Twelve miles in on the rutted dirt road we pull over in a dry wash and get out of our vehicles. We are on the western edge of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, not far from the sandstone rim where the Grand Canyon plunges 3,000 feet to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. The bare plateau across which we are driving is treeless, almost desolate. The region, nearly uninhabited today, was for centuries home to some of the most traditional of the Diné, as Navajos call the People.
Our guide to this outback, Delores Wilson, grew up on the plateau and knows every wrinkle of its landscape. “In summer, when we herded the sheep on our way home,” Wilson says, “we used to stop here and cool off in the shade. I had two sisters, six brothers and countless cousins. We all herded sheep when we were kids.”
Four miles farther in, we stop by the half-collapsed ruins of a small building. “This was my grandmother’s hogan,” says Wilson. “Until I was 7 or 8, we all slept in there, all 10 or 15 of my family, because we didn’t have a home of our own. Packed together like sardines, to stay warm in winter. I can still hear the sheep wailing for the lambs to come home in the evening.”
Our next stop is another six miles west, beside a nondescript bedrock shelf. “This is where I had my puberty ceremony,” says Wilson. “I had to run in all four directions. The other kids ran after me. If they passed me, they’d get old before I did.
“This takes me back,” she says wistfully. “So much history, so many ceremonies.”
After nearly three hours, we approach the rim above the confluence. Wilson grows somber—as does her close friend Renae Yellowhorse, whose Aunt Nelly, in her 80s, still lives out here without running water or elec-
tricity, still herding sheep. Staring south, Wilson says, “Grandma told us to stay away from the canyon. You don’t throw rocks in there. That’s where the Holy Beings are.”
Renae Yellowhorse adds, “My mother was told by my great-grandmother, ‘You don’t go to the rim without a serious reason. You don’t go there just to look. You go there with your corn pollen to pray to the Holy Beings.’”
“We never used to talk about this place,” Wilson offers. “Now we have to, because of the Escalade.”
When Teddy Roosevelt declared the Grand Canyon a national monument, in 1908, he famously said: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” In that sense, the Escalade is a thumb in TR’s eye. Covering hundreds of acres on Navajo Reservation land, it is arguably the most intrusive development ever proposed for the Grand Canyon—a $500 million to $1.1 billion recreation and transport facility featuring a 1.4-mile tramway equipped with eight-passenger gondolas that would carry as many as 10,000 people a day down to the river confluence, with new roads, hotels, gift shops, restaurants and other attractions. The developer—Confluence Partners LLC, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based investment group whose members’ ventures include real estate, resorts and theme parks—says construction of the Escalade could begin as early as this year.
Little known to the public at large, this massive commercial undertaking has become so controversial that the debate about building the Escalade is itself a confluence, a turbulent coming-together of powerful forces that promise to shape America’s most iconic natural wonder for generations. On one side are investors, local business people and some Native Americans, who are interested in the profits and jobs from building the facilities and running them, and then there is a handful of what might be called libertarian-minded supporters, who like the idea of enabling a large number of people to enjoy the great canyon’s very heart, a stunningly beautiful and remote site long inaccessible to the masses. On the other side are national park officials, environmental advocates, park visitors and Native Americans, who would prefer that the site remain as is. That the Escalade’s legality is still in doubt—most likely a matter for the courts—only adds to the turmoil.The project has divided the Navajo Nation, and also ignited opposition from members of other tribes. Wilson and Yellowhorse are principals in a grass-roots movement called Save the Confluence, but they are keenly aware that other Navajos are all in favor of the proposed development. For their part, Confluence Partners says it has “uncovered no evidence of any sacred sites within the project boundaries or that would be negatively impacted by the project.”
And the confluence, it turns out, is not the only point of contention. Twenty-five air miles to the southwest, another group of entrepreneurs is planning a mammoth expansion of the tiny gateway community of Tusayan, just outside the limits of Grand Canyon National Park. The Phoenix-based Stilo Development Group USA—a branch of an Italian investment company that has bought up thousands of acres in the area—proposes building 2,200 new homes (including affordable housing), as well as hotels, restaurants, a shopping center, an “entertainment pavilion” based on Native American themes, a spa, a water slide and a dude ranch. Construction could begin within two to three years, says Tusayan mayor Greg Bryan, depending on when access might be granted by the U.S. Forest Service.
Environmentalists, including the Sierra Club and the Grand Canyon Trust, oppose the Tusayan project, in the works for more than two decades. “Conservation groups deplore the ‘Disneyfication’ of the Grand Canyon,” says David Nimkin, Southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. The greatest threat the Tusayan development poses to the vast wilderness of the Grand Canyon, some critics say, could be the diminishing of the South Rim aquifer, which would cause springs and oases far below the rim to dry up significantly.
The plan to expand Tusayan, though contested in its own right, has not inflamed emotions as much as the Escalade proposal, partly because the Tusayan project has long been in the works and partly because it would only enlarge the infrastructure of an existing tourist complex that dates back to the early 20th century, when the first hotels, shops and a railroad were built.
By contrast, the Escalade, which has reached a state of white-hot urgency in only a few months, is an entirely new development. The gondola complex would tear a mechanized gash through the canyon from rim to river. In a place that has forever been a paradise of silence and pristine nature, the tramway could generate almost constant noise and light pollution, the chatter of tourists giddy with the ultimate Coney Island ride and the clutter that hotels and gift shops and hot dog stands inevitably produce.
Taken together, the proposed Tusayan and Escalade developments are unprecedented, says Dave Uberuaga, superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park: “These two projects constitute the greatest threat to the Grand Canyon in the 96-year history of the park.”
In the awesome beauty of the Grand Canyon’s 277 miles of river passage, of the national park’s 1,902 square miles of cliff and ledge and rim and pinnacle (a tract the size of Delaware), the true heart of the Grand Canyon has always been the confluence.
The first non-natives to reach the junction were the team under Maj. John Wesley Powell, who made the first descent of the Colorado River in 1869. By August 10, two and a half months into their voyage, the men had already lost one of their four wooden dories, along with vital food, and had suffered several capsizes. The mood in camp during a several-day stay at the confluence veered between optimism and foreboding.
Having barely begun their journey through the Grand Canyon, the men also thrilled to the challenge of pathbreaking adventure. As Powell wrote on August 13: “We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown....What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.”
Soon, Powell was reporting, “The cañon is narrower than we have ever before seen it; the water is swifter; there are but few broken rocks in the channel; but the walls are set, on either side, with pinnacles and crags; and sharp, angular buttresses, bristling with wind and wave polished spires, extend far out into the river.”
Long before Powell, however, Native Americans held the confluence as sacred. For the Hopi, as well as for other tribes, it is central to their origin story. The sipapu—a travertine bulge of mineral deposits with a hole in the center, which lies on the banks of the Little Colorado River a short distance upstream from the confluence—is the place through which all human beings migrated from the subterranean Third World to today’s Fourth World.