CHAPTER 9: JANUARY – DABBLING IN HEARTBREAK
Now the logistical rubber meets the road. For the next three months the plan gets complicated. Big Bend is on the books for February. I’ve decided to drive south, almost to Mexico, to explore stretches of the lower Colorado River for my January outing. And my hope is to finally run the Gila River in New Mexico in March. The Gila has long been on my river to-do list, ever since I lived in New Mexico in the 1970s. All well and good, but how do I stitch together an itinerary spanning thousands of miles, in the heart of winter, without declaring bankruptcy, and keep it moderately sane?
In the end, the scheme involves recruiting willing friends with driveway space, cheap airline tickets, some heavy-lift driving, and a general leap of faith. On paper, it goes like this.
Some time after the Christmas holidays, I’ll pick a window to drive south from Montana, pulling the T@B teardrop trailer behind, heading for Lake Mead. After a week spent hopping down the Colorado River corridor toward the border, I’ll drive west to Vista, California, north of San Diego, where my cousin lives. She’s offered a place to park my rig for a few weeks while I fly back home with a cheap round-trip ticket, reconnect with family and readjust to winter, before returning in early February. From San Diego, I’ll drive the rig east more than 1,000 miles to Big Bend, Texas and meet my friends who have signed on for the borderlands trip on the Rio Grande. Then, taking my time, I’ll mosey north to Albuquerque, where another old friend from my Santa Fe days has made her driveway available. Using credit card miles, I’ll fly back home from New Mexico for a few weeks before returning, with Marypat, to take on the Gila. After the Gila, Marypat and I will drive on home. Simple as that. What could go wrong?
Laid out like that, it sounds pretty straightforward. More moving parts than ideal, but in theory, almost reasonable. It was anything but straightforward getting there. I juggled air fares, van storage fees, far-flung contacts, mileage calculators, weather patterns. There was a lot of time spent bent over a map of the western United States with my appointment calendar open and a pencil with a good eraser. I seriously considered driving all the way to Mexico, back to Montana, down to Texas, back to Montana, south to New Mexico, and finally, back to Montana, through the depths of winter, before admitting that it was lunacy.
On January 5th, according to plan, I hook up the trailer and drive out of my snowy driveway before dawn. Roads are dry. The cold, pale sun rises. Wintery Montana spreads away from the highway, familiar and comforting. Somewhere south of Dillon, approaching Monida Pass, conditions deteriorate. The weather window I picked closes in gray cloud. The pavement gets slick. I slow to 45 mph, drive in and out of snow squalls. Exactly the conditions I had hoped to avoid.
Hours later, in the downsloping landscape north of Salt Lake City, the weather finally lifts, the roads clear up, and I relax my hunched, clenched posture. The pace picks up. Through the clog of Salt Lake traffic, I keep reminding myself of the trailer I’m towing. Then I’m south of town, the arid landscape opens up, snow line rises.
I’m conflicted. I have friends in St. George who invited me to stay over. I also am eager to start my solo time with a camper, a new era in travel. I imagine myself pulling off at a remote exit, going down a ranch road and finding a pull off to park for the night, cozy in my unit. The image is compelling, but I’m also drawn to see my friends. Mostly, I don’t know if I’ll make the long drive in a day. I’m not excited about navigating to their house, pulling a trailer, after dark.
Caught up in indecision, I keep passing those remote exits. A few seem tempting, dirt roads leading around a bend, but I keep going. It is dark by the time I reach St. George. I follow the phone directions out of town, to the subdivision where they live. The android voice leads me unerringly to their driveway, where I pull in just as my friends arrive from a dinner party.
January is equal parts river trip and vagabond experiment.
Marypat and I are thinking ahead to what’s next in life. Do we sell our house and become gypsies for a while? Do we hunker in? Do we sell and downsize? Do we do nothing? And what might inevitably come along to complicate or derail our best laid plans?
My St. George buddies, Doug and Sunny, have their take on the challenge. They found a way to buy a second house in the sun, while keeping their long-time home in Montana. They are snowbirds with a home nest. Over several winters they have found a niche in Utah, made friends, found plentiful recreation, pickleball courts, yoga studios, hiking social networks, birding groups. No question about it, they have a sweet spot in the desert from which to enjoy winter without a snow shovel. I savor their view of red rock cliffs, their days of sunny outdoor activity and a relaxed pace of life.
Other parts of the equation aren’t as appealing. For one thing, we can’t afford a second home. Even if we could, the idea of maintaining two households full of stuff, seasonal caretaking, and being pegged down to a specific spot every season doesn’t synch with us. But I have to admit, it’s pleasant as hell to have a haven on the road, a place to catch up with friends, sleep in a bed, enjoy a leisurely shower. I do all of that, and Doug and I take a morning stroll through the prickly pear and creosote before I take off. He is joining me in Big Bend in February, and we were members of the same men’s group in Montana for years, until he left town. It’s comforting to contemplate a future off the grid, away from the community we have built over decades, but with the ability to maintain many of those same friendships.
I’m more prone to the romance of the road than to a second home. Give me the freedom to roam. I get a little giddy with that as I drive away toward Lake Mead with my cute yellow and white trailer bobbing behind, and my first outing on the lower Colorado watershed around the corner. I stop in at a McDonalds in Mesquite for a $1 cup of coffee and call Jeff King to check out some logistics for later in the week. He’s been probing around this country for years in his van, and he knows what campground has a gas station nearby and whether the current in a section of river is lax enough to paddle upstream against it.
Las Vegas, that mecca of glitz, is a little tense, jockeying my trailer through the busy miles of freeway, reading the map as I go, but then I’m swinging south around the bulk of Lake Mead, across the bottleneck of Hoover Dam. On impulse I drive down to Willow Beach to top off with gas. Marypat and I were here last March with Jeff and Molly when we paddled Black Canyon. It was our first introduction to the lower Colorado, that long tail of water below the Grand Canyon that I had always written off as a sacrifice zone. For four or five days we dawdled together through the riven dark rock to Willow Beach and on down river to Cottonwood Cove.
I can’t say it revolutionized my attitude about the place. Parts of the trip were downright weird, starting with the put-in at the base of Hoover Dam, for which we all had to produce i.d. and were given 15 minutes to unload, pack boats, and depart under the gaze of uniformed security with badges and guns. The current there is an anemic pulse under the loom of dark canyon walls, punctuated by hot springs. Tourists in every imaginable self-powered craft cruise the miles like people at an arcade. Still, it was new country, great birding, good company, a stealth exploration on the fringe of the manic reality that is Las Vegas and the revved up recreation promoted by the builders of dams. Below Willow Beach, we slipped away from most of humanity and had it to ourselves, just us and the occasional wild burro, nesting verdin in the acacia, the echo of loon call, and the odd houseboat.
My destination today is Temple Bar, a marina and campground on the southern shore of Lake Mead. It is low season, so I’m banking on quiet. The road snakes across desert nearly 30 miles off of the highway. I see maybe three vehicles the whole way, and the campground is as deserted as advertised. In the many loops of sites, I see one other rig. I pick a spot, unhitch the trailer, manually turn it to face the morning sun and reorganize for camp time – chair on the veranda, water jug on the counter, cooler close at hand. Unstrapping my bike from the rack, I tool around the roads a bit, checking out the boat launch, the employee housing, in and out of side roads to nowhere.
Finally, the evening spreads before me, alone with my rig and the prospects of water to explore in the morning. Eucalyptus trees shade the site, their scabby bark piled on the ground. The air is still and quiet. I open a non-alcohol beer, consult my calendar, make some notes, snack on mixed nuts. The sun slides over the edge, my coat comes out. Eventually I make a simple dinner of soup and salad and then set up to write as daylight bleeds out of the evening. By the time I get 1,000 words down, the near-full moon is casting shadows and the light is like milk. I make my bed, open a book, turn on the solar lantern. My little portable cabin glows dimly in the expanse of desert and water and history.
The launch is deserted when I make my way down after a protracted breakfast, a stretch session on the yoga mat, and two cups of coffee. And it’s about a two-minute chore to lift the canoe off, load up, and take my first paddle strokes. The plan is to meander upstream into Virgin Canyon. I have a pack loaded with enough stuff to spend the night if I need to, but I’m planning on another sweet evening in camp. You never know what winds might come up to complicate the itinerary. At the start the reservoir is glass calm. The Temple looms out of the still water a mile or two off. I ghost past the docked herd of houseboats, a veritable trailer park on pontoons – gas pumps, buoys and ropes. The lake spreads away, blending into arid landscape.
The bathtub ring of high water mark stains the rock layers 40 or 50 feet above the lake surface. The water hasn’t been that high for 30 years and many marinas and boat launches built confidently decades ago have had to be abandoned or retrofitted to reach the water. Campgrounds that once perched next to lapping lakeshore are inland by half a mile or more these days. Lake Mead and all the other impoundments, canals, diversions and pipelines that litter the lower Colorado River valley make life possible for some 25 million residents of Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and much between. Without that infrastructure, humanity would be sparse and scattered indeed. It is a technological marvel, and yet, paddling across the bizarre pool of standing water in the expanse of desert, it feels equal parts wonder and sadness, awe and disappointment.
When I cruise over a shallow reef, I imagine that it was once the edge of a dry wash leading down to the river. When I’m paddling against shore and see the bottom fall away in a sheer drop into dark depths, I picture the exposed lip of a cliff scarp high above the ribbon of river, punctuated with bits of whitewater froth below. It is impossible not to mourn that lost grandeur. Technology has its stupendous qualities, from an engineering point of view, but doesn’t serve up anything like the aesthetics of a wild canyon.
For several hours I get in the groove, stroke hard up into the closing walls of Virgin Canyon. Pretty enough, and a beautiful January day to enjoy it in. No one disturbs my rhythm, my thoughts roam, interrupted by a few pied-billed grebe. Maybe six miles up I swing the bow around and start back into a whisper of headwind. Fortunately for me, it keeps to a whisper. A lush green seep along the bank entices me in for a lunch stop, where the ground is carpeted with tiny white clam shells. While I eat, I scan the broad surface of reservoir, try to guess the destinations of contrails x-ing through the blue dome, consider the scale of manipulation undertaken by my species.
There are those who find Lake Mead and its miles of convoluted shoreline fascinating and beautiful. Folks come and spend a week paddling here and there, probing into coves, finding grottos and sheer walls that once loomed above side canyons. I’m not one of them. A day is enough for me. I get it, but the strange beauty isn’t enough to overwhelm the insult.
I have a neighbor in camp my second night. I stroll over and meet him. We have that campground conversation – how much he likes his A-liner trailer, where he’s from, swap our stories. I get the tour of his rig. He lives in Las Vegas because his wife’s family is there, but he doesn’t think much of the town. He makes regular escapes to spots like Temple Bar to find some seclusion and space and quiet. I don’t extend the visit. People who want some seclusion, including me, don’t need an hour of chit-chat. And I want to get my 1,000 words in on the computer.
My departure from Temple Bar the next morning is underscored by a pretty stout wind that would preclude any realistic chance of an outing in a small boat. I do a set of exercises designed to work in a campsite – tricep dips on the picnic bench, hip bridges, lateral jumps – all I need is a mat. It’s late morning before I drive off, jumping south another notch in the river drainage.
Montana winter is a distant memory. Creosote flats to the horizon, cholla cactus, yucca. The arid mountain ranges rear up dark and forbidding against the skyline. I assume they hide pockets of lush springs full of birds and dripping ferns, chuckling magical creeks with fingerling trout, shady oases, but from afar they look like bleak, tortured places to die of thirst in and puncture yourself on sharp, hot rock and spiny vegetation.
My route turns west at Kingman toward the California border, where I exit just before the Colorado River bridge and head upstream to Golden Shores. I have it on good authority that I’ll find a funky and sweet RV park. Sure enough, I pull in to a loosely-organized, eclectic collection of campers overseen by a pleasant woman named Kate who reveals that she grew up in northwest Montana. She is vague, even elusive, about her past, but we exchange some Montana lore for a bit. I tell her about my monthly river mission.
“I love knowing that the Colorado River is flowing past nearby,” she says. “There is something powerful about that ribbon of water going through this desert landscape. The contrast of it. I think about it a lot.”
Fossils and crystals lie around the office and we get talking about rock-hounding.
“You know what coprolites are?” she asks, suddenly. I understand that this is a test to see just how much of a rock-hound I am.
“Fossilized poop,” I answer, and she nods. I earn a modicum of cred.
“Picked some up the other day,” she says, pointing to a knobby gray rock on the counter.
“Kind of weird that we consider ancient poop a find,” I add.
I unhitch the trailer, plug in, and head out to do some errands. At the nearby Family Dollar store I pick up a towel, then I head down to the spot I plan to launch my canoe from the next morning at the town of Topock. The launch is an underwhelming marina with stagnant shallow water at the base of a concrete ramp, a small parking lot, and a bar/restaurant overlooking the sluggish river. A few desultory coots paddle around in the reeds. I pick up a $7 launch permit for the next morning. The weather report calls for calm winds, so my hope is to paddle down into the narrows of Topock Gorge and then return upstream against the slow current, rather than having to negotiate a shuttle to the take-out below the gorge. Long as the winds cooperate I’d just as soon avoid the expense and logistics of arranging transport. I like the self-contained feel of an out and back day.
There is some spotty wi-fi at Golden Shores RV Park, so I’m intermittently able to catch up with my emails, scan the news, communicate with the outside world. In a way it’s satisfying to plug back in, but on balance, I’m not convinced it’s a win. My old tendencies to get sucked into news and political hype rises up in spite of my better intentions, and I end up only knocking out 500 words of my writing quota because of the distractions. My neighbors are all ensconced inside bubbles of shelter. Flickering television lights illuminate windows. When I go to the bathroom someone is in the shower and has smoked a cigarette in the unventilated room. Steaming and stifling. Jesus, who does that? Outside the palm trees rustle and my phone can’t decide whether I’m on Mountain or Pacific time. I keep leaping forward and back an hour depending on the oscillations of electrical impulse my device picks up in the breeze. Clock time is an arbitrary thing.
No one is stirring when I drive off in the morning, red solo canoe on top of the car. The marina is sleepy, too. I back down the ramp, offload the boat, throw in the few essentials for the day, and paddle off. The air is cool, stirring slightly. I have a thermos of coffee and a go-cup I stuff down the front of my life vest in lieu of a cup holder.
Someone is prepping for the day on the café deck overlooking the launch, music on the radio. I slip past unnoticed, the stagnant backwater opens into the wide, slow river. Sluggish current picks up. The boat swings into it, turns downstream under the interstate bridge. Stroke by stroke I lose the shadow of bridges, an elevated white pipeline, a few houses, a private beach with No Trespassing signs. Briefly I turn the canoe upstream and paddle against the current to test how it will feel on the return. Doable.
The hum of interstate traffic attenuates. The river takes hold. A few coots, mallards, goldeneye keep me company. A great-blue heron stalks the shallows along the bank. A skim of overcast keeps the morning cool. My paddle strokes become a mantra that pulls me into that meditative rhythm, cleaving the turgid, beleaguered river that persists and endures in spite of us. A beaver tows its wake next to the bank. A small coyote trots along the edge of a rocky cliff, not perturbed by my presence in the slightest.
Life on the fringe. The osprey perched atop a bridge tower, the coyote plying the shoreline, the heron hunting, all of it flirting with the borders of civilization, avoiding conflict, making the best of it, taking advantage of opportunities, keeping heads down, paying attention. Living in the shadow of the human juggernaut. And this is a quiet day. I’ve heard that weekends on this bit of river can be a buzzing cacophony of jet skis and fishing boats.
A few bends down I start to enter the riven, volcanic-looking rock of the gorge. Jagged pinnacles silhouette the skyline. Cliffs rise out of the river. These stretches of current between reservoirs whisper with the memory of an ancient river that ebbed and flooded through the millennia, eroding canyons, creating and erasing sandbars, coursing through cottonwood bottoms, dwindling to a trickle in mid-winter, burgeoning into a raging monolith of silty water every spring, teeming with migratory birds. Now a faint whisper of that. Now a slight, managed, tepid current controlled to the inch, pooled, siphoned off, choked, bent to our needs. But here that whisper is almost audible. I imagine the swirling currents eddying past the teeth of bedrock. I can feel the old pulse against my paddle blade, insistent as always, feeling its way downhill as always, coping patiently with the obstacles we throw in its path.
I will outlast you, the whisper says.
A couple of hours later I push the bow in against a sandy beach at the base of cliff. I set up a chair, pour another cup of coffee, eat some lunch. I am alone. An osprey hovers overhead. A dark cormorant wings upstream. The river is silent, slipping south.
Upstream paddling is an art. It feels more like probing than coasting, feeling into the lean of gravity and mass. It is a more confrontational process, but also a challenging education with a weird satisfaction that comes from succeeding in a contest.
One of our first northern expeditions featured the ascent of the Rat River in the Northwest Territories of Canada, above the Arctic Circle. We pushed 90 miles upstream to a low pass in the Canadian Rockies. Some days we labored against rapids, hauling canoes up against heavy whitewater and ending up three miles above our last camp. We proceeded via paddling, poling, lining, tracking and simple brute hauling for nearly two weeks before we gained the high tundra pass that led to the Porcupine River drainage and from there into the Yukon. I learned more about the music of current and the dynamics of water in those days than I had in all my combined time in boats to that point.
This is nothing like the Rat, but it is uphill nonetheless. The insides of bends tend to be where the current is slowest, and where eddies form with their helpful upstream tug. My canoe finds a line against the cliffs, hopping from eddy to eddy, fighting past bits of stronger current around points of rock, then relaxing into the next bit of slack or even upstream flow. It goes pleasantly. Good work. My pace is slow but steady, as satisfying as splitting wood.
I extricate from the canyon walls. The view opens. Eventually the distant highway bridge heaves into the skyline. I decide to take another break, have a hot drink on a beach. I aim for a sandy cove. There is a dark, undefined shape on the strip of sand. Garbage bag, animal, dead cow? I come close. Then it moves. A man straightens a leg. His head comes up. He looks down the length of his outstretched body at me. We don’t say anything. I creep slowly past. A homeless man finding a spot for a nap? A drunk sleeping off a hangover? Someone on a lunch break? I bump up another half mile to an unoccupied beach. The faint buzz of rubber on highway pavement wafts down on the breezes.
Winds howl the next morning. Palm fronds clatter outside the window while I have breakfast. I meet a guy in the bathroom at the RV park, brushing teeth. “Not a good day for towing a trailer,” he observes.
“Or for paddling a canoe,” I agree.
The good news is that I can leave my trailer parked and go explore up historic Route 66. Bikers know it as the Mother Road, simmering in the cultural stew of rock and roll lore and hitchhiker fame. I am firmly in RV Land. Along the margins of two-lane, heading toward the tourist-trap ghost town of Oatman, I glimpse RVs parked on BLM parcels of land. Every pull out has a rig or two. Every side road or two-rut track leads to encampments of trailers, truck campers, Winnebegos with solar arrays and lawn chairs, grills and generators. Technically, BLM ground is open territory. No amenities, no regulations, and no fees. Feels like a healthy little dose of anarchy going on, people figuring out protocol on the fly, a little unfettered democracy with a vigilante edge. Fair enough.
Oatman is a scene, on the verge of appalling. What was a dried up mining ghost town that once boomed to a population of 300 souls and bragged that its hotel hosted honeymooning couple Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, has found a new mother lode as a tourist stop along the rediscovered highway. A couple of blocks of Old West main street crammed with curios, tourist traps, rock shops. I have to park on the far end of town in a suspect parking spot. The place is crawling with sunburned tourists buying belt buckles, bumper stickers, embossed leather wallets, cheap jewelry, crystals, shot glasses, crass t-shirts. I wander in and out of stores packed to the dusty rafters with stuff no one needs. The rock stands hold my interest. There are agates and crystals and fossils spilling out of bins and shelves. A few gnarled hunks of petrified poop. Wild burros roam the main drag. People buy alfalfa pellets to feed them. The animals nose into stores, stand at intersections, wait for handouts. They remind me of homeless people flying their flags – Anything Helps – and heading back into the backcountry when the tourists go home.
I happen to be there at noon, for the predictable shoot-out reenactment on main street, a slightly embarrassing, marginally entertaining bit of showmanship. Ready for lunch, I head into a busy restaurant, but can’t face the scene. I end up spending a grand total of 62 cents for a post card and stamp that I send to Marypat from the funky post office near my parked car. Leaving town, I stop to take a picture of a roadside burro who canters right up to my car and sticks his head brazenly into the open window.
More life on the fringe. The dried up town fumbling toward survival, burros on the take, RVs poaching campsites, artisans crafting cheap earrings and soldered trinkets, rockhounds selling crystals, everyone jockeying to get by.
Driving south on Route 95 the next day, I pick up an NPR station long enough to hear that Iran shot down a Ukranian airliner by mistake, and that estimates of wildlife killed in unprecedented wildfires in Australia are pegged at 1 billion creatures. A billion! Thankfully, the station fades and I am left to the arid, unoccupied landscape, tooling along at a sedate 60 mph. In the middle of it I see a figure on the side of the road. A man walking. Not hitchhiking. Head down. No bag or pack. Just walking. Miles and miles from anywhere. There are no houses, no roads, no towns, nothing, for a very long ways in every direction. Where the hell is he going? Where did he come from? What’s his story? He fades in the rear view.
I am a little fringy myself. Out here finding my way to likely spots to engage with an insulted river, seeking shelter every night, beetling along under the arid skies, paddling here and there, making food, buying fuel. The difference between my dance along the edge of things and the guy walking the road or the coyote making do along the riverbank is that I tow along a cape of security, invisible, but as tangible as the trailer I pull. The security of a dependable vehicle, a network of contacts, friends and family, a phone loaded with people to call, money in a bank, a piece of plastic in my back pocket that has the power to keep me fueled, fed, sheltered and out of trouble. I have my skin color and place of birth, my station in society. I am fringe by choice. Others are not so lucky.
I jog south towards the desert town of Quartzite, Arizona. As I go, RVs of every stripe seem to proliferate. Every single day, 10,000 Americans reach the retirement age of 65. 10,000 old farts every day! That’s 300,000 a month, more than 3.5 million every year. Sure, not everyone retires on the dot of 65. Some retire earlier. Some work well into their 70s. Still, pretty staggering numbers. Some healthy percentage of those 10,000 are going out and buying recreational vehicles and hitting the road, including me. As I approach Quartzite in the middle of January, it seems that all of us are coming here.
Motorhomes, trailers, camper trucks, customized vans, teardrops and bump-outs, RVs the size of buses, actual buses, homemade jobs with smokestacks and wood-burning stoves, folks towing cars and jeeps and 4-wheelers, boats and bikes and scooters and surfboards. Miles before I hit this flat, desert, non-descript town the countryside is littered with encampments, some organized and official, many helter-skelter and off the grid. By the time I hit the main drag of town my mouth is hanging open. When I planned this outing, I had no idea that I’d be driving into the epicenter of RV mania – the January gathering in Quartzite. There are thousands and thousands of rigs parked everywhere, spreading under the desert sun for miles. A veritable antpile of motorized humanity – everyone busy hanging out, tending grills, occupying lawn chairs, bumping around on bikes, chatting with neighbors. There are casually organized markets, craft fairs, speakers, events, outings.
When I stop to gas up I ask a local about the scene. “Yeah, it’s a thing. Every January it takes over town. It’s like Burning Man around here for a month, without the drugs.”
I escape as quickly as I can, slowly slipping free of the motorized gauntlet that clings to the roadside for miles past the city limits. Even then, every side road, every pull out, every flat BLM spot is ornamented with blocky rigs and their clutter of toys.
My target is the Imperial Refuge along the Colorado River. I park at the visitor center where two retirees staff the information desk. It’s pretty quiet there – no other visitors, some information kiosks, the usual banter of government displays. At a nearby boat launch I offload the canoe and hop in to explore the maze of managed waterways fed by the fatigued, overused, recycled remnants of this mighty river that begins far to the north in the high peaks of Colorado and Wyoming, that roars down the awesome canyons of the arid west, that hums with the history of millennia, the lore of pioneers, Indians, John Wesley Powell, the Oregon Trail, and more recently, that suffers from our love affair with technology and all the unintended consequences that romance has unleashed.
It is warm. The water braids through rushes and reeds, isolated palm trees, backwater channels with unnatural contours. No current to speak of. No cottonwood trees or floodplain. A few birds catch my eye – the ubiquitous coot, a great blue heron, an osprey in a palm tree, black-crowned night herons, an egret, a kingfisher or two. I find a paddling rhythm. A rushing sound of air close overhead wakes me from the trance. A duck plummets into the river a few feet from my boat and disappears. I look up in time to see a falcon veer away and fly off.
Then, abruptly, the duck, a goldeneye, surfaces, shakes itself, and wings off. A near thing for this pretty bird. A missed meal for the predator. Who knows if my red canoe put the falcon slightly off its game or if the duck ditched into the river just in time. An outburst of life-and-death drama in the midst of this tamed, restricted backwater. Yes, we may have superficial control of things, we have bent things to our will, overlaid this river channel with our management scheme, but nature carries on.
I decide to join the legions of ‘boondockers’ for the night. A few miles from the visitor center a flat, rocky expanse spreads off the road, pocked with vehicles and campers in an off-the-grid scatter. I pull off, bounce across the moonscape of cobbles to the edge of a shallow valley, keeping a respectful distance from the neighbors, and call it home for the night. Not much to recommend it – the overview of an arid drainage, some military installations in the distance, mountains on the horizon. No amenities, but I don’t need amenities. And the price is right. I sit next to the cute trailer, sipping a drink, reading my book, A Man Called Ove. A cool evening breeze wafts across the flats. Just me and a few thousand other retirees with the same idea.
My final dabble in the Colorado River is an exploration of Senator Wash, a few miles north of Yuma, Arizona and the border with Mexico. I succumb to an organized BLM campground because it is near the boat launch and has a bathroom. To call it camping is an affront to any camper worth their backpack. My site is literally in a parking lot, complete with painted lines I have to park between. Each ‘camper’ gets their spot and one next to the rig in which to set up chairs and grills and plastic fences and astroturf and flags and whatever else they cart along. Most spots are full. Generators hum. The smell of barbeque wafts in the breeze. People stand around chatting up the neighbors, sitting in lawn furniture, putzing with awnings. It’s embarrassing. I escape as quickly as possible to the boat launch and set my solo canoe in the water.
It is a challenge to avoid the clutches of humanity on the lower Colorado. Even out of sight of people, the evidence of human manipulation is everywhere – dams, levees, canals, docks, moorings, buoys, boardwalks, houses in the distance. Fifteen minutes of steady paddling earns me a quiet side channel with a few ducks probing in the reeds. I stop and let it all slough off, lose the hubbub, take a breath. Just then I hear the low drone of an approaching motorboat. A couple putt around the corner in a skiff, fishing poles bristling like antenna. We wave. They disappear around a bend. The noise dies off. I turn into a tiny channel too small for motorized craft.
All this week on various sections of river I’ve had Aldo Leopold on my mind. Leopold, that 20th-century lion of conservation biology and land stewardship, came to the lower Colorado with his brother and spent a week or two exploring the delta of the Colorado across the border in Mexico. It was the pre-dam era. He wrote an essay titled, ‘Green Lagoons’, in which he extolled the maze of watery channels, the thickets of impenetrable underbrush, the hum of life – waterfowl by the millions, deer, jaguar, fish. He and his brother got happily lost in all of it, living off the land, not knowing where they were most of the time, just bumping around in the myriad channels and backwaters and sloughs where the Colorado spread in a wide, lush fan as it emptied into the sea.
That delta is gone. What remains is a sandy, dry expanse that only sporadically sees water at all, and when it does, it is a pathetic trickle of spent liquid that has survived the raids of irrigation, diversion, damming, industrial and municipal use, power generation and evaporation.
Where I paddle was once a fertile flood plain forested with cottonwood trees, through which the river ebbed and flooded by season, supporting a vast and varied array of vegetation and wild critters. Until we showed up with our water needs, our transportation needs, our power demands, our desires for recreation. Gone are the cottonwoods, gone are the floods, gone are most of the wild critters, gone or transformed or replaced by exotics is the vegetation.
In the mid-1800s, Yuma, Arizona was a thriving inland port full of steamboats, busy with commerce, feeding goods to the interior of Arizona and on into Colorado and New Mexico from the historic Yuma Quartermaster Depot. Hard to even imagine that now, despite the museums and displays in town. Much of the year you’d be hard pressed to get a canoe up to Yuma, much less a steamship. These days, Yuma is a ‘port’ to some 85,000 seasonal residents, the RV snowbirds who flock here like motorized migrants each winter for the climate and social life of sprawling, cheek-by-jowl paved RV parks. Among other things, the snowbirds are drawn by the fact that Yuma is the driest and sunniest population center in the country. On average, Yuma reaches 90 degrees on 175 days each year.
I spend the day poking around in the flat water behind another dam, the last complicated diversion of river water into canals and pipes, siphoning off the final dregs into canals like the Highline or All American, piped up and over the mountains to San Diego, the last greedy suck before Mexico gets its meager allotment of precious liquid, tainted and depleted as it is. The water is still, pooled. I stroke past low outcrops of rock, small valleys leading away to higher ground, palm trees perched on rocky slopes. Solitary pintails, cinnamon teal, widgeons come to view. A falcon glides past. It is pleasant enough, but I can’t help thinking about the Leopold boys poking around in the delta, alive to the possibility of seeing an elusive jaguar, startled by flocks of ducks erupting out of backwaters and clouding the air overhead, wondering where the hell they were, but not caring much, cooking on coals with a Dutch oven, sleeping in a canvas pup tent, lost to the world and happy to be lost.
Late in the day I re-emerge at the boat ramp, lift the red boat onto my roof rack, nod to a couple sitting in lawn chairs nearby, fishing pole angled at the turgid pond, red and white bobber motionless in the water. I come back to the paved camp in time for my dinner, eaten inside my teardrop bubble to the monotonous music of neighborhood generators.