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'Black George' Simmons, the Canyonlands Character

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

As many as 400,000 people will visit Canyonlands National Park in Utah this year. Some of them are going to get a special treat. They'll be lucky enough to go out with tour guide Black George Simmons, as reporter James Nelson did.

JAMES NELSON reporting:

A hearty, diminutive 82-year-old man with dancing eyes, a scraggly white beard, trousers and T-shirt that might have just finished a weeklong river run. As for his nickname, Black George Simmons, a vague response about his past, delivered with a smile.

Mr. BLACK GEORGE SIMMONS (Tour Guide): At 15, I played piano in a bordello in New Orleans. And at age 64, I was a stripper at the golden-age widows' club in Houston. Now in between, I've tended bar up in Boulder, Montana, I've spun a roulette wheel out in Eureka, Nevada.

Hello.

Unidentified Man #1: Hello.

Mr. SIMMONS: Where are you folks from?

Unidentified Woman #1: California.

Unidentified Man #1: Californ-I-A.

Mr. SIMMONS: Oh, a wash-back from the coast.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Mr. SIMMONS: All right.

Unidentified Man #1: The tidewaters took us all the way out here.

Mr. SIMMONS: OK.

NELSON: Since 1984, he's made the rounds as a volunteer in national parks: Big Ben, Bryce Canyon and Grand Teton. His favorite is Canyonlands, where he spent 10 years. For decades before that, he traveled the world with the US Geological Survey, discovering other people and cultures and perfecting his unique trademark salutation.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yee-haw.

NELSON: `Yee-haw,' he explains while steering his pickup through the red rock buttes of this desert park.

Mr. SIMMONS: I picked that up down in west Texas. There were not many--people are few and far between. Whenever you see a friend, usually you'll be going into town and it'll indicate that a party's shaping up or you're be meeting some friends, so I sort of adopted that. And I've used that all over the world, and people really like it.

NELSON: Simmons does more than greet guests. He also monitors the weather station at a spot in Canyonlands that he's dubbed Science Hill.

Mr. SIMMONS: I was just asking you if you knew about The Austin Lounge Lizards, a musical group in Texas. Well, they sing a song that goes: (singing) Acid rain keep on falling, for your name I am calling. I'm not to blame for placid acid rain.

NELSON: He measures air quality and precipitation, assists on search and rescue operations, and he checks on campsites and tourists on trails.

Mr. SIMMONS: What's your name? I bet I know your name.

Unidentified Child: Mmm...

Mr. SIMMONS: Yes, your name is--your name is Beautiful.

Unidentified Child: No. My name is ...(unintelligible)

Mr. SIMMONS: Howdy.

Unidentified Man #2: Hi, there.

Unidentified Woman #2: Hi.

Mr. SIMMONS: Boy, you guys must be from a mountain state. Look at you.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm sorry. I no...

Unidentified Woman #3: English.

Unidentified Man #2: ...English.

Mr. SIMMONS: Oh. (German spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (German spoken)

Unidentified Woman #2: (German spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (German spoken)

Mr. SIMMONS: (German spoken)

Unidentified Woman #2: (German spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: Bavaria.

Mr. SIMMONS: Bavaria. Munchen.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah!

Unidentified Man #2: Ah!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMMONS: (Singing in German)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMMONS: All right. Have a good time.

Unidentified Man #2: See you. Bye.

Mr. SIMMONS: People are proud about where they come from, and especially when they come over here in a great minority as a foreigner to find somebody that knows a little bit of their language. Anytime you can make a connection that's unique to these individuals, they pour themselves out. You've immediately got a lifetime friend.

NELSON: Black George shifts his truck into gear and heads down a twisting, steep, red dirt road. A spool of quarters slide back and forth, but not spilling out of a dashboard bowl. Like the wise old dog sniffing water, Simmons eyeballs the canyon floor below and the Green River, which he helped map in the 1950s. It's now one of the more popular float trips for outdoor enthusiasts.

Perched under a shade tree, a group of young river runners glances at Simmons as he ambles by. The more experienced boat team sees the old man of the river and takes note.

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, I'm Black George. I'm a volunteer ranger up here in the woods ...(unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #3: Oh.

Unidentified Man #4: Black George. I've heard of you before. I was reading about you in the paper. It's in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Mr. SIMMONS: Oh, I thought you'd been down at the post office.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #3: In the wanted posters?

NELSON: Near a quiet eddy on the Green River, Simmons reflects on his early days along this river.

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, here on the Green River is a special place. Actually, we started our 1956 expedition downstream about 15 miles from this spot. So I've always had a special spot in my heart for the Green River.

NELSON: Even at age 82, he believes he still has a lot to contribute.

Mr. SIMMONS: People gravitate towards older people who are a little bit active. I give them hope. They come out here and they see an old man who rappels over a cliff, who paddles a boat and so that's what I do. I try to give people hope, and I'm conscious of it.

NELSON: Adventurer, storyteller, impromptu classroom teacher in the grand open-air theater he calls home.

Unidentified Man #5: Well, let's head back and see what else we can...

Mr. SIMMONS: We should be heading back down, too, I think. So...

Unidentified Man #5: Thank you for sharing all your wisdom with us.

Mr. SIMMONS: All right. Thank you.

Unidentified Man #5: We appreciate it. Thank you all.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yee-haw.

NELSON: Black George Simmons, giving people a sense of place one `Yee-haw' at a time. For NPR News, I'm James Nelson.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick, and there's more to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

James Nelson
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