A Sense of Place: Echo Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado
…round apples glowing red in the orchard and the rustle of the leaves
make me pause to think how many other than human forces affect us…
I respond – how?
Virginia Woolf – “A Sketch of the Past”
There has to be an end to this hellish descent. Six miles so far in first gear over washboards and gullies, sometimes careening, then skidding to a stop and sending a cloud of dust and rocks over into an abyss. Next, an open stretch across a bench several acres wide. Maybe there will be an easy down grade from now on, but no, the road narrows and plunges into a funnel yet again, and the creeping and tumbling and inching down begins anew. My uncomplaining truck clutches and shifts and brakes and wants to test its tipping point, so on we go.
The worst patch of impossible road I can recall, and another six or seven miles to go and another thousand feet down. I’m in northwest Colorado – Dinosaur National Monument — high on the Uinta Plateau above the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers. I was told this would be worth it: a descent into Echo Park, the Center of the Universe. The veil between earthbound reality and the eternal world of spiritual truth is thinner there than anywhere.
More falling into the Earth until at last I emerge into a quiet and majestic riverside park – a broad expanse of rolling gardenscape of juniper and box elder and deer brush and sage surrounded on three sides by thousand-foot cliffs. The towering monolith of Steamboat Rock looms straight ahead. Its brawny arms, several million years’ worth of red-stained sandstone, are crossed across its massive chest like a colossus.
I set up camp. I stake down a simple two-person blue tent, toss in a pillow and sleeping bag, set my camp stove on a fire pit grate, and suspend a white rope and ever-so-handy orange rain poncho between two thin pines for shade. The weather pattern starts to change. Earlier, it was hot and still. Now, I hear the wind coming, loud on its way, before feeling the gusts. It tunnels down from the mesas far above and into the valley floor. It’s capable of uprooting a fully loaded and tied-down tent and sending it flying across the field. A minute later, a 180-degree different gust slices up from the river, catches me broadside, and I sway for a moment like a drunk in a crosswalk.
Just as quickly, the wind stops, but the midday desert sun disappears behind a flotilla of black clouds. Like an alien spacecraft, the heavy mass parades overhead — advance guard, it turns out, for an even larger and darker mother-ship of cumulonimbus that appears next from behind the escarpment. It pauses, gauges my insignificance, then drifts on in the ephemeral and unfocused way of clouds.
More than a visual message, Echo Park is history and prehistory. This was the place of refuge John Wesley Powell found and christened in 1869 after surviving the treacherous Canyon of Lodore upstream on the Green River. Powell’s party rested here before moving on through Whirlpool Canyon and the improbable gorge of Split Mountain further downriver.
Before Powell, General William Ashley’s party floated the Lodore chasm in bullboats — dried buffalo hides stretched over willow branches, keel-less, rudderless — on the downstream run, as unwieldy as steamer trunks. Ashley hauled out by a rock wall, climbed it, and inscribed “Ashley 1825” in black letters. Powell spotted the graffiti forty-five years later.
In 1776, Fathers Dominguez and Escalante had sought a way west from Santa Fe, by then a town over 150 years old, to California. The Old Spanish Trail they followed veered north in order to skirt the Grand Canyon, but the intrepid padres continued even farther north up the Green River past the present city by that name in Utah. The party crossed the Green not far below Echo Park where the spent stream flattens out. They named the river “Rio Buenaventura” believing it to be the rumored westward passage flowing to the Pacific. The myth held until the 1840s when John C. Fremont proved conclusively that there was no such waterway.
Before these seekers of Spanish fortune and Catholic converts, the resident Crow and Shoshone called the river the “Seeds-ke-dee Agie,” Prairie Hen River. It is worth noting that today the once-abundant prairie hens cannot be found anywhere nearer the Green River than isolated populations far to the east in Kansas. A scant nine of the thirty species of fish in the Green are indigenous; tamarisk and cheatgrass are crowding out native horsetail and other riparians faster than they can be checked. Native chokecherry, box elder, and cottonwood are also threatened.
Lost to recorded time, a one thousand year-old culture that knew this oasis, hunted here and farmed here. Their petroglyphs high on the canyon walls are their spiritual language, a message I hope to hear.
Major Powell’s epic journey made history and made his name. Miles downstream from where I sit and off any map Powell had, the Grand Canyon waited. Here at Echo Park, the veteran who fought with Grant at Shiloh rested by a fire and stirred his beans with his only arm. He mopped the broth with sourdough and listened to his men bounce their voices off the canyon walls. Next day, the troop put in and went on to make history down the West’s most adventurous river.
Nearly a century and a half later, I sit today amid the scent of warming boulders and cottonwood. Powell’s presence in Echo Park feels as real as a slapped mosquito.
My trip here is typical. Branching off of branches off of side roads off of two-lanes away from Interstate exits is what I do. Asphalt onto gravel, then dirt, then ruts and packed sand — away from other ruts, pushing into history. No one has sent me here. No one knows I am here. I will decide when it’s time to leave.
It’s the only way I know how to ponder the puzzlement of unstructured time measured only by daylight and shadows. A routine camping trip seasoned by a touch of simple fear of the unknown — a tiny ache in my belly that recalls terrifying my mother on family camping trips by scaling granite cliffs in the Sierra Nevada.
In our time, Echo Park stands as a monument to the efforts of an aroused citizenry in the 1950s which, urged on by the likes of Bernard DeVoto, Wallace Stegner, and the Sierra Club, stopped in its tracks the Federal government’s attempt to dam the Yampa and Green Rivers and submerge Echo Park forever. The tragedy would have been profound. The efforts to save other places that have failed – Glen Canyon, Hetch Hetchy – tear at the heart in places like Dinosaur all the more because of how nearly the battle here might have been lost.
What places like Echo Park and the others have in common is a dead-on honesty of place. Each makes an unforgettable statement, sometimes stark and sometimes subtle: “I am beautiful and unique. My essence will seep into your soul, and you won’t be able to forget it, or want to.”
But here lies a paradox: Staggering natural beauty and timeless messages – essences of a place — are not reckoned, let alone understood and wondered at, other than by the very humans who encounter them and, even innocently or barely perceptibly, begin their despoliation. As Wallace Stegner observed, places are not places except as our senses take them in. Yet it is we who have often destroyed them or allowed them to be compromised. Is there a resolution of this dilemma? Perhaps my latter-day Pilgrim soul can find one.
The first night, like all nights in a wilderness campsite, I lay in my tent alert to every sound — every snap of a twig, every nighthawk’s “bzzt,” every whisper of a breeze, every rustle of some night creature. At some point, sleep happened. I awoke refreshed and hungry. I ate a lazy breakfast — bacon of course, eggs and hash, firepit-charred toast, and camp coffee — and cleaned up.
The sun was painting the top reaches of Steamboat Rock and starting to climb the taller pines in the valley. It would be hot today.
The day before, when I arrived, I was told by a group of college kids doing summer conservation work about a loop trail that circled the bluffs above the valley. So around noon, daypack over my shoulder, I set off toward the river. From my camp, a path leads away through an aspen grove. It widens and is well-trodden but feels close under a green canopy. I catch a whiff of the river, its fecund smell of welcome, well before I step out onto a sunlit beach. The Green River is all strength and sound. Across the way, the Steamboat massif pushes with its wide toe the entire wide sweep of river toward me with no effort at all.
It’s a good thing I don’t have a boat. I’d shove off and live a childhood dream of running the Colorado with Powell — map my “experience onto a waking dream,” in the words of the writer Jonathan Franzen. Fascinated by the exploration of the American West, now I get to explore my fascination. Needing more than to understand, but to actually feel, sand tug at my boots, to need two hands to brush aside tall grass, to feel the scratch on my face of tall sage branches as I squeeze through them.
The way is flat and hard near the river, soft and thick a few yards upland. Upstream a quarter mile among willows and sandbars, the eponymous Green, dark and strong, meets the Yampa coming from the east, light blue and rippled. Between the two rivers, they drain half of Wyoming and much of western Colorado.
I bear right, and the trail leads upriver along the Yampa past bleached driftwood and boulders. It begins to climb along a slope that tests the angle of repose. At a hundred feet or so above the river, I hesitate before clambering along a narrow, hot path. Often, I steady myself by reaching out to the surface of the mountain on my right.
After a half a mile or so, the path descends, and I arrive back at water’s edge. There I find my destination, the entrance to Sand Canyon, a now dry tributary of the Yampa. I was told the loop trail would pass through narrow confines to high bluffs far above. The mouth of the narrow canyon in front of me, however, is blocked by a dry fall maybe 20 feet wide and more than head high. Above the fall and beyond, striated contours, yellow and ochre and crimson typical Southwest canyon walls, lean into each other and curve and bend into a hidden distance.
The disappearing landscape feels ominous and a little scary. But, a path leads onward, doesn’t it? I do register how completely alone I am.
How to climb up and in? I am not an intruder, but a friend. There are no foot or hand holds on the rock face that I can see, only a shrub or two at the top that I might be able to grab if I can somehow ratchet myself up the eight vertical feet above where I stand. The summer crew did say the gorge was accessible. Only later, did I learn they’d made the trip in the opposite direction.
Suspension of disbelief is my only explanation for what happens next.
Often, as a small child, I dreamed of being able to fly. Didn’t we all? Knowing I could not soar like a bird didn’t mean that, in the privacy of my backyard as a youngster, I wouldn’t stand on my porch, flap my arms, and pretend to jump. Maybe what re-emerges now is an echo of childhood, a re-energizing of long-dormant synapses that defy or deny unacceptable obstacles.
I back up several paces. The idea here will be to gain enough forward momentum to jump and plant a foot against the face of the wall, then propel myself upward. I will redirect my forward inertia vertically, grab a branch, and pull myself up. Maybe.
I cinch up my small pack, find a starting block of sorts in the sand, take a deep breath, and run – make that, lumber – forward. At the wall, I reach my right leg up and plant my boot against the surface, clench my toes inside my boot, and thrust upward.
A Vibram sole is no match for alluvial sandstone. Disbelief can be suspended; the Law of Gravity cannot. I start to skid back down slowly, leaving skin from my right forearm on the rock. For reasons I’m unclear about, I somehow push my body away, achieving a 45-degree angle from vertical – not sustainable on this planet – and somersault backward. Soundless and in slow-motion, the awkward and backward rotation of my body in the afternoon sun is a rag doll’s spiral. For a fleeting instant, I imagine unvoiced mirth in the ancient souls still living in the pale sandstone walls. I continue through the air. The silent, wide flow of the heedless Yampa pays no attention. Neither do the whispering aspens, nor the passing breeze, nor the pied grebe shooing her brood among the reeds. Two deer across the way look up, then go back to drinking at the water’s edge.
My only thought is to protect my head. I tuck my chin to my clavicle and accomplish a reverse tuck and roll, pack and all. Lying face-down, tasting dry and pebbly sand, at least I’m conscious but in pain. My neck isn’t broken; my shoulders, arms and ribs seem to have survived. Looking around to be sure there are no witnesses to my folly, I sit up and drag myself to the river’s edge. Blood oozes from the scrape on my arm. First-aid consists opening an ointment tube with my teeth, applying it left-handedly, and covering the wound with a laughably inadequate swath of gauze and tape. I breathe and begin clearing my mouth of grit.
Earthbound reality, indeed.
Back at camp, I lie down in my shorts and t-shirt on top of the concrete picnic table by my tent, arms and legs akimbo, and stare straight up into an endless sky. I hear warblers, buntings, swallows, sparrows, towhees and the scree of a hawk. I hear no people. Tiny wisps of campfire smoke tease my nostrils. The breeze is languid and warm.
I will stay here forever, I decide. I also decide that the dull pain in my arm is delicious, bought at a price I might have decided I was no longer willing to pay, but did. It is also a fact that I can subsist in timeless Echo Park only by virtue of meals concocted out of foil packets; a plastic bottle or two made from petroleum polymers; a tent, fly, tarp, ground cover, sleeping bag, and mattress – also jacket, daypack, and boots — made of state-of-the-art nylon, polyester, or Gortex; and, tent poles, canteen, lantern, camera, binoculars and camp stove (with throw-away propane canister), made of aluminum or even more exotic materials at who-knows-what environmental cost in extracting, smelting, and molding. I drove here in a truck that gets lousy mileage.
But, without these things, would I even be here? Should humankind simply not invade this space? Back to Stegner’s paradox.
I will not solve it this afternoon. I stretch. My solitude and the grace bestowed by this place is the result of no little denial, to be sure. But this I banish into the silence and the stories that surround me. I close my eyes, and I’m off into the eternity of rivers and rock escarpments and lost languages, and the truth of my transience.