A Postcard From The Confluence

I am sitting at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, wondering how to explain this place to someone who has never been here. How two rivers glide into each other at this point and the only sound, most of the time, is water rolling over rocks and the occasional fish jumping, and how the sinking sun changes the colors and contrast of the 2,000-foot high walls.

Only 19 people have been to this spot today. Sixteen of them came from upriver on a group of rafts, and three of us battled down 3,400 feet of desert choss from the east rim of the canyon, descending a cross-country route I’d probably never do again. The people on the boats last saw an automobile five days ago, and they won’t see another one until the end of their river trip, in two and a half more weeks.

They want to make it easier to get here, a development group who wants to build a gondola starting on Navajo land on the east rim, all the way down to the edge of the river. We climbed up to where they think they can build a restaurant, the rocks rolling under our feet and bouncing down the steep hillside that dumps into the river. We wondered out loud how the hell they could build anything in this spot, let alone a 5,000-square-foot restaurant, and how long it would stay perched on a slope that’s nothing more than a pile of rocks in a constant state of erosion. I said I wouldn’t even camp here without worrying about a boulder crashing into my tent from above.

confluence 2

America is funny, I think. We tell this story about hard work, how it can get you anywhere, and when we tell that story, the hard work is always worth it, no matter how many months or years it takes. And then we find a place like this and we say no, we should make it easy to get to, so everyone can see it. Give them a 12-minute gondola ride, without so much as even having to break a sweat on the way down here. The boat trips are too expensive, too much time off work. The mule ride down to the bottom, or the nine-mile hike down the Bright Angel Trail from the rim to the river 26 miles downstream from where I sit, these things are too difficult for average people.

Those ways to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, those are too much hard work to be worth it. Too much hard work for average people, we say to a country built by average people who worked their asses off until they became extraordinary. We like our heroes believable, the people we tell our kids they can be someday if they just work hard enough. But now we want to give our kids a shortcut down here and a hot dog stand in the middle of this wild place.

We still hold on to our story of the Wild West out here, still embrace the cowboy hats and boots and the postcards of the desert landscape, and buy pickup trucks to get us places cars can’t get to. People come from all over to see the wide open West, Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, and the Grand Canyon, because there’s nothing else like it where they come from, and if there is, it’s not as wild, or not preserved to be. This is the country that invented the idea of wilderness, and we have saved plenty of other places, but this one is one of our most proud.

It’s a fact that a vast majority of the nearly 5 million people who visit this place each year will never step past the fence on the South Rim. It’s a tough journey down, and a tougher one back up from the bottom. If we never build a gondola here, a shortcut around that tough journey, then the people who make the sacrifices and dig deep to find the strength to get themselves down here and back, the people willing to have an adventure, will see that this place remains special because of the story we tell our kids: that the hard work is worth it.

-Brendan

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41 Comments

  • I consulted with the ghost of Edward Abbey and he said get the emery powder ready and start pulling surveyors stakes.

    • Just DON’T get caught – today pulling survey stakes is considered Domestic Terrorism (Bullshit) and carries a hefty fine and jail time…. look at Tim DeChristopher!

    • “Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.”

  • Spot on Brendan. It appears we as an Americans have forgotten that what defined us as a unique society was our focus on doing what was hard, often specifically because it WAS hard. Figuring out a way to successfully go to the moon when, at the time, we couldn’t reliably get someone off the ground? Hard. Sending two easterners cross country to the Pacific to inventory this new country of ours? Hard. Building a canal in a mosquito infested swamp of a foreign country? Hard. Building a 800 mile pipeline across permafrost, mountains, and rivers? Hard. Now we’re too fat and lazy to strap on a pack, hike down a trail, and see things for ourselves. Kinda sad.

    How do we get that quintessentially American spirit back?

  • I heard a Yellowstone ranger comment that the park was 466 miles long (miles of road in the park) and 100 yards wide (approximate distance tourists were willing to hike).

    • Hi Renea, keep up the great work at Save The Confluence. We are making a virtual reality documentary about the Confluence and would very much like to talk with you. Please see our new interactive video now in 360° on YouTube – https://youtu.be/WKAgKlnfkDA

      This is how we want to show people what could be lost. It’s a way of taking them there digitally, without leaving a trace.

  • My husband and I are a few of the fortunate ones because we have seen the Confluence, it’s beauty and felt the sacredness of this place. However, my husband and I worked very hard for that privilege by working extra shifts, saving our money and waiting a number of years for the opportunity. Yes rafting trips can be expensive but the 14 days we spent in the Canyon were life changing and worth every sacrifice we had to make to make this trip happen. There are some things that should not be made easy and this is one of them.

  • The hike down and up and the two nights I spent at the bottom of the ditch will always be the most rewarding moment of my life.

    • The harder outings usually mean a lot more, I sometimes think its not just the achievement but being able to push yourself as close to the edge as possible 🙂

  • The absolute top of my bucket list (I hate that term but oh well) is a Colorado rafting trip and dammit, I’ll wait till I can afford all 3 weeks. If this monstrosity actually gets built before I get my chance to fulfill my dream I truly believe I would no longer even want to do it. I’ve always been a “stand on the sidelines” kind of guy when it comes to issues like this – I think this one is going to change that. There’s just too much at stake here.

  • I’m with Abbey- close all the roads in all of the National Parks to vehicles. If you aren’t willing to walk, ride, or ski in, you can watch a video about what it’s like in the park from the comfort of your couch.

    –Mark

      • Accessibility is important. There are ways other than paved roads to make wild and semi-wild places accessible to people with disabilities and the elderly.

      • Jenn, I appreciate your concern for the people you mentioned, because I am one of them: I’ve used a wheelchair since 1977 due to a spinal cord injury from a rock climbing accident, and at age 58, only my vanity prevents me from identifying as “elderly”.

        I also appreciate your point about access. However, that same point will certainly be one of the justifications of the developers for their proposed damage to this still roadless, wild area. I agree that access should be maintained in parks where roads are long established, but IMHO, that isn’t what Brendan’s post is about.

        In my experience, Benji is correct, there are other ways to provide access to the wild besides roads and mechanization. A case in point, Wilderness Inquiry, founded in 1978 when arguments about access were being used to rationalize increasing motor use in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, http://www.wildernessinquiry.org/about-wilderness-inquiry/history-mission/ In response, WI helped people with disabilities explore the BWCA under their own power, and continues to do so today in wild places around the world. It’s one of many organizations like Splore in Utah, the Adaptive Sports Center in Crested Butte, CO, etc., that use experienced guides, instruction, and teamwork to provide the same wilderness adventure as many familiar commercial outfitters. Some commercial companies are an option as well; an OARS trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon has been one of the peak experiences of my life. Looking forward, I fully intend to see this confluence from a raft someday, no gondolas or hot dog stands necessary.

        Finally (before this post gets longer than Brendan’s), I have noted considerable irony in being told that it’s an “undue burden” to make accessible local restaurants, bars, retail stores, or even public schools, but when it suits the purposes of developers, there is a sudden eagerness to mechanize access to remote wilderness areas that I might be lucky enough to visit once in a lifetime.

  • Brendan, thanks for writing about this. My wife and I went to the confluence last February in part because we wanted to see it before this project ruins it – if it is constructed.

    Everyone should support the members of the Navajo Nation who stand opposed to this project. Go to Savetheconfluence.com and like their page on Facebook. Help us spread the word! The background on this proposed development is complex to say the least, but I sure hope it does not move forward. The Navajo Nation may be voting on the bill to start the project in the coming days.

  • Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it make sense to repair all facilities That are falling apart at our National Parks, before we budget a huge pile of money on this ill conceived plan? Or is there too much money to be pocketed by someone we are not being told about.

    • This is not in a national park; it’s on the reservation. [The National Park Service (for whom I work) is indeed woefully under-funded — and has a backlog of basic maintenance, preservation, and interpretation projects many years long.]

    • This development is being proposed by a developer and the President of the Navajo Nation on a sliver of land below the East Rim that may or may not be a part of the National Park. Fortunately or unfortunately, the border in that area is not well defined. This project is not supported by all of the Navajo, especially those that live near the confluence. It is also opposed by the Hopi, Zuni, and the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

      http://www.savetheconfluence.com

  • Lots of parallels between what you’re saying here and a battle a bunch of us are fighting right now in Tulsa: Preserving wild spaces from cheap commercialism. These battles can be won. Great piece!

  • I’m for conservation, and against building this gondola. But I’m not against access for Americans to our parks. I think to paint the picture as “why don’t people just stop being lazy and hike” is cruel to many differently abled Americans. Whether they have limited mobility, or are retirees these are people who deserve access to our parks as well. They are also, in the case of baby boomers, the ones with money to help support our parks. I’m not saying pave the trails, but there should be a conversation.

    Also keep in mind this is a private developer looking to build this gondola. Lets speak up for conservation, not against access.

    • Agreed, and furthermore “no motor vehicles” soon becomes “no mountain bikes”; “no snowmobiles” becomes “no skis, snowshoes only”.

      I’m not saying that all-access/all-the-time is good, but widespread bans covering entire parks and entire modes cut entire populations out of parks. While that might sound good at first if you’re in an uneffected group, consider that if only a small fraction of America can experience the park, only a small fraction of America will want to protect it.

      TLDR: no need for a gondola/tram because one can drive elsewhere in GCNP. But yes to limited motor vehicle access to key sections YNP and other national parks.

  • “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.” -Aldo Leopold

    I was just reading the Sand Country Almanac this morning for the first time and immediately thought of this post when I read that quote. That said, the discussion of access is an interesting one. I’m certainly against the Gondola and over development (especially when private interests stand to profit) but in some sense the “unless you’re willing to walk you can view it from your couch” idea is the reason for Wilderness designation.

  • Just keep it for a little longer! This is just one of those places that seem so magical, but I have yet to get there. I promise to do it the hard way, so will my family, just keep it there for a little longer.
    Thanks Brendan for giving me a reminder.

  • Access to our national Parks is a hard question to answer. I feel all people of the world should have access to our national parks. I feel that most parks have done a pretty good job of providing access to those that just want to cruise through in their cars and also provides trails for those who want to venture out into the deeper sections on foot. I don’t like it when they just block trails and say closed because someone might hurt themselves or come across a bear. Let me decide that. I had that happen in Yellowstone last year. I’ve saved the vacation time and paid the money to do a 13 day trip through the Grand Canyon. I’ve also hiked down the north rim and up the south rim. This summer my sister and I are taking the quick 7 day motor raft trip through the canyon. We both have had to ration our vacation days and decided on that trip. There are already so many ways for people to see the canyon I don’t see the need for a gondola. I think the park service has achieved a good mix of access for the Grand Canyon already.

  • My son has a saying on a wood block that his 3rd grade teacher gave him. It’s a mantra in our family and one that we live by…

    “I can do hard things”.

    Long live hard things, hard places to get to and challenges that stretch us. Great writing as always Bendan!

  • Alright man as an Archaeologist; It is currently Navajo land but the cultural items (artifacts) belonged to a culture that just got up and vanished leaving everything behind, such as pots and Kivas this cultural group is known as the Anasazi. I am more for preservation and leaving this in situ or if no other chose choosing to save it for the next three generations. Dams are ugly, lake Orovile is ugly, I hope we can drain it back to the feather river and replant trees so this river has an outlet. As for the Glen canyon dam, I wouldn’t miss it, in fact if it was gone I could survey more prehistoric sites, but I doubt this dam is going anywhere soon

  • When we went to the Grand Canyon. We went down the great angel trail which took us about half way down. That made the whole experience for us. Must of been awesome to of actually got right down to the Colorado river.

    Great stuff barry

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