After three and a half hours on the rutted, zigzagging road, we reached the confluence overlook. I had never been there before; the vistas stretching beneath me took my breath away. I sat on the edge of a limestone cliff and stared down at the confluence, 3,000 feet below me to the south. A few specks in the river were rafters approaching the junction with the Little Colorado. Only the occasional whine of a helicopter on a scenic tour marred the silence. For long minutes, I gazed at the buttes, pinnacles and side canyons receding into the distance. Here, I thought, were the great loneliness and sublimity that had so captivated Teddy Roosevelt.
I pulled out the diagram from the Confluence Partners website showing the 420 acres of infrastructure planned for the upper terminus, and in my mind’s eye tried to map it onto the serene emptiness of the plateau. I envisioned a paved circle loop, surrounded by a boutique hotel here, a shopping plaza there, a restaurant over there, an amphitheater next to it, adjoined by the Native American visitor center—with the ceaseless thrum of the tramway for background music.
Renae Yellowhorse had brought three granddaughters—10-year-old Lamia, 9-year-old Jaderrae, and 4-year-old Evangeline—for their first visit to the overlook. At first the kids seemed intimidated, even scared, cowering behind their grandmother’s skirts. But then Yellowhorse produced some cornmeal, which the kids sprinkled at the edge of the canyon. “The wind carries it away with our prayers,” said Yellowhorse.
Then the girls performed a hoop dance, symbolic of the forces of nature. Afterward, Yellowhorse sat near the rim and addressed us, her companions on this journey, in a soft monologue. “I want to share a dream I had last week,” she said. “I dreamed about buildings here, all over. Tepees, even though we never lived in tepees. Garish signs. ‘Buy your Indian moccasins here’—except they were made in Taiwan. In my dream, they were shutting down the tram. They were tearing down the buildings. Finally they listened to us. But I didn’t know how to feel.”
She took a deep breath, starting to choke up. “They come in with their empty promises, dividing the people. It hurts me very much. If they come in and build their walls, they’ll tear out the heart of mother earth.”
“The Holy Beings will be distracted by the lights and the noise. They won’t be able to hear our prayers.”
Yellowhorse gestured at her granddaughters, sitting in mute attention. “I want them to see this place just as their ancestors did. The same rocks, the same water. And I want their grandchildren to see it, too. To know the Holy Beings are here.”