Going Down on the Rocks in Dinosaur

A raven wakes me at dawn with the scratchy-throated call of a two-pack a day smoker. I dredge myself out of the sleeping bag, which is saturated with dew. The air is sharp, autumnal.

I lumber to the river, strip and dive in. I haven’t bathed in four days. I’m beginning to smell like roadkill. As I submerge in the dark current, my testicles leap toward my throat from the cold shock. The water is still chilled from its black impoundment in the guts of Flaming Gorge reservoir, where it emerges at a flat and frigid 54 degrees–almost precisely the temperature of a grave.

The raven chuckles and flies down the canyon, a perpetual agent of mischief.

I dry off, slip on a ratty pair of jeans and a thick fleece and head up Jones Hole through a tall thicket of cane grass. After a mile or so, I strike off to the south and into a deep side canyon chiseled by a small stream called Ely Creek.

A few hundred yards up the white-walled ravine, Ely Creek plunges in a thin blue ribbon over a twelve-foot ledge of the skin-toned Weber sandstone. The shallow pool at the base of the falls reflects the early morning sky. It is filled with glittering cobble. A multi-colored stone draws my attention. I reach into the pool and pick it up. The fist-sized stone swirls with red, white and black streaks. The curious rock is smooth and exquisitely polished.

Perhaps the stone is a gastrolith, a stomach rock. But who’s stomach? A giant sauropod, maybe. The big plant eaters loaded their stomachs with grinding stones to masticate the tons of foliage passing through their cavernous bodies every week. Some of the dinosaur skeletons in western Utah and Colorado have yielded as many as forty gastroliths.

There’s a peculiar mystery to the gastroliths of Dinosaur National Monument. Most of the stones examined here by paleontologists are composed of rocks not found in Utah. In fact, many of them derive from Nevada and California. Apparently, the huge sauropods had impressive home ranges, thundering across hundreds of miles through swamps and savannahs like 30-ton bison, only faster and more agile. Or perhaps they simply marched off to Nevada for in search of replacement gastroliths, the way we visit the dentist.

As I roll the strange stone in my hand, I think about alternate histories. What if, for example, that asteroid hadn’t smashed into the Yucatan, gouging a giant crater in the crust of the earth and coating the planet in an irradiated cloud of dust that blocked the sun for a thousand years? Contrary to popular belief, the dinosaurs didn’t fail to adapt to changing climatic conditions. Indeed they were incredibly adaptable creatures – intelligent, social and, perhaps, the most successful beings to inhabit the planet-aside from the scorpions. It has always been, after all, an arthropod world. Instead, the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous age were annihilated by something like a full-scale thermo-nuclear war. The Terrible Lizards were whacked by the untamed geology of the heavens.

This rocky bench at Jones Hole has its own alternate history. If the Bureau of Reclamation had been permitted to fulfill its schemes, the mouth of Jones Hole Canyon would have been submerged under twenty feet of water and silt, held back by a 118-foot tall dam the engineers wanted to build at the entrance to Split Mountain Canyon. The dam would have flooded Island Park, Rainbow Park and every inch of Whirlpool Canyon all the way up to the footings of the Echo Park Dam. The canyons of Dinosaur would have become two giant holding tanks. That’s where David Brower steps in to change the course of history.

These days the Bureau of Reclamation is a broken and dysfunctional agency, a mere outlier in the vast labyrinth of the Department of the Interior. But back in its heyday of the 1940s and 1950s, the Bureau was a titanic force, perhaps the most powerful government agency in the Western States. It was the epicenter of the dam-industrial complex: promising cheap hydropower, irrigation, drinking water for expanding cities, water playgrounds, and industrial jobs. Exploiting Cold War anxieties, the Bureau presented itself as internal bulwark against the Communist Peril-even though most American Communists, such as Woody Guthrie, applauded its plan to dam nearly every Western river. In fact, the Bureau of Reclamation is the most Stalinist of federal agencies, cleaving closely to the masterplan of Old Joe who dictated to Soviet dam-builders: “No river should ever reach the sea.”

The Bureau’s leaders, men like Mike Strauss and the infamous Floyd Dominy, were as arrogant as defense contractors in the early days of the Iraq war. Everything was going their way. They steamrolled internal opposition, like that offered by Park Service chief Newton Drury, vilified conservationists as starry-eyed patsies and intimidated members of Congress who had the temerity to question any of the outrageously priced line items in their budget requests.

The Bureau drilled a tunnel through Rocky Mountain National Park for the Big Thompson water diversion. They built a dam across the Snake River in Jackson Hole National Monument at Grand Teton. They had no qualms about proposing dams in Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. They didn’t have the slightest clue that they were about to be coldcocked over their plans for two dams in a remote national monument that almost no one, including the leadership of the Sierra Club, had ever heard of, never mind visited.

The year 1946 was a fateful one for the rivers and canyons of the Colorado Plateau. FDR was dead. His Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, who wanted to designate most of the canyon country of Utah as a huge national park larger than Yellowstone, had been rudely dismissed from office by Harry Truman. The world war was over, the Cold War heating up.

Enter Mike Strauss, the new head of the Bureau of Reclamation. Unlike the previous commissioners, Strauss was a deal-making politician, not an engineer. Under Strauss’s direction, the Bureau published its document of doom, a study titled The Colorado River: A Natural Menace Becomes a Natural Resource. The book was nothing less than a death warrant for the Green, Colorado and San Juan rivers. It targeted 136 potential dam sites and envisioned a dam project or water diversion scheme in nearly every canyon and tributary on the Colorado Plateau. Central to the plan were four big main-stem dams: Flaming Gorge, Glen Canyon, Bridge Canyon on the western flank of Grand Canyon National Park and at Echo Park, where the Yampa River meets the Green in the heart of Dinosaur National Monument.

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 had divided the river’s water between upper basin states and lower basin states. The line of demarcation was drawn at Lee’s Ferry in Arizona, near the mouth of Glen Canyon. In an act of political wish-fulfillment, the Bureau ordained that the annual flow of the Colorado was 17.5 million acre feet of water and allocated 7.5 million acre feet to each basin. In theory, another 1.5 million acre feet was supposed to flow to Mexico. Of course, the Colorado River no longer flows to Mexico. But the Mexicans did inherit a toxic delta of pesticide-laden sludge.

In reality, the annual flow of the Colorado over the course of the last hundred years has averaged 13 million acre feet, a flow that continues to fall as a result of persistent (some might say permanent) drought and global warming. Naturally, the allocation of water between the basins has never been amended to reflect hydrological reality.

The California struck first with the construction of Hoover Dam in Black Canyon in 1936, quickly followed by Parker Dam and the All-American Canal, which diverted most of the flow of the Colorado into the fields of the Imperial Valley.

Panic broke out among the upper basin states of Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado, who feared that California was raiding more than their share of water. Prodded by the Bureau of Reclamation, the upper basin states demanded dams of their own in order hoard their water rights. But these states were also at war with each other over how much water each state was entitled to. This testy debate was finally settled in 1948 with the passage of the Upper Colorado Basin Compact, an exercise in computational fantasy that never once paused to examine how much water was actually flowing down the rivers.

These were big but sparsely populated states that were intensely motivated by those twin engines of American politics: jealousy and greed. Each state wanted its own big dam and large water impoundment, even if they couldn’t use the water and had no foreseeable need for the hydropower. They would rather see the waters of the Green, San Juan and Colorado evaporate into desert skies than flow into the hands of the Californians.

With the compact signed, the Bureau of Reclamation was primed to roll. They swiftly unveiled their plans for three large upper basin dams: Glen Canyon, Echo Park and Flaming Gorge, followed by smaller dams on the Gunnison River, the San Juan and at Split Mountain in Dinosaur.

Deviously, the Bureau had anticipated that the centerpiece of their scheme, the Echo Park Dam, might generate a modest amount of public outcry because it would flood more than 100 miles of canyon inside a national monument. They had an ace up their sleeve that almost no one knew about it. In 1943, the Bureau of Reclamation had signed a secret agreement with Park Service Director Newton Drury called a “reclamation withdrawal.” Essentially, the Park Service had already ceded the dam site to the Bureau of Reclamation. The deal was so covert that the park manager at Dinosaur, Dan Beard, knew nothing about it and when he protested to his superiors about unauthorized incursions into the monument by Bureau of Reclamation engineers in 1948, he was ordered to stand aside. “We see no advantage to be gained now in questioning the legality of the withdrawal,” wrote Arthur Demaray, assistant director of the Park Service. “To do so would be extremely embarrassing to the Department.”

By now Park Service boss Newton Drury knew he had made a tragic mistake by signing the agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation. Drury began to leak his opposition to the dam to his allies on the advisory board for the national parks, people like Rosalie Edge, Alfred Knopf and the crusty Utahn Bernard DeVoto. In 1950, Drury was forced to resign by Truman’s Interior Secretary Oscar Chapman. With Drury gone, it was going to be up to an outside force to save Dinosaur-if, indeed, it could be saved.

The first blow was struck in 1950 by the historian and polemicist Bernard DeVoto in Reader’s Digest, at the time the most influential and widely read publication in America. DeVoto was one of the original dam-busters, a rare western critic of the political-driven exploitation of western lands. DeVoto was an irritant, as prickly as Edward Abbey. Reportedly, DeVoto’s feisty introduction to Beyond the Hundredth Meridian cost Wallace Stegner the Pulitzer Prize–not that Stegner ever griped about the loss.

DeVoto’s vicious attack on the Bureau of Reclamation was titled “Shall We Let Them Ruin Our National Parks?” DeVoto’s acidly written article was most people’s introduction to the remote Dinosaur National Monument. And they didn’t like what they read. One of those outraged by the DeVoto essay was Howard Zahniser, the crusading leader of the Wilderness Society. Zahniser had never heard of Dinosaur before, but he riled at the idea of a National Monument being flooded by a big dam.

Over at the Sierra Club fortuitous changes were afoot. The young Dave Brower had just been hired as the Club’s executive director and first paid staffer. Brower didn’t know much about Dinosaur either. But unlike most Sierra Clubbers of his era, Brower did hold any particular prejudice against the Interior West. He had spent time in the Rocky Mountains and on the Colorado Plateau. During World War II, Brower trained at Camp Hale in central Colorado with the famous 10th Mountain Division of the US Army. And, in 1939, he had made the first staggeringly difficult ascent of Shiprock, the ghostly volcanic plug on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona.

In the summer of 1953, Brower made his first float trip through Dinosaur, guided by the early river-runner Bus Hatch, who operated out of Vernal. Brower made two more trips that summer–one with the writer Wallace Stegner and the other with Dr. Harold Bradley, the former dean of the medical school at the University of Wisconsin.

During those trips, the strategic outlines of a battle plan were drawn up. Time was short. Congress was scheduled to move forward with the Colorado River Storage Act in the winter of 1954. Brower devoted himself to the study of western water law and the region’s peculiar political pressure points. He leaned heavily upon the scientific acumen of Bradley and the legal advice of a brilliant lawyer named Northcutt Ely, who, ironically, represented the California water users.

Meanwhile, Stegner went to work on a book that would become a classic text in the history of environmental politics. Published by Alfred Knopf, a staunch opponent of the dam, This is Dinosaur: The Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers contained eight essays, all keenly edited by Stegner, and a gallery of evocative photos of the monument. The book was hand delivered to every member of congress and nearly every newspaper editor in the country.

This is Dinosaur may have been the most potent American political pamphlet since Tom Paine’s Common Sense. Wayne Aspinall, the flinty congressman from western Colorado who served as a political overlord for the Bureau of Reclamation, said he knew his dream of a dam at Echo Park was shattered the moment the book hit his desk.

Still Brower had much to overcome, notably the eccentricities of some of his colleagues, particularly the ridiculous Zahniser, who wasted his precious minutes before the Senate Interior Committee by reciting Southey’s ridiculous poem, “Cascades of Lodore.” After Zahniser’s strange performance, Utah Senator Arthur Watkins grunted to a fellow member of the committee, “What did I tell you? Abominal nature lovers.”

Fortunately, Brower, even though he had never testified before congress, came armed with facts. He humiliated the engineers at the Bureau of Reclamation by proving that they had made grievous mathematical errors in their calculations of evaporation rates in the planned reservoirs. Unfortunately, in exposing the Bureau’s fraudulent science Brower doomed Glen Canyon and Flaming Gorge.

It was a premeditated decision. Instead of opposing the entire Colorado River Storage Project, the environmentalists decided to focus on saving Dinosaur National Monument by recommending that the Bureau of Reclamation raise the height of the Glen Canyon Dam. Brower demonstrated during his testimony that a high Glen Canyon dam would store 700,000 acre feet more water than a lower dam at Glen Canyon and Echo Park. Though they squealed about it publicly, this was a deal even the water barons couldn’t pass up. On July 8, 1955, Aspinall deleted the Echo Park dam from the bill.

Dinosaur was saved. The neophyte environmental movement had beaten the mighty Bureau of Reclamation and its political backers with better science, more savvy public relations and, shockingly, bigger political clout. But the victory came at a very high price: Flaming Gorge, Glen Canyon and half of Cataract Canyon would be inundated.

Looking back, the problem isn’t just that Brower and his cohorts made a political deal to save Dinosaur and, as they saw it, the integrity of the national park system, by consenting to the larger scheme of the Colorado Storage Project, which meant big dams at Glen Canyon and Flaming Gorge and smaller, but equally damaging impoundments, on the San Juan, Dolores and Gunnison Rivers. No, the problem was in fixating on institutional names, bureaucratic boundaries, regulatory classifications and legal designations and not on the river itself and the green current of life that flowed with it.

Yes, they were men (and nearly all of them were men) of their era. Yes, they had fought hard for the national park system, for the idea of wilderness. For many, the wounds from the Hetch Hetch battle were still tender. No more dams in national parks. The conservationist contingent didn’t have recourse to legal weapons such as the Endangered Species Act or the National Environmental Policy Act. They fought an intense political battle with what they had, an Emersonian ideal of primitive wilderness as represented in the park system, a vision, as illusory as it was, they correctly believed would appeal to a new generation of mobile post-war Americans seeking respite from the oppressive monotony of their suburban existence.

Still, some knew better. Stegner advised strenuously against the deal Brower struck. So did the photographer Eliot Porter, river guide Ken Sleight, folksinger Katie Lee-even Georgia O’Keefe, who executed a beautiful but little known series of paintings in Glen Canyon during the 1950s.

Olaus Murie, the naturalist with the Wilderness Society, should have raised the ecological issues more forcefully. Even Brower himself realized the disastrous consequences shortly after the passage of the Colorado River Storage Act, dooming Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon. But at the time his organization of Bay Area elites remained mired in an ice-and-rocks mindset that might be diagnosed as Sierracentrism. In many ways, it still is.

As astounding as their triumph over the Bureau of Reclamation was, it is now clear that the conservationists didn’t save the wildness of Dinosaur by preventing it from being flooded by two big dams, for a simple reason: the dam that they consented to at Flaming Gorge continues to inflict terrible ecological damage downstream, robbing the canyons of some essential chords of life. Even today, Dinosaur is being starved of sandbars, starved of organic debris, starved of driftwood piles and spring floods, starved of willows and cottonwoods, razorback suckers and bony chubs. Starved of its unpredictability, its temporality, in a word its naturalness. Through most of its course in these glorious canyons the Green is a mechanized river, cold as a machine.

The fallout from the operations of Glen Canyon Dam have proven even worse. Not only did the giant cenotaph drown the most magnificent canyon on the continent, but it mauled the ecology of the Grand Canyon, as well. The hard lesson is that dams kill in both directions.

Still Brower’s accomplishment here can’t be discounted. He stopped a dam and built a powerful new movement, a movement that beat back dams in Grand Canyon National Park in the 1960s and enacted the signature environmental laws of our time: the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Even crusty Wayne Aspinall realized that the battle of Echo Park had shifted the dynamics of political power in the West. “If we let them knock out Echo Park,” Aspinall warned. “We give them a tool they’ll use for the 100 years.” By the congressman’s math, that means we’ve got fifty more years to bust a couple big dams. You know the ones. Time to get to work.

I toss the gastrolith back in the streambed in case some creature needs it for efficient digestion in an alternate future. Who knows when the Earth will once again be ruled by titantic vegans. Perhaps that’s the secret karma of global warming.

* * *

We lounge around camp until noon, writing in our journals, watching golden eagles twist in the sun, listening to Judy and Craig belt out Broadway show tunes. This is a comfortable campsite and we are loathe to leave it. But evacuate we must. The Park Service permits no layovers.

Whirlpool Canyon is another misnomer. For most of its run through this dark slot, the Green River is calm and meditative, as if brooding over its narrow escape from engineered extinction.

A few hundred yards below our camp, the river splits around a green island of tamarisk and old cottonwoods, where herons have nested. As the threads of river rejoin, we encounter a boisterous group of boaters harassing a bighorn ram and his harem. The men have crowded their rafts and kayaks to within a few feet of the sheep, and are clicking away with their cameras, snickering obscenely, tossing beers from raft to raft. The ewes are skittish, poised for flight. But the ram doesn’t move. Like an old Mormon patriarch, he stares defiantly at the fat interlopers, poised for confrontation. Almost willing one. Finally, the drunken boaters depart and, under darkening skies, we slide silently past the bighorns, noticing that their ears are free of tags and that their throats are unencumbered by radio collars. Long may it be so.

As we float by the flanks of Hardscrabble Mountain, the familiar red rocks of the Lodore Formation give way to the blocky white ramparts of the Madison limestone, tiger-striped with black desert varnish. The angular walls of the canyon are cluttered with the adobe summer homes of cliff swallows. The birds, among the fastest and most beautiful on earth, have already migrated south to the Yucatan, Guatemala and Honduras, leaving behind their odd, gourd-like mud houses, surely the architectural inspiration for the granaries of the Anasazi.

Most of the summer birds have followed the swallows south. But every now and then we spot one of my favorite bird species, jittering on a rock at the river’s edge: the water ouzel. Look up ouzel in your field guides. You won’t find it, even though it was immortalized by the best passages John Muir ever wrote. That’s because the nomenclature Nazis at the American Orinthological Union arbitrarily determined that the water ouzel should be exclusively known as the American Dipper.

I refuse to submit to this tyranny. Dipper describes only a small part of the wren-like bird’s behavior. Ouzel evokes its essence. Back home in Oregon, I’ve spent hours mesmerized by the acrobatics of ouzels flying around, in and, yes, up waterfalls in the Columbia Gorge. Here in Whirlpool the chunky black ouzel dives into the dark current of the Green, pops out of the river a dozen feet upstream, lands back on the flat rock, shakes the water off its stubby tail and chastises us as we pass by with a bug-like song: Dzeet, dzeet, dzeet.

* * *

Around the next twist of the river, we once again encounter the flotilla of boaters. They have stopped for lunch. Their spread gives the appearance of a tailgate party before a college football game. Beer (well, Coors, anyway) is being guzzled from hydration packs. Whiskey bottles have been set up like bowling pins on a shelf of rock. Two ravens, hunched on a low-hanging cottonwood branch, have already taken notice of the main course: an Army helmet stuffed with orange Cheetos.

The seven men range from pudgy to corpulent. Their rafts must groan under the load. To a man, they are smoking fat cigars. The smell sours the canyon air. One demands another Coor’s as he urinates on a thatch of sage. An aluminum can is promptly launched his direction, like a frozen monkfish flung through the air at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. He flubs the catch, pisses on his leg. Someone has constructed a crude sand sculpture that vaguely resembles a prone Monica Lewinsky. The giveaway is the cigar protruding from the crotch. They are from Colorado, naturally, on a frat boy reunion of some sort. This beach is being subjected to an depraved hazing ritual.

Calling all cougars.

* * *

Whirlpool Canyon ends abruptly at a contorted upthrust of rock called Island Park Fault. At the mouth of the gorge, the red walls of the canyon descend sharply back into the earth and the landscape smoothes into rolling hills of cheatgrass, another tenacious exotic. These fuzzy mounds are the rounded tops of ancient dunes, now solidified into Navajo sandstone.

This is Island Park, where, according to the map, the Green River braids through a series of islands, shaded by groves of cottonwoods. The Park Service has assigned us a campground for the evening on the southern flank of Big Island. There’s just one problem. The islands seem to have disappeared–and so have most of the cottonwoods. The shrunken river is restricted to the main channel. The old course of the Green is clotted now with horsetail, cane grass and the ubiquitous tamarisk.

We pull our boats out on a rocky beach at the foot of the Island Park Fault. Chris and I slip off the Riverkeeper’s raft and walk downstream toward the alleged campsite. We slop through the sucking mud of the old riverbed and spook two young mule deer that had bedded down in the cane. They jolt to their feet, but don’t scamper too far away from this cool and moist spot. They stare at us balefully, with alert, Yoda-like ears.

Finally we bushwhack our way to a signpost designating Big Island Camp, nearly concealed behind a veil of willows. The little beach is landlocked, at least a hundred yards from the river. A dead end.

What gives? Why did the Park Service consign us to a campground on a dried out channel? Did they finger us as anti-dam fanatics? Is this some kind of bureaucratic set up? Is that why they demanded our social security numbers?

Back at the rafts, Susette has already made the call. We’re spending the night here at Red Wash, near the broken end of Whirlpool Canyon. We unload the boats, set up the kitchen, search for sandy sleeping spots among the spines of rock.

Susette plants the the shitter on a spit of sand near the river and gives it a test drive. As she finishes her business, the inebriated armada of Coloradoans emerges noisily from the canyon. Two of the men take out cameras with zoom lenses and snap dozens of photographs of her and then the rest of us. Invaders, gluttons and voyeurs. One of them yells: “Lookee! Tree huggers! Envirofeminazis!!”

These guys aren’t merely aging fratboys, after all. Almost certainly, they are also Bush-appointees at the Department of the Interior. They sure have the pedigree.

* * *

Weisheit is meant to be cooking dinner, but he’s standing near the firebox instead, pointing dreamily to the curving Island Park Fault that looms above us. “Someday we must climb that,” he muses.

“No time like the present, Johnny,” says Jennifer. “Chris and I can handle dinner. Besides, we like to watch. This might be damned amusing.”

The fault is a buckled reef of layered rock that resembles the dorsal fin of an attacking Orca–if it had been painted by Peter Max. From here the anticline seems to offer a relatively modest climb of maybe five hundred vertical feet. From here.

On closer inspection, this flying fault soars nearly two thousand vertical feet above the floor of the canyon, all of it nearly straight up. The ascent will prove to be more like three thousand feet for us, since for every two steps we climb, we slide back one. The surface of the upwarp of limestone is flaked with scree, a slippery coating of shattered chert and jasper.

No one has brought a rope, climbing shoes or a stretcher. The only handholds are prickly pear cactus, thorny blackbrush and trick branches of juniper that snap off when you need them most. Pick your poison.

A sweaty hour of grunting, stumbling and profanity brings us to the top, where the arc of stone abruptly terminates in a concave drop of 2,000 feet to the lazy river below. I enjoy climbing, but am unnerved, justifiably I tell myself, by extreme exposure in high places. I cower on a flat ledge of limestone and look down river across the meadows of Island Park to the fissured flank of Split Mountain. The Riverkeeper shows no such inhibitions. Weisheit perches like a gargoyle on the edge of the precipice, an unstable cornice of fractured rock through which fat rays of light seem to be seeping. Is he wearing flip-flops?

Craig ventures down first, glissading on stones, kicking up a trail of dust behind him. A splendid strategy — for a solo descent. But Susette is next out of the starting gate. She slips, slides and stumbles a few hundred feet down the broken spine of rock, and kicks loose a boulder the size of a peccary, which begins careening down the slope.

“Head’s up!” Judy yells. “No, down. Get your head down, Craig.”

The tumbling rock seems to harbor a magnetic attraction for Craig. He moves left, it tracks left. He dodges right, the boulder follows suit. Finally Craig ducks and covers as the maniacal stone skims over his head and into a juniper tree, which disintegrates in a puff of debris like an atom in one of Edward Teller’s cyclotrons.

My own descent is less than glorious, something between a crawl and an uncontrolled skid. I shed vital layers of epidermis all the way down.

Back at camp, Chris and Jennifer have bemused themselves by watching the tragi-comedy unfold at a comfortable distance. They also seem to have dipped rather deeply into the tequila while preparing tonight’s feast, a fiery quesadilla, stuffed with cheese, black beans, and habanero peppers. The biomass of the meal is heavily weighted toward the habanero. As our mouths blister, there’s a good deal of obscene snickering from the chefs.

A line forms in front of Susette, who is slouched in her river chair with a drink in her hand and a hunk of ice on her rump. Requests are made: backrub, neck massage, Chakra realignment. She waves us away, one by one, with an imperious flick of her hand. The Reiki master is on vacation and she’s taking no new patients. We limp back to our seats, lick our wounds and try to find an angle of repose that doesn’t ache. Then Jennifer comes along, bearing Mojitos. “Two guys walk into a bar,” she quips, turning to Craig. “The third one ducks.”

This is our last evening in open air and there’s a melancholy mood to the camp. After dinner we each shuffle off to our own sleeping spaces. On this night, only Judy resorts to a tent.

The quark-quick western pipistrelles dart through the cool darkness. A lone coyote, sitting on a hidden rib of sandstone, does a keening imitation of an Ornette Coleman riff, phase-shifting between dissonant shrieks and sweet melodies.

The moonless sky is nearly black, lit only by a lustrous stream of stars.

To be continued.

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 Four: A Half Mile of Hell.

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

Click here to read Part Six: The Dam That Isn’t There

Click here to read Part Seven: Splitsville.

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.




Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3