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
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.