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.
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.