Twenty years ago, my friend Kevin and I piled our ragged belongings into the back of his Chevy beater and drove from Massachusetts to California. It was November and we were worried about weather, so we dove south and traversed the country in a giant loop. We stopped in DC to visit friends, stopped in Alabama to visit family, and stopped in New Orleans for a night that will live in infamy.
From there it was on to Texas to visit more friends…and after that, we were on our own – no more friends or family to offer a bed for the night – so we decided to bomb straight through the second half of the trip and not stop until we got to San Francisco.
Which we did, with one exception: we paused at the Grand Canyon. We pulled into the entrance at three o’clock in the morning, the only ones there. As we drove up the long route, deer and jackrabbits flashed past the headlights. We parked in a viewing area on the western rim of the massive gorge, which was nothing but a vast black hole at that hour.
Kevin wrapped himself in a blanket and immediately passed out – we’d been driving non-stop since College Station, Texas – but I couldn’t sleep. I stood at the rail before the canyon with the cold November air on my face. Above shined the Milky Way like I’d never seen it, before me was that fathomless darkness, and in my exhausted, elated state, I felt as if I was swimming in space. I stood, and stared, and contemplated all the turns of fate that had brought me to that place.
And then the sun rose, and devoured the darkness, replacing it with an astonishment of color, a riot of hues, and it was the most beautiful and fulfilling moment I have ever shared with Nature. The sunlight poured through the windshield and woke Kevin up. He gave a brief honk of the horn and startled me out of my reverie. I dumped myself into the driver’s seat, pulled out, and we didn’t stop until we hit Clement Street. I needed no sleep; if God exists, I spent that night and morning staring into Her face, and it changed me forever.
If an organization called Confluence Partners has its way, however, not long from now the next person to stand in that spot and watch the sunrise will be presented with a different vision: a 420-acre strip mall perched on the eastern rim of the Canyon, complete with stores, chain restaurants, a massive RV park, and a gondola to carry swaths of American laziness past all that natural beauty straight to the canyon floor…but only after they enjoy some jalapeno poppers and a large Diet Coke at Chili’s.
It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around an idea so comprehensively awful as this. They are called “Confluence Partners” because the project looks to be built at the confluence of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River, which are only the lifeblood of the ecosystem there. A massive construction project, followed by the arrival of thousands of people and cars with their attendant garbage and petroleum fumes, will obliterate the environment in one of the planet’s most glorious natural habitats.
The people pushing this project claim it will provide thousands of jobs to the Navajo Nation, and will do no damage to the Canyon. Take that with a canyon-full of salt. Three of the main people pushing this project are lucky not to be in jail for various financial and ethical improprieties, and it’s simple fact that you can’t have a massive construction project like the one they are proposing without doing irreparable harm. Blacktop and wildlife don’t mix.
Backers of this gruesome project hope to break ground in 2018, but the final decision will ultimately fall to the tribal leaders of the Navajo Nation…and the Navajo Nation government, to the extraordinary dismay of those it purports to represent, appear to be fully on board with the construction of this thing.
The local officials and corporate paymasters involved in this do not appreciate a natural wonder. They appreciate the money at the end of this pestiferous rainbow, and that is all.
Twenty years ago, I stood before the lip of the Grand Canyon and enjoyed what absolutely amounted to a religious experience. I was transmuted, and the man who left that place was wholly different – and better – than the one who had arrived. There are many times many people in this world who have shared that specific experience in that specific place, and in many other similar places besides.
And then there are the people with dollar signs in their eyes, who do not percieve beauty, but only opportunity. These are the people running the joint right now, and they will burn down anything – no matter how gorgeous or unique – if they can turn a buck. Fracking, Keystone, exploding ocean oil wells, ruined rivers, or a plan to poison the glory of the Grand Canyon: it is all of a piece. They will shatter the world itself if it fattens their wallet.
They are all the explanation you need for why we are down in this ditch, and sinking fast.