, all of us) have to trust Him and remember that He has a plan.

……….for now and for me, that looks like my daily and weekly life right here in northern Arizona. Which brings challenges of its own.

For those seeking to make your passions into something more, I encourage you to lean into what you desire and dream about and pursue it with your whole heart.

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” Ralph Waldo Emerson 

 

For those wanting to turn their passion for Christ into more than just idleness, I encourage you to walk close to Christ and He will give you guidance. Learn to listen and when you hear from God, don’t be afraid to be passionate. Speak up, speak out and live boldly for Jesus Christ.