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
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Type: Permanent, fulltime Reports to: Executive Director Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state and out-of-state required Compensation (beginning): $44,000 to 46,500/yr., DOE plus excellent benefits...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.