Nothing was recorded of the first impressions Black Canyon of the Gunnison made on Hollywood actors Debbie Reynolds and Harve Presnell when they arrived for filming scenes of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” in September, 1963. If the canyon’s power to move people was as intense then as it is today, perhaps it knocked them on their backsides.
It would be interesting to hear their perspective as they stood at Tomichi Point; the first overlook on the South Rim Drive. The movie musical presents a very upbeat story about a couple (Margaret and James Brown) who struggled in their relationship of the late 1800s between living a simple life in the wilds of Colorado and the high life of wealthy society in Denver.
The 1950s and ‘60s were a time when Hollywood actively made western films and scouts discovered the hidden gems of southwest Colorado, which provided spectacular backdrops for the big screen. You might know that the movie peaks near the end when Mrs. Brown is on the steamship Titanic.
Led by river rats Ed Nelson and Bill Musgrave, the film crew spent four days in July at East Portal for the opening scenes of the movie. Nelson was a community leader, but also shared a long-term relationship with the gorge. He fished, floated, hiked, and explored much of the canyon, from one end to the other. Over those years, I imagine the canyon furnished him with exhilarating moments as well as solace during struggles in life that we all end up having to face.
There is an interesting mix of attitudes from visitors who have been coming to the canyon in the days since the rim roads reopened from the COVID-19 closure. Some people are just looking for that exhilaration. Climbers, hikers, and anglers seem to want to primarily cut loose.
But equally important are folks who are looking for something deeper. They want a retreat from the unthinkable. They want to feel that life will be okay, and that sometime down the road the relationships that they have built through their lives will be restored as they were before the virus set in; or the economy tanked; or the world went crazy.
I talked with a young man from New Jersey whose grandparents fought wildfires in the west. He intended to see the glory of the land and natural processes through their eyes. His grandad died of COVID-19 six weeks ago.
A woman from New Mexico spent time in the quiet of the canyon sitting and reading during her hike on Oak Flat Trail. Tears were in her eyes from the insight she said she had gained.
A young Montana family visited the valley and canyon to see their heritage. He grew up in the area. Their young children met their great-grandparents; saw the fields and farm, the large scale of the land. Relationships endure.
Hollywood’s “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” got most of Brown’s life wrong. But the tension between the glitz and glamour, owning lots of stuff, a simpler way of living and seeing our lives in relationships between each other and the land is a viewpoint that reflects on us today.
When the Browns separate, the conflict seems to climax. Late in the film, Harve Presnell is at Tomichi Point and he sings a reprise of a song presented earlier in the show. He wrestles with changes in his world, but resolves to be unsinkable.
I walk to the canyon’s edge near Tomichi Point. There is a rock to sit on in the early morning. The air is still — the sky is soft. The sun gradually illuminates the canyon, reaching deeper into the crevices.
There is silence; a sovereign silence that comes only from the land. The view strikes out dozens of miles distant to far-away mountains in the San Juans. The quiet is deafening; no planes, no traffic, no engineered hum of our industrial world. The silence is all-encompassing and all-soothing; like balm for troubled souls. Here is the strength of the unsinkable.
The canyon, the mountains, the rivers, and the clear blue sky all have the capacity to move our hearts from the trappings of a material culture. There is might here that can restore our fractured spirits and heal the separations created by a virus we perhaps struggle to understand.
Tomichi Point is one of hundreds of places where we can find this power. You can seek this out, beyond the high energy activities of recreation, because this natural world can renovate your world. In this sense, you too can be unsinkable.
Paul Zaenger has been a supervisory park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park since 1993. Other park assignments include Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.