Letter From Phantom Ranch: Meet the Man Who Lives at the Bottom of the Grand Canyon - Pacific Standard

Letter From Phantom Ranch: Meet the Man Who Lives at the Bottom of the Grand Canyon

Sjors Horstman has spent the last 30 years of his life at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as a volunteer for the National Park Service—one of the longest-serving volunteers in NPS history.
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The Colorado River is seen at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on April 20th, 2018.

The Colorado River is seen at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on April 20th, 2018.

More than six million people visited the Grand Canyon last year, but less than 1 percent of them descended the roughly 5,000 feet to Phantom Ranch, a lodge and ranger station on the canyon floor at the confluence of the Colorado River and Bright Angel Creek. Most of those people stayed only a day or two.

Sjors Horstman, however, has spent the last 31 years of his life at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as a volunteer for the National Park Service. As of April he'd logged 60,085 volunteer hours, an average of about 36 hours per week since 1987, making him one of the longest-serving volunteers in NPS history and a repository of firsthand knowledge of a place most people see only from a vertical mile above.

When I find Horstman on my first day at Phantom Ranch, he's back at the ranger station after spending the morning repairing a break in the pipeline that carries drinking water down from the rim. In spite of decades under desert sun, Horstman looks younger than his 62 years. His small, wiry frame is carved lean from hiking, and his graying black hair is tied back in a ponytail and tucked under a faded NPS baseball cap.

"When you work for the Park Service, it's like a firehouse," he says. "You have down time, and then all of a sudden you've got to go-go-go."

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support independent journalism in the public interest.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support journalism in the public interest.

His daily activities aren't all that different from a ranger's, and when you see him speeding down the trail in his khaki shirt and shorts, it's easy to mistake him for one. Every day is different and might involve hiking into the backcountry to rescue an injured hiker, treating a visitor for heat stroke, picking up trash in the campground, fixing wheelbarrows, showing kids the suckerfish currently spawning in the creek, or reassuring an outdoor novice that the hike back to the rim probably isn't going to kill him.

Horstman first visited the Grand Canyon on a summer road trip with his parents in the mid-1960s, and he recalls peering over the South Rim in the oppressive heat and thinking, "Only an idiot would go down there." He spent much of his twenties driving around Los Angeles as a television repairman, saving up to travel the world for months at a time. After quitting that profession, he proudly says, there was a two-year period during which he never spent a single night under a roof.

In the 1980s, while working on a whale census project based out of Los Angeles, he overheard two people discussing a search for volunteers to work on a data collection project in the Grand Canyon. He signed up to work for two summers on the North Rim and fell in love. In the following years, he went down to Phantom Ranch for a few three-month stints. Eventually a ranger told him he didn't necessarily have to leave.

"I never actually picked this place," he says. "It just ended up that way. Now I have trees that are quite big that I planted, and I have friends here, so now it's like the ranch is my family. Now that I've made a commitment to it, it's hard for me to leave. I have no desire to leave, actually."

Horstman lives in a sparse but comfortable room at the ranger station and receives a $15-per-day volunteer stipend for seven hours of work. Consumer options at the bottom of the Grand Canyon are slim, and while he used to do a bit of online shopping (buying mostly videos of concerts of some of his favorite bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson), he says he's cut back. About a decade ago, he saved enough to buy a used Toyota truck, which he sleeps in when he occasionally decides to hike out of the canyon to go camping or whale watching along the West Coast.

"It's kind of my house," he says. "Every ranger has one."

In the late afternoon, he takes me on his daily round of Bright Angel Campground, pointing out the blooming yellow mustard and brittlebush, more copious this spring than in many years. While reminding a young couple to pack their food away, he pauses mid-sentence to watch a small, golden bird in the tree above their heads. "I don't know what that is," he says to himself, and to them, "This is the time of year we see the birds coming back from the winter." They nod but don't turn to look for the bird.

Spending even an hour with Horstman makes you realize how much he sees that you don't. "He's always paying attention," ranger Elyssa Shalla tells me later, "whether it's the seasonal changes or noticing that a boulder came down the slope. No one else would notice that rock moved, but he notices."

Horstman admits that the sheer number of hours he's spent at Phantom Ranch has given him a familiarity with it that surpasses that of most rangers—they generally cycle in and out, coming down for a week or two before returning to the rim—but says he has never coveted their jobs.

The main building at Phantom Ranch.

The main building at Phantom Ranch.

"The rangers have to do reports and stuff, and being a volunteer, I don't have to do so much of that. I think that makes it so much nicer for me," he says. "I feel bad for them, because I can enjoy the canyon without that."

As Horstman continues walking me through the shady campground, he begins to describe the trees, perhaps his biggest and most permanent contribution to the park. He identifies the year he planted each of the dozens of ash, redbud, and mesquite trees that line the trail, explaining how he chose each seedling's location after years of observation about how and where that species proliferates naturally throughout the canyon. He waters them only for the first year or two and then leaves them to seek out their own water source, so they can survive after he leaves, barring some unforeseen natural disaster.

"All it takes is a big flood to take it all out," he says, with no trace of sadness or anxiety. "This is all a boulder field, so it's happened. But it could be thousands of years."

Horstman suspects that he'll stay at the ranch for another few years. Last year, a bout of knee pain reminded him that his body won't always be able to meet the physical demands of his post. He also wants to spend more time watching whales. But he appears unfazed by the logistics of such a major transition and speaks of it calmly, as if it were a shift in the canyon's wind.

"I think I'm too young to stress about those kind of things," he says. "I see people buying a house, and they're half my age, and I'm like: 'What are you doing? You're not ready to settle down.' Ten years from now, I'm only 72. Later on, maybe I'll come up with a base."

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support independent journalism in the public interest.

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