Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A River Reminiscence

If there really is a heaven somewhere I hope it looks and feels like Ruby Canyon did that late October day back in 2003. There were three of us on a raft drifting in a dreamlike state through still water; through a corridor of gold and gray and red; sharing the stream with herons, ducks and eagles; and reveling in the heat of a record-breaking late October afternoon. This might have been my best day ever on the river, my moment of spiritual and emotional glory, and the summation of all the personal energy, time, romance and feeling that I have brought into this country and which this country has returned to me a hundred-fold.

We cast off from Loma launch around 9:30am, a bit late by river standards but early enough that much of Horsethief Canyon was still in shadows and as the sun crept into the cottonwood galleries, they would ignite with an almost holy luminescence like torches lighting the way through this watery corridor. Ahead of us, the upper cliffs and buttes were bright with morning light while the canyon mouths waited in cool darkness. A few miles downstream we stopped at the mouth of Rattlesnake Canyon where we exited the raft, and followed the primitive trail up-canyon in search of slickrock. Every turn in the trail brought some new delight. A fresh view. A blazing red squawbush. An eroded alcove. Giant monolithic structures. We soon reached a stony corridor which was still in the shade, a beautifully sculpted section of creek where the gravel and soil had long since been removed, leaving a slickrock staircase through narrow walls. We hung out there for quite a while before returning to the raft.

By then it was nearly noon and we had barely begun the trip. So we pressed on downstream, skirting riffles and eddies, amazed and humbled by the steadily rising cliffs. I sat at the front of the raft, taking it all in, trying to somehow imprint the landscape on my brain, knowing that this could be the last trip I take on the river for quite some time. A float trip always has its own time schedule. The current dictates where you go and how fast you get there. No point in worrying about a time schedule. The scenery slides by at a slow pace massaging the senses as it does. Your eyes fix on a point downstream and that point approaches at an even, minimal pace allowing you to study it, anticipate it, dissect it if need be. The immediate banks of the river move by like the old multi-plane animations of Walt Disney. A cottonwood looms ahead. The view of it then replaced by rising tamarisk. Then a butte rises up from nowhere. And then, in a single instant butte, cottonwood, and tamarisk are all framed exquisitely to the human eye. This is the recurring cycle of floating downstream.

We took a late lunch on the Mee Canyon Bench which was rife with autumn-heavy trees offering shade while framing the surrounding cliffs with great, arching branches and sweeping canopies. We marveled at the absence of any other people. No other floaters. No trains coming through. No hikers. Not even any airplane noise. I fell into deep reminiscence as I sat beneath a mother cottonwood eating my lunch. I thought about Octobers past. I mentally walked myself though all the trails walked, and mesas climbed, and arroyos explored in my thirty-odd years out here. How much sand had accumulated in my shoes? How much red dust in my teeth? How many friends had I taken with me? I felt like I knew so much yet still knew so little about this place, but I felt a peace and comfort verging on nirvana. I felt my life coming full circle in canyon country.

It was after two by the time we got back on the river and now the sun had drifted substantially to the west, sending long shadows across the rocks. As we navigated the whirlpools and rough water of Black Rocks, the Precambrian, polished stone captured and reflected the afternoon light. The rocks loomed out of the water like thick, black icebergs as we moved through the narrow, foam-flecked channel. As we headed west into the sunlight itself, I basked in the heat and the deep blue sky above. In a few more miles, we would transition from the inner depths of Ruby Canyon to the more open shorelines near the Utah/Colorado border.

As soon as one reaches the state line, the river breaks free of the canyon's constraints and enters a broad, brilliant country of free standing buttes, open fields, and thickening cottonwood galleries. With the sun now behind them, the trees were afire with yellow and orange. Along the banks, the squawbush glowed red, while the thick tamarisk stands were haloed in a coppery glow. The overall feeling was one of leaving a great cathedral and ascending to the very portals of a heavenly landscape. Not a single mile was lost on my senses. I drank it in. I stored it. I reveled in it. And I silently congratulated myself for knowing when to take this trip. For having the experience and foresight to time it so perfectly. And I thanked the canyon gods for cooperating with great weather, great colors and great companionship. That day on the river was a distillation of all the Octobers ever spent on the Colorado Plateau, a concentrated dose of all the best this land can offer. I never tire of it. I never fail to be renewed by it. I have a canyon lands dependency.

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