Riding the mules at Grand Canyon is not a pony ride, but well worth the journey



GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK — They were just a couple of greenhorns from Pittsburgh, but the Kolb brothers knew the greatest photo op in the West when they saw it.

It was 1902. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway had just begun service to the Grand Canyon. The Kolbs gaped at the South Rim and bought the only photo studio for miles around. Then they set up shop at the head of the Bright Angel Trail, snapping tourists on muleback.

Then as now, the saddled-up tourists and their mules would clip-clop down the switchback trail into the vast chasm, denying vertigo, approaching infinity.

By the time those tourists returned that night to the rim, the Kolbs would have prints to sell them — proof of the travelers' valor and the canyon's desolate beauty, all in one frame.

An empire was born, as was one way of seeing the Grand Canyon.

If you show up on the South Rim in 2015, as Los Angeles Times photographer Mark Boster and I did recently, you have to wonder what the Kolbs would say. The mules still clomp down the hill, tourists fidgeting in their saddles. The Kolb studio, grown to a five-story structure, still stands with an odd, smallish window on its west wall, facing the trail. For more than 65 years, that's where the photographer, usually Emery Kolb, snapped the group shot of the mule riders, including former President Teddy Roosevelt and his group in 1911.

But nobody works that window now because we tourists have our smartphones, GoPros, DSLRs and tripods. Instead of letting somebody frame the canyon for us with a piece of pricey equipment, we can do it ourselves — if only that guy with the selfie stick would move a few feet.

Over our four days at the canyon in March, we spent lots of time dodging selfie sticks, thinking about image makers and chasing images ourselves.

We rose in bitter-cold darkness to catch sunrises at the Bright Angel trailhead and Mather Point (which loses color and gains crowds as the day goes on). We lingered in a stiff breeze for a Mohave Point sunset, hoping a miracle gap might open in the wall of clouds. (It didn't.)

We squinted and cheered through a golden sunset at Desert View, where the river is visible at the bottom of the canyon. And we eavesdropped at the mule stables while guides saddled up the morning's riders.

"This is not a pony ride at the county fair," a guide told the rookies one morning. "Two hours from now, you're all going to be crippled. Except the kids."

Actually, we eavesdropped in a lot of places.

"My thumb's so numb I can't text," complained one shivering man at Mather Point.

"Obviously, in New York, they don't know what ‘RV parking' means," said a peeved woman, confronting a BMW (with East Coast plates) in the wrong part of the Visitor Center parking lot.

"I've done a lot of hiking, and my fear of height has pretty much gone away," said Casey Hinson of Houston as he posed on a small ledge above a deep chasm.

I never hiked down more than 1ᄑ miles below the canyon rim, but I probably spent five hours on the Bright Angel Trail (using crampons, because there was still plenty of ice). The view was almost paralyzing, and it changed with every step. As I trudged and lingered, I imagined Emery Kolb, 5 feet, 2 inches and full of cantankerous energy, shouldering past me.

Emery was the younger brother. Biographer William C. Suran writes that he was shrewd, scrappy and 21 when the business was born. (Ellsworth, adventurous and easygoing, was 26. He arrived first, in 1901.)

In the early years of the studio, after Emery snapped the tourists at the trailhead with a 5-by-7 camera, he would hike 4ᄑ miles down the trail to Indian Garden, halfway to the canyon floor. Why? Because it had the nearest running water, and that's where his rustic darkroom was set up. Once his negatives were processed and prints were made, Kolb would rush back up the trail to beat the returning tourists.

That routine might seem enough to keep a photographer busy. But in the fall and winter of 1911-12, the Kolbs got hold of an early movie camera and decided to film themselves following the long, death-defying route of John Wesley Powell's first descent of the Colorado River. Starting on the Green River in Wyoming, passing through the canyon and finishing at Needles, Calif., the two (with two helpers at different times) spent 101 days on the river, surviving hundreds of rapids.

Spliced together, their footage amounted to the first motion picture showing the Grand Canyon — and it may have kept the company afloat. In 1914, the Santa Fe Railway and the Fred Harvey Co. had architect Mary Colter build a rival photo studio to grab the Kolbs' business. But the brothers counterpunched. They added an auditorium to their studio and in 1915 started screening their movie nightly, with live narration. It was a hit.

Ellsworth moved to Los Angeles and sold his share of the business in 1924, but Emery continued to photograph the mule strings through the window and narrate the film nightly. He lived in the studio building with his wife, Blanche, and their daughter, Edith.

Edith grew up and Blanche died in 1960, but Emery stayed at it. As late as 1969, at 88, he was still shooting two mule strings a day. By late 1976, when Emery died at age 95, the film had been running nightly for more than 60 years, and Kolb had photographed an estimated 50,000 mule strings. (If you caught the Grand Canyon parts of Ken Burns' 2009 PBS series on the national parks, you may have seen some of his footage.) Meanwhile, the cliff-clinging Kolb building had surpassed 50 years of age, which officially made it part of Grand Canyon history.

Now the Grand Canyon Association uses it as a gallery and gift shop (still in competition with the Lookout Studio down the path). The old auditorium is filled with an exhibition on the Kolbs.

Its private residential rooms are "too delicate" for frequent tours, studio manager Robb Seftar said, but he was willing to show me around, including the room with the view where Emery Kolb often lay in his last months and the little window where he used to take the mule-string shots. We also prowled around the adjacent darkroom, built to succeed the one at Indian Garden. It was still full of the photographer's tools.

This a strange thing to admit after four days in panoramaland, but the Grand Canyon location that lingers most vividly in my senses today is the little window and the cramped, viewless darkroom where Kolb framed the canyon for so many American travelers. At least 40 years after the old man developed his last picture, it still smells of fixer.

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