Finding a confluence on the Bright Angel Trail

 

The young man who looked like he was from the Middle East was sitting against the wall of the Grand Canyon, a Go-Pro camera strapped to his chest. My aching quads begged for a break, so I stopped, said hello, and pulled out my own camera lest he think I was intruding. 

He had chosen a spot with an unobstructed view of the Grand Canyon’s multi-colored peaks, and I could look down and see, with more than a little satisfaction, several coils of the Bright Angel Trail that I had already climbed.

We made small talk, and then he surprised me. “Would you mind if I walked with you?” he asked.  “I think it would help me make it.” How could I say no?  We set off side by side and he told me his name was Shiraz. “Like the wine?” “Close enough.”

Shiraz was on a day hike, having walked down a few miles from the developed South Rim. I had finished a rafting trip just that morning and was hiking eight miles up from the Colorado River.

Shiraz told me he had driven from Toronto, the camera on his dashboard, taking photos every 10 seconds. He was raised Muslim, he said, converted to Christianity, and then lost faith in Christianity. That made him a fine hiking partner for me, a lapsed Catholic.

Shiraz said he was an engineer and asked what I did.  I told him I was a writer for a conservation organization. It was frustrating sometimes, I said, trying to communicate scientific information. I’d recently read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, so I spouted off about what social scientists call the “confirmation bias,” the tendency of the human brain to reject information that doesn’t conform to pre-existing beliefs and credit only that which does.

“That’s exactly why I gave up religion!” Shiraz exclaimed. “I realized I was only hearing what confirmed my beliefs.” 

It was an exciting moment, exciting to find that a theory which helped me understand why people don’t treat nature better could help Shiraz frame his criticism of religious dogmatism. I hardly felt my aching legs any longer.  My focus was on the strong connection I was feeling with another human being.

“You must be sick about what’s going on in the Middle East,” I ventured.  Indeed, Shiraz said. “You do know what a lot of Muslims think about the United States, don’t you?” I asked what he meant. He proceeded to tell me that even members of his own family believed that the United States established the terrorist group ISIS, or Islamic State, to foment disunion in the Arab world. Shiraz said he didn’t believe that, and he’d worked hard to persuade his family it wasn’t true.

A few days later, I read a New York Times article confirming what Shiraz had told me: “For Many Iranians, the ‘Evidence’ Is Clear:  ISIS Is an American Invention” was the headline.

I thought of Shiraz in Toronto, examining footage from his solo drive, a formerly devout young professional searching for his place in the world, and I wondered what other Muslim opinions I didn’t know. The list seemed potentially as long as the Grand Canyon was deep. 

While rafting down the Colorado River, my friends and I had rowed through a place called the Confluence, where the Little Colorado, milky from rock flour, meets the Colorado. It’s the broadest part of the canyon, a sacred Hopi and Navajo site. It’s also where developer Lamar Whitmer wants to build a cable car down to the river, along with a viewing platform and snack bar, and $65 billion in infrastructure on the currently undeveloped rim, including new roads, a resort and casino. Our guides had spoken sadly of how different the river would feel with all that human-built material in place, not to mention the impacts on wildlife, vegetation and the river system.

Whitmer has been quoted saying he wants to give tourists more than a “drive-by” experience, but where are the hordes of tourists who aren’t satisfied with what the Grand Canyon currently offers them?

The Grand Canyon already exists for everyone. Just ask a former Muslim turned Christian turned agnostic why he drove all the way from Toronto to see it. Shiraz and I were strangers from different traditions, he a single man in his 20s and I a mother in my 50s. Yet for an hour on a dusty path we panted and talked as we strained ever upward, and climbing the trail’s steepest part we were united. We were two people testing our limits on a hot September day, and we helped each other make it to the rim.

It was a confluence that could never have happened in a cable car.

Marian E. Lindberg is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the author of The End of the Rainy Season: Discovering My Family's Hidden Past in Brazil.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty