A Plea for Wild Places
To the decision makers in the Navajo Nation Council,
I understand you are considering the future of a portion of the Grand Canyon, one that would irrevocably change not only the physical landscape but the spirit of the canyon as well. I know that you will weigh your options, and choose the course that is in your people’s best interests.
But I ask that you consider my voice, as well as the voice of many outsiders, who believe that the Escalade Project would be nothing short of a tragedy. Just last week, I was at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Upon my return to the bustling world above the rim, I learned of the news that the Escalade Project has officially been proposed.
My name is Eric Hanson. I am a photographer in Flagstaff, Arizona. And the Grand Canyon has played a significant role in shaping who I am.
I wrote the following as a response to learning the news about the Escalade Project.
A Plea for Wild Places
For eight days, life was as beautiful as one could ask for. I fell asleep each night under the stars as the Milky Way passed overhead. Each morning I woke up with first light of dawn and the scent of fresh brewed coffee.
Each day was a living dream as I rafted the mighty Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Accompanied by new friends and some well seasoned, sun-worn boatmen, I experienced one of the world’s greatest marvels. There is no experience quite like rafting the Colorado River.
The Grand Canyon is a deceptive and wondrous place. The lucky few who traverse the canyon each year on the emerald (and sometimes mud-brown) corridor are shown the geological storybook of the earth. We are transported by the awesome and terrifying power of the river to the very bedrock of the earth, escorted past side canyon after side canyon, each containing their own great mysteries and treasures.
Just a few days ago, I sat on a big blue raft, floating through this most magical place over the course of eight days. Eight days of serenity, wonder, beauty, and sometimes hairball adventure. On one of the days, our grizzled river boat captain pointed up into the sky and told us a tale. Good story telling is one of the skills required to captain a boat in the Grand Canyon. So when he began, it seemed like just another far fetched tale. The boatman talked about a box that would float through the air, whisking thousands of people per day in and out of the Grand Canyon. Not only that, he said, pointing to the left bank of the river, but there will be restaurants, pavilions, amphitheaters, and a great walkway that will go all along this river. As we floated by, all was perfectly silent save the sound of the river, a gentle yet steady thrum that has filled this canyon for eons.
But this was no tall tale, this was the very real and possible future for the Grand Canyon. Just three days after returning home from 225 magical miles of river, I learned that the proposed Escalade Project had taken a significant step forward, as the bill was officially submitted. If the proposal stays its course, there will one day be a Disney-like circus at the rim and the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
As wonderful as a river rafting experience is through the Grand Canyon (and it is utterly amazing), the best way to experience the Grand Canyon is also the oldest way, by foot. The Grand Canyon is vast. Almost all of it is deadly dry or deadly precipitous. There are no easy miles in the Grand Canyon. Each mile is earned. And because every minute of every mile spent beneath the rim can kill you, it holds a special place on this earth. For it is truly wild.
Sadly, there are not a whole lot of wild places left on this planet. But there, just left of center, beats America’s heart. Hundreds of miles long, miles wide, and a mile deep, the Grand Canyon feels untamable. And yet here we are, plotting and planning to further commercialize, castrate, and control the land to squeeze every ounce of profit out of this place.
I realize that the decision to build this mega-million-dollar merry-go-round is not mine to make. Nor is it my governor’s or my senator’s. This decision is for the people of the Navajo Tribe, you who were here living in this vast desert long before us outsiders showed up. We, as immigrants and invaders on this land, have done many injustices to you, the native people. We have pushed you, killed you, and drew lines in the desert to tell you where we will allow your new homes to be. Perhaps this is, as some argue, an opportunity to grow out of the poverty we pushed upon you.
But please, let it not be done this way. At what irrevocable cost would this come?
This last year of my life could be otherwise named the year of the Grand Canyon. In January, I hiked 21 miles from the South Rim to the North Rim, where I spent three days of wintery solitude. Then hiked back to the South Rim. I hiked 45 miles in five days. Each mile and each day was truly glorious.
A few months later, I hike 34 miles in two days, once again going to the depths of the Grand Canyon and back out.
Two months later I worked as a photographer on three separate river trips through the last fifty miles of the Grand Canyon.
And just last week, I was once again in the heart of our most famous National Park, heart pounding as I rode that blue boat through the legendary rapids of the Colorado River.
The Grand Canyon has played a role in shaping who I am. When I was ten years old, my dad took me on my first river trip, instilling in me a love of nature that has only grown. We rafted from Lee’s Ferry to Phantom Ranch, where I hiked out the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim. I remember the feeling of incomparable pride, a true sense of accomplishment, that as a ten-year-old kid I could hike out of such a notoriously difficult and dangerous landscape. That experience meant so much to me I wanted to bronze the pair of shoes I hiked in. My parents didn’t opt for the shoe bronzing. But I kept those shoes for three years, holding them in reverence as the shoes that got me out of the Grand Canyon.
A few years ago, I worked as a field guide for a wilderness therapy company. I worked alongside adolescents and young adults, most of whom had never been camping before, as they dealt with drug addiction and various behavioral issues. I saw the effects of a lack of wilderness on a childhood. These kids from the city spent months at a time backpacking in the Utah wilderness. I taught kids how to make fire without matches. I taught them how to build shelters out of tarps that would hold up in a blizzard or a fierce monsoon storm. I saw these kids surprise themselves at their own ability to carry all their belongings on their back and hike ten miles. I saw the transformative power that wild experiences in wild places have on people. A wild place’s ability to teach and heal is unlike anything we can replicate in any other setting.
Wild places provide us with an opportunity to earn our stripes. Rights of passage rarely exist in our society. We like things easy and we like things fast. But that doesn’t always work for our own benefit.
The Grand Canyon Escalade Project is one more way to make things easy and fast. It would take one of our wildest and most treasured landscapes and turn it into just another domesticated shopping mall where you can get a t-shirt and eat ice cream.
To the Navajo Nation, you must decide what you want to do with your own land. If you decide to build this, you will no doubt become wealthier, at least in the financial sense. But in what ways will this just be more of the same from the last two hundred years? Your precious land will be corrupted for the turn of a quick profit. As others have said before, you become the company you keep. So it doesn’t surprise me that you would be tempted to be like your neighbors and bull doze and pour concrete slabs and line your wallets with cash. We who surround you on all sides do it all the time.
If you decide to do this, I really can’t blame you. I, as part of a people group who have profited off this land so greedily and shortsightedly, cannot judge.
But I must ask, do you really want to be like us?
Thank you for considering my opinion.