Edge of Disappointment

What a different world it would be if we kept a wild river or lake in our hearts.  Rebecca Lawton

Becca’s words have inspired me to identify that “wild river” that runs through my heart. There are many, actually, and luckily in this country I see many—even here in the desert. For here we live at the edges of things—the edge of the San Juan Mountains, which comprises this western edge of the Rockies. The eastern edge of the Colorado Plateau, which spreads west, south, and north of here. The southwestern edge of the state of Colorado; the northeastern edge of the Four Corners area. We live at the edge of the piñon-juniper woodland, the ponderosa pine forest beginning just a few feet higher up and building to mixed conifer forest, and aspens, and then that edge: timberline, the alpine tundra, where trees stop and either snow or baldness begins.

Being at all these edges really means I am in the heart of it all. The rivers may best express this phenomenon of place—the Animas, Dolores, and San Juan primary among them—telling the story as they run toward or directly into that great river of western rivers: the Colorado. At the edge and at the heart.

Balanced on this ledge of Dakota sandstone above a favorite among favorites, I see in motion this confluence of place. Disappointment Creek runs gray today, carrying silt from the upper valley in snowmelt originating in the high country—Lone Cone, the westernmost peak of the San Juans, specifically. This tributary runs clearly off that iconic landmark, gathering fine remnants of Mancos shale as it cuts through the sections of cow pastures above me, carrying those remnants as silt, infamous here as Disappointment Creek dumps them into the Dolores River after meandering through much of Disappointment Valley, collecting more. The Dolores carries all that silt—and whatever has been released from McPhee reservoir, and whatever seeps and drainages it encounters along the way—clear to the Colorado River, over there in Utah.

The Dolores River, major silt contributor to the Colorado, is guilty mainly because it carries within its banks the waters of Disappointment. Guiltier perhaps than the river, at least by popular opinion, are the cattle grazers who do not protect the riparian areas. As I watch Disappointment Creek flash and flood and trickle through the seasons, I wonder about the truth of that. This land is often patches of bare gray soil. When was this not so? Before domestic cattle and wild horses? Sometime more than two centuries ago when pronghorn, mule deer, elk, and desert bighorn sheep were the only herbivores grazing on this land? I don’t know. This is thrifty not fertile soil. It grows the bunchgrasses and desert shrubs that need minimal water to survive. I expect it did in the old days, as well. Because this was still geologically Mancos shale back then, still climatically desert. From rivulet to river, water carried particles of soil from confluence to confluence then as it does now.

After the peak

After the peak of a summer monsoon, a side drainage carries this into Disappointment Creek

At least, so far, the water still runs here at these edges. We need this act of God and physics to continue. Today spring winds suck all moisture from soil and skin, leaving us crusty and dry. Disappointment runs downcanyon through a pushy upriver wind. Soil is being blown back upvalley, Utah into Colorado, Arizona into New Mexico. Some blame the sheep in Dinétah for this; I’ve even heard sheep blamed for the monumental formations in Monument Valley. As if 400 years of sheep could carve such majesty into a place. As if Navajo-Churro sheep roamed the wild canyonlands of Utah, sculpting Delicate Arch, Balanced Rock. I’d bet on wind, water, and eons, at the same time understanding that with less ground cover, more dirt blows. That overgrazing should be the new outlaw of the West.

Despite silt in the water and the gray soil of the land, it took no time at all for Disappointment Creek to carve its place in my heart. One sighting. A breath. The seasons since that initial meeting have only affirmed that this confluence of place—of rivers, mountains, and desert—is where I want to be at this edge of my life. Although, like weather, this could change.

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