Envelope: Katie Oslapas
We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages. If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette.
Colorado songs #1
Hi John: As a music teacher of 30 years with a specialty in folk music, I enjoyed reading your article about Colorado songs (“Colorado Songs,” Smoke Signals, MG #185). I have an addition for you and a clarification.
First: “Cripple Creek” is a folk song with many verses that celebrates the lifestyle of the miners in Cripple Creek:
“Goin’ up to Cripple creek. Goin’ in a whirl.
Goin’ up to Cripple Creek to see my girl. (Who really would have been in the red-light district of Old Colorado City.)
Goin’ up to Cripple Creek. Goin’ on a run.
Goin’ up to Cripple Creek to have a little fun.”
If you google Cripple Creek and John Lomax collection of American folk songs, you can find more verses.
Second: It is my understanding the “Colorado Trail” is about an old wagon trail they came through Colorado. The trail was not as popular as the Santa Fe Trail or the Oregon Trail, but the song was supposed to be a cattle lullaby sung by cowboys. When I grew up in the ’50s, our family had a wonderful record of “The Songs of the West,” by the Norman Luboff Choir, which had a gorgeous arrangement of “Colorado Trail.” The trail was definitely created long before the footpath that crosses our state nowadays.
So that’s my contribution to your song collection. Blasts from the way-back past. I have been frustrated that there are not many folk songs mentioning our state. I think many of the pioneers were passing through here to the west coast, or else they had hypothermia and altitude sickness and died before they could write any songs!
Good luck with your collection,
Colorado songs #2
John: Great Smoke Signals. The only two songs I can think of that you missed, probably because they don’t actually include “Colorado,” is the song “Denver” on Willie Nelson’s “Redheaded Stranger” album and “Wolf Creek Pass,” by CW McCall (I think — I loved truck songs as a kid and still do).
As far as greater Rocky Mountain regional tunes naming specific places, these come to mind:
• “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” by Bob Dylan (“Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho”).
• “Taos,” by Waylon Jennings.
• “Santa Fe,” by Bob Dylan.
• “Billy,” by Dylan (“The businessmen from Taos want you to go down … ”).
• “Big City,” by Merle Haggard (“Somewhere in the middle of Montana …”).
• If Cheyenne counts, then there are two: “Jack Straw,” by the Grateful Dead and “Grievous Angel,” by G. Parsons.
Songs that mention the Great Divide or Rocky Mountains or something along those lines:
• “Blue Canadian Rockies,” by the Byrds.
• “Night Rider’s Lament,” by Jerry Jeff.
• “Great Divide,” by Neil Young.
As it happens, I was just listening to “Spike Driver’s Blues” (this version an oldie by Mississippi John Hurt) and it says this:
“It’s a long way from east Colorado, honey, to my home.”
Also, for generic Rocky Mountain songs, there’s “Rocky Mountain Music,” by Eddie Rabbit.
As I peruse my music (all on the computer these days, I’m sad to say), I see a billion-and-one songs about the South, the prairie and California, but so very few about the Rockies. Seems like there must be some mining-era songs out there somewhere on some Smithsonian folk collection or something.
Colorado songs #3
John: I enjoyed your recent column on Colorado songs. A particular favorite of mine, especially when driving home on Highway 9 at night with a full moon illuminating the Gore Range, is “Colorado,” by Grizzly Bear.
Colorado Songs #4
John: The Band … “Up on Cripple Creek.” Well, it’s a maybe, at least to the extent that I could not find a reference that was definitive. It could be Cripple Creek, Virginia.
Very good writing … I enjoyed it very much.
Editor’s note” The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” is definitely about Cripple Creek, VA.
Colorado Songs #5
John: Off the top of my head, you forgot:
• Danny Holien, “Colorado.”
• Rusty Weir, “Coast of Colorado.”
• Michael Stanley, “Denver Rain.”
But the some of the best mountain songs don’t mention a place name:
• The Monroe Doctrine, “Time and a River Flowing” — one of the proto- new-grass bands.
• Frummox, “High Country Caravan/Song for Stephen Stills” (Steve Fromhotlz and Dan McCrimmon).
• The Dirt Band, “Rippin’ Waters.”
I’m sure there are many more in the gray matter, those floated to the top.
Colorado Songs #6
Dear MJ: While it does not have the word “Colorado” in it, one song is a huge memory …
November 1982, a newly single mother, embarking on a new adventure … driving my Olds Delta 88 with my toddler daughter and all my worldly possessions over Berthoud Pass in a driving blizzard … thinking I was absolutely crazy!!! … song comes on the radio … Bob Seeger’s “Get Out of Denver.” “Baby go go.” Thirty years later, 10 in Grand County, 10 in Summit county and now a grateful resident of the Roaring Fork Valley … best decision I ever made … I still hear that song any time I head west.
Long-time reader … actually made your acquaintance many years ago in Summit.
Thanks for all you do.
Colorado Songs #7
Mr. Fayhee: Thanks for another great Smoke Signals article. I’d like to add the song “Denver” from the classic album “Red Headed Stranger,” by Willie Nelson to your list of Colorado songs.
R. J. Vik
Colorado Songs #8
John: Smoke Signals has again exceeded my expectations. “Colorado Songs” also depleted my monthly budget for new song downloads. My feedback is to laud, not be critical with “how could he not include (such and such) or at least something by (fill in the blank).” A heartfelt thanks for sharing the songs of Colorado from your research. I volunteer as a DJ for Radio Free Minturn, a non-profit community radio station broadcasting throughout the Vail Valley. I research and compile songs with similar themes for my shows. One of my shows five years ago was themed Colorado. Though, at that point I did not easily find songs that were the right genre fit.
Your article revealed songs that I believed to be long forgotten. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils … wow … a true blast! And, surely, their song, “If You Want To Get To Heaven,” was referring to Colorado since “you got to raise a little hell!” Other songs from my past include The Marshall Tucker Band’s “A New Life,” depicting a man being shot in Denver and landing in jail there. Even though Charlie Daniels sang a lot about Tennessee and Texas, whenever I hear “Saddle Tramp” or “Long Haired Country Boy,” Colorado is where I am in my mind through those songs.
The Colorado River deserved mention in songs by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the McKay Brothers. My mind takes me to the Colorado River when I hear Colorado’s own Leftover Salmon playing “Rivers Rising” or The Colorado Playboys’ “River Song.” No mention of Colorado is needed, because my heart is always on that river. Then check out a soulful song by Railroad Earth, called … “Colorado.”
Thank you for citing Chevy Chase’s “Colorado” from the 1973 National Lampoon’s “Lemmings.” Welcome to a place where matter doesn’t when listening to Red Sovine’s “Colorado Kool-Aid.” And, as you get “Across The Rocky Mountains,” by Bruce Hornsby & Ricky Skaggs, you reach “The King of Colorado,” by The Band of Heathens. And, I did not know that Firefall was founded by Rick Roberts from The Flying Burrito Brothers … both these groups recorded “Colorado.” Emmylou Harris was not the only one singing about leaving Colorado in “Boulder to Birmingham.” The Hillbilly Hellcats are “Leavin’ Colorado” and The Woodys are going from “Telluride To Tennessee,” as well.
Thank you for re-introducing me to the music of Judy Collins. “The Blizzard” is destined to be included in an upcoming playlist for the air. Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle spawned a life long friendship to produce two “Colorado” songs and naming of a son, Justin Townes Earle, after a dear friend. Not only does Bowling For Soup “Surf Colorado,” but Robert Burkhardt is “Surfin’ Colorado.”
I respectfully disagree that “Rocky Mountain Way,” by Joe Walsh “makes no sense at all.” It makes very good sense to me because “the Rocky Mountain way is better than the way we had.” Was the late, great Dan Fogelberg singing about the tree or the city in his song, “Aspen/These Days,” from his “Captured Angel” album? I heard it in 1974 in a barracks in Okinawa, Japan. Again, who would have thought that this Tennessee boy would know the difference by moving to the Rocky Mountain? I have a song in my heart and my heart is in Colorado. By the way, I miss Dan … cancer sucks.
Music bonds us to one another and kudos to you for a departure from your ab-normal Smoke Signals. I hope to hear of your future music discoveries from throughout our mountains.
Ya’llternative music, brother. Thank you, man!
Radio Free Minturn DJ
Colorado Songs #11
Master Fayhee: A listener called me during my radio show last week to mention your article on Colorado songs and suggest the challenge of adding to your list.
I have done so and will be playing a set on air tomorrow, should you care to listen.
I humbly will only make three additions, two of note.
Thanks for inspiring a quest.
Here is the playlist for that segment:
1. “Colorado”/Rebecca Zapen/Nest
2. “Colorado Girl”/Steve Earl /Townes
3. “My Secret Place”/Joni Mitchell & Peter Gabriel/Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm
4. “Me & That Train”/Patty Larkin/not sure of the CD … just downloaded it.
Lynette O’Kane, Assistant Music Director
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Tuning in … Greg Pettys wails a solo song in a house full of soul and bread.
Just when you thought we were safely out of the ’60s, along comes another generation glomming onto some of the love, peace and music concepts idealistically developed back in our various decade-long delusional altered states.
Although it wasn’t the hippies that conceptualized communal living with all-night jam sessions. Sharing space, women and food was advocated in recorded 5th-century Persia, where Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion, with doctrines encouraging its followers to take delight in life’s pleasures — eating, drinking, friendship, love without domination, no war or bloodshed and an open-home policy for all who needed shelter from the storm.
Persian reformer Mazdak carried the “share-the-wealth” ideology into the 6th century and professed that vegetarianism and free love was the way. Fast forward to late-19th century Germany, where Der Wandervogel (translated as rambling, hiking or wandering bird … yes, the original Freebird) emphasized amateur music and singing, unorthodox clothes and getting back to nature and was probably most influential to the ’60s hippie movement.
The ’60s band houses were a communal concept, where musicians ate, slept, worked and played together to maximize the creativity and share the joy of an uninhibited life. But the reality was usually quite different, especially if you had to have a day job and you’d come home to find your food stash in the refrigerator consumed by the guitarist who strummed all day and smoked all your weed. However, all trespasses were later forgiven through music and endless passing of the peace pipe.
Many of the neo-hippie musicians today are the spawn of their grandparents’ culture. Dreadheaded, long-haired, organic bio-musicians living in peace and harmonies under the same roof and sharing a healthier lifestyle through drumming circles, dance, yoga and musical dedication. In a rambling drafty house that was once a mountain bar from the old mining days in Crested Butte, a clan of seven mostly musicians live with Walter the dog. And recently, Eli the Kundalini yoga instructor, who was friend of a friend of a friend, moved in behind the still-intact original bar at the far end of the living room. They are referred to as the bread mafia, since most of the household members also help run their business, Mountain Oven (mountainoven.com), whose mission is “ … to bake delicious and wholesome goods for our community with creativity and love.” A package deal of soul food, music and a sense of extended family.
Lizzy Plotkin, mandolin player, fiddler and vocalist, says they’re all in about four bands (one of which is The Wild), in addition to the live-in ongoing jams. They’re melding music. Housemate Greg Pettys, who wails on horn and guitar, explains the incestuous nature of the commune. “We share each other lovingly. We have to, it’s a small town.” He also acknowledges that the love of learning to play multiple instruments is born of necessity. If they need a bass player, someone will pick up a bass and learn it. They all sing. “Like the Jack of all trades you have to be to live here in this town, it’s survival,” he claims. “We moved into this house as musicians, but we didn’t play together until recently.” Greg says the musical clan was initiated to relive stress. “We’re always working, living and loving together and the music is nice therapy. Everyone gets along when we start playing music.”
Another member of the Mountain Oven household is Jonathan Brown, who has seen four winters in Crested Butte. “I’m teaching myself keys so I can be in a loud dirty band with a friend,” he says, adding that he’s encouraged and inspired by his housemates. “All struggle is creative and an impetus for new art and intentional living. It’s a single house but it spreads to multiple houses.” Brown notes there are two other music houses on their street. “Everyone pooling energy, food, talents and skills to raise the bar. It makes it easier, providing more free time to allow people to devote themselves to whatever inspires them and feeds their soul.”
As for the healthier lifestyle, they all claim to save the acid for Vinotok, the local pagan autumnal festival. It’s just nice to know that the culture of love, peace, music and homemade bread is still alive and cookin’. Carry on.
Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer and vocalist who has lived communally in many hippie band houses throughout cosmos. She is currently hitting the open road with her guitar, 20 lb cat and a bird named Spike. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Film: “A Story For Tomorrow,” by Gnarly Bay Productions
“A Story for Tomorrow” has 400,000 views on Vimeo because it taps into something: It captures the feeling of a trip that could be your trip. It is a 5½-minute video that is the perfect answer to the question “How was your trip?” And you wish instead of telling people, “Oh, we had a great time,” that you could make something like “A Story for Tomorrow” and show it to them instead. As soon as it stops at 5 minutes, 36 seconds, you find yourself starting to research plane tickets, maybe, but not necessarily to Chile, where Dana Saint shot the footage for the film (including Patagonia and the Atacama Desert). Narrated by Argentine actor Castulo Guerra, the film is more than vacation shots — the voice-over gives it a fairy-tale feel, and you can’t help be inspired to do something other than sit at your desk when he asks, “Did you enjoy your story?” vimeo.com/36519586
Kindle: “The Climbing Zine,” by Luke Mehall
For Volume III of The Climbing Zine, writer, climber and all-around swell guy/dirtbag Luke Mehall decided to make the digital leap and bring his publication from its grassroots in southwest Colorado and make it available on Amazon.com’s Kindle Reader. Mehall, whose work has appeared in Climbing, the MG, Rock and Ice and Patagonia’s The Cleanest Line blog, has made the hard-copy ’zine available at locations in Durango, Crested Butte and Gunnison or by mail since its inception, a homegrown publication true to the DIY/tradition of ’zines. Luke’s homespun tales make up the majority of the content, and he’s been living the life long enough, and climbed so extensively, that you feel his well of stories might never run out — and could power the ’zine for decades. I don’t own a Kindle, but I love the Kindle iPhone app, and I love the idea of taking the The Climbing Zine with me on my phone in a tent, dentist office waiting room, airport security line and you know, public restroom. $4, amazon.com, climbingzine.com
Books: “Mountain Heroes: Portraits of Adventure,” by Huw Lewis-Jones
How awesome could a book of portraits of mountaineers and climbers be? Pretty awesome. “Mountain Heroes” is an encyclopedia of legendary figures spanning the 20th century: Sir Chris Bonington, Yvon Chouinard, Lynn Hill, George Lowe, Tom Hornbein, Reinhold Messner, Don Whillians, Steph Davis, Galen Rowell, Sir Edmund Hillary, Dean Potter, Apa Sherpa, Ines Papert, Maurice Herzog, Warren Harding, Royal Robbins, Tenzing Norgay, Steve House, Fred Beckey, George Mallory — to name just a few of the characters profiled. Each portrait is accompanied by the climber’s bio, making this a CliffsNotes of the who’s who in the history of mountain climbing. It’s paperback, but coffee table material — full-color photos, and easy to pick up and flip through for a couple minutes, and then an hour.
Web: Nature Valley Trail View
If you understand Google Street View, the technology that enabled Google to let you look at a 360-degree photo of any neighborhood on your computer screen, you will understand Nature Valley Trail View, which shows you 300 miles of trails in three national parks. Which is pretty rad. I’ll just go out on a limb and say that a 360-degree view from the Grandview Trail in the Grand Canyon is better than almost anything on Google Street View. A team used a backpack camera to capture footage of trails in the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains national parks (a good bet since those three are the perennial top-three-visited national parks in America). The application, which launched in March, is free to view on the web at
We gather at the river once again. Andy, Todd and I roll down the gravel hill to the put-in and find another few of our crew there, boats out, gear strewn about.
Somehow every year it works.
See, there is little “plan,” per se, to the annual Men’s Trip. The idea is what’s important. It’s harder to catch catfish than to hook these guys: just trolling a vague, word-of-mouth meeting time and place — “mid-day at Sand Island” — for a month beforehand is enough to collect a stringer of men for three days on the San Juan River every year. It’s like the only plan is No-Plan.
This year waiting for us on the beach are the familiar figures of Eric, Randall, Dave and Jan. First-timers Ben, Jared, Scott and Jim are introduced. Wild Bill and a friend of his are supposed to arrive after dark — every year a group floats in on the night shift, under the nearly full moon — as long as the nasty weather dumping on our mountains back in Colorado doesn’t discourage them.
We hope it won’t, because here the weather in southeastern Utah has turned. After greetings, we make early-afternoon rigging toasts as the gently rattling November cottonwoods frame a clearing sky. By the time our convoy hits the river, the air is dry, the sun brilliant and the headwind a spring-like breeze.
It seems that the Men’s Trip No-Plan is working so far. Again.
I’m a firm believer in the kiva. I’ve had several: A 1980 Jeep Wagoneer. An old Chevy Van. A 10 x 12 cabin in a high mountain valley. A little room in my garage. I feel a deep kinship with those male residents of the ancient Southwest who negotiated with their wives for the first kiva. A hole in the ground with a stick roof? We can do that! And the women, too, I suspect, knew that this men-space was best for the whole tribe.
Todd knows what I mean. Although we don’t really talk about it — we are male, after all — it’s seems I always find Todd hanging with me in whatever kiva is in my life at that time. One winter night sitting in my van parked in a cold valley in the La Plata Mountains, Todd came up with the idea of our investing in a fleet of “Chevy Kiva” rentals, so more men could explore their men-space callings affordably. Ken’s Men’s Vans, we’d call our “Men Business.” It would be a service to society, we reasoned.
A van is nice, but my favorite kiva is a canoe. A 16-foot red tripping canoe, to be exact. And in which, for the last few Men’s Trips, Todd has been both bowman and barman, those roles overlapping and often indistinguishable. He is also the spiritual leader of the group: As we tie off our boats at our first campsite, Todd ascends the shore, like MacArthur returning to the Philippines, and fastens a big pirate flag to the arm of a thick cottonwood.
There are laughs and more joking toasts to the flag, but I think he’s got something here. Isn’t the absolute value of piracy — the intent aside from the positive or negative manifestations — simply poaching your spirit from forces that would control it? The true Pirates — those we most admire safely from our side-line landlubber lives — are those who most deliberately and resolutely carve some space where they can assert their own style no matter what.
And that, right there, is both the function and beauty of the Men’s Trip. Because here there’s only one rule: Mutual non-coercion.
Moonlight sugars the smooth top teeth of Lime Ridge, across the valley. Around a campfire, groups of two or three cook a variety of meals. As pragmatic and efficient as it would be, there is, of course, no group-wide coordination of food, drink, cookware or appliances. This is understood and never discussed. It’s one of those questions you just don’t ask on the Men’s Trip.
Todd, Andy and I stand around a table and enjoy enormous hunks of campfire-grilled steak, served communally on a tin plate with a side of baked beans bubbling over a backpacking stove. River knives and forks are the utensils. Dining is by headlamp and emerging stars.
“This steak’s a little raw,” I mention politely to Chef Andy, as Todd and I poke our fleshy slabs for signs of life.
“It’s not raw steak,” Andy corrects. “It’s cow tar-tar.”
“Another Men Business,” Todd suggests. “Beef Sushi.”
Andy’s the one who already owns a successful restaurant, so I let him tackle Todd’s latest brainstorm. I have my own business to worry about.
A female friend told me once that I don’t have enough women in my writings. But I argued that, as a journalist valuing fairness and accuracy, I don’t write about things I don’t understand. But I mean no disrespect in this; in fact, I mean respect. Look, I think men and women are different. Very. But I also think this is not a bad thing — not in the least.
In fact, I’m here to celebrate that.
“Too much beer, also,” my literary-critic friend appended to her editorial feedback. “There’s always too much beer.”
To that charge I plead guilty. But I claim the fairness-and-accuracy defense again. Especially when writing about the Men’s Trip, because the worst of what you might imagine is true: It’s an unconscionable foray into excess. Hence, another thing you can’t ask on the Men’s Trip: “How many have you had?”
I’ve had a few by now. We all stand around, wedged between firelight and moonlight, talking. But this isn’t “talking” like in mixed company, outside the kiva. When just men are together, it’s the act of talking that matters. It’s like the rap in hip-hop — you can listen, if you dare, but the real point of the nasty talk is musical.
As most common stereotypes would predict, there are, of course, sexual undertones, and overtones, to everything. But don’t get too excited; this stuff really isn’t that different from hanging outside the gym at the junior-high dance. Suffice to say that, for tonight, “mount” has become a remarkably versatile and amusing verb. Also, when men gather in groups of just men, warmth and affection often manifest as bantering, badgering and derogatory flagellating. This year, for example, everyone is really glad Ben is with us — truly so, this being his first men’s trip — so “Ben, you suck!” has quickly become our terms of endearment. It seems to bring us all closer together.
Still, though, sometimes sincere, touching compliments slip out. Like earlier today, when my relieving myself on the river’s edge was cut startlingly short by the sudden appearance of a passing boat.
“Don’t worry,” Andy reassured me from nearby. “He just thought you were throwing him a rope.”
Sometime around midnight, I decide to give up on Bill and his friend arriving tonight, and wearily turn toward my sleeping bag on the river’s edge. Before I wander down, though, I lean toward Todd.
“The No-Plan is unfolding perfectly,” I tell him.
I startle awake. It’s still dark. I turn and see the moon ready to plunge behind the ridge. It must be three in the morning.
“Get up, you scumbags!” Bill’s big voice booms from the middle of the wide, shallow river. A flashlight flashes, searching the shore.
“Get up, you bastards! We’re stuck in the mud!”
After a couple of hours on the water, we hit shore on river left, drag our boats up and pull shoes from our drybags. While others mill around and set up lunches, Andy, Randall, Jan and I head off on a run.
We do this every year: an hour-long sprint across broken-slickrock desert up and down steep arroyos, until we scramble up a great volcanic plug with a staggering view. It’s dangerous and grueling, and my legs always come back shredded and stinging from dodging and leaping saltbush and sage. But it’s so great.
This is another Man Thing, is it not? I don’t mean to suggest that men are somehow tougher than women — fairness and accuracy wouldn’t allow that. My wife runs at 6 every morning year round; I join her, only with great effort, once a year or so to show her I still care. And I’ve seen two babies come into this world, so I know first-hand that, if men had to go through childbirth, cockroaches would already rule the earth. So it’s something else.
I have a theory: Men are from Utah. Women are from Telluride.
I mean this metaphorically, of course. I propose that each place represents the topography of the psychology each gender generally inhabits. I also, though, don’t mean this metaphorically at all.
Take the example at hand. For the Men’s Trip, it’s Utah: big, raw, wild, exposed. And we’re all paddlers, so maybe this group’s spirits and styles are best expressed in this canyon’s entrenched meanders — seeking not, perhaps, the most direct route, but certainly the most lovely. Because to men, function is beauty.
For women, I propose, beauty is function. Several of the men on this trip have wives — also veteran river rats — who every year gather for their own Women’s Trip. This, too, is a shameless foray into excess; but for the women, it is a carefully planned visit to a luxury hotel with posh amenities in classy Telluride. There, they savor saunas, pools and masseuses. At night, they walk Telluride’s scenic sidewalks and eat in nice restaurants and wander the fancy shops. And we men all strongly encourage, support and assist our wives’ carving out their own space in their own place. We think it’s a good thing for the whole tribe.
But I also know that, as a Men’s Trip venue, that would hold less appeal than a sleep-over at Michael Jackson’s house.
I’ll instead take this: The four of us claw our way up the crumbling volcanic tower and mount the summit (heh heh). Before us stretches redrock ridges and a brown belt of bare cottonwoods, through which threads the slowly sliding river. The dozen boats of our manly flotilla lie on the rocky shoreline below.
“Ben, you suck!” we bellow affectionately.
Morning. The campfire is rekindled. For breakfast, Andy, Todd and I hold bratwurst impaled on sticks over the flame. Meanwhile, we work on our retirement plans.
“I’ve got it: greeting cards for men,” I announce. “We’d have three lines: cards men would send to men, cards men can send to women and cards men would like to get from women.”
“There’s too few places that would carry any good ones,” Todd notes, crushing our dreams. We think some more while we roast our brats.
“Do you need a beer?” Andy asks politely. But I scold him: “You can’t ask that on a Men’s Trip. It’s not about need. If there’s a point to your drinking, you’ve got a problem. I want a beer. Pointlessly.”
He hands me one, eyes lowered apologetically. To avoid these conflicts in the future, we divert our attention to coming up with a list: The Top 10 Things You Can’t Ask on the Men’s Trip:
10. “Are you going to pick that up?”
9. “Can I borrow a mirror?”
8. “Did you wash your hands?”
7. “When will you be back?”
6. “Do these pile pants match my paddling jacket?”
5. “Did you toot?”
4. “Is there any Zima left?”
3. “Congratulations. When are you due?”
2. “What did you mean by that?”
And the number-one thing you can’t ask on a Men’s Trip: “What are you thinking?”
What I’m thinking, actually, is that as zany and crude as I make all this sound, to be fair and accurate about it, the Men’s Trip is really more like “Boys Gone Mild.”
Our after-breakfast activities illustrate this: Eric and Bill play golf (all sandtrap). Todd and I throw a baseball around. Others play a game of tug-of-war on milk crates. The guitar comes out and gets passed around: Dead music, Jimmy Buffett, some Pink Floyd and, of course, a healthy helping of Neil Young — an honorary Men’s Tripper. Andy, meanwhile, decorates the riverside with a lovely free-form arch of driftwood.
The truth is, we don’t really need to act like stereotypical men all the time. And, the truth also is, we don’t want to act that way at home or around women. It’s just that, every now and then, it does our spirits good to pirate a visit to a kiva. It may not be pretty, but its function is its beauty.
After Utah, the best plan I can imagine is a visit to beautiful Telluride. And I mean that non-metaphorically. And metaphorically.
Chasing a stray baseball, I wander over and mention my newfound Men’s Trip insight to Andy.
“Everyone here is really so nice,” I tell him.
“Y’know what they say,” Andy responds with a warmth only a man could understand, “if it’s day three of the trip and you don’t know who the asshole is, it’s you.”
Ken Wright is a self-proclaimed “parenting bum.” He lives with his family in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. This story is from his most recent book, “The Monkey Wrench Dad” (Raven’s Eye Press).
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Hand-written draft of Frances Wisner’s column for the Idaho Country Free Press, 1967. Inset: Frances Wisner. Photo by R. Rat, Esq.
For Frances Zaunmiller Wisner (1914-1986), Polly Bemis (1853-1933) and all the river women who have taught me a thing or two about staying upright in an adventure.
Clarity is a good thing in the midst of a river adventure, that and serendipity. On the Main Salmon, the water is so clear I could look down between the tubes of my pack-cat and feel I was flying; the river stones passed rapidly beneath, as if I were seconds from touchdown.
“Idaho river holes are hard to recognize,” an experienced kayaker explained, referring to clarity’s downside. She nodded as I recounted my surprise tumble miles upriver earlier that day. “Never saw the hole,” I told her, though in all honesty, my mind had been focused on a new paddling strategy that was delighting me greatly. Before surfacing beside my pack-cat, though, my mind let loose these previous occupations. I’d remounted my steed with clarified determination to adjust my vision, so I recognize what’s actually in front of me.
In 1940, a young woman from Texas by the name of Frances followed a trail on horseback over a mountain pass down to the Salmon River. The trail crossed through a homestead at Campbell’s Ferry before reaching the river, where a traveler could, depending upon the river’s flow, hire a ferry and continue up the trail on the other side. Apparently Frances skipped the ferry, instead getting hired by the homestead owner to cook and care-take for his hunting business. Whatever Frances’ flash of clarity, she remained at Campbell’s Ferry for the rest of her life. She married the widowed owner of the homestead, Joe Zaunmiller, in 1942. In total she lived 45 years at Campbell’s Ferry, the final 20 more or less on her own.
In the early 1950s, Frances successfully rallied popular and political support for the construction of a bridge to replace the ferry. She asked Idaho Senator Henry Clarence Dworshak, “Have you ever been on a ferry when the river was too high, and felt the floor tip, saw the water start to curl over the bow into the boat and prayed that the cable would break so the boat could ride level again and not be sucked under?” On the day of the bridge’s inauguration in 1956, Frances and Joe took turns riding their Appaloosa mare across the Salmon and back, enjoying the view and her triumph.
After pulling onto the opposite shore to feast upon sandwiches and chocolate, my river-mates and I traversed “Frances’ Bridge” to visit her old homestead. After three days on the river, we delighted in the antique desk tops, invitingly lumpy twin beds, hand-stitched quilts, home-built cabinetry and outdated wall calendars. The hand-written draft of one of her weekly columns for the Idaho County Free Press was set out for visitors to read. In it she warned of the BLM’s pending plans to dam Glen Canyon.
Frances was a feisty woman, so, had she arrived home just then to find this odiferous crew milling about, she might have leveled a rifle in our direction and suggested we all get the hell out. But probably not. An apple orchard spread across the field, a stone’s throw from the cabin. One of us asked our host, the current caretaker of the homestead, if bears were ever a problem for Frances, since the orchard was so near. He looked at the questioner, puzzled. “A problem? No. Don’t think so. She just lived with them.”
Big Mallard is one of the few Class IV rapids on the Main Salmon. At our water level, the far left run would have been best, but our arrival was a bit disorganized, so most of us worked the eddy on the right as we studied the array of rocks, pillows, plumes and holes.
“We could go across to the left,” one kayaker suggested to me. In his play boat and young male body, he reached the far bank easily. I struggled a short while in the current, then turned back to consider Plan B, which pretty much consisted of seeing what I could and going for it. I wished I had not just witnessed a raft from our group follow a right-to-not-far-enough-left run, then drop from sight into an enormous hole, bottom-side facing upriver.
My beloved worked his raft between a nasty, jutting rock in the river’s center and a hole toward the right-hand side, till he too descended below my horizon, still bottom-side down, though facing backwards.
Polly Bemis and her husband, Charlie, lived miles downriver from the rocks and drama of Big Mallard, below the confluence of the South Fork and Main Salmon. How they ended up together on the Salmon isn’t clear; one story tells that Charlie Bemis, saloon owner, won Polly, a Chinese immigrant, in a hand of poker. Or, how about this account: Charlie was shot in the face during a hand of poker and Polly nursed him back to health. She may or may not have come to the U.S. as a slave, may or may not have been a prostitute before meeting Charlie. I do know this: Polly and Charlie were tough river people. In 1922, their cabin burned to the ground. Charlie died shortly thereafter, but neighbors from across the river helped Polly rebuild and helped her out, till her death in 1933.
Polly and Charlie are immortalized today as paper action figures in an Idaho grade-school lesson guide. (Read: Paste cut-out figures onto cardstock; then prop each figure with a brace). If you lived in Idaho, your 4th-grade child could bring home a paper Polly and Charlie and make up dialogues about hunting or fishing (illustrated with cut-out tools), harvest eggs from Polly’s paper chickens or play with Charlie’s paper pet cougar. Your child could identify the adjectives in this sentence: “In September 1890, an angry man believed that Polly’s friend Charlie had cheated him in a gambling game. He got a pistol and shot Charlie in the face, missing his eye but shattering his cheekbone.” Later, your kid might walk paper Polly down to the imaginary Salmon’s edge with her paper pet dog, Teddy, for her astounding catch of 27 fish in a day. Follow that with this math question: “What if Polly had caught 27 trout each day for a week? How many fish would that be? Show your work.”
If your kid’s improvised conversations between the paper river folk begin to flag, explore together this question from the Idaho lesson plan: “Polly and Charlie’s cabin on the Salmon River did not have running water. It also had no television or radio. What do you think they did for fun?”
Across the river at the top of Big Mallard, a kayaker from our group gestured to me broadly, communicating the path to a good run. Right arm down the center, then pointing right. I considered all my observations and the last bit of advice, and started toward the rumbling mayhem.
Can’t say I had a clear vision of the outcome, but did have one clear thought: I’m-not-going-over, gawd-dam-it.
I followed my beloved’s line, entering on the right, the Idaho river holes appearing to me clear as crystal. I shot the gap between the nasty rock center top and its subsequent hole and a second hole to its right. With each paddle stroke I grunted my most beneficial mantra (“fuck, fuck, fuck”), picking my way through the roiling waves. In response to applause at the bottom of the run, I patted my helmeted head and smiled goofily.
River adventures can begin and end before it’s even clear what’s going on. Turns out, my beloved’s backward-facing run put him in great position to pull the dump-trucked boatman out of the water. Meanwhile, the kayaker from our group who counseled me on Idaho rivers, paddled directly over to the emptied raft, exited her kayak, boarded the raft, lifted the kayak onto it, pulled the remaining swimmer into the raft, sat down at the raft’s oars and took command.
Frances and Polly would have been proud.
Laura Kerr recently paddled and dragged her pack-cat down a slow-rising Salt River. She thinks Frances and Polly would be cool with her decision to portage Corkscrew.
Dusty Lanci rides the Owyhee River (OR) in style. Photo by Sarah Lanci.
The newest member of the mountain-brewing fraternity is Elevation Beer Co., a start-up taking root in Poncha Springs. If you find yourself wondering, where in the hell is Poncha Springs, don’t feel bad. Half the Chaffee County locals interviewed couldn’t place it. Head north, and you’re in Buena Vista. Head east to nearby Salida. Head west and you’ll be on Monarch Pass. Head south for the Poncha Pass and the metropolis of Saguache.
If this sounds like a remote location for a brewery, it is. But for their business plan, Poncha is centrally located. Elevation intends to brew for a different market than many microbreweries. Rather than going after taps and brewing for volume, Elevation plans three product lines for production. Based on the rating scheme for ski trails, their Blue Square brews will be easier-drinking beers, and distributed locally on tap.
The other two lines, dubbed Black Diamond and Double Black, will feature bigger, bolder expressions of beer style with the first releases to be a Belgian Quadruple made with caramelized honey and a Farmhouse Ale aged in chardonnay barrels. These will be distributed “corked & caged” in 750ml champagne bottles throughout Colorado and are aimed at the beer aficionado market. Look for Elevation where you buy beer by press time, and stop in for their grand opening to be held at the brewery on May 19th.
Since we last checked in with the Eddyline Brewery, located in the South Main area of Buena Vista (MG #179), things seem to have been going well. A new facility and canning line is complete and operational, and distribution in 16-ounce cans has taken off with a newly inked deal that should put their beer on shelves across the High Country of Colorado this summer. To celebrate, Eddyline is co-sponsoring the Colorado Kayak Supply (CKS) Paddlefest on May 25-27th and will have a special release, Paddlefest Pilsner a.k.a Boater Beer, on hand for the event. This beer is a craft-brewed American Lager, perfect for hot summer days on the river. With back-to-back “Best of the Fest” awards from the Telluride Blues n’ Brews festival to their name, Eddyline is on a roll heading into summer 2012.
According to head brewer Mike LaCroix, Amicas Microbrewery in Salida will be featuring several seasonal releases, as well as a few new brews this spring. In addition to the Ute Trail Pale Ale, look for the next in their series of single-hop IPAs to be released, with this version featuring the Australian grown “Galaxy” hop. Single-hop IPAs take a simple base beer and then bitter it with one variety of hop, rather than mixing several to generate a more complex hop profile. The idea is to provide a clean base on which to showcase the flavors of the hop variety without distraction. Mike has also been exploring the craft of barrel-aging beer, and will be releasing an Imperial Brown Honey Ale, aged in a bourbon barrel for several months. It should come in around 12% abv, and will only be available on tap starting in mid-April.
Also in Salida, Moonlight Pizza has begun brewing beer. Billed as “beer for the worker bees,” the brewing operation was started to complement the existing pizza business. All indications are that this is a groovy place worthy of a stop, as they say, after running a marathon, leading your first 5.10b or swimming a rapid.
Erich Hennig is an avid homebrewer and lives in Durango, CO.
I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
— Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
1) I’m not, she said
Richard Brautigan wrote the peculiar and brief “Trout Fishing in America” in the summer of 1961 while camping with his wife and baby daughter in the Stanley Basin. Piloting a beat-to-hell Plymouth wagon they bought with a $350 tax refund, they’d camp beside streams and the author would set up a card table and an old portable typewriter. He recorded the names of trout-bearing creeks and rivers in his notebook: Big Smokey Creek, Queens River, Big Pine Creek, Salmon River — you get the drift. In that time, some lasting sage entered the American literary scene. To wit:
“I remember mistaking an old woman for a trout stream in Vermont,
and I had to beg her pardon.”
“Excuse me,” I said. “I thought you were a trout stream.”
“I’m not,” she said.
2) Desperate measures
American Rivers’ annual top-10 list of the country’s most-endangered rivers is a more depressing read than, say, Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. Completely guaranteed to put you in a crappy mood, the 2011 list is about rivers at their ecological tipping points, and is largely about dams and desperate extractive industries that have run out of safe places to do their bidding. Topping the nominees is the East Coast’s Susquehanna River, which has taken a major hit from natural gas fracking. Three Western rivers made the list, with California’s Yuba River in fifth place. Here we have two outdated federal dams blocking migration for the threatened steelhead and spring-run Chinook salmon. In Washington, threats from a Canadian mining company put the Green River at No. 6. Opponents are quick to point out that a big mine next to Mount St. Helens, in an active earthquake zone, is a prescription for water-quality disaster. In Wyoming, we have the possibility for natural gas drilling and a potential environmental blowout on the headwaters of the Hoback River, listed at No. 7.
3) Stay here
Take your choice of Mountain West rivers and thank your stars. Our point is, if you’re going to hang out in, on or next to rivers, you need to select them with the Limb-Severing (Or Worse) Monster Ratio in mind. You won’t need to worry about that in most of the Mountain West, but if you leave here and travel to, say, the murky, stump-riddled Trinity River that flows down through Dallas and around Houston, don’t say we didn’t warn you. Here you will encounter the alligator gar (probably a bunch of dead bodies as well — if the gars haven’t gotten to them). This fish gets up to 10 feet, has an alligator-like snout, a double row of dagger teeth, AND it can live outside the water for up to two hours. It could, like, come to your tent or motel room. Anyway, it gets a lot worse once you leave the States. There are tons of river monsters, but the absolute most loathsome is the tiny Candiru catfish — the Amazon’s most-feared fish. The Candiru is known for entering orifices and dining off the victim’s blood. There’s an apparently true story about a man urinating into the Amazon, and — you got it — a Candiru swimming up the urine stream and into his penis. A surgeon removed the fish after four days, after it got particularly problematic. Spiny gill flaps … Don’t leave home.
4) That damned fish is a lot scarier than this
While we always wax poetic about how nice Portland is, with its fine beers and environmental cheeriness, it appears we’ve got some weird crap going on with the Willamette River. While there have been no sightings of the justifiably maligned Candiru fish, there have been several reports in recent years of an unmanned, phantom rowboat making its way about the Willamette. When officials are called to the scene, the boat allegedly disappears right in front of them. Evidently, there is a creepy, unfinished mansion across the river, where the builder reportedly hanged himself in the elevator shaft. He probably heard the story about the Candiru.
5) Go ahead and jump
If gravity and water are on your agenda, consider the West’s finer swimming holes, some offering the ultimate vertical experience. Check out Aztec Falls in Deep Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest. The sissy ledge is a mere 30 feet, with the big ledge at 60. There’s also the well-attended Mushroom Hole in Tahoe National Forest above the Middle Yuba River. At roughly 30 feet, it’s one of the most popular leaps in the northern Sierra. Now, if open-river swimming is more to your taste, consider the June 23 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, a scant 28.5 mile dip in the pristine waters surrounding New York City, starting and ending at Battery Park.
Ashes on the Colorado Utah • 1979
It’s not the River Ganges; these are only campfire ashes they’re spreading on the waters, and these guys are not really panning for souls, either. However, the ashes of a couple of close relatives would eventually be committed to these
My mother in this way hoped to meet up with my father again, even though he was given to the sea off-shore of Monterey Bay.
I released Karen at the same spot on the Roaring Fork River, near its confluence with MacFarlane Creek, east of Aspen. It always was a matter of catch-and-release with her, anyway. It’s Gold Medal Waters. ‘Nuff said.
Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley.
Reading the same old conventional wisdoms over and over makes me impatient, to the point where I start to say things that I know will piss everyone off, even most of my friends, just as a way to say, c’mon, think about it for a minute, dammit! It’s always a mistake — but what the hell: here goes.
Jonathan Waterman’s recent book, “Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River,” hit the tipping point for me. Not because it’s any worse than any of the rest of the books about the Colorado River; it’s not. But it’s just the same old sad story, a mingling of lamentation, nostalgia and repugnance for a river presumed to be ruined if we don’t stop … whatever. And maybe it is ruined, for a geological moment here; it is certainly a river with problems. I would definitely say it is a river beyond “restoration” at this point — restoration as “the river that was” anyway. But does that mean it is “ruined?” A half-built house has problems that are very different from the problems of a house that is falling down — but you don’t solve those problems by trying to turn the boards back into trees. And if for no reason other than the eventual boredom of hearing a sad story over and over, I’m not going to just agree that the Colorado River has been ruined by its problems until I’ve heard at least one more perspective on the river. I want some judgments on the river from an Anthropocene perspective.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I am not above reproach in this business of literary lamentations about the Colorado River. Back in 1977, I wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine about the Lower Colorado River, arguing finally that “this cannot go on this way,” an essay that became a PBS-type film in 1981. Also in 1981, environmental journalist Philip Fradkin brought out “A River No More,” lamenting what we have done to the Colorado. Not long after that, Marc Reisner wrote the environmentalist epic “Cadillac Desert,” lamenting what we’ve done to the entire American West with emphasis on the Colorado River; a few years after that, Colorado journalist Jim Carrier wrote “The Colorado: A River at Risk”; and just a few years ago we got “Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West.” And now we’ve got the latest in this literary cottage industry, Jonathan Waterman’s “Running Dry” — the book that hit the tipping point for me, and precipitated this effort to see if there isn’t some way out of this “dead pool” of nostalgia and lamentation.
Some factoids: Over the 35 years since my Harper’s essay, these regular predictions of near-death notwithstanding, the Colorado River now provides some or all of the drinking water for around 10 million more people than it did in 1977 — around 35 million of us today. If you’re eating fresh vegetables in mid-winter, you probably have to thank the lower Colorado River to some degree. The southwestern cities that depend on the river, and that most of us depend on directly or indirectly for jobs, complex networks of finance and transportation and communication, a vast menu of entertainment, et cetera, et cetera, have mostly at least doubled in size in that time.
Meanwhile, from the Mountain Gazette perspective, the Colorado still has almost as many stretches of good whitewater rafting as it did in 1977 (although it had lost a lot in the decades before), a lot of good-to-great fishing (with some improved fisheries), a lot of beautiful scenery with new “wild and scenic” stretches being protected, not to mention flatwater reservoirs for those who like that kind of thing — and the industrial management processes that operate this great American playground are pretty discrete, so that it is possible, for example, to spend a couple weeks floating down the Grand Canyon, only seeing a few other parties besides your own, and feeling like you truly are in a great natural wilderness and you don’t have to think about the high level of crowd management and planning that goes into nurturing that feeling.
I hasten to add that I am not deluded that everything is fine on the Colorado River — far from it. There are major problems that we need to address on the river, from the headwaters all the way down through that vast delta that now begins at Parker Dam and spreads the river from Phoenix and Tucson on the east all the way around through a lot of desert farming to Los Angeles and San Diego on the west. The creeping consequences of diverting too much water from the headwaters for out-of-basin metropolises, the cattle-caused breakdown and depletion of mountain streams, the salt-loading from some irrigation runback on top of the natural salinity of the river, evaporative losses that further degrade water quality, siltation behind reservoirs and a lack of silt in the Grand Canyon, loss of both riparian and aquatic habitat for wildlife, loss of most of the old delta — there is no shortage of problems facing us up and down the river. But, with the exception of the recently “discovered” global climate change looming over everything, these situations were already problems 35 years ago, and some of them — irrigation-induced salinity, loss of habitat, degradation of streambeds caused my human and livestock activity — have actually been addressed with some success over those 35 years.
I would certainly agree that our enhanced level of “environmental awareness” has been important in motivating those improvements and “corrections” to our often naïve and clumsy works on the planet. But I raise the question: Are we doing what we do, to undo what we’ve done, for reasons that really make sense in the way the planet works? The fact that we are still writing and reading the same old “river-no-more” book about this situation makes me think, no, we aren’t. There’s a problem of context and focus. It may not be a problem of not thinking right about this river; the problem might be a way in which we are not thinking right about ourselves.
Let me try to explain. A couple three weeks ago, I had a discussion with another writer about what geological epoch we are living in. He said “the Holocene.” I said “the Anthropocene.” We didn’t get much beyond that, and probably won’t for another, say, 300 years; it turns out to be a religious question, about beliefs that lie below reason for both of us. But it is not a minor distinction; those two words encapsulate two diametrically opposed concepts of the relationship between the earth and ourselves that we ought to at least be aware of.
Most plainly, “Holocene” refers to a climatological epoch in which we humans have been impacted by things happening on earth (climatic moderation, disappearance of planet-cooling ice sheets, et cetera), while Anthropocene refers to a biological and climatological epoch in which the earth has been impacted by things happening among humans (advanced technologies, release of banked carbon, et cetera).
The Holocence Epoch began somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, depending on whose criteria you like, when the last glacial epoch of the Pleistocene eased up and the Big Ice retreated again in its mysterious way. The climate moderated, things warmed up, and plant and animal species tough enough to survive the cold deserts in the shadow of the Big Ice more or less exploded into that dangerous kind of success that nature usually rewards with a nasty comeuppance, as ecological limits get pushed to the breaking point. The megafauna explosion that ended in population crashes thousands of years ago was probably one example of those Holocene “success tragedies”; the passenger pigeon was an example from historical times; extreme cycles in populations of small mammals like the lemmings or gophers are apparently always going on somewhere.
There is, however, one successful species that has swarmed on the earth in the most recent 10,000 years of the epoch my friend wants to call the Holocene — but this species has not yet crashed on the ecological reefs, and that is because for the past 10,000 years or so it has shown remarkable creativity in adapting to its own ecological consequences with new, ever more concentrated and sophisticated systems for social and economic organization. That’s us, of course. And despite constant and accelerating warnings from those who study such phenomena, we seem thoroughly disinclined to do anything aggressive to control our own swarming. We instead continue to manipulate the environments we live in to squeeze out yet a little more for us, knowing that we do it at the expense of other forms of life, and through irreversible changes in those environments — but what choice do we have? No free people could tolerate — right? — the levels of external and internal discipline and social structure it would take to bring us back into some level of balance with what we think of as nature, which was the world before us. Today, the planet throws its worst shots at us — diseases, drought and famine, flood and famine, tsunamis, hurricanes, supertornados — but our scientists conquer the diseases before they can really take hold; our managers and NGOs move enough food around to keep some of the famines in hand; and growth spurts somewhere in the world soon make up for the loss of a few hundred thousand, or million, somewhere else. We continue to swarm, and to invent new social and economic systems to enable us to live in even larger concentrations, and to squeeze just a little more out of the ecological support systems. We know about peak oil and climate change, but seem increasingly incapable of real action on any of it; instead we continue to indulge our own inner denier like we indulge the public ones, hopping in the car to go to the store or the nearest trailhead, confident that, if the scientists and engineers and managers can’t come up with another silver bullet, then it’s too late anyway and we might as well enjoy the last days.
Depending on how you choose to look at it, our continued ability to change the planet to serve us rather than changing ourselves is either a tragedy (meaning we’re learning something the hard way), a travesty (meaning a meaningless comedy of errors that isn’t even funny) or a miraculous achievement. And why not at least explore the last alternative, since it suggests a sense of optimism, however illusory it might turn out to be?
Which brings me back to the Colorado River, and why I think we need to start looking at it from an Anthropocene perspective. What choice do we have? The cities of the desert keep growing, and are not going to stop growing because they cannot: the global population continues to grow because we cannot or will not stop it, and the people will go where they can. And wherever people go, there needs to be water there for them, and it is one of the cornerstones of the American Way to say with the engineers: “Can do!”
So we are going to keep on remaking the Colorado River in the image of man’s growing needs: the First Anthropocene River.
So what is the Colorado River going to look like when its reconstruction is done? This is where the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Colorado River is kind of out in front of the pack in the anthropocentric reconstruction of the earth portion of the planet. (The oceans are another world.) We have decided that we need the Colorado River to continue to look as much like it used to look as possible. “Need” is deliberately chosen there; we need this the way we need food to eat, water to drink. It can go to places where it is reduced to rational piping and plumbing, but there have to still be significant segments of it that “look natural.” Phoenix can do what it will, but the Grand Canyon must remain the Grand Canyon.
Sometimes this is pretty easy. The Gunnison River (my home basin) has a tributary, the Taylor River, that has a beautiful stretch of canyons — 20-plus miles. And at the head of that canyon stretch is a dam that used to be late-summer storage for a big irrigation district a hundred miles downstream. But some new dams on the mainstem of the Gunnison gave the irrigators a closer, better place to store their late water. So all of a sudden, they did not really need the dam up the Taylor River. One can hear the chorus that would erupt today: “Tear it down! Free the river!”
Instead (this being back when it was not yet a sin to be Anthropocene), a “local user group,” made up of Taylor River irrigators, the local anglers club, a couple rafting companies, the reservoir concessionaires and some wealthy second-home owners, went to the Bureau of Reclamation and proposed that the storage at the top of the canyon be used to run the river like a “natural stream,” only with periodic adjustments for special needs (late-summer irrigation, a river-runner event, et cetera) and also with the kind of year-to-year regularity that storage affords when the highly irregular Western water cycle does its extreme events. So now, every spring, the local user group sits down and figures out how the water will be released from the dam to operate the river. No one is entirely indulged, but everyone gets most of what they want, and it is a lovely little river — entirely a human economic and aesthetic construct at this point, but as beautiful and natural-looking (in a dependable sort of way) as it ever was.
So, sometimes it’s easy — especially when the cities of the plain across the mountains have not yet come looking for water to move out of the river and into their plumbing. What about a mountain river that’s not so lucky? Like the mainstem of the Colorado River in Colorado. Its major headwaters watersheds — the Fraser, Williams Fork, Blue and Eagle rivers — are so water-rich that they made a significant, and very convenient, eastward bulge in the Continental Divide. Today, two-thirds of the waters that originate in this bulge now go through the Divide in tunnels to the cities and farms (mostly the cities) of the East Slope rather than down the Colorado to the southwestern deserts.
Geologists say that this eastward bulge in the watersheds was the consequence of a huge glacial lake that broke through the Gore Range during some previous warm spell between Pleistocene glaciations. Had that not happened, the Gore Range might have been part of the Continental Divide, and those headwaters streams might have all been part of the Platte-Missouri Basin already when we Anthropocenes arrived a century and a half ago. It would have saved a lot of work — but that misses the point of the Anthropocene: imagining the work and carrying it out is what we’ve been all about.
The work today, a task finally being taken semi-seriously by the cities east of the Divide that have dewatered the streams, is to rebuild the rivers from which they have taken two-thirds of the water: to reconstruct them so they still look and even function like natural rivers — important to the human economy — and can adequately meet downstream obligations. (Those downstream obligations, I should note, are strictly the obligations to humans created during the Anthropocene; for the next half-millennium or so, it no longer includes the much longer-standing obligation the river apparently had to convey the entire Southern Rockies and the disruptive Colorado Plateau south to the Gulf of California as rubble and silt. An impressive but ultimately kind of meaningless task, maybe even more meaningless than creating huge transient cities in the desert.)
Much has been made of a recent agreement between Denver Water and something like 60 regional, county, municipal, agricultural and industrial water-oriented organizations west of the Divide in the Upper Colorado River tributaries, but no one seems to be announcing the Anthropocene triumph: when the cities of Eastern Colorado complete the job they are just beginning (and it will require many more cooperative agreements), the Colorado River mainstem will be, from top to bottom, a completely man-made river, the “first Anthropocene River” — and a lot of it, most of it in the Southern Rockies, will look really natural and beautiful.
The agreement involves fairly small numbers, for something that took five years to negotiate. For a surprisingly modest amount of water — around 18,000 acre-feet a year, less than a tenth the amount that now goes annually to the cities across the Divide — Denver Water will be investing millions of dollars in the Upper Colorado River. Much of the money this go-round goes to sewer plants that increasingly lack any dilutive capability in their systems due to reduced flows. But the rest — the ultimate Anthropocene act — will go to reconstructing some sections of the river where the amount of water taken to the Front Range has left the flows too shallow and sun-warmed to support the aquatic systems that fish, kayakers and those who cater to fishermen and kayakers depend on. They are going to construct a scaled-down version of the former river.
A friend in the Eagle River valley, who is less impressed with this cooperative agreement than many others, explains it thus: “They are putting backhoes and bulldozers into the water, to convert a former river into a creek.” There’s a more Anthropocene way of saying that: It will be a stream that will fit the amount of water still available.
It’s not cheap, maybe a million bucks a mile, more or less — it’s still a fairly new operation. But it is a definite step up in a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of rivers — say, from the engineers’ sense in the 1950s and before that a river was just a sort of sewer system for excess water on the land, and straightening channels made it function more efficiently. It is also a definite step up for Denver Water, which for most of the 20th century vigorously, even violently, resisted the idea that taking water from the headwaters of a river conferred any moral obligation. There’s a man named Chips Barry to thank for that change, although he was by no stretch a man who thought that rivers should run free just because they used to. He was a man of the Anthropocene all the way, but came to understand that the new world had to be remade somewhat in the image of the old one.
One could go on in this vein, but the point would be the same: wherever you go on the Colorado River, you are looking at a river that has been remade to render multiple services to a swarming species that likes to eat, drink and make merry. The question is whether the humans who benefit from all this are going to be able to adapt to the reality of their lives and acknowledge the miracle associated with the dual facts that there is still water in the Grand Canyon as well as in the faucets of Denver and LA, or whether we are going to continue to indulge the “nostalgia centers” in the cortex that can only see the half-empty river, but not the opportunity to half-size the river to appear full. That of course will probably precipitate other unanticipated problems to work on — but that is the road we are on; it’s what we do to avoid having to get some control over ourselves and our numbers.
The last step in the remaking of the Colorado River will probably be to bring certainty to the most common lamentation: “the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea.” Get used to that one — and not just for this river. Once we have thoroughly “firmed up” our control and utilization of the world’s freshwater resources — only a very small percent of the total water on the planet — no river will be drowning itself in that salty cesspool. It is wonderful that life has learned to live abundantly in saltwater, but that is another world on the same planet; it neither needs the leftover piss-in-the-ocean semi-fresh water from rivers, nor misses the evaporation that enables the recharge of those rivers in our mountains.
Watch a river at work — tearing stuff off the hillsides it can’t keep from running off of, then piling that debris in front of itself in leveler places, forcing itself into meanders, staying with the land as long as it can even as it continues to move the land around — there’s no evidence that a mature river is in any hurry to get to the ocean. And the rich delta zone it pushes as far as it can out into the sea before it succumbs to the sea — a river’s last hurrah. Why shouldn’t that final life zone instead be a lot of rich farmland and a megacity or two to contain the masses? There are problems to solve there too, of course — usually that “freshwater” isn’t that fresh by the time it gets to its final lowlands. The job of reconstructing the river in the image of ourselves and our needs and desires is not done; there’s plenty of work for another generation or two. As Ed Marston, former High Country News publisher, said to me once, “No generation should be expected to solve all the problems for the next generation.”
But there’s also the possibility that that “nostalgia center” in our cerebral hard wiring may be powerful enough so we find we just cannot tolerate the idea of the Anthropocene, and most of us (especially if we read all the sanctioned books of lamentations) will be like the ancient dispersed Jews: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” We’ll continue to paddle down the work-in-progress in our miracle-fabric boats with the lightweight carbon-fiber paddles and our freeze-dried foods and Nalgene bottles, deploring what we see as we write the next lamentatious epic in crocodile tears. And so we will abandon the half-done project — maybe the barely begun project, the first time life itself has ever presumed to take an active role in the evolution of life — and the world will become even more intolerable until three-fourths of us die fairly quickly from something, and the remainder goes back to the simple life, which will not be so simple …
We should probably also do whatever we do or don’t do in the secure knowledge that eventually, regardless of our efforts, the Colorado River will be back at its own primal obligation of removing the Southern Rockies and the Colorado Plateau, grain by grain, flood by flood, down to the sea-level peneplain that water dreams of. We know that the dams, as we currently know how to do dams, are only good for maybe half a millennia, maybe a little longer; that’s one of the problems we pass on to the next generation. But the real challenge might be making Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver last even that long. Unlike the climatological ages preceding this one — the Pleistocene with its flow and ebb of glaciations, the lovely moderate Holocene, the hot steamy eras like the Carboniferous to which we may be returning as we begin recycling all that banked carbon — the Anthropocene, at this point, depends on whether nostalgia or imagination will capture our minds from here on out.
“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”
— Stewart Brand
Senior correspondent George Sibley is the author of “Part of a Winter” and “Dragons in Paradise.” His next book, “Water Wranglers: The Story of the Colorado River Water Conservation District,” is scheduled to be published later this year. Sibley, a retired professor of journalism at Western State College, lives in Gunnison, Colo.