Pacific Standard | 9/20/2018 | Jessi Phillips
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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 - Years - Life - Bottom

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.

Park - Service - Firehouse - Time - Go-go-go

"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 journalism in the public interest.

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