That Time John McCain Showed Me Around the Grand Canyon

Remembering a softer side of the late senator from Arizona

In this 2016 file photo, Sen. John McCain gets a kiss from his wife Cindy at the urging of the fiddle player as part of the entertainment on the train from Williams, Ariz., to the Grand Canyon Wednesday. (Daniel A. Anderson for CQ Roll Call)

I visited the Grand Canyon with John McCain.

It would be hard to overstate how many times I have said that sentence over the last weeks and months, as it became clear that the Republican senator from Arizona who died Saturday didn’t have much time left.

When we were preparing coverage of the 2016 national conventions, I was assigned to chase a Republican senator facing re-election in 2016 who decided to stay away from Cleveland, Ohio, and the celebration surrounding the nomination of Donald Trump.

I was assuming I’d be spending a lovely midsummer week in New Hampshire trying to track down then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte. But one day I saw McCain in the basement of the Capitol, and plans changed. He said he planned to visit the Grand Canyon and invited me along for the ride.

The Grand Canyon? I had never been to the Grand Canyon.

And it was classic McCain. In an era where it has become increasingly difficult to plan travel to cover congressional races because so many candidate schedules are opaque, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, two-time presidential candidate and American icon had no issue with having national media follow him to basically the farthest place from Capitol Hill imaginable.

A freelance photographer and I met up with McCain and his campaign in Flagstaff early in the convention week, hitting a mix of official and campaign events, including a stop to meet and greet college students from across Arizona interning on his 2016 campaign.

After an event the next morning in Williams, Arizona, it was time to take the tourist train to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. McCain and his wife, Cindy, were gracious to the many visitors from across the country, even some from Washington, D.C.

And they were beyond gracious to me. There’s another version of the photo below out there somewhere with me standing next to McCain, on the back of that train. I think it might have been on the senator’s phone.

A McCain staffer prepares to tweet an image out of United States Senator John McCain and his wife Cindyas they ride the train to the Grand Canyon out of Williams, Arizona Wednesday morning. (Photograph by Daniel A. Anderson)
A McCain staffer prepares to tweet an image out of Sen. John McCain and his wife, Cindy, as they ride the train to the Grand Canyon. (Daniel A. Anderson/CQ Roll Call file photo)

McCain spent a part of the train ride reading the day’s Wall Street Journal, where the front page news was about Trump formally receiving the nomination in Cleveland.

During the trip I would ask enough about why he was not at the convention to write stories and meet deadlines.

The day before the Grand Canyon trip, McCain was being pressed for reaction to the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the convention stage, for instance.

But the canyon has a way of swallowing up the political whirlwind. Even though its South Rim was packed with crowds of people from across the United States and around the world, almost no one mentioned the events in Cleveland, other than members of the media.

When Trump’s name was mentioned at all, it was noticeable, like when a man named Jose Campos of New Mexico mentioned the RNC when he saw McCain in a gift shop.

There was a private tour of the Kolb Studio, in a house built into the side of the canyon itself, and there was McCain himself reminiscing about past hikes to Indian Garden.

Here was a man who twice ran for president, once winning the Republican nomination. A man who was a real-life American hero who endured the unspeakable in captivity in Vietnam.

Yet on a summer afternoon in 2016, with the eyes of the world watching the Republican Party nominate Donald Trump, McCain was content to talk about the beauty and majesty of the Grand Canyon, and to share it with anyone lucky enough to have made the trip that day.

Watch: A Look Back at McCain’s Congressional Career

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