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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2008
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Sierra Magazine
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The Grand Canyon under glass
By Dev Das
September/October 2008

VERTIGO from Cojum Dip on Vimeo.

This story begins an occasional series in which Sierra asks young journalists to explore a place or problem that intrigues them.

WHEN IT CAME TIME TO POSE for the shot that would eventually serve as the poster for Grand Canyon West, Wilfred Whatoname went with his gut. With feathers and abalone shells hanging from his braid, he turned to the horizon, closed his eyes, and whispered a prayer. This moment was for his people, for his children, a private expression of hope that this massive project in the desert would be worth all the fuss ... snap.

Today Whatoname smiles at the sight of his own mug, blown up against a promotional background and plastered on the side of a tour bus. His portrait has been cut and pasted so that he stares at various attractions of Grand Canyon West, the new and improved way to experience America's grandest national treasure. In one bus mural, he faces a Hummer parked by the Colorado River, a group of tourists smiling in a raft, a helicopter flying through the canyon, and at the top, looming over the entire scene, a steel-enforced, glass-bottomed walkway floating over the abyss.

"I'm kinda the poster boy around here," Whatoname says. He's standing in front of us, shells, feathers, and all, ready to show us around. My friend Bora Karaca and I are first-timers to the canyon. We want to see what all the fuss is about here at Eagle Point, Arizona, site of the Grand Canyon Skywalk. As they get off the bus, eager travelers from all over the world mutter oohs and aahs in a jambalaya of languages and accents. They've come a long way to walk across the sky. We've come a long way to talk to Whatoname.

I HAD NEVER BOUGHT INTO the myth. The Grand Canyon has been hailed as a place of pilgrimage for the U.S. tourist, a fantasy for Mom and Dad to visit with their 2.5 children during summer vacation. In a station wagon. It was another brand name packaged to appeal to the limitless appetite of a country that's never full (except when immigrants try to get in). I had never been there, and it wasn't on my list--until I read about the controversy over plans to build what sounded like a very strange structure.

Private investors had brought the idea of building a horseshoe-shaped perch over the canyon to the Hualapai Tribal Council in 1996. The tribe entered into a joint venture partnership, and in 2004 workers began constructing a $30 million installation that lets visitors walk 4,000 feet above the Colorado River ... on glass. Most environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, did not take a position on the Skywalk, acknowledging that this swath of the national treasure belongs to the Hualapai. But plenty of people nationwide expressed horror at the prospect of another structure on the canyon's rim. The Hualapai knew that building such a thing on sacred tribal land would have its costs. And benefits. The Skywalk would lure caravans of station-wagon folk and anyone else willing to shell out $29.95, and that money, along with income from a lodge and other ventures, would be reinvested in the Hualapai community. The money, says Ted Quasula, chair of the board of directors for Grand Canyon West, might take some time to trickle down to the reservation and its people. "I wish I could say that the Skywalk was making us filthy rich off the bat, but that's just not the case," he says. "We had to build from scratch the entire infrastructure, and we're in some debt. But the most significant uplift I see is that Hualapai people who didn't have jobs before are now able to work."

WHEN WE GET TO THE HUALAPAI CITY of Peach Springs, Arizona, the streets are empty. Many of the buildings we pass are wooden skeletons surrounded by old appliances. Abandoned refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and automobiles disintegrate in front yards. Dogs scuttle across the pavement. We pull over to talk to some twentysomething locals in a Chevy Trailblazer. They invite us to cruise and drink with them around town. Tarron Honga, a resident of the reservation, enjoys getting the Skywalk subject off his chest. "Yeah, I went on the Skywalk when it first opened. It was flipped out 'cuz I was hung- over. You're not going to put that in there, are you?"

I tell him I'm writing it down.

"You don't have to, but it's true."

We're standing outside the Hualapai Lodge. He smiles and laughs a lot. Scars and homemade tattoos cover his forearms. "The Skywalk's making money, but ... look around, nothing's changed. Uplift? It's all bunk."

He points out some of the highlights of Peach Springs--the post office, the general store, the railroad. "You see why everybody's always getting messed up over here? There's nothing else to do." He mentions a dirt road from Peach Springs, the only road that leads to the banks of the Colorado River. He laughs when he looks at my car. "You'll need a truck; it's real rocky."

We don't have a truck, so we'll have to make do. Even at 20 miles per hour, rocks fire into the underbelly of my Honda Civic like bullets on a trespasser. In every direction rock sentinels stretch out and up, reaching for the sky. Thorny plants swarm the landscape. We're taking a water break when a jackrabbit the size of a Doberman explodes out of the rocks and gallops across the rolling floor of the canyon.

After 20 painful miles, we hit a stream flowing across the road. Time to start walking. We follow the water until we hear exuberant voices. There on the banks of the Colorado, a group of travelers lounges on a deflating raft. Coming off the river after an 18-day trip, they glow with accomplishment--or maybe sunburn. I try flirting with a redhead when a woman in a ranger uniform informs me that we need a permit to use the road.

"Oh, well, we're writers. With a magazine."

"You still need a permit."

Rachelle Mahone is not actually a park ranger but an employee of Grand Canyon West. She's an "outdoor tourism concierge" who lives on the reservation.

"The elders said the Skywalk's messing with nature itself, the sacred land," she says. "Being Native American, we take pride in our land. It was created this way, and we take it this way."

Mahone pauses before saying how she feels about it personally.

"I was real hesitant about them putting it out there, but after getting to see it.... At least it's not another casino." Back in Peach Springs, pavement offers relief to the wreck that was my car. Rolling back to the lodge, we run into one of the elders, Melinda Majenty Powskey, who has just returned from a potluck. For 30 years she taught kids how to read and write the Hualapai language at the reservation's public school. Now she's an ethnobotanist who organizes feasts done the old way, from the time before fry bread.

"The Skywalk is just the beginning," she says. "They're not finished over there at Grand Canyon West.... Things have really changed, and there's not much I can do about it. As an elder, my duty is to my people, but I'm not sure what that means anymore. I see us standing out there, looking down, asking where do we go from here?"


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