July 31, 1996
To sit upon a river of 10,000 brains is to think.
It wasn’t much before 7 a.m. and the sun was starting to appear from beneath a low line of clouds on the eastern horizon, the remains of last night’s storm.
On such mornings, it is impossible to think of anything mortal or common. It was breaking clear and the Green River, maybe 100 yards wide with snowmelt, held the power and grace of a rising moon. The La Sal Mountains were no longer visible to the northeast, but a butte and a bluff, way off across the desert, stood like thick-necked palace guards — 400 feet of the Wingate formation.
The cliff-forming Wingate is responsible for much of Utah’s canyonland splendor. Thanks to Wingate, the Canyonlands luxuriate in sheer canyon walls and spectacular spires. This particular layer of earth, relatively young, watches the Colorado and Green Rivers run a collision course to form a river that cut so deep we learned when time began. So begins a lesson in insignificance.
The Green River through Utah’s Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons carries much history — about 150 years of it is human history, another several million years never got recorded in a journal. This is the West, the desert version, and from the moment the mysterious D. Julian first carved his name in a wall in 1836, white men have conjured countless visions of the West, some ambitious, some protectionist, only to see them doomed. The brains, floating down a river of mystical strength and benevolence, represented the latest confrontation between my vision of the West and the reality of the 1990s version. Dissonance, as usual, ensued.
The floating brains were visible elements of a pollution. Gray blobs of foam roughly the size of basketballs had spaced themselves equidistant across the river and multiplied into the thousands to take a pleasure cruise down a quiet stretch of river. Perhaps the previous night’s rains had flooded a sewage treatment plant. Perhaps an industrial wall gave way, sending its unnatural goop to the river. Or maybe it was always there, just stirred up enough by the high water to mount its visual protest. I had expected people on the river — people are everywhere, now — but not something so industrial. The Green River, after all, only flows through two towns of any size, and both towns have the same name — Green River, Wyoming and Green River, Utah. Such towns define my West, thus it was a surprise to see something so sinister emanating from them. The foam was of a city caliber, and I was dodging cities. It annoyed me to see that I had been followed.
It isn’t that my vision of the West doesn’t have people in it. My West is full of people — homesteaders, city folk, ranchers, hunters, loggers, miners, mountain climbers, scientists and even environmentalists. They belong here. I know that, just as I know what every other Westerner has always known: People do not ruin things. More people do. All the new visions that come with them sets a confusing tone.
My ideal West dates to B.C., before condominiums, cops, chairlifts. The people then seemed tougher, more colorful, more self-sufficient and more knowledgeable about the West than people do now. They were a freer people unfettered by so damn many rules. I remember that West and have incorporated it strongly into my vision which is no better and no worse, no more eloquent or accurate, than yours. It’s just a vision, held tight even with the knowledge it never again will be real. My vision, like most, lurks at the bottom of the intellectual food chain, a product of will, rather than of science. It matched reality for awhile, but not for long. The West changed, and changed quickly. I lost my West, and it took most of the fight out me. But the West is still here; to the recently arrived it remains exciting and unexplored, a vision worth fighting for. Go ahead and fight, but I bet you lose. Nothing plays hell with a good vision like more people. You and your visions just aren’t that important.
More people already have caused new rules and new laws that extend to the farthest reaches of the wilderness. We were many miles from the nearest town, but we were living under rules where once none were needed, rules designed to preserve the river and leave it clean; rules designed under the ridiculous intention of giving every visitor the chance to experience the river as though they were the first and only to camp next to it. Then the brains floated by. Somebody had broken the rules, or an accident had occurred. I knew they would not be punished just as I knew the river could survive the attack of any 10,000 brains. The river would float the brains another 120 river miles or so to Cataract Canyon where they would be pureed into oblivion by a series of fierce sections of whitewater. By Cataract, the Green and Colorado Rivers have joined, doubling the water flows and on that day taking the river up to nearly 50,000 cubic feet of water per second. By the time the brains made it to Lake Powell they probably weren’t worth much more than a summer’s worth of tourists urinating off the backs of the aluminum houseboats.
Still, the brains weren’t palatable. To many, neither is an aluminum houseboat. But to something as big as Wingate, or as old as the river, Lake Powell, like the brains, is a minor inconvenience. It took 10,000 real brains to design and build Glen Canyon Dam and to a canyon it isn’t worth much more than the average vision. The reservoir is a piece of concrete, a human contrivance. In the time-line of a river canyon it will barely register a blip, another piece of archeological evidence of 20th century technology. It will fail, either by entropy or catastrophe, and the rivers will keep flowing right along just as they did hundreds of millions of years ago when confronted with upthrusts, crustal deformations, landslides and other natural occurrences at Byers Canyon, Gore Canyon, Glenwood, Horsethief, Ruby, Lodore, Split Mountain, Gray, Desolation, Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons.
Glen Canyon Dam is a ruin in the making, just another vision. Bet on it. Soon it will become one of those sites of historical interest, another vision lost. In a land with only a couple hundred years of recorded history, historical significance comes easy. We’ll build a museum for it, put up signs. Today’s environmental disaster becomes tomorrow’s site for historical interest. Just upstream an old oil well has become a point of interest for tourists, and all over the West, legislation actually protects artifacts more than 50 years old. Could the floating brains last a mere 50 years, we’d stop to admire them.
This vision stuff can get confusing. There is a rich and colorful Western mining history to be preserved, just don’t let it happen again. Pass a law, write a rule, and do it in the name of saving the West. But remember that it isn’t the West that needs saving, it’s your vision you are trying to preserve, and your vision is no better and no worse, no more eloquent nor accurate, than mine.
This West will change plenty but it is going to outlive you and your silly visions, just as it has done to those before us.
Story and photos by Doug Freed