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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: The Giving

Scott Thybony

Some gifts don’t come wrapped in a package and tied with a bow. While driving toward Desert View the other day the sun broke over the horizon across a vast expanse where nothing moved. Piercing light hit the rim of the Little Colorado River gorge leaving the rest of the dark cleft in deep shadows. Dawn in the high desert arrived as a pure gift, reminding me of the season we had entered. And often those with the least, I’ve found, give the most.

On an assignment in the remote Terminal Range of the Canadian Rockies I met a band of nomadic Indians. Originally from the Yukon, they made a yearly round moving from one set camp to the next. A woman was scraping a moosehide stretched on a frame when I arrived, and strips of meat hung on a rack over the smoky fire. It was a scene reaching back deep into the human past. An old trapper who lived with them had a bullet pouch made of moosehide, beaded by one of the women in a fine floral design. I made the mistake of admiring it. Two weeks after I returned to Arizona it showed up in the mail as an unexpected gift.

A few years later while deep in the Sahara and days from the nearest oasis, I made the same mistake. Each evening our Bedouin driver would place a small, brass coffee maker on the coals of the fire. Dented and unadorned, it was a family heirloom used on his father’s desert journeys. Without thinking I casually admired it, and near the end of the trip he insisted I accept it. To my surprise, he took genuine pleasure in giving away something he valued so much.

Some gifts, I’ve found, have a way of staying in circulation. A friend decided to become a Buddhist monk, and he gave away all of his worldly possessions. A few months later he changed his mind and asked us if he could get back the old Navajo rug, the rare books, and that fine basket. Possessions also have a way of accumulating. To keep them moving, we used to have a potlatch box filled with items no longer needed. Whenever anyone stopped by they could take what they wanted.

As a writer, I’ve had countless people invite me into their lives over many years. And it’s always a gift. During our conversations, they might recall a moment of great suffering or unexpected courage. Or it might be a moment of great courage overcoming suffering. They were gifts of remembering, the type of gift too large to fit under a Christmas tree.

And I’ve learned that giving comes as naturally as taking. A little boy on his first big adventure was out trick-or-treating with his dad. He climbed the mountain of stairs to our house on a spooky night. I had to stoop low so he could reach the tray of candy. His little hand carefully picked up a single piece, and he put it in his bag. Then he reached out for another and caught himself. Digging into his bag he took out a piece of candy and gave it to me. His gesture was so spontaneous it pushed away all the tattered ends of the world for a time. It was a gift of hope, greater than all the rest.

In this season of generosity, I remember another moment in particular. Hopi artist Ramson Lomatewama had his glasswork on display when a college class stopped by. One of the more practical-minded students asked him straight out, “How much money do you make?”

Ramson answered with a smile, “Enough to share.”

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.