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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We start a road trip this morning that will take us to some of the most spectacular places on Earth. We're talking about America's national parks. There are nearly 400 of them covering mountains and deserts, glaciers, swamps, and city blocks. All this week, NPR will be visiting some of those parks, and our first stop, the Grand Canyon in Arizona. As NPR's Ted Robbins reports, some of the people who work there are as memorable as the scenery.

TED ROBBINS: In peak season, summertime, it takes about 6000 people just to keep Grand Canyon National Park running. None of them looks or sounds like he belongs here more than Casey Murph. Picture a skinny Yosemite Sam, right down to the thick red mustache. He manages the park's south rim mule operation. At 7:30 every morning, Murph and his cowboys take about four dozen mules to a corral next to the Bright Angel trailhead. There, the mules wait while he spends 45 minutes warning visitors who about to ride.

Mr. CASEY MURPH (Manger, Grand Canyon Nation Park Mule Operation): I don't recommend this to you if you're scared to death of heights. Fact is, if you're scared to death of heights, you will freak out. And when you freak out, your mule thinks you have a good reason for freakin' out, and then your mule freaks out, too.

ROBBINS: Now, keep in mind, the riders have come from all over the world, some booked their trip a year in advance, and a few, like Ken Burkhart, even went on a diet to meet the 200-pound weight limit.

Mr. KEN BURKHART (Visitor to Grand Canyon National Park): So I dropped about 25, 26 pounds, because we knew we were going to come on this trip. So it's a good motivator.

ROBBINS: Unlike Casey Murph's lecture, which is designed to unmotivate the weak willed.

Mr. MURPH: Folks, I don't know what you might be expecting from this. I hope that you are not imagining a pony ride at Disneyland. This is not the easy way to see the canyon, folks. There is no easy way to see the canyon.

ROBBINS: It's a narrow winding trail down, and mules, he says, don't like surprises.

Mr. MURPH: When your mule sees that rock that wasn't there yesterday, he is certain that rock was put there by the Grand Canyon mule eating troll and will not pass it. Unless, you stay close to the mule in front of you, when he looks ahead all he can see is another mule's rear end.

ROBBINS: Are you nervous?

Unidentified Woman #1: Yep?

Unidentified Woman #2: Definitely.

Unidentified Woman #1: Scared, I'm more scared.

Unidentified Woman #2: I am.

ROBBINS: But that won't stop Jenna Michael(ph) or anyone else from going today.

Ms. JENNA MICHAEL (Grand Canyon National Park Visitor): This is a once in a lifetime event. Do it and get a chance to do something like this is pretty awesome.

ROBBINS: The fact is, there's never been a fatality on these rides. The mules don't want to fall any more than the riders. With an expert eye, Murph matches them up.

MR. MURPHY: I look at people's eyes, and if they're scared, then I'm going to try to give them a mule that's going to take care of them. But if they look like they're confident, well then I'll take that into consideration too. Ornery little boys, they're going to get these ornery mules, you know.

ROBBINS: Around 9:00 a.m., the riders finally head down the trail. By 10:00 a.m., the day crowd is arriving at the park entrance station, six lanes of cars and buses. Ranger Sandra Brief(ph) stands in a kiosk taking money from drivers.

Ranger SANDRA BRIEF (Grand Canyon National Park Ranger): Here's $25. Good day to you. And the first viewpoint is five miles straight ahead.

Unidentified Woman #3: Thank you.

ROBBINS: That viewpoint would be Mather Point, almost always crowded. The view, of course, is spectacular here even though you can barely see the Colorado River at the bottom. The canyon is up to 18 miles wide and more than a vertical mile deep. It's hot at the bottom, cooler on the rim where it's not desert, but a tall evergreen forest. Few visitors realize that among those evergreens is a small city with city rules.

Ranger ANGELA BOYERS (Grand Canyon National Park Ranger): That was a stop sign that you did not stop at. And that was a school zone that you were speeding through.

ROBBINS: Ranger Angela Boyers writes the driver a traffic ticket. Yes, there's a school here, and churches, a cemetery, even an impound lot holding cars that have seen the usual and not so usual mishaps.

Ms. LAURIE TUTTLE (Supervisor, Grand Canyon Emergency Dispatch Center): Obviously the green one was an accident. I believe that was an elk and a rollover after hitting the elk. This was a stolen vehicle out of Mississippi. The one with a bike rack on the back was actually the girls' basketball coach, and he got busted with methamphetamine.

ROBBINS: How often do people fall in?

Ms. TUTTLE: The accidental trip and falls into the canyon are very rare.

ROBBINS: That's Laurie Tuttle. She supervisors the Grand Canyon Emergency Dispatch Center. She pulls out a book, Grand Canyon Fatality Log. Most of the entries are heart attacks, but up to a half dozen people every year commit suicide at the Grand Canyon, usually by jumping in.

Ms. TUTTLE: The most interesting fatality that sticks out in my mind, if I can find it here, is the gentleman who jumped out of the helicopter.

ROBBINS: This was a scenic helicopter ride?

Ms. TUTTLE: Yes.

ROBBINS: By far though, the most common medical problems are on the trail in summer. A string of heat-related deaths ten years ago prompted the park service to start a program where rangers like Ian Buchanan hike the Bright Angel Trail below the rim carrying a medical kit and five liters of water, preventative search and rescue.

Ranger IAN BUCHANAN (Grand Canyon National Park Ranger): So if that's all the water you've got, you can probably use some more. You want some? I've got some.

Unidentified Man: Sure.

Ranger BUCHANAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of water pouring)

Ranger BUCHANAN: We get a lot of people who are unprepared for the elements, who don't go in with enough water, enough food, or enough preplanning to know how long their trip is and how hot it's going to be.

Is it harder than you thought it would be, or... Do you think you prepared well enough?

Unidentified Woman #4: Well I - you know, I didn't do anything. I sit in a chair all day at work and smoke two packs a day, so for the circumstances, I'm doing pretty damn good.

ROBBINS: The park services estimates only one percent of its visitors ever make it to the bottom. Only ten percent even go below the rim. By early evening, the red rocks are turning orange in the setting sun. Families are at dinner, and couples sit on benches looking out at the view.

Ranger DAVID SMITH (Grand Canyon National Park Ranger): As you're coming through here, cool air is cooling this area…

ROBBINS: At 10:00 p.m. Ranger David Smith is leading a moonlight nature walk at Mather Point for 300 people. He has to use a portable microphone.

Ranger SMITH: …we're going to go about four or five minutes to the next stop. Is everyone doing all right?

Crowd: Yes.

Ranger SMITH: Okay, excellent, that's what I want to hear. Let's have some fun.

ROBBINS: By close to midnight, the crowd has thinned. Those left, Smith says, start to reflect.

Ranger SMITH: You know, they've never really thought about why we have parks. They know that it costs the government a lot of money to maintain these things, so why do they have them? They come in and they go, wow, that's why they have them, so I can actually think about things, and I can think about my place in this world and what am I doing in this world?

ROBBINS: Some visitors stay here only a few hours, others a few days. Some of the people that work here, stay a summer, others for decades. They are the ones with the time to not just see Grand Canyon National Park, but to experience it.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And if you want to see the smallest national park, or the largest, you can take an audio slide show tour at NPR.org. Tomorrow, national park officials battle thieves who try to steal artifacts.

(Soundbite of music)

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