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Know the West

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.