Lessons Learned the Hard Way: No. 23

30 10 2008

“No photos please, the Skywalk’s very shy…”   (Grand Canyon Skywalk, Arizona)

A perfect photo opportunity isn’t necessarily a perfect photo opportunity.


Leaving behind the bright lights and clanging slots of Vegas, we headed south past the Hoover Dam and through towns still advertising for one-horse. Trailing mighty clouds of dust, we bounced along rough desert roads dodging tumbleweed and cacti and rounding flat-topped mountains before finally arriving at a remote airstrip on the edge of the great void known as the Grand Canyon.


Having only one day to visit this wonder of the world, we had chosen against the scenic flights assuming they would stay well above the canyon and not guarantee a window seat, and instead thought the best photographs would be at the west rim and the newly-opened Skywalk. Upon arrival at the airstrip, we were transferred to buses to cover the last few miles to Eagle Point.


During the short journey the driver explained that the Skywalk was constructed of one million pounds of steel and had exceeded all engineering requirements by more than 400%. It could withstand winds in excess of 100 mph from eight different directions, an 8.0 earthquake and support 71 fully-loaded Boeing 747s – should they all just happen to be looking for a short semi-circular landing-strip jutting out of a cliff face 4,000 feet above the Colorado River.


The coach stopped near the incomplete visitor’s centre and like lemmings we all traipsed to the edge of the gorge and started snapping away furiously. There were no fences, but there was a very severe drop to the canyon floor below. Now, I’d say I’m pretty good at judging distances whether in feet, metres or football pitches, but trying to picture a drop of 4,000 vertical feet was a challenge. You can hear that it’s three Eiffel Towers, 711 Paris Hiltons, 12,000 Mars Bars or 40 centipedes all you like, but it’s still just a number….until you peer over the edge and watch microscopically-small helicopters fly past 3,000 feet beneath you!


The Skywalk shot out from the rim just to our left. It was a perfect horizontal arch that extended 65 feet from the canyon wall before looping back in and, apart from its support and a railing, was constructed entirely of 4-inch thick glass. As I eagerly strode forward I was already mentally formulating my photos and angles:


         A nice wide shot taken from a low vantage point to capture the view through the glass floor as well as the horizon through the glass wall and the vast desert sky above.

         A shot of my feet standing on the glass and the devastating drop beneath.

         A self-portrait lying on my back on the transparent floor as if falling through thin air…smiling non-chalantly, of course.

         A shot looking straight down between the Skywalk and the canyon wall using both as a frame.

         …and several thousand shots of the magnificent canyon itself.


We entered the Skywalk’s temporary visitor centre to be greeted by a large symbol of a camera with a line drawn through it. “No cameras allowed on the Skywalk” a security guard with a hand-held metal-detector announced, directing me to a wall of lockers.  I stammered my objection, but it was clearly pointless. It wasn’t the first time I had encountered something like this. Usually, there was an option to purchase a ‘camera pass’ or ‘video pass’ for an additional fee…or visitors could instead opt to buy over-priced photos at the gift shop. Believing I was being fleeced by yet another cynical tourist extortion, my back stiffened and I headed for the manager under a puff of indignant steam.


“We have to protect the glass floor”, she explained sweetly as my bubble of ire evaporated. “We’ve already had to replace several panes because of scratches” she added to rub it in. “But we do have photographers on the Skywalk who will be happy to take your photo for you” she finished, completely draining my resistance. I nodded, smiled meekly and relinquished my camera bag and creative independence.


The Skywalk was impressive although the thick glass made the drop rather surreal. The staff photographers were busy snapping and said the digital photos would be available at the gift shop. At least they were making an effort to accommodate disappointed visitors after unfortunately having to deny them their own photos, I mused. Having completed the circuit we were channelled into the gift shop. A helpful and selfless soul stood by a bank of computer screens eager to assist in finding and printing your own photo.


The pictures were nice and very similar to the angles I had envisaged. They had two packages on offer: a 5×7 of our favourite mounted in cardboard, or a memory stick containing all six photos they’d snapped of us, a few of their all-time favourites – plus a free coffee mug. The price?


“$29.99 for a single photo…or $107 for the memory stick and free coffee mug” he smiled ernestly.


I re-boarded the bus and returned to Vegas where the casinos at least say thank you before they steal your shirt.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan




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