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Molly McCluskey

River Road

The first time I saw the Colorado, it was merely part of the landscape, the ever stretching expanse of difference categorizing my trip west. Driving down 128 towards Moab, roaring toward the unknown, it was a border, a long sinewy thing, breathing, moving, running. Suffering. Dying.

Now, the drought of 2002, the drought that had been sneaking up on us for years throughout the country, has taken its toll on the majestic river. As I stand with Tom and Shea on her banks, clad in swimsuits and expectations, the waters which once roared whimper, creeping slowly past, hidden in dank beds and curbed by roots. It takes too many steps into the river before it is past our ankles, several more before it reaches our knees. At the stretch along 128, where BLM built parking lots and called them campgrounds, the river is so low that even the tide line has dried invisibly. We pile back into the car in search of a deeper, freer flowing section and stop several miles up the road.

"Is that Sharon?"

Tom points at a petite blonde woman several steps ahead of us on the path. My first instinct is to deny it, what are the odds, after all? There are many blonde women in the world. But the world is smaller in Moab, and ahead of us on the trail is Sharon, the young park ranger who has managed to maintain that delicate balance of accessible aloofness.

She is sitting quietly, staring ahead at the river, at the rocks painted red and she looks so alone and somehow in perfect company, that disturbing her seems to be criminal. I linger on the trail as Tom and Shea walk ahead, hoping not to disturb her.

Wait, I say to them so quietly the words never receive voice. But she has seen us, and raises her hand in welcome.

I join her soundlessly, sitting on the sand made warm by the afternoon sun. I want what she has, to be enveloped in this moment. Tom grabs a stick and chases her dog, the two running ruthlessly in zigzag patterns, interrupting the landscape so that it flashes colors; the blonde of his hair, the golden of the fur, the blue sky dotted by white, the clumps of green struggling to take root. And the river, begging for attention and inattention like a wayward hiker, desperate to be found but embarrassed at the need for rescue. Shea strips off his shirt and walks to the edge, determined at first, then hesitant.

Tom calls to him, "Howís the water?" and I look up to see Shea grimace.

"Itís cold," is his reply and I laugh as he toughs it out and wades further, further still until several moments later, he is immerged to his waist. "Are you coming in?"

I donít know whether he is calling to me or to Tom and it doesnít matter. Neither of us speak, waiting for the other to volunteer, to pretend the invite was for someone else.

Sharon throws a stick into the water. The dog, on loan from the Humane Society, races after it, splashing Shea. She laughs as the retriever returns the stick and shakes, sending a spray of the pungent water in my direction.

"Guess thereís no reason not to join him now," I say. I stand and am about to strip off my shirt and shorts when I think better of it and walk to the edge. It may not be a full on swimming experience, given the level of the water. My earlier toe tipping had provided that insight. I tug off my sandals and as I set my foot down, feel the familiar sting of a prickly pear thorn.

"You all right?" Tom calls from my vacated perch by Sharon. Iíve let out a yelp.

"Fine," I call back. "I donít think Iíll ever get used to these damn things." I yank it out of my foot and sit, allowing the pain its time to subside.

Funny, we have the prickly pear cactus back home in New Jersey but I have never been intimately acquainted with it until these past few weeks. A fondness for going barefoot was squelched on the second day when stepping outside to take out the trash left me with half a dozen thorns on the short walk.

Iíd learned about other stinging plants during a rescue on the Primitive Loop of the Devilsí Garden. The third day of training, we sat, the Arches volunteers and the Canyonlands volunteers, around a table in a small room. The lights were off, the overhead projector on and as we kicked each other under the table to keep from falling asleep, the shrill phone jolted us all awake. "Arches volunteers," called the supervisor, "there may be a carryout. Stand by." And we sat, trembling with anticipation, waiting for the action during the slow moving afternoon. A young woman, somewhere in the realm of our ages, had fallen victim to dehydration, and wandered off the already mistakable trail. The front person on the six person litter, I would call out as we approached flora on the narrow trail. A training exercise, as four of the six were new, and volunteers, and absorbed in the plants and animals and adjusting to living in Utah and working for a national park. The other two were our supervisors, and if I called out a wrong name, the one immediately to my left would correct me softly and I would call out my revised answer. "Blackbrush," Iíd call, and brace myself for the scratch of it against my legs. "Yucca," I called the first few times weíd encountered the plant, then "Yucca!" nearly spitting it out as the leaves whipped welts into my skin. But the prickly pear was different. For as uncomfortable as walking into many desert plants can be, the pear stays with you, like an instant burning infection, even after the thorns have been removed.

Despite the stinging in my foot, Iím comfortable here and for a moment, allow everything to sink in. The sound of the river, soft and hesitant, like a Japanese fountain that used to sit on the desk of a previous life, the muted conversation of Tom and Sharon behind me, the dog splashing in the river and the sight of Shea smiling. In a little while, weíll go back to Arches, Shea will cook and insist I eat, Iíll protest politely and then eat out of the same politeness. At the end of the evening, weíll sit on the back porch of their apartment and watch the sun sink, casting one long shadow against the rocks, feel the sky first soften, then watch it fade. Iíll walk the three feet back to the second volunteer residence where my roommate will be reading a book. "You should have been there," Iíll tell him, but will be unable to answer him when he asks me why.

Itís enough. How could it ever not be enough? Peace.

But looking at the Colorado, seeing the evidence of nature marred by man, peace leaves me. Where the earth ends and the river begins is war, the water ravaged by misuse and heat, the weeds taking advantage of the immature islands. The spaces of land amid the flow of the water.

From upstream floats an Aquafina bottle, discarded no doubt by a camper or rver. There are others, of course, pieces of trash, remaining unseen. Nearby, more than ten million tons of low-level radioactive waste wait for a day in Congress that will probably never come. The pile sits on the precipice of the river, vulnerable to earth shifting or a change in river patterns, and is simply one more indication of humanís carelessness with beauty.

Itís easy to claim human nature, for our history weíve always taken what weíve wanted and left the remains neglected. This area shows more evidence of neglect than most: the Indians forced onto small areas of land, the byproducts of the uranium boom, a river dying, cryptobiotic soil destroyed.

There are rumblings now, efforts on the part of government to save what they helped us eradicate. The pact that managed how the seven western states would share the Colorado may be enforced. Complaints to the south are loud that some states are using more than their share of the resource. Sitting here on her banks, itís clear that the Colorado needs all the help she can get.

Shea is still splashing, knee deep in the chilly water. Something brushes his leg and he looks startled, then sheepish as he begins to walk, awkwardly in his haste, through the water to the shore. Tom is chatting with Sharon, and from my sandy seat several feet away, their voices are a low murmur, not because they are talking softly, but because I have focused instead on the small whooshing noises from the river.

Despite our relative isolation, we hear the afternoon traffic; the four or five cars driving up 128, dubbed River Road, toward Castle Valley, or the mountains, or simply on their way out of town to anywhere else. I know without seeing that those stopping at Matrimony Spring have water jugs and Nalgene bottles at hand, ready to taste its purity, ignoring or believing the myth. The superstitious will be convinced that should they sip from the spring, they will be married within the year. And so some stand, refusing to drink and their partners satiate their need. I can see them without turning, there will be plenty of time to witness later. As I sit, still and quiet, the sun high in the sky, I hear the sound of several cars pulling into the parking lot fifty yards to my back.

Itís time to go.

©2002 by Molly McCluskey

A former marketing executive turned outdoor educator, Molly McCluskey spent a season at Arches National Park as a volunteer ranger. Her publishing credits include Gannet newspapers, Monmouth Magazine, and the nationally distributed independent magazine, Clamor. She is currently living in San Francisco, where she is active in the environmental non-profit community.

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