The Remaking of Cataract Canyon: Day Two

We rise early to the smell of bacon and coffee. Even the vegetarians follow the scent, uncorking their limbs after a long night inside the mosquito bunkers. Those bunkers, naturally, were easily busted by the stealthy insects, who drained us as we slept.

Weisheit has been up for hours already. Over the course of the week we never once catch him nodding. He supposedly reposes on his raft, a bobbing waterbed, though this remains speculation.  We wolf down our food, too quickly to enjoy it, itching to cast off from Bloodsucker Beach.

We aren’t in the water long. Our destination for the morning is Fort Bottom, less than a mile down river, where a prow of sandstone juts out into a bend of the Green River that is so contorted it would humble even the most accomplished yoga practitioner. The mesa is topped by a stone tower built by the Fremont people a thousand years ago, the so-called Moki Fort.

It is fairly easy to find a spot to anchor the rafts. Less so to break our way through the thicket of tamarisk to the trail leading us to the purple mesa.

The ground here shimmers in the morning sun. The pink sand beneath our feet is embedded with polished river stones and chunks of jasper. Call it desert pavement. The trail leads us through a parched landscape of tiny barrel cactus, Mormon tea and shadscale, with its crunchy salty leaves, to a small, sun-blasted cabin built out of cottonwood and driftwood a century ago.

The tourist-oriented outfitters (those who bother to float the Green at all) regale their clients with stories about how the cabin was a hide out for Butch Cassidy. Perhaps it was. Cassidy was a cattle rustler who passed through the canyonlands many times and Fort Bottom was once nice pastureland, remote and hidden. But Weisheit tells a more compelling story. He believes the cabin is a relic of a kind of cowboy communism.

The pasture, he says, was a commons, open to all who didn’t abuse it. Same with the lonely cabin. Any one was welcome to stay in it, as long as they repaired the chinks in the walls, placed new sticks on the roof of the porch for shade and maintained the dry-stacked chimney.

From the cabin we follow the twisty trail up the face of the mesa, scrambling over boulders, up slickrock, and, in a fancy display of technical climbing prowess, flop  ourselves belly first, over the final wall of rubble to the rim, as gracefully as any sea lion.

At the tip of the mesa, with an unimpeded view of Labyrinth Canyon, sits the Moki Fort. This three story tower of stacked and mortared stone was probably built sometime between 800 and 1000 AD. It is one of the several watch towers on a archipelago of mesas stretching all the way to Moab.

By the time these towers were built, though, it does appear that the Fremont and the Anasazi to the south were in a state of cultural free-fall. Decades of drought and searing heat gripped the Colorado plateau. Springs and seeps had dried up. The crops of beans and maze had failed. Most of the wild game had long since been hunted to near extinction.

Most of their material wealth and manpower was sunk into the construction of defensive architecture: elaborate cliff palaces, remote granaries, and watchtowers. All were made of stone, situated in extreme settings on the tops of buttes, in alcoves, clinging to the shear face of rock, accessible only by fragile ladders or Moki steps carved into the sandstone. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the Fremont or Anasazi were under attack from marauding tribes from the Great Plains. Instead, it appears they were fearful of raids from within their own tribes. All to no avail. The more human capital the Anasazis and Fremont spent on defensive architecture and battlements, the deeply the culture became consumed by desperation and paranoia. Sound familiar?

According to the evidence from middens and graves at Anasazi pueblos, many were starving to death from lack of protein. The proof is in the state of their bones. The situation was so dire that toward the end they began eating mice, live mice. Other groups, according to the shocking work of anthropologist Christy Turner, resorted to cannibalism. Man corn.

By the twelfth century, they had largely vanished from the plateau. The Fremont, perhaps, fled to the Great Plains. The Anasazi to the Hopi and Zuni pueblos to the south. Within a few decades, the homeland of the Fremont and Anasazi was occupied by Paiutes, Utes and Navajo.

Kimberly notes the presence of two circular depressions near the tower, edged in hand-hewn slabs of rock. The holes appear to be too shallow for kivas, but there’s a distinct ceremonial feel to the excavations. We’ll never know for sure. Most interpretive archaeology is informed guesswork, latter-day mythmaking.

* * *

Back on our boats, we soon glide by the Buttes of the Cross, not once, not twice, but four or five times, as if watching an instant replay with multiple reverse angles, as the river twists and turns through the impossibly tight meanders of Labyrinth Canyon. Christened by Powell, the atheist son of an itinerant Methodist preacher and abolitionist, the buttes, two highly eroded slabs of Wingate sandstone, one a tabletop mesa rising about 1000 feet above the river and the other a pinnacle perhaps 1500 feet tall, are unlikely to inspire Christians into spasms of religious ecstasy since the cross in question seems from this vantage to have been stabbed upside down into the White Rim, like the one St. Peter was fatally nailed to by the pagans of Rome. In the distance, Cleopatra’s Throne, a sculpted spire of Navajo sandstone, exerts its stately presence beyond the sacrilegious buttes. Perhaps, the austere Maj. Powell possessed a sense of humor after all.

The afternoon contracts and unwinds, slowly as the river itself. Lounging on the side of Weisheit’s raft, Lorenzo breaks out his beater guitar, picking blues chords born on another river and singing his own hysterical parodies of George Jones songs. Later Kimberly recites poems by William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson and Dorothy Parker, as the brutal sun lingers on the iridescent crest of the White Rim sandstone.

We can’t coax any original poems out of Wolff, but he does let fly with snippets of two of our greatest poets: Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. Meanwhile, Marta whispers unspeakable devotions to her ducky.

Out of the blue, Weisheit begins dissing ravens and their acolytes. It’s one of his pet peeves. Barry Lopez titled his book on the McKenzie River of Oregon, Reflections in the Raven’s Eye. Ellen Meloy called her tremendous book on the Green River, Raven’s Exile. Puffery, mere pr to rehabilitate the reputation of the canyon’s bad boys.

“Ravens get too much respect from literary nature writers,” Weisheit mumbles. “They’re nature’s terrorists. Smart, sure, but nasty and obnoxious. They’ll devise any kind of trickery to get our food. Consider, if you will, the etymology of ‘ravenous.'”

Word seems to have spread through the corvine community about Weisheit’s prejudices. One morning a raven flies over camp, as our captain fixed a thick pile of breakfast burritos, and drops a rock near the Groover. Later that afternoon, another raven circles Weisheit’s boat flying upside down, emitting a maniacal laugh. That evening still another raven struts back and forth on a small limestone alcove near camp, performing a mad parody of a super-model on a catwalk.

“If a group of crows is called a murder, how do we refer to a gathering of ravens?” Kimberly asks.

“A cell?” Marta says.

“A jihad,” snaps Weisheit.

A few hours after Weisheit’s vile imprecations, raven astounds us all. Marta points to a large soaring raptor skimming the face of a cliff 500 feet above us. At first the bird looks like an ordinary turkey vulture. Then we see a tell-tale flash of white near the tail, the signature of a juvenile golden eagle.  Suddenly, a raven alights from the branch of a juniper tree on the rim of the canyon and dive-bombs the young eagle, screaching at him, nipping at his uneasy wings. The eagle tilts into a thermal and begins to rise in an upward spiral, the raven giving chase. Within a couple of minutes, the birds are 1000, then 2000 feet above us and rising. The eagle hasn’t flapped its wings once, gaining altitude and shifting directions with only the slightest adjustments to the angle of its wings and tail. Raven, though, must beat her wings furiously to keep up, but keep up she does, until both birds are mere specks against the afternoon clouds. Finally, perhaps at an altitude of 5,000 feet, raven breaks off the pursuit, her sky dance, and streaks back to her perch on the rim, cackling forth a triumphant tale of homeland defense.

* * *

We make camp on a wide bend of the river near a rincon known as Anderson Bottom. Though Brian expresses a longing for something resembling a double-cheeseburger from Wendy’s, Weisheit insists on preparing pasta shells stuffed with herbs and ricotta cheese. He is just handing out plates of apple crisp, piping hot from his Dutch oven, when the sky begins to crackle.

Bulky stormclouds loom like bruises on the horizon, veined with lightning. Thunder rumbles through the canyon like the opening power chords in a Black Sabbath anthem to the night. We scramble to erect the ridiculous tents Tag-a-Long Tours has impishly supplied us with. Tall, gangly domes with enough surplus headspace to accommodate even the crankiest Frenchman. All held together by fragile plastic poles that splinter when bent with the slightest touch of excessive force.

The wind lashes our tent, rips off the fly, sending the stakes hurtling toward the Wolff-Renzi encampment like glittery flying weapons in a kung fu movie. Fortunately, I discern no yelps of pain. Rain streams through every window, every seam, soaking our sleeping bags, our clothes, our books, our dessert.

I am ordered outside our trembling hovel to retrieve the fly, to do something, any damn thing, to stem the flow.

I take my bearings in the gale. Oddly, Weisheit seems to be doing the dishes, whistling All Along the Watchtower as he scrubs. The Hendrix version, naturally. He casually points toward the copse of trees at the edge of the beach. There I find our fly, snagged by the thorny branch of a desert olive tree. I race back toward our tent with my flapping trophy, but suddenly the storm abates. The wet air of the desert night blooms with the fresh scent of sagebrush, cottonwood and cliffrose.

We slither into our drenched bags under the light of a fat yellow moon and listen to the mournful odes of the poorwills until we drift into sleep.

To be continued…




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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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