Pilgrimage to Solitude
Note: This is a big post on a big subject, and I appreciate your taking the time to read it through. But even if you can only look through the pretty pictures for now, I hope you’ll still find an opportunity to visit SavetheConfluence.com and read about the development threatening a wild, spectacular, culturally resonant and ecologically important corner of Grand Canyon National Park. You can see details of the proposal and hear the developers’ side of the story at GrandCanyonEscalade.com.
The mouth of the Little Colorado River is not an easy place to visit. Most people who ever glimpse it likely do so by helicopter, a glance down at an obscure tributary they’ve probably never heard of tucked among the massive fortifications and ramparts of the Grand Canyon. Its general area is visible from many miles away at Desert View Watchtower, lost in the haze and of little interest to a tourist who came to stare straight down into the Big Ditch. The best-informed visitors may read that its warm blue-green waters provide a last refuge for the endangered humpback chub; that somewhere hidden in those walls lies the Sipapu, the travertine formation which the Hopi people believe was their route of emergence from the underworld into our present cosmos; that the Hopi once made pilgrimages to its confluence with the main Colorado to bring home precious salt that seeps from the walls.
The only folks who see the Little Colorado confluence in decent numbers are rafters, and they require some luck. Much of the year, if even a trickle is running and gathering muddy pigments from the tributary’s massive drainage basin, the stream flows chocolate brown and boaters drift on by with a brief glance up the side canyon. Only when it runs an unsullied turquoise from the springs some twelve miles up-canyon do boaters stop to swim in the warm blue water. Their stays are brief, as the Park Service rightly prohibits camping at the mouth, but no one ever forgets the paradise of terraced pools, rapids, surreal color and sunny ledges deep in a desert canyon.
I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy the Little Colorado on several river trips over the years. And so, like many fans of the place, I was shocked last year to hear that the Navajo Nation and Arizona businessmen have plans for a massive development at the confluence, the centerpiece of which would be the “Grand Canyon Escalade,” a tram connecting a rim-top resort hotel with a restaurant, “riverwalk” and amphitheatre at the bottom. I don’t know when I’ll next have an opportunity to visit by river, so the chance that the project may actually happen determined me to make the journey by foot and see the Little Colorado confluence at least once more in its pristine state.
Happily, my long-time correspondent and fellow landscape photographer Greg Russell thought that my last-minute hare brained scheme actually sounded like fun, and agreed to come along. Our first plan was to hike the Tanner Trail eight miles and 4,700 feet down to the river, and then take the primitive Beamer Trail another ten miles to the confluence; three nights would be just enough if we weren’t too concerned about minor details like our joints and tendons. But perhaps it was just as well when schedule conflicts forced us to scale back to two nights and hike instead to Cape Solitude, a promontory on the rim above the confluence a comparatively mellow (we reckoned) 1,400 feet down and sixteen waterless miles distant from Desert View.
You don’t really know an area till you traverse it on foot, and neither do you really know a spectacular piece of scenery until you’ve seen its scruffy backside. We landscape photographers are the worst about this: we usually try to pass through the twisted foothills, gloomy forests and drab grasslands as fast as possible to find a spectacular view for sunset. But the trail to Cape Solitude might have been designed to mortify such greedy passions; it makes you work and persevere for your eventual reward. Its first mile held a couple tantalizing views of the Canyon, but these soon gave way to pinon-juniper, then cholla covered hills with a few views towards the Painted Desert through noonday glare, then at last nothing but flat arid grassland marked only by an occasional gully as the path makes its weary way across the peninsula separating the main canyon from the Little Colorado. As our hike progressed, it became increasingly clear why fewer than 40 people per year request permits to backpack in the area: you’ve really got to want to see Cape Solitude. Though our heavy packs were somewhat lightened once we dropped a water cache for our return, still our footsteps slowed and our lively talk fell silent as the miles rolled on.
Harsh land, but some creatures found it to their liking. We startled a massive herd of elk midday, two hundred animals or more, and the whole place was littered with prolific elk droppings. The ground was covered with native desert bunch grasses, and the vile invasive cheatgrass was blessedly absent, two very good ecological signs on the Colorado Plateau. Along the way we passed an old Navajo hogan, its wooden structure bone dry beneath the sun. A large section had been deliberately removed from the hogan’s west side, the Navajo tradition when someone dies indoors, the building abandoned with an exit for the passage of the angry ghost.
Hard country, the American West. The long miles gave plenty of opportunity to think on what it means to call such a place home. I’m Rocky Mountain born and raised without the benefit of a trust fund, so I’m sensible to the economic realities of living surrounded by beauty but without a job to put food on the table. You can’t eat the scenery. I can see the temptation for the Navajos of a resort development out here, an economic stake in the great American icon of the Grand Canyon. They see the development of the Canyon to the west: the Hualapai tribe with their river tours and Grand Canyon Skywalk; the Havasupai with their warm blue-green stream that thousands of visitors pay good money to play in; and of course the Anglos at the North and South Rims with restaurants, hotels, mule rides to Phantom Ranch at the bottom. Meanwhile the Najavos have just the dusty, undeveloped East Rim, reachable only by primitive roads, while warm turquoise waters flow inaccessible thousands of feet below the cliffs. All this lies on the edge of a reservation long plagued by deep poverty and all its attendant unhappiness.
Still, the Grand Canyon Escalade is not the answer. The much-vaunted tourism jobs, as I know from experience, rarely provide sufficient income to procure health insurance, save for retirement, raise a family. They’re great during college summer breaks and in the vagabond years of your 20s, but they’re much less great once you begin to have worries such as children, bodily ailments and aging parents. Much of the impetus and capital for the venture is coming from non-Native developers, and it’s a common pattern in these cases to see the economic benefits flow to Anglo consultants, Anglo contractors, a few well-connected tribal players, but not to the local poor. The proliferation of casinos among the southwestern tribes has quite failed to produce any widespread wave of Native prosperity in the reservations, and it would be unrealistic to expect that the Escalade will be any different. Certainly, the local Navajo chapters remain divided on the issue at best, and the recent narrow local vote in favor of the project was only pushed through via shady political maneuvers.
Furthermore, the Escalade’s impact on the Canyon would be unprecedented. The main rim villages of the National Park are heavily developed, to be sure, but that development is confined to the rim. To travel into the Canyon, your choices are foot or mule. Though Phantom Ranch sees some occasional helicopter traffic for maintenance, the place is still rustic, low-key and pretty difficult to visit. Rafters, even the motorized trips, pack up and leave camp each morning, are held to high standards of backcountry housekeeping, and don’t leave permanent infrastructure behind. Supai Village can be reached by foot, horse or helicopter, but to see the famous waterfalls of Havasu Canyon you still have to hike. The Hualapai development is again limited to the rim. Nowhere in the Grand Canyon is there mass motorized access to permanent developments at river level. The Escalade proponents surely see that absence as a niche needing to be filled, but all such proposals in the past have rightly been rejected as overly damaging to the Grand Canyon’s wildness and beauty.
So what might be better? What could offer the Navajos an economic stake in the Canyon without seriously damaging the main attraction of remote, rugged landscape? An obvious place to look for a model is Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which the Navajos manage in concert with the Park Service, with access to the heart of the area provided by native guides and served by rustic accommodations. One or more small-to-medium eco-lodges on the East Rim strikes me as a reasonable idea, and such lodgings could attract travelers in search of a quieter and more remote experience than the main Park facilities provide, as well as unique Canyon views. The route to the river at Eminence Break has good potential for serious hikers, and would offer a much more feasible one-day trek to the Colorado than the corridor trails at Bright Angel. Technical canyoneers are increasingly visiting East Rim tributaries and would likely be willing to pay reasonable fees for the privilege. Though there would be substantial obstacles, I could even entertain the idea of a few European-fashion Alpine-style huts in the Canyon served by via ferrata with trained Navajo guides; such an attraction would be unique not only in the Grand Canyon but in the entire U.S.A. And I would consider it a worthy long-term goal for the Park Service to facilitate a commercial river permit for the Navajo. I personally feel that the Grand Canyon is quite adequately developed as it is, but any of these ideas would be far preferable to the massive visitation, aesthetic damage and ecological impact that the Escalade would bring. The Navajo should be looking to capitalize on the East Rim’s existing virtues of quiet, remoteness and unspoiled scenery rather than trying to create another South Rim with a tramway.
Out near the Canyon rim itself, Greg and I had our eyes fixed on a cruelly teasing hint of a cliff away in front of us. It was clearly a piece of the rim, but we couldn’t tell whether it was on our side of the main Canyon or the opposite. Sometimes it seemed close enough that we must reach it any minute, other times it looked miles distant. We hurt; this was a backpack for when you’re in good shape in the summer, not fat and lazy in February. The seldom-seen landscape of the Grand Canyon’s backside had long since lost its fascination, and the afternoon shadows were lengthening. Like many pilgrims bound for difficult destinations, we might have given up if way back weren’t obviously even worse than to press forward.
Finally, the old abandoned two-track trail at last grazed the rim. The massive gulf of the Grand Canyon, which had lain all day in our minds like a half-remembered dream, spread wide before us. Another push for another tired mile, a quick break to set up camp and drink water, and we stood on the tip of Cape Solitude, looking at the stained, coffee-brown Little Colorado mingling with the emerald green water of the dam-controlled main river three thousand feet straight below.
The sun set, the sky grew dark, while deep gorges on three sides separated us from the faraway shine of the few manmade lights in view: only a sprinkling out on the Navajo Res, a single glow marking our distant start back at Desert View, and a few rafters’ headlamps far below at a river camp. Visible but inaccessible as the stars, those solitary lights only emphasized our vast isolation as night deepened in the canyons below.
We tossed and turned in the long February night, then rose in the cold and made our way by headlamp and intuition through the pitch black in search of a view down the Little Colorado canyon to the confluence. Breaking dawn caught us about a mile short, and we speed-walked through cactus and stone till the view opened up as we hoped, just as the clouds began to glow pink and Wagnerian over Gunther Castle, Siegfried Pyre, Saddle Mountain and the North Rim. The Little Colorado twisted like a brown snake below in the brightening daylight, while we rejoiced in the sight of a Grand Canyon view that very few people have ever seen.
The modern cliché is that a pilgrimage is not about the destination, but the journey. There’s truth to the idea, but journeys need their goals, and humans need worthwhile destinations to inspire the hard work of journeying. I would hope that our nation, both Native and Anglo, will choose to preserve the Grand Canyon as a place full of opportunities for genuine pilgrimage, as many as possible, whether the effort required is by foot, boat, mule, rappel, or simply the long journey to the rim. If the Escalade happens, one of the best of these opportunities will be lost. No one will ever be moved to make the trek to Cape Solitude again; the solitude will be gone save as a name on a map. Backpackers will likely flock to the confluence via the Beamer Trail, but their aim in doing so will not be an enchanted oasis isolated deep in the Canyon, but rather an easy tram ride out to the rim. The Little Colorado will no longer be a hard-won goal; the Escalade’s crowds and amenities will instead be an unmistakable sign that the journey in the wild Canyon is over.
The sunrise glow faded and the rosy desert morning turned to daylight yellow as Greg and I packed up camp and braced ourselves for the long miles back, pausing for a last look at the wild confluence, a silent goodbye to a place to which there may be no returning.