Backroads River

A novelist and one of the leading teachers of composition in this country, WALLACE STEGNER divides his time between his English courses at Stanford University and his forays into the remote woods and canyons of the West, trips which renew his spirit and his writing. Western born, he spent his boyhood now under canvas in the deep woods of Washington, now on a remote farm on the Saskatchewan-Montana boundary, and later on the shores of the Missouri. Readers will remember his novels, The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Second Growth.

by WALLACE STEGNER

1

TO START a trip at Mexican Hat, Utah, is to start off into empty space from the end of the world. The space that surrounds Mexican Hat is filled only with what the natives describe as “a lot of rocks, a lot of sand, more rocks, more sand, and wind enough to blow it away.” The nearest rail point is at Thompsons, up north on the Denver and Rio Grande, 175 miles away by road.

This road, the only real road in the area, has an advantage which some of this country’s roads do not: it can be traveled both ways. You can come down Highway 160, which links Salt Lake with Mesa Verde and Santa Fe, and follow the diminishing trail through Blanding and Bluff to Mexican Hat. Or you can come up from Grand Canyon across the Hopi and western Navajo reservations by way of Moenkopi, Tonalca, Kayenta, and Monument Valley. Or if you have no mercy on your car, you can come up from Gallup to Shiprock and then take out over the axle-breaking trail to Kayenta by way of Dinnehotso. Or you can fight your way up from the southern Navajo country over wagon tracks deep in sand. When you reach Mexican Hat you a re at the end of the world and the beginning of the San Juan country.

It is useful to know where you are. On a map of Utah notice how the Colorado River cuts across the state from northeast to southwest, blocking off a great triangle in Utah’s southeast corner. All but the tip of this triangle is San Juan County. Just a trifle smaller than Massachusetts, a little bigger than Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Delaware combined, the county was formed in 1880 before it had any white population. At the last census its population was still under 5000, and a third of that number were Navajos and Paiutes.

The first automobile crossed the sandy fifty-five miles across Monument Valley between Kayenta and Mexican Hat in 1921. There has been more traffic since, but not too much. This is not real tourist country, irrigated by foreign dollars. This is a scenic dry-farm, the biggest and almost the last. The wilderness stretches out on every side from the San Juan country, a primitive area at least a hundred miles square. But the San Juan country proper, between the Abajo Mountains and Monument Valley, and between the Colorado boundary and Glen Canyon of the Colorado, is the heart of the last great wilderness. Through the middle of it, flowing in a continuous canyon to its junction with the Colorado 133 miles westward, runs the San Juan River, as little known and as little celebrated as the country it drains.

The dozen of us who gather in Mexican Hat Lodge on the evening of June 5 have a date with the river. We are a motley crowd: a movie photographer and his wife, a pair of engineers, a dentist’s assistant, a physical education instructor, a radio technician, a few plain tourists, an old lady of seventy-two, and a little girl of ten. In the morning we will start down the San Juan by boat to Lee’s Ferry.

We are not pioneers, explorers, or even adventurers, but simply baokroads tourists who have put ourselves in the hands of Norman Nevills, probably the best-known river boatman in the world. Norman has been down the full length of the Green and Colorado more than once; he has run the Grand Canyon more times than any man alive or dead, and will run it again this summer. He has run the Salmon and the Snake in Idaho, and he nurses a secret dream of some day running the Brahmaputra, in India. He is like a broncobuster who cannot bear to leave any horse unridden. The trip he will take us on starting tomorrow is a milk run for Norman; he has made it two dozen times. But as he gives us a genial briefing with pictures, it does not look like any milk run to us. Even if it isn’t dangerous, even if a spry old lady and Norman’s ten-yearold daughter can go along, it looks like excitement and it looks like fun. And even the milk run has been made by only a few hundred people at most.

At Mexican Hat the canyon walls are low, but they rise rapidly downstream. When we gather on the beach after breakfast we see the river bowling along, gray-brown with silt, its middle marcelled with two-foot waves. Yesterday two young men put their homemade boat in the river a little above here to try it out. They managed to struggle ashore at the bridge, but they have decided to take Norman’s advice and not attempt the river in that boat. We help them put it back on the roof of their car, and they stand a little disconsolately with the rest of Mexican Hat’s slim population as the four square-ended semi-cataract boats of Norman’s party shove off. Four of us miss the launching, because we are going overland to the Goosenecks to get pictures as the boats swing into the deep hairpins of the meander. We will join the others about noon at the foot of the Honaker Trail.

One after another the boats pull into swift water, swing sideways to take the waves, and are rushed downstream. They seem to shrink to half their size as soon as they are afloat, and they look tiny and frail as they speed down under the bridge and the cable-hung bucket of the Geological Survey gauging station and disappear around the first bend.

We are at the Goosenecks a good while before the boats, which have to travel sixteen miles in the canyon to reach here. Below us the gray-brown river has sunk itself 1300 feet into the rock in a perfect double hairpin — what geologists call an “entrenched meander.” The San Juan used to be a sluggish river running on a level plain, and meandering like any old-age stream. Then a great plateau was slowly lifted across its path, so slowly that the river could cling to its old course and simply dig in. So it still has the crooked course of a slow river, though it is actually the fastest major stream in the United States, with a gradient of almost eight feet to the mile. Just for comparison, the Mississippi’s gradient is eight inches to the mile; that of the Colorado in the Grand Canyon, the most furious water on the continent, is 7.56 feet to the mile. The San Juan below us is not furious, but it is undeniably fast; we can see the speed of it in the glasses, looking down on the throat of the middle bend, where the canyon comes within a hundred yards of cutting through the ridge before it turns and makes a three-mile loop westward, to come back barely a stone’s throw from where it started.

For nearly an hour we sit on the hot, barren rim with the towers of Monument Valley — Agathla’s Needle and the spiry monuments on the Utah side — breaking the southern horizon. Then the first tiny boat comes in sight down below, and we hear Norm’s “river voice” bellowing. We bellow back, though we know the river noise will prevent our being heard. The four white twigs rotate in almost military formation through a little rapid and disappear under the wall at the turn. Then they emerge again going away from us, on their way around the tedious three-mile hairpin. After a wait, here they come again. Through the glasses I can see them buck and leap in the waves, and I see a combing wave break clear over the bow of the first boat where Mary sits. I can almost see the expression on her face, and I envy her the coolness of that ducking.

The four of us on the rim are all of one mind: pictures or no pictures, we want to get down and get in on the fun. As soon as the last boat has disappeared we pile in the truck and are taken by a wretched mesa-top trail out to another part of the rim, where a rock cairn marks the top of the Honaker Trail. From here it is 1300 feet to the river; the way we have to walk, it is three miles.

2

THE Honaker Trail has been specially recommended to me by Norm because I am gathering material for a biography of John Wesley Powell, the first navigator of the Colorado. This trail, Norm says, will show me what it means to try to climb out of one of these canyons in case of shipwreck or loss of supplies. It shows me that, certainly, switching along the outcropping ledges, sliding down shaly talus full of fossils, going far out of its way to find a way down to the next ledge. It shows me also, if I needed to be shown, what lengths men will go to for a chance to strike it rich. This trail was built by the Honakers at the turn of the century, and for several years they slaved and sweated trying to get a fortune out of the San Juan gravel bars. Altogether they got about $1500, perhaps a tenth of what it was worth to build the trail. There is nothing on the trail now but a collared lizard with a canary-yellow collar and a marvelous emerald belly, who obligingly poses for color photographs. He is the one lizard in this country, outside the rare and poisonous Gila monster, who will bite you if you fuss with him.

We meet the boats on a sandbar, and after lunch we get our taste of river travel. The river falls two hundred feet in the next twenty-three miles, shooting us through the Honaker Point, Eyemo, John’s Canyon, Government, and Slickhorn Rapids, all of them small, with a fall of about four feet apiece, but all exciting enough to amateurs, and good for enough wettings to cool us off.

There is a feeling of continuous rapids on the San Juan, not only because the current boosts us along at an average speed of seven miles an hour but because of the river’s peculiar and characteristic “sand waves.” These are formed by the piling up of waves of sand on the bottom, which as they accumulate start a series of water waves moving slowly upstream against the current. The waves appear quite suddenly, move upstream growing deeper and more violent, and crest with a roaring noise for a minute or two before they disappear. At this stage of water they average three feet in height, though occasionally we catch one four or even five feet high. They have been measured up to six. Even in their middle sizes, they toss and pound a boat spectacularly, especially if taken head on. Norm takes them the easy way, sideways, and they afford endless fun with their rocking-horse pitching and the occasional boatload of water they dump on us if we hit. them combing.

We are wet and dry all day. At the foot of Slickhorn Rapid, where we pull in to camp after a day’s run of forty miles, Paul, our aviation engineer, caps the day by falling off into the rapid’s tail wave, clothes, camera, and all. Our camp is among willows and tamarisks on the bar — the tamarisks that not too many years ago were imported from India to combat erosion in desert washes and have now been blown and spread by birds through every gulch in the Southwest. After dinner (steak) all the ladies go off with Norm to be initiated into the order of Driftwood Burners. They build piles of kindling all around an immense tangled pile of driftwood at least an acre in extent, and at a signal touch them off. Within minutes the inferno drives us clear to the water’s edge. The hot glow creeps up the cliffs, gradually revealing the rims a quarter mile above; it throws leaping red light up Slickhorn Gulch and touches the abandoned oil rig below the toilsome trail where prospectors at the turn of the century fought their way down here to drill among the oil seeps.

Norm tells us stories of the river, Powell, the illfated Brown-Stanton expedition, while the flames eat into the driftwood and the whole gorge glows with red light. Full of energy as a grasshopper, he leads an impromptu Squaw Dance as close to the fire as skin will stand it, and then abruptly heads for bed. The party breaks up and follows him. Hours afterward I wake in the night and feel at two hundred yards the heat of the embers, and see the steady glow on the cliffs. It is pleasant to think that so big and satisfactory a bonfire has only good results: there is no danger from it, and it helps keep Lake Mead from filling up with drift and debris. Through the night the Big Dipper moves down the slot until its handle rests on the rim where the canyon curves left below camp. At the other end of the reach the moon is coming up, shining pale silver on Slickhorn Rapid.

Kent Frost, the boatman-cook, beats on his frying pan at 5.30. During breakfast the sun touches the rims and begins to creep down, but it still has not reached the water when we stop, after an hour’s run, to get pictures at the mouth of Grand Gulch. In this red-walled wash, which caused enormous trouble to the Mormon pioneers coming across from Hole-in-the-Rock in 1880, the archaeologist Prudden first clearly isolated the Basket Maker culture as separate from and earlier than the Pueblo. It has, we know, considerable ruins, but we do not stop to explore. Between walls that rise sheer from the water, but lessen in height downstream, we run down to the open valley called Paiute Farms, beyond the quicksand-sown ford known as Clay Hills Crossing. Here the river spreads out like the Platte over a channel half a mile wide. We hunt cautiously for channels, and several times we go overboard to push. The second boat grounds so definitively that we do not. see it again until just before we stop for the night. But in this open stretch we see the only human beings we are to see, besides ourselves, between Mexican Hat and Lee’s Ferry. They are four Nava jos tending sheep among the tamarisks on the reservation side of the river. On the north bank Norm shows us the bar where he crash-landed his Piper Cub last February and was marooned for two days before another plane located him.

All through the shallows, in a blazing hot afternoon, we cool ourselves off by going overboard to tow or swim behind the boat. Even here on the flats the current is much too strong to swim against; it can barely be walked against. At noon Mary discovered that she could sit down in the shallow water and be pushed along like a kiddy car. But it is a little disconcerting to go overboard with a yell in sand waves four feet high, with the boat standing on its beam-ends, and find the water only knee-deep. We spend half our time throwing each other overboard until the canyon walls begin to narrow again and the river gathers itself.

3

THE canyon of the San Juan is geologically a highly instructive place. In any part of this country one learns to recognize the rock strata and know their profiles and coloring and the peculiarities of their bedding and weathering as one knows the faces of his friends. The San Juan gives us a one-way tour of all the strata we have ever known before, but with characteristic perversity starts in the oldest and flows downward into the highest and youngest.

The gray Hermosa and Rico formations in which we started form terraced cliffs with banded horizontal ledges of harder strata. Below the Honaker Trail these beds disappear under the covering layer of the Cedar Mesa sandstone, red and massive, which forms sheer cliffs like those under which we slept last night. At Clay Hills Crossing and along through Paiute Farms we meet the gray-blue Chinle, which breaks down into badlands slopes, and the thinbedded red-brown Organrock, which in exposed faces erodes into irregular columns and statuary. And finally these are overtaken by the two most impressive layers of all, the Wingate and Navajo sandstones, both very massive and both very beautiful.

The Wingate, which crops out in bold cliffs clear down into New Mexico, is rich red. It forms marvelously sheer cliffs, straight and hewn as the wall of a building, which often rise straight from the water, though where we first meet this stratum it shows talus slopes of great blocks that cover the Chinle and Organrock underneath. The great planes of cliffs are filigreed with delicate tracery and stained with the shiny, black-brown “desert varnish.” We float between great blackboards scraw led with the doodlings of giant children. Once we put in to replenish our water at Nevills Canyon, an alcove full of snake-grass and cane and with a clear sweet spring. The hot run through Paiute Farms has emptied our canteens, and though most of us have sampled river water “just to see what water with real body to it tastes like,” we prefer our drink without quite so much grit.

As we drift on we see, above the cloven front of the Wingate cliffs, the domes and “baldheads” of the salmon-colored Navajo sandstone which forms the roof of the world here. As the Wingate is a cliff-forming, the Navajo is an arch-forming member. High in the walls amphitheaters a quarter of a mile across open up. Their bottoms are green and lush, and high across their upward curve, just below where the arching roofs begin to overhang, there is a level line of seepage at a joint in the rock. From the seepline, water-stain and fringes of maidenhair fern make a scalloped necklace of green and black and white against the salmon-colored wall.

All around the Great Bend we are in the Wingate capped by Navajo, and caves and alcoves and arched windows appear high in the upper wall, with blackboard cliffs below. At one point where the current sweeps close under an overhanging wall, we catch a glimpse of crosshatched petroglyphs. Across the river from here, on his last trip down, Norm surprised a mountain lion at the water’s edge.

4

THIS second night there is no fire or squaw dance. We have run forty-nine miles and pushed and swum, and we hit the sleeping bags early in a camp among great boulders covered with petroglyphic animals and symbols. The last thing I see as I roll in is Annie and Joan, the oldest and the youngest, braiding each other’s hair for bed. The first thing I see in the morning is Al, the movie cameraman, somewhat agitatedly shaking two scorpions out of his sleeping bag.

In quick succession this morning we shoot Express Train and Paiute Rapids, both pleasantly exciting, but nothing alarming the way Norm runs them. He is at once so careful and so nonchalant that he makes even bad water look easy. I have tried my hand at the oars several times by now, and I know enough to discount Norm when he says that running these rivers depends 90 per cent on the boats, 5 per cent on luck, and 5 per cent on skill. There is much more skill in it than that, though the boats are amazing — clumsy and hard to row, wide in the beam and square at both ends, but they ride rapids like ducks on a pond.

Where the river swings in another northward bend, Norm takes Al up a cliff and over the ridge so he can get pictures of us coming around. For two or three miles I am the boatman, and without Norm in the boat to point out rocks I am a little edgy as I steer down through the riffles around the bend, trying to keep facing my danger but not quite sure what single rock or cliff is most dangerous. We are to land on a short bar above a big rock, and I pull into the eddy with great brilliance, making the tricky landing so professionally that I am goofily proud of myself and eager to be of assistance to lesser men. George is coming in too low down, obviously bound for a collision with the big rock. I jump overboard to grab his line, and disappear. In the scouring eddy the water is six feet instead of six inches deep. As I come up I hear cheers from the cliff, and see Al and Norm waving. In my first piece of movie acting I have stolen the scene.

Being already sodden, I am the natural goat for a rigged quicksand sequence. I am to step off into a patch of quicksand and be rescued in the nick of time. I step off all right, and the quicksand sucks me in all right, and the ropes and rescuers come flying and I am pulled out all right, but George, one of the boatmen, who used to be an all-conference halfback at Brigham Young, forgets in his enthusiasm that I am locked in to the waist and that my legs bend only one way. From this time until the end of the trip I walk with a cane, but the service we have rendered to cinematographic art gives us all a deep satisfaction.

Now the next-to-worst rapid on the San Juan, Syncline, where the boats are lightened and where some of the passengers have to walk around. Mary and I get to ride it down, thanks to Powell, but it is disappointingly tame, and we think Norman guilty of building up these riffles to something worse than they are. But at Thirteen-Foot Rapid, further along, we see what he means by white water. All the boatmen call this one nasty to run because of its structure, though it is not in a class with the bad ones on the Colorado and Green, with Lodore and Disaster Falls and Badger Creek and the Sockdologer.

Norm wants to stunt this one for the camera. Again thanks to Powell, I get to go along. We row out into the broken rock-filled channel and all in an instant the current grabs us. I have had the oars in my hands enough to know how this would feel if I were rowing. But Norm half stands, watching the white water ahead, picking his way between rocks, driving stern-first toward the end of the chute where the water roars up on a great rock and then falls away to the left in a white cascade. A push with one oar, a pull with the other, a little tense adjustment, a quick pull away, a swing back to duck a water-covered rock, and we drive into the roar of the rapids. Norm has mentioned the express-train, earth-shaking thunder of bad water; we almost get it here. We are deliberately bow-light for the stunting, and at the last minute Norm swings so that our bow climbs the big rock and then falls left down what seems ten sheer feet into a boiling hole, shipping a little water and a lot of spray, and bouncing down into the diminishing tail waves.

The other boats are run through one at a time, two of them smacking solidly into a rock in the deep hole at the rapid’s foot, but bouncing off unharmed. We stop for lunch a little below, in Redbud Canyon where there is a sweet-water spring, and after lunch Al and Alma and I go on ahead with Kent, rowing hard to get out in front of the others so we can shoot pictures at the junction with the Colorado.

The last few miles of the San Juan canyon are deep and narrow, beautifully sheer in the Navajo sandstone; the Wingate has slid underneath us. At the junction we float out into a wide, deep, quiet river, moving fast but not as fast as the San Juan, that rounds into a turn to the west. When we land and climb the cliff across the Colorado we can look up Glen Canyon between the salmon-pink walls to a high butte; on every side, across on Wilson’s Mesa between the rivers and north and south of us on both sides, the Navajo sandstone is eroded in knobs and domes. Back of us is the knife-edged profile of the Kaiparowits Plateau, high and gloomy, locally called Wild Horse Mesa; and to the south the cool, grav-green mound of Navajo Mountain overlooking the meeting place of the rivers. We are not explorers or pioneers, but we feel a little like explorers here. Not too many people have visited this spot. The distances in every direction are barren of man, the great mountain south of us is a holy place where no Navajo will be caught after dark, there is no sound on our slickrock ridge except the rustle of a small dry wind.

When we hear Norm’s river voice, and photograph the boats stringing out into the big river, and Kent scares the boat party by rolling a tub-sized boulder off the cliff with a heart-stopping roar, we turn our backs on the San Juan. But we do it regretfully. It is a fine, friendly, and very beautiful little river, a marvelous roadway into wonder, and we allow ourselves, in this remote spot, to grow exasperated with the Rivers of America series for not including so colorful a stream. Basket Maker, Pueblo, Navajo, Paiute, Spaniard, Mormon, goldseeker, and oil prospector have left their scratches on its walls and their quickly erased footprints at its few passable fords. Curiously, the Indian has changed this river more than the white man. There is every evidence that in Pueblo times the San Juan country supported a larger population than it does now, and that the town-dwelling Indians grew gardens where now there are barren boulder-strewn washes. With the coming of the herdsman tribes the desert cover was gradually grazed off, the floods grew more disastrous, and the land that used to line the canyons went down the river.

5

IN Glen Canyon we are again in the stream of history, on a main road. Near the upper end, at Holein-the-Rock, the Mormon pioneers of the San Juan country blasted their way down the cliffs and struggled across on their way to Bluff and the completion of the most appalling wagon trip ever taken anywhere. Down below us, at Padre Creek, Father Escalante lowered his supplies over the wall and swam his mules across to the south bank on his adventurous way back to Santa Fe in 1776. This part of the Colorado canyon has been a blessed interlude of rest for every river expedition since Powell’s first one in 1869. In all the miles of Glen Canyon there is not a rapid, hardly a rock, nothing more dangerous than whirlpools and sucks. Regular boat trips come down from Hite and up from Lee’s Ferry through scenery that is at once awesome and charming. The sheer cliffs of Navajo sandstone, stained in vertical stripes like a roman-striped ribbon and intricately cross-bedded and etched, lift straight out of the great river. This is the same stone, though here pinker in color, that forms the domes and thrones and temples of Zion and the Capitol Reef. It is surely the handsomest of all the rock strata in this country. The pockets and alcoves and glens and caves which irregular erosion has worn in the walls are lined with incredible greenery, redbud and tamarisk and willow and the hanging delicacy of maidenhair around springs and seeps. Our real voyaging stopped with the San Juan; from here on we loaf, pulling ashore to explore something every mile or two.

Our first camp in Glen Canyon, just below the junction, is almost unimaginably beautiful — a sandstone ledge below two arched caves, with clean cliffs soaring up behind and a long green sandbar across the river. Just below us is the masked entrance of Hidden Passage Canyon, which at sunup glows softly red, its outthrust masking wall throwing a strong shadow against the cliff. Behind this masking wall is the kind of canyon that is almost commonplace here, but that anywhere else would be a wonder. Music Temple, Hidden Passage, Mystery Canyon, Twilight Canyon, Forbidden Canyon, Labyrinth Canyon, we explore a dozen, and there are dozens that we pass by. The most innocent opening, apparently a mere keyhole of an alcove, may be the door to a gorge a quarter of a mile deep and heaven knows how long, sometimes rods wide, sometimes less than a yard. Often the water has cut down irregularly, so that the walls waver and overhang and cut off the sky. Sometimes one has to ascend wading waist-deep in rock-floored pools; sometimes the canyon will jump suddenly up narrow waterfalls, generally dry at this season, or seeping a thin wetness down the discolored rock.

Follow one of these canyons in far enough, and it usually ends either at a fall or in one of the echoing caves and chambers the Navajo sandstone is fond of forming. Music Temple, for instance, is a domed chamber five hundred feet long and two hundred high, with a little eavespout of a creek coming out of a slot in the roof and dropping into a clear pool. Powell, who camped here on both of his river expeditions, and whose men left their names and initials carved into a rock face here, described the creek-slot as a skylight. It is actually more like the slot in an observatory roof. The shadows in a chamber like this, the patterns of light and shadow, are miraculous and utterly unphotographable, and the walls re-echo the slightest, sound.

Mystery Canyon ends in the same sort of domed cave, with an even larger pool. Echo Cave Camp, maintained by Rainbow Lodge just above the Rainbow Bridge, is another such chamber. The walls of Twilight Canyon are undercut, first on one side and then on the other, with huge caves, one so immense that the whole Hollywood Bowl could be set back into it, and so perfect acoustically that six and seven word echoes pursue us as we walk through. Most bizarre of all the canyons, the spookiest concession in this rock fun-house, is Labyrinth Canyon, which narrows down to less than two feet, and whose walls waver and twist so that anyone groping up this dark, crooked, nightmare cranny in the deep rock has to bend over and twist his body sideways to get through. Floor and walls are pocked with perfectly round pockets like nests, full of the pebbles and rocks that have scoured them. Though we cannot see the sky, we know that the walls go up several hundred feet, and though we scramble back in at least a mile and a half, scaling one dry waterfall, we see no sign of an end. The thought of what it would be like to be caught in here in a rain gives us the fantods, and we come out fast.

The high water tempts us into a number of canyons, for overnight the river has risen from what Norm estimated at 40,000 second-feet to what he is sure is over 60,000, and the doorways of many canyons are flooded so that we can row in as into fjords, winding in and out and once poling through a watery tunnel formed by a fallen slab. Every sandbar is green with tamarisk and redbud; wherever there is an accumulation of soil, cottonwoods have taken hold, to hang on until the next big flood scours the channel clean and the cycle starts over.

Many years ago, reading Pow ell’s account of his explorations, I got the notion that I wanted to come down into Glen Canyon and hole up in an alcove where there was water and a little soil. “Nine bean rows would I have there, and a hive for the honey bee. . . .” Now as I think of what we are likely to see in the papers when we end this river trip in a day or two, I suggest to Norm that I’d still like to hide out here for a while. He is full of enthusiasm at once; he will lend me a boat and help me get in supplies, either by river or by plane. I can sit in my green alcove and watch the river whirl by and write a book.

He doesn’t know how close he is to being taken up. I reflect on those scientific friends of mine at M.I.T. and Harvard who are quite seriously stocking their Vermont farms against Armageddon, and it is a temptation to imagine that there might be sanctuary in this remote and beautiful canyon. But that lasts only thirty seconds. Out in the floodswollen stream, snags and logs and drift, go by, rocking in the swift water, circling with corpse-like dignity in eddies and whirlpools, and as we watch we see a dead deer or sheep, its four stiff hooves in the air, go floating by in mid-river. We abandon the notion of sanctuary: even here, the world would drive its dead sheep and driftwood by the door.

But we can forget that at least another day, until we hit Lee’s Ferry. At the mouth of Forbidden Canyon, after we return from the fourteen-mile hike to the Rainbow Bridge and back, we discover that the catfish will bite on anything or nothing, they will rise and gobble cigarette butts, or eat empty hooks as fast as we can drop them in. This is the way things were when the world was young; we had better enjoy them while we can.