From time to time during the past two decades, I have returned to the headwaters of the Colorado River in the Wind River Range of western Wyoming for the pure, pristine joy of it. I can think of no better place for a great river system to begin its 1,700-mile descent toward the sea.
I have hiked the trail from Green River Lakes five times, and my walk this June was similar to my first pilgrimage in 1973. The late-season snow blocked my progress beyond the upper lake, and I was unable to make it to the first trickle of glacier water just below Knapsack Col at the 12,000-foot level.
But I knew what I was missing, having made it to Knapsack Col three times before. I have also filled in the gaps between the start and the end of the river, so that in my mind the river, like a life, is a continuum. The Colorado's waters sustain much of the West. By the end of its journey, the river has been sucked dry by the people, industries, crops and animals who need it. What that portends--destroying the very essence of life that the region depends upon--has never made sense to me.
My journey from the headwaters to the delta this year was a farewell to the river. A large portion of my writing life had been devoted to the Colorado and the lands surrounding it, and it was time to move on. I took one last look at the river as a whole and said my goodbys.
I had started my sojourn along the lower half of the river in April. June found me in the high country on the cusp of a gorgeous late spring turning to summer after a winter of ample precipitation. The irrigated pasture lands were verdant swatches of green set against sparkling mountains. The sound of water was everywhere. Creeks, streams and rivers strained at their banks in their wild, futile dashes to the many reservoirs. Some inhabitants were reminded of the disastrous flood year of 1983, when Glen Canyon Dam was almost lost; but the waters crested harmlessly and then receded.
My stopping places, actually more like stations of the cross, were along the high country tributaries of the Colorado--the Green, Yampa, Roaring Fork and San Juan rivers--that formed a gentle arc from north to south, paralleling the Continental Divide. To travel the upper half of the river was to experience the use of land surrounding the tributaries, rather than the main stem of the Colorado itself. The rivers coalesced in Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam and then formed a single entity that flowed toward the Gulf of California.
Two drastic changes from my journeys down the river in the '70s struck me. For many years, following mining and cattle booms, the interior West lay dormant. Then in the late '60s and '70s, first hippies and then middle-class urban refugees on a back-to-nature kick discovered its quaint towns, cheap housing and entrepreneurial opportunities. This first wave of modern-day migrants, known collectively as "the rural renaissance," generally did not have much money.
What began in the mid-'80s and continues now is the migration from both coasts (California is mentioned most frequently) of moneyed urban refugees escaping changing demographics, earthquakes and the violence of the cities. This swiftly escalating population curve represents the gentrification of the West. Whereas work was a necessity before, play is now the dominant activity, as illustrated by the skis, bicycles, backpacks and kayaks strapped atop the ubiquitous sports utility vehicles. Even the sport of patronizing expensive shops, once restricted to such places as Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and 5th Avenue in New York, has also invaded the mountains. The disparity of wealth is much more noticeable.
Once again the West has sold itself to outsiders, as it did during the energy boom that went bust during the past decade. Inevitably, what booms eventually goes bust in this arid land. It is a cycle that can be traced back to the ruins of the highly developed Anasazi Indian culture in the San Juan River Basin that briefly flourished 1,000 years ago.
In a way, the gentrification of the West was predictable. What I could never have foreseen--the second drastic change--was the fact that the major dams in the upper basin would be operated chiefly for the benefit of four obscure species of native fish. History had been reversed, and the dams were now manipulated to mimic the pre-dam flow of the river, within certain limits.
Water storage, electrical generation and flood control had been the sine qua non for these extensive public works projects. They were certainly not built to benefit such fish as the Colorado squawfish, the razorback sucker, the bonytail chub and the humpback chub, which were considered trash fish by many people prior to the environmental movement of the early '70s.