Save The Confluence?

“-if I realized I died attempting or doing something from within my inner self, I’d accept that.”

George Mancuso-Grand Canyon Photographer

“The roads out there are like a spider web.  It’s really easy to get lost” Evan Midling, the owner of Starrlight Books explained. “When all else fails just keep taking the one which leads to Vishnu Temple. You’ll eventually get there.”

We had stopped by Midling’s store in Flagstaff for directions. I was accompanied by my good friends and neighbors, Chris and Sheila Derrick. We knew we would possibly need more than just a topo map and a navigator, especially since the roads we would be traveling were likely off the GPS grid.   I knew from past conversations Evan had extensive knowledge of the area around Salt Trail Canyon.

1Horses grazing on the Painted Desert by Gary FillmoreLivestock grazing on the Painted Desert. Taken shortly after turning off Highway 89. These critters were the last living creatures we saw until we returned to Gap.

“I made it there nearly twenty years ago in a Wide-Track Pontiac –just an old junker from my college days,”  Evan continued, “It was nothing but a piece of crap.  At one point we got wedged in a wash.”

I was intrigued. “How did you get out?”

“Easy.  We had a shovel.”

“A shovel?  I don’t think we have one of those.”  It sounded like hard work.

“Don’t worry.” Evan assured us, “I’m sure you’ll have no problem in a 4 Wheel Chevy pickup with high clearance.”

I also knew from past conversations Evan’s companion on his Wide-Track misadventure was George Lamont Mancuso, at one time a well-known Grand Canyon photographer with an affinity for the area where the Little Colorado River meets the Colorado River, a.k.a. “The Confluence.”

2Little Colorado River Gorge from east by Gary FillmoreGetting there…Approaching the Little Colorado River Gorge. Vishnu Temple in the right center of photo.

Prior to their outing Mancuso had given a slide show at Northern Arizona University.  Immediately afterwards he was approached by two Hopi men who explained it might be a good idea to discard some of the photographs he had just shown.

Mancuso heeded their advice.  Shortly afterwards he contacted Midling and requested his assistance in identifying the formations on the Salt Trail Canyon which were considered sacred by the Hopi tribe and therefore not a good idea to photograph and publicize.

The Hopi believe their ancestors emerged from the Third World into this, the Fourth World, in a place known as Sipapu, located somewhere near the Little Colorado River Gorge southeast of the junction of The Confluence. The site can only be reached by traveling a long distance on the Salt Trail Canyon.

3Little Colorado River Gorge looking north by Gary Fillmore

 Little Colorado River Gorge. Looking north from Blue Moon Bench.

The Hopi also believe the first Twin Warrior turned himself to stone at the beginning of the trail to mark the correct point of descent to the river. The area is guarded by a deity named Massau’u, the Hopi death spirit.  It was into this Hopi holy land that Evan Midling and George Mancuso made their epic journey.

Years later Mancuso and his companion, Linda Brehmer, would die in a flash flood in Big Canyon, not far from The Confluence. The event has been written about in several articles which can be found online.  It was also detailed extensively in Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon.  The book’s authors claim Midling, (who they refer to as “Canyoneer Evan Widling”) noted Mancuso “was never very attentive to the Hopi Cosmology Widling (sic) tried to impart to him…”

While they may have got the spelling of Evan’s last name wrong they were correct about Mancuso’s affinity for the subject. As Midling himself once told me, “He (Mancuso) had absolutely no interest in any of the Hopi’s beliefs or reasons why they considered certain geographical features sacred. He just wanted to know what he could and couldn’t photograph.”

4 Little Colorado River Gorge Looking South by Gary FillmoreBig Canyon, southeast of Blue Moon Bench

We thanked Evan for his guidance and departed, stopping for lunch at Salsa Brava to enjoy their now world famous  Pineapple Habanero Salsa. Then onward towards the land of Massau’u we went.

About one mile north of Gap (the town, not the store) we turned west off highway 89 onto BIA 6130. After cresting the first ridge Vishnu Temple became visible in the distance. However while Evan’s description of the landmark as a guidepost was correct it turned out to be unnecessary. The navigator identified BIA 6130 for the duration.

It accurately led us all the way to the road’s end and the entrance to Salt Canyon Trail.

So by now you might be asking, “What the heck does any of this have to do with saving The Confluence? And why did you put a question mark after the title?”

5 Never leave the truck far behindThe Derrick’s Chevy four wheel drive pickup truck with high clearance near the beginning of the Salt Trail Canyon. Unlike with Evan’s Pontiac Wide-Track no shovel was required.

I recently listened to a podcast interview with Scott Adams, the author of the cartoon strip Dilbert. His premise was if you want to greatly increase your page visits take both sides of an issue.  Everyone who contacts you might hate you for what you said, but you’ll get a lot more readers.

“Preposterous!” I exclaimed when I heard Adams’s claim.  “And besides I do not care about the number of page views. I write solely for my audience –all three or four of them.”

But before you take sides on the issue, some of you might be asking why he Confluence needs to be saved?

6Little Colorado River Gorge by Gary Fillmore

Little Colorado River Gorge approximately eight miles south of The Confluence.

First, the “where”: as mentioned earlier “The Confluence” refers to the junction of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers. It is where the green waters of the Little Colorado River Gorge meet the brown waters of the Grand Canyon.

The area is considered sacred by not only the Hopi, but several other Native American tribes including the Navajo, on whose reservation The Confluence is located.

Well, it’s considered sacred by some members of the Navajo tribe.  Others I’ve spoken with claim the religious objection is nothing but a ruse employed by paid protesters.  They favor the Grand Canyon Escalade project for the economic benefits they believe the project will provide.

8Why my cell phone reception didnt work that dayWhy my cell phone reception was poor…

Now for  the “Why.” An August 2014 article in National  describes the Escalade as “a billion-dollar development with hotels, restaurants, shops, and a Navajo cultural center on the desolate canyon rim, almost 30 miles from the closest highway. Tourists who may not otherwise be able to visit the floor of the canyon could ride a gondola to the confluence a mile below. There they would stroll on an elevated walkway and take in the stunning view from stadium-style seating.”  

Cursory research reveals at least five  web sites and a Facebook page with strong positions against the development. Opponents include the Diné Medicine Man Association, Inc., Forgotten People, Next Indigenous Generation, the Hopi Tribe and Grand Canyon Trust.   You can review several or all of these sites to help reach a conclusion. Hopefully the photos posted here help influence your decision too.

7Chris and Sheila Derrick enjoying the scenery without the aide of a tramEnjoying the scenery near the Confluence without the aid of a tram and stadium seating. Expedition partners, Chris and Sheila Derrick.

Do you think the Confluence is worth saving? Would you rather take a gondola and “stroll on an elevated walkway” to a stadium where you can sit and enjoy the view? Or would you prefer to walk along the unspoiled earth and enjoy the site from the “desolate canyon rim” that has not changed in thousands of years?

9BIA Route 6134 by Gary Fillmore

BIA Route 6134 leads to the south side of Big Canyon. Unlike BIA 6130 there are many more amenities and conveniences along the way as shown here in the photograph…wait a minute. That’s not right. What you see here is what you get for over seventeen miles.

I’ve only taken two trips to the area now.  Regardless of the question mark in the title I’m sure it’s no mystery where I stand.

10Painted Desert by Gary Fillmore

“I had one advantage…the indescribable beauty of the Painted Desert…where I had an outlook on the wide desert below me which more than ever gave me the impression of a wonderful carpet woven with rainbows and I had the impression as if by going from one mesa to the other far, far into the blues and purple one might wander from this life into the blessed eternity.” Carl Eytel


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