Friday, March 30, 2007

People in Glass Skywalks: Another Look at the Grand Canyon

 As anyone who's driven around some of the farther reaches of this country knows, native Americans got stuck with some pretty darn bleak places when they were put on reservations. So at least the Hualapai Indian Tribe got something scenic. They make their home at the edge of the Grand Canyon.  Unfortunately for the Hualapai, at least in terms of tourist dollars, they're on the other edge of the Canyon, about 90 miles away from Grand Canyon National Park, with it's RVs, postcards, and donkey treks.

And now they're trying to cash in on their location, location, location, by putting up a glass skywalk that juts 70 feet out over the Canyon and let people look down, look way down, look straight down: 4000 feet.

I will not, to put it mildly, be standing in line to get this particular looks. Like a goodly proportion of the population, I have a fear of heights. It's not a stupefying fear: I am generally comfortable in tall buildings, have no fear whatsoever of flying, and don't mind getting up on a ladder (within reason).

However, the thought of walking out on a glass skywalk over the Grand Canyon gives me the complete heebie-jeebies. 

Years ago, my husband and I were in the bar at one or the other of those mammoth Chicago skyscrapers - Sears or Hancock, I forget which one. We sat down and had ordered a drink when I decided it was high time to drink up and leave.  We weren't sitting right up next to a window, but too close for my personal comfort. The windows were all the way down to the floor. Check, please! I decided to use the ladies' room before we left, and I had to walk down a sheer glass corridor to get there.

Climbing up to the top of St. Peter's in Rome, I had a very difficult time on the cat-walk you have to go down to get to the dome of the basilica. I did make it through, but never made it to the top. (My husband suffers from claustrophobia and couldn't stand being in the dome. Probably just as well. If we'd gotten to the top, I'd have had a panic attack.

A couple of years ago, my brother Tom and his wife, who live in Flagstaff Arizona, took me to one of the canyons where you can climb down and see the adobe houses. I took a couple of steps down into the canyon and beat a quick retreat.

Even reading about heights can cause me to feel physical apprehension. Reading about aerialist Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers caused me to freak out. Thinking about it now still makes me feel a bit queasy.

So, I would not be a candidate for the Hualapai Skywalk.

But just who would be?

Here's how AP writer Chris Kahn described it in an article I saw a week or so ago in the Boston Globe,

The deck is anchored deep into a limestone cliff. As people walk across it, the glass layers creak and the deck wobbles almost imperceptibly...When the wind blows, only the most daring visitors resist grabbing the steel rail to steady their knees...The observation deck has a 3-inch-thick glass bottom and has been equipped with shock absorbers to keep it from bouncing like a diving board as people walk on it.

What a marketer's dream!

Glass layers creaking. Deck wobbling. (Almost imperceptibly: love that qualifier.)

Not surprisingly, the "attraction" was built by one David Jin, a Las Vegas developer who such $30 million in to this,creaking glass and wobbling deck and all, "in hopes of creating a unique attraction on their section of the canyon." And in hopes of cashing in himself.

"The terms are confidential, but David will profit for the next 25 years from the Skywalk," said Steve Beattie, chief financial officer of the Grand Canyon Resort Corp., which oversees the tribe's tourist businesses.

Unique, indeed. One of the few times the word's been used appropriately.

The tribe will include access to the deck in a variety of tour packages ranging from $49.95 to $199.00. They'll allow up to 120 people at a time to look down to the canyon floor more than 4,000 feet below, a vantage point more than twice as high as the world's tallest buildings.

The tribe is, of course, trying to create a little more of a tourist industry for themselves, and you can't blame them, hoping to double their number of visitors to Grand Canyon West. (They currently average around 300,000 visitors.)

Good luck to the Hualapai. Good luck to David Jin - who I think is nuts, but to whom I must wish good luck since that will also translate into good luck for the Hualapai tribe, many of whom live in pretty dire poverty. Good luck to the marketers involved in this.

There are only so many people who are going to be willing to fork over big bucks for a bounce on the Skywalk.

I couldn't find any consistent figures, but I did read somewhere that up to 90% of all people suffer from some form of fear of heights. And I also read that babies develop it by the time their 7 months old. Smart babies! Sensitive babies. (They also develop a fear of men's faces at that same age. I think I grew out of that fear.)

Anyway, as much as I fear heights, I also fear that the Grand Canyon Skywalk marketers have a really hard sell ahead of them.

For starters, they should give their web site an update. Curiously, given that it was supposed to have opened for business the other day, it doesn't appear to have been touched in months. (There is enought there to give you a bit of a hint of what it's going to be like - and maybe give you a little motion sickness, while you're at it.) I propose that they set up a web-cam that lets people look those 4,000 feet down into the belly of the Canyon. On second thought, that might scare some of those all important tourists away. (I sure won't be watching.)

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