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A Half Mile of Hell

Going Down on the Rocks in Dinosaur

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

Dawn in the canyon.

The early morning light is liquid and orange, amniotic. Everyone is sleeping. Jennifer is zipped up tight under a spreading box elder. Craig and Chris have opted for a shimmering white tent from which you might envision the gap-toothed Omar Sharif emerging with wrinkle-free clothes and perfect hair. While Judy threw her bag down on a white stretch of beach and was lulled to sleep by the steady hiss of the river, John and Susette, old hands at desert camping, are serenely mummified in a pharaonic mound of quilts, pads and sleeping bags. Should I inform them that our beach seems to have been previously reserved for a convention of scorpions? No. Better to let sleeping innocents lie.

I fill the pots with water, light the burners and brew a riverside version of Turkish coffee. I grab a gray plastic mug with "Drain It!" stamped on the side, top it off with the grounds-flecked coffee and head up a trail in Cascade Canyon to watch the sun ease over the high parapets of Lodore.

On a ledge above our camp I am struck by an overwhelming odor of cat. More precisely, cat shit.

It doesn’t take long to find the source: a fresh mound of cougar feces, still warm to the touch, recently deposited near the plated trunk of a fat Ponderosa pine. I poke around in the steaming pile with a stick. The big cat appears to have recently sampled three of the four basic food groups: ground squirrel, jackrabbit, mule deer. No evidence of the remains of a Forest Service timber sale planner, though. Still, there are many hours left in the day for our felix concolor to fulfill her dietary regimen. After all, the Ashley National Forest, currently being blitzed by clearcuts, is only a few miles away. Up the canyon and take a right. Just follow the survey stakes.

I’ve spent many weeks in remote western wilderness areas and this is the closest I’ve come to a mountain lion-though I’m sure they’ve spied on me many times. Perhaps you know the sensation? Those eerie moments, alone in the outback, when you feel a cold prickling ripple across your skin, the hairs on your neck stiffen, the air electrifies and the world goes silent. Being scanned by a cougar is like walking in the presence of a ghost–your own.

As the suburbs continue to sprawl mercilessly into the mountains and deserts of the West, a new frenzy of mountain lion panic has broken out with calls to revive the old bounty campaigns to wipe out the big cats, once and for all. The cover of a recent book on mountain lion attacks depicts a cougar looming menacingly over the city of Boulder, Colorado, as if to suggest that a lion had snatched Jon Benet.

But the lions of the West are survivors. Only wolves and coyotes have suffered more grotesquely at the hands of the hired killers in the government’s war on predators. This grim history is recounted in harrowing detail by my friend Michael Robinson in his painfully researched book, Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West.

For the past 100 years, mountain lions have been trapped, poisoned, skinned alive, blown up by M-44 cyanide bomblets planted in bait, hunted with dogs, gunned down from helicopters and had their decapitated heads stacked into a grisly pyramid as a photo-op for western newspapers. Someday, someday soon, there will be a mighty reckoning. Even big empires can go defunct, have their equilibrium punctuated almost overnight-geologically speaking. Thank Bush for that. He didn’t open the fissures in the American behemoth, but his presidency has revealed how quickly the foundations of power can erode away when arrogance is genetically encoded with stupidity.

Still the big cats endure. And with the decimation of the grizzly, mountain lions are becoming the supreme predators of the American West. But perhaps they always were.

While the griz asserts its dominance through direct confrontation, which inevitably results, sooner or later, in the death of the bear (and nearly every other bear in the neighborhood), the lion settles on a different stratagem: stealth, speed, adaptation. It is the ninja of the quadrupeds: a cat that is capable of flying thirty feet across slot canyons, scaling vertical walls, killing in silence and savoring a secret revenge.

We see something of ourselves in wolves and bears. Perhaps that familiarity explains our cruelty toward those species and our small measure of guilt for the torments we’ve inflected upon them. But the cougar seems to be an alien presence, inscrutable and unknowable. Consider the Fremont people. Their rock art represents an amazingly complete catalogue of the flora and fauna of the Green River basin, from bison and bears to scorpions and rattlers. But you’ll search the sandstone walls in vain for an image of a cougar, even though the cats must have taken many Fremont lives. Some beings are too powerful to make engraven images of. And perhaps that fact, to this point at least, has made all the difference.

I amble back to camp, now alive with activity. The first face of the morning I see is Susette’s. It’s a pleasant face: bright, confident, inviting. She waves and smiles. Oddly, her smile turns to a frown, the frown to a paralyzing glare. She’s staring at my coffee mug. The one with Drain It! stamped on one side and SUSETTE on the other. Uh, oh. The hairs on my neck stiffen. A prickling sensation runs up my back. Busted.

Susette has handed down the two laws of the river. Don’t tangle the bowline and don’t– don’t ever–pour coffee into her mug. Like a good anarchist, I have violated both strictures on the second morning and am promptly placed on probation. One more transgression and she’ll boot me back to Pinedale with a note pinned to my shirt: "This is one of them Earth First!ers. He wants to raze your town and sow it with salt. Dispose of him in the customary manner."

I pledge to behave-though I never get the knack of tying those insanely complicated knots. I take comfort only in the fact that Craig’s rope-knotting skills are even more chaotic than mine. In fact, I admire him for it.

* * *

As a folklorist, Craig spends his time unknotting more complex matters, such as the exquisite dances of Mormon farming communities (endemic variations on the old quadrilles), interpreting the techniques and symbolism in Ute weaving and pottery, tracing the lineage of cowboy songs and tall tales. It’s a race against time to get it all down before it dissipates into the white noise of sprawl culture, its remorseless homogeneity, the cold logic of the clone.

Utah remains a cultural refugia, for traditional Mormons, Utes and Paiutes, and desert loners of all kinds. As in Appalachia in the 1930s and 1940s, the old ways still persist here-for awhile. Vast stretches of Utah remain cable free and serve as dead zones for cellphones. But even Utah is changing and the oil bonanza is exacerbating the worst manifestations of American techno-culture, as cell phone towers sprout along the red-rock ridges above the new oil fields.

Fresh out of Florida State, Craig came to the west back in the 1970s to work as a geographer and cartographer for the BLM and the Forest Service, working mainly out of Rangley, Colorado. One of his last assignments was to perform a survey in the Piceance Valley, where in one of the most unnerving and least known episodes in the modern history of the American outback, the federal government nuked western Colorado.

The idea sprang from the diseased brain of Edward Teller, architect of the hydrogen bomb. At the prodding of David Lilienthal, head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Teller developed a series of schemes to designed to display the utilitarian side of nuclear weapons. At first, Teller called his initiative Atoms for Peace. It later became known as Project Plowshares. First on Teller’s agenda was plan to explode three nuclear weapons off the coast of Alaska to excavate an instant harbor. At a public meeting in Point Hope, Alaska, where he was confronted by angry Inuits, Teller said, infamously, "Don’t worry about your fish. Most of that radiation dissipate in a matter of seconds. If your mountain is in the wrong place, just drop us a card."

That was in 1960. And Teller suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Inuit and a nascent environmental movement. But the project lived on in new and more devious incarnations. In reality, Project Plowshares was a way for the H-bomb boys to continue nuclear testing under the guise of domestic works projects.

In all there were three big nuclear explosions in the Colorado Basin: Project Gas Buggy, Project Rio Blanco (in the Piceance where Craig did his survey work) and Project Rulison. Rulison was the last major episode in the Atoms for Peace program. The peace in question wasn’t a cooling of the tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, but between two even more entrenched rivals: the nuclear industry and the oil companies, then locked in fierce combat over which sector would control America’s energy future. The AEC wanted to prove that a few well-placed nuclear bombs could strategically rearrange the geology of the Earth’s the crust in such a way as to release deeply buried and once untappable reservoirs of oil and gas.

At the Rulison site on Doghead Mountain, near Rifle, Colorado, there is a layer of gas trapped by a barrier of sandstone called the Williams Fork Formation. In the spring of 1969, the AEC’s nuclear team showed up, drilled an 8,500 foot bore hole into the ground, lowered a 40-kiloton nuclear bomb down the chute and blew it up. Teller pushed the button himself. The blast knocked several unsuspecting local residents to the ground and at least one rancher was blown off of his horse.

Gas began to percolate up. Not much, but some. There was a problem, though. An intractable one. The gas was dangerously radioactive.

The AEC and Department of Interior plugged the bore holes with cement and left. After all, this flank of Doghead Mountain wasn’t their land. It was a private ranch. In the grand tradition of western mining law, the nuclear excavators only owned the subsurface rights.

The radioactive waste remains. Lots of it, eternally mixed with shattered rock, ground water and natural gas. No one knows how to remove the radiation. Most people out here hope they never try.

Think again. They are trying to remove it. The gas that is. A Texas company called Presco, Inc. is intent on drilling 65 new gas wells in the blast zone, squeezing it out through an experimental process known as hydrofracturing. In other words, Presco wants to pulverize those subterranean sandstone reefs with blasts of pressurized water. Where will the water come from? Lake Powell? Will the water become radioactive when it hits the nuclear blast zone? Will the gas? Who knows.

Stiff-arming fears from local residents that the drilling will release those long-buried radioactive fumes, the BLM and the State of Colorado have already given Presco the greenlight.

Yes, it looks a lot like war out here on the Western front, where thousands of volunteers are enlisting as mercenaries for the oil industry, which seems intent on putting the boom back into bonanza.

* * *

The rocks of Dinosaur don’t need to be shattered. This is already a fractured landscape.

In the Grand Canyon, the stratigraphy of rock layers is laid down chronologically, with an inexorable precision that demolishes the creed of the Creationists. But the landscape of Dinosaur is different. As in a different planet. Here the canyons and mountains present themselves in contorted galleries of geological cubism. Here strata of rock stand on their head, bend over backwards, break of into space and then resume miles away. This is Jumbleland. Chaos theory in stone.

Here some of the oldest rocks in the West sit on top of much younger deposits, younger by a half billion years. And some strata of rock have gone missing altogether, giant gaps of time elided from the geologic record-and that’s before the coal companies started strip mining.

But perhaps no mystery is more opaque to the untutored mind than why the Green River, not a mighty stream by most measures, decided to drive south smack into the eastern flank of a nearly impregnable massif with 13,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Uinta Mountains, and, having made this fateful turn, how such a modest little river could have cleaved such a savage wound through this formidable range of billion-year old rocks, rising from the depths of the Pre-Cambrian zone.

The explanations for this phenomenon have changed over the decades. John Wesley Powell opted for the antecedent theory. He postulated that an early incarnation of the Green River flowed through this region before the Uinta mountains began their amazing uplift from the basement of the planet during what is known to geologists as the Laramide Orogeny and the rest of us as the Making of the Rocky Mountains. Under Powell’s scenario, which is laid out in his intriguing monograph The Geology of the Eastern Portion of the Uinta Mountains, he contends that the Green River functioned as a saw, cutting through the quartzite of the Uintas as they began their dramatic uplift in the late Tertiary period, a mere five million years ago.

Having witnessed the vast void of the Grand Canyon, Powell believed in the omnipotence of erosive forces. He was right to concede such power to erosion. Consider the fact that the Uinta Mountains have risen nearly 45,000 feet, but have probably never been taller than they are today. In other words, aside from that first great thrust upward, erosion has essentially leveled the Uinta uplift, inch for inch. (By the way, the mountains remain in an aggressively tumescent phase.)

Still, Powell was almost certainly wrong and the first to contradict him was his brilliant student Grove K. Gilbert, who postulated what is now known as the superimposition theory. Under this scenario, the Uinta Mountains rose nearly five million years ago, then were flooded under a vast inland sea, which deposited layer upon layer of sediments. As the sea drained, the Green River formed on the eastern fringe of the range and began its steady excavations through the rock.

Gilbert’s theory held sway for many decades. Then in the 1960s an even stranger explanation was put forth by Wallace Hansen, a top research geologist at US Geological Survey. In his monograph, The Geologic Story of the Uinta Mountains, Hansen merges Powell and Gilbert. He demonstrates, fairly persuasively to blank slate minds like my own, that there was indeed an ur-Green River in the general vicinity of Dinosaur before the rise of the Uintas. But he also argues that the current course of the river was superimposed over the newly revealed mountains.

Then he throws a bomb. Hansen argues that the Upper Basin of the Green River used to flow not southwesterly to the confluence with the Grand River and to the Sea of Cortez, but easterly toward the North Platte to the Missouri and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. In other words, sometime in the last four million years, the Green River jumped the Continental Divide. Hansen calls this event "stream capture," a kind of geomorphologic imperialism where through a complex gymnastics of faulting and uplift one drainage steals the water of another.

These geologic arcana take on a more tangible meaning here on the floor of Cascade Canyon, which less than a million years ago formed the main channel of the Green River. The old, abandoned riverbed can be found in a hanging valley, some 500 feet above where we made our camp. This is an object lesson about flux and dynamic change.

The Earth hasn’t stopped shaping itself. Not by a long shot.

The ground continues to shift. The restless river eats relentlessly into the rocks. Cliffs collapse. Valleys sink. Ridges buckle. Even human structures aren’t immune to Powell’s omnipotent forces. Last summer, only a few days after my son Nat and I spent an enjoyable afternoon inspecting the ancient bones laying in situ, the foundation of the great museum at the Dinosaur Quarry cracked, its footings detaching from the fossil-bearing slopes of the Morrison Formation. The building is now closed.

Flaming Gorge Dam take heed.

* * *

We glide onto the river late this morning. The sky is pallid and sickly, stained by smoke from distant fires.

It will be a short day of big rapids and sharp rocks, in unbroken succession: Harp Falls, Triplet and, the monster of them all, Hell’s Half Mile.

Time seems to move, if not in circles, at least deeply entrenched meanders. Dawn, breakfast, loading, rapids, Tecate, lunch, rapids, unloading, dinner, gin, coyotes, sleep. And it’s not just time that is moving this way, but the river, too, as it loops, twists, and circles back on itself, presenting different angles on the same mountain peaks, passing through layers of geological strata and then witnessing the same formations of rock unfold in reverse order.

Sky, stone, river. Our stable trinity. All we really need.

At the entrance to Harp Falls, we are joined by five Mergansers. The birds will accompany us on and off for the next two days. The flashy red crests of the Mergansers are exquisitely coiffed in the style of the early Little Richard. The ducks sluice over the falls and ride the wave train in a fluid line of crimson. They wheel into the eddy below the rapids and wait patiently for us to complete the run.

In higher water, the overhanging cliff at Harp Falls could easily become Decapitation Rock, as the main current of the river drives into the sharply angled stone. This afternoon in such low water Harp Falls is simply a thrilling short chute that pulls us within a few inches of the imposing rock and then spits us downstream into the rough-and-tumble descent of Triplet Falls. The next ten minutes are a miasma of cold spray and jarring collisions with river-smoothed boulders. All in all, this is the most enjoyable stretch of rapids in Lodore.

We pause in an eddy below the last cascade and a debate breaks out over whether Mergus serrator is a dabbling duck or a diving duck. I reach for my Sibley’s Guide. But after our trauma at Lower Disaster, the soggy pages of the book have blurred into a gooey and unintelligible mess, like Bush’s sentences when the teleprompter blinks out.

It doesn’t matter. Subverting such rigid categorizations, the Mergansers settle the dispute for us with an empirical demonstration that they go both ways. They are both dabblers and divers and so much more. Try watching closely instead believing everything you read, they seem to say.

We tie the rafts to a cube of rock, freshly spalled from the cliff-face, and walk tenderly over sharp shards of chert to a view of Hell’s Half Mile, a boulder strewn reach of river that has earned a fearsome reputation for flipping rafts and mangling kayaks. The rapids are powered by two debris flows of spiny rocks spewed from large canyons on each side of the Green and by the Disaster Fault which strikes across the ramparts of Lodore near the beginning of the run.

From our perch above the falls, the rapids resemble the thrashing tail of a stegosaurus.

Weisheit leans toward me and whispers that he feels more anxious about this rapid than any he has run in the last decade. This confession comes from a man who has descended the raging torrents of Cataract Canyon more than 400 times, in all kinds of conditions.

Since no one brought along crash helmets, I size up the corridor of stone along the river. Not that hard of a walk, really. A small cliff to scramble up, some rubble, poison ivy, probably a snake or two. Piece of cake, once I change my shoes.

Then I notice the look in the eyes of the Riverkeeper. No sign of fear or trepidation. He’s actually grinning. It’s a look of glee and calculation. The thrill of the new, I guess. Oh, what the hell. If danger be fun, play on.

As it turns out, Weisheit executes a perfect run over the falls and through the dizzying maze of rocks. More or less perfect, anyway. We do go down backwards. And we knock and scrape rather rudely against a few rocks. But he alleges that those were premeditated collisions, demonstrating his refined technique of using boulders to make minute course corrections in mid-stream. Who am I to dispute him?

Judy comes next and, despite seeming to be slightly off line at the lip of the falls, makes a smooth descent, weaving gracefully through the prongs of stone. All eyes fix on Susette as her raft comes hard over the craggy drop, smacks the standing wave, buckles and snags on a spindle of rock, where the neoprene craft spins like an old vinyl record and hangs in the air, suspended at a gut-squeezing angle above the gnashing water. Then with a deft flick of an oar, the raft pivots and leaps off the rock into the spastic rhythms of the wave train. All ends well here in Hells Half Mile.

In the tailwaters of the next small rapids, we strain hard across the pulse of the current and haul out on a secluded white beach at the foot of Wild Mountain.

* * *

It’s birthday night at Wild Mountain. Craig and Jennifer are both looking hale and fit on the bright side of fifty. Steaks sizzle on the small grill. Someone mixes a container margaritas. A porcupine shuffles through the sagebrush near my sleeping bag. Did I zip up?

The night is cold, but our campsite is warmed by the walls of the canyon, which absorbed the heat of the day and now release it slowly back.

Susette reaches into a neon river bag and begins hauling out an assortment psychedelic clothes of such outrageous designs that even George Clinton and Bootsie Collins would be embarrassed to wear them on stage.

I seem to have been awarded a snugly fitting jacket and pant suit adorned with glowing cheetah spots and made of the cheapest velour. Velour with ruffles. I hold them before me like dead carp and shake my head.

"Put them on, Jeffrey," Susette commands. "And lose that T-shirt." These Moabites seem to have a particular fetish about my attire. I slide into the costume, which feels like it is made from the latest in skin-devouring lichens. Even Elvis never sank this low. Did he?

Someone has brought an I-Pod and battery-powered speakers, which have been strategically placed inside two aluminum pots to maximize the reverb. John, dressed discreetly in a leather top hat with purple polka dots, stokes the fire with branches of sweet-smelling juniper. The music begins. Christ, is that Donna Summer? Yes. Followed quickly by the BeeGees. Then Kool and the Gang. On and on in rapid succession (but not rapid enough). You get the drift. The coyotes sure did. They seem to have fled for another scene-perhaps the ornithologists camped up river are performing "Bye Bye, Birdie"?

People once familiar to me, some of them wearing illuminated devil’s horns (or are they the headresses of Fremont anthropomorphs?), initiate a kind of dancing around the leaping flames of the fire. Chris, an unrepentent Bay Area hippy, calls for the Dead. Susette begs for the Talking Heads. I yell: What about that Bill Monroe! Merle Haggard!! The Drive-By Truckers!!! Our requests go unheeded. Disco rules. The night descends into a blur of Bacchanalian rites. And, like Iago in his final scene, from this moment forth I shall speak no more about it.

Continued here.

Click here to read Part One: Dams, Oil and Whitewater.

Click here to read Part Two: Through the Gates of Lodore.

Click here to read Part Three: At Disaster Falls.

Click here to read Part Five: Greetings from Echo Park.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book is End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate, co-written with Alexander Cockburn. This essay will appear in Born Under a Bad Sky, to be published in December. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.