—ARIZONA DAILY SUN
In the wake of his river–running mother's death, Zak Podmore explores the healing power of wild places through a lens of grief and regeneration. Visceral, first–person narratives include a canoe crossing of the Colorado River delta during a rare release of water, a kayak sprint down a flash–flooding Little Colorado River, and a packraft trip on the Elwha River in Washington through the largest dam removal project in history.
Award–winning journalist and film producer ZAK PODMORE covers conservation issues, outdoor sports, and Utah politics. He is a Report for America fellow at the Salt Lake Tribune and editor–at–large for Canoe & Kayak magazine. His work appears in Outside, High Country News, Four Corners Free Press, and the Huffington Post. He lives in Bluff, Utah.
|Publisher:||Torrey House Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
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It's early summer and the water is high. My mother grasps the handles of two wooden oars and feels the Colorado River surge through her arms. A gray ring of raft surrounds her, sixteen feet from bow to stern, and beyond it, the mud–red river roils. In the front of the boat, her friend and former college roommate sits on a cooler. They're raft guides out for a week in Utah canyons with no clients, and they're nearing the crux of the trip: a feature known to river runners, in both fondness and fear, as Satan's Gut. Directly downstream the Gut heaves in a gnashing pit of foam large enough to swallow a Winnebago. River and air are locked in combat. The water billows up in angry clouds that never manage to sail into the sky but are pulled under again and again. Other boats in their party have already disappeared beyond the maelstrom.
As the current gathers speed, the world tilts. The first waves at the top of the rapid crash over the gray tubes and the raft fills like a bathtub. That morning the boat's load of army–surplus ammo cans—packed with apples, peanut butter, and beer—were lashed to the metal frame under a net of faded webbing. Now they float beneath their restraints. The woman in the front of the raft stands knee–deep on the floor and bails with a five–gallon bucket twice before sitting back down and grabbing onto a strap.
Bracing her feet against a box, my mother pulls back on the Douglas fir oars so they bend against the water. Deep in the woodgrains, fibers creak and snap. But the raft's course can't be altered. The front tubes cross the upstream edge of the hole and the boat tips smoothly into its mashing heart. A white wall of water rolls across the bow and smacks my mother square in her lifejacket. The boat, more ballast than flotation, barely slows as the oars are ripped from her hands.
The raft continues downstream. My mother does not.
She circles in the hole three times like a paper bag blowing through a culvert. As if compelled, she folds her knees to her chest and lets a deeper current pull her far below the roar. Ears pop as knees graze the limestone cobbles imbricated along the river's floor. All at once, it is quiet, dark, calm—even peaceful. She tumbles and does not know which way is up. Her lifejacket doesn’t seem to, either.
She was twenty–five then, my sister and I still dreaming in the void of uncreation. When she'd tell the story to me later, she'd always gloss over her time underwater. But I could tell by her face that lifetimes were contained in the minute or two she spent beneath the Colorado River, that severed umbilical cord which once ran from the Rockies through the desert to the sea. I do not know what thoughts moved through her mind while she was submerged. I do not know what messages were pressed to her eardrums, what visions played through the pressure on her eyelids. But I’m aware that such moments are rarely silent; there is a discontinuous gap between the surface realm of the rower and the underworld of the swimmer. Over a life of river running, I've crossed that line more than once. Time begins to stretch and bend below the surface.
Unheard voices start to speak, even if their words cannot be repeated after breaking back through to the sanity of the day. As my mother sank all those years ago, I wonder what lights shone in the galaxies of her memories. Or was it all darkness—a wash of panic? It's too late to ask her now.
She did tell me the story's conclusion, though. Just as her searing lungs felt they could take no more, the river released its grip. The current slackened into a calm pool beyond the rapid, and the foam flotation around her chest began to propel her upward as if it were attached to the sky by a string. Her head broke through and dry air screamed into her lungs. Rescue ropes came slinging across the water from the half circle of rafts around her.
There she was, located again, neck deep in a river that carves through the bottom of the Colorado Plateau. The sun blazed on the broken stone blocks that spill down from the canyon walls. The sediments in the river swirled like high country emissaries from the Never Summer Range, the Uintas, the Wasatch…Abajos, La Sals, Wind Rivers, Grand Mesa, and San Juans. All around, dry washes tipped steeply toward the Colorado as if the arid landscape were bowing to river, to the surging rapid, and to my mother, alive.
Home Sometime Tomorrow
The world moves past at two miles per hour. Outside the van window, clusters of gray–green sagebrush fidget on roadside dunes as wind whistles through the door gaskets. My pen scratches across a notebook page while Ute Mountain Ute councilwoman Priscilla Rabbit speaks to me about her homeland, the traditional hunting grounds of her relatives not far from the road.
"When the grandmothers—when Thelma—tells me I need to be somewhere, I listen," she says. Her hands are folded on her lap. An ink-drawn bear snarls from her t–shirt underneath the words, "White Mesa Says NO to Uranium." Priscilla is serving her second term on the tribal council in another reservation town, but Thelma, who is two rows ahead of us in the fifteen–passenger van, lives nearby. She's a respected matriarch in the three–hundred–person village of White Mesa. Her short black hair and large turquoise earrings are visible above the seatback. Through the windshield, tufts of grass, already yellow in the late spring, lay down in the gusts of wind.
The van creeps along at an idle, matching the pace of the ninety protesters spooled out before us on the highway shoulder. I don't need to ask any questions. Priscilla keeps on talking and she is not someone you interrupt. "The Creator made us a unique kind of being," she tells me. "Look at how long our lifespan is compared to other animals. That gift allows us to step onto the land and respect it—and then leave it alone. We need natural elements to survive—wood for cooking and medicine from plants. But we borrow with respect for our neighbors, the bear and other animals, and the water. How does a human—how does anything—survive without water?"
Two men at the front of the procession carry flags bearing the seal of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. They turn across the highway and onto a side road. The protesters follow, marching toward razor–wire–topped gates that guard a cluster of beige, metal–sided buildings. A dust devil pulls up a cone of red earth from a freshly bulldozed mound beyond the fence. Priscilla stares out the window at it as the van creeps to a stop. Someone slides the door open. A protest chant blows into the vehicle along with a plume of dust.
Two white pickup trucks are parked diagonally across the road a few hundred yards from the fenceline, and a man leans against each vehicle with folded arms. As the crowd approaches the roadblock, the men move into the path and stand their ground. The flag bearers pause for a moment before they pour past the pickups like flood water through the trunks of cottonwood trees.
One of the men from the trucks yells to the other, "Call the cops!" But the cops are already on their way. Flashing lights part the stream of people and they've soon headed off the flag bearers. A white sheriff's deputy and a Bureau of Indian Affairs officer jump from their cruisers and this time the marchers stop, pressing against an invisible line set by the authorities.
"This is a private road," the handsome man in the blue BIA uniform shouts over the wind. "Turn back to the highway."
"We're going all the way to the gates. You can't stop us!" a protester says. I recognize him from earlier that morning: Thelma's son. Others shout in agreement. Someone reels toward the officers and is pulled back by a friend. The white deputy's hand moves slowly, as if through liquid, until it rests on top of his gun.
"If you go any further, you'll have to be decontaminated," the BIA officer says.
"Did you hear that? He said it's contaminated over there!"
"No, I said, if you go any further you'll have to be cleared. Legally. For radiation," the officer tries to clarify.
"We got it on film. He said 'contaminated.' He admitted it!"
Thelma steps up to the deputy, her face level with his Kevlar vest. She looks him in the eye and speaks in a voice rich with the inflections of the Ute language. "We've been inhaling the wind that kept going towards our reservation," she tells the deputy. "You people in Blanding, you don't even care about us. You don't give a shit about us. So here I am, I'm raising my voice."
The deputy is silent, frowning. The last name on his uniform identifies him as one of several large Mormon families that arrived in the desert canyons of southeast Utah in the late 1800s, where they built stone houses on Dineh (Navajo) lands, plowed fields into Ute hunting grounds, and later worked in the mines alongside Ute and Dineh people who were struggling to survive in the world the newcomers had brought with them.
Upwind, beyond the fence, is the last operational uranium mill in the country. Built forty years earlier, it was placed just outside the borders of the Ute Mountain Ute reservation.
Other tribal leaders offer speeches to the wind. They speak of deadly air and poison water. They speak of relatives. Of battles and fights. Of winning. And everyone speaks of home, of homeland, not as a place that was conquered or settled in some recent memory but as the birthplace of their people, where the Ute Mountain Utes have been since the beginning and the place where they intend to stay.
I float on the edge of the crowd and listen. Poisoned water worries me; the same aquifer that feeds the Ute town also flows from my faucet. But I can always run, and knowing this is what brought me to the protests. I've lived just south of the Ute reservation for three years. Though I also intend to stay, what would it feel like if leaving were impossible? I want to understand this word: homeland. I want to believe it, to believe that this land is home and no other. Most of the people around me, it seems, have grown up out of the ground. They belong here. The bones of their grandparents rest nearby. But I was born without a history. I drifted into this place like the dust passing through the fence, and now that I've settled onto this patch of desert I want to find a way to keep from being swept away again.
The Ute Mountain Ute people have a story: In the beginning the Creator gave Coyote a pouch and told him to travel to a sacred valley. "Don't open it before you get there," Creator said. Of course, this instruction was unbearable. Coyote was only just out of sight when he unsealed the bag. People poured forth from the opening. They scattered into the hills, speaking strange tongues, and though Coyote gave chase, he was unable to catch them. Distraught, he clamped the bag shut and walked the rest of the way to the valley. There he emptied the pouch and this time, out came people speaking a language he understood: Ute. When Coyote returned to Creator and admitted what he had done, Creator told him that the ones who had escaped were now destined to be the enemies of the chosen Ute. These adversaries with their foreign languages—what did they speak? Navajo? Spanish? English?—would forever encroach on the homeland and threaten the blessed people.
Before there was a home, there were enemies.
I moved to Utah a few years ago. Those who share my white skin and fair hair settled here 150 years before that. But is it possible we weren't the last to arrive here, but by way of some devastating accident, the first? Those who escaped Coyote's bag in the beginning?
The elders lead the group away from the mill and back to the shoulder of the highway. Before we get there, angry words break loose near the pickups, which are still parked across the road. A younger Ute man with long dark hair spilling from a backwards baseball cap, stands chest to chest with one of the white mill workers. "You're trying to kill us with your mill," he shouts. "You're trying to get rid of us, but it's not going to work. We're not leaving."
The worker keeps his voice even, calm. "No need to get worked up, buddy." He offers a stiff smile. "We went to high school together. Remember? We were fine then. We’re not out to get you."
Spectators form a half circle around the two men, leaving plenty of space between. A white woman with dreadlocks yells "Shame!" at the mill workers.
Another woman leans to my ear and gestures to the smiling worker by the pickup. "That's the mill manager," she says.
A line of protesters by the highway sings the quavering notes of a traditional song. Fists shoot into the air. Words that Coyote would have understood float above the crowd and are ripped away by the wind.
Another story: The enemies that escaped from Coyote's pouch amassed and threatened the Utes like never before. The Ute warriors fought to the very brink of defeat and all seemed lost. But just in time a giant appeared. He towered over mesa tops and waded through the clouds. He joined the fighters and drove the evil back. Victorious, the people celebrated and thanked the warrior. It was only then that they realized he had been gravely wounded. He lay down on the land to rest, his arms folded over his chest, and turned to stone. Juniper and fir grew on his body. Deer and bear came to live there. Snows fell on him in the winter and the people moved their wickiups around his great shoulders. The warrior is still visible in the homeland—the Ute Mountain for which the people are named. There he sleeps, waiting for the next battle.
The protesters have left. I stand talking to the mill manager as the clouds glow pink above Sleeping Ute Mountain. He tells me a different story. He speaks of hard work, of pioneers, of men who prayed and pushed their bodies and their tools against the earth, day after day, year after year, generation after generation, and made it work here in this harsh land. The mill offers work, he says. It allows people to continue making a life here. His strong freckled arms are still crossed on his chest. He uses the same word as the Ute councilwoman. Home. He says the mill allows people to stay here and raise families, to stay here at home instead of moving off to some city to find a job.
His boots are dirty and his shirt white. He asks how long I have lived in Utah and I tell him.
"Three years, huh?" he says, sounding exhausted. "Well, I guess everyone wants to move here now." He tells me his great–great–grandfather settled the tiny town where I live. His relatives no longer reside there but many newcomers do. I can see he doesn't want me in Utah, but he's not cruel about it.
I could tell him that I've been coming here my whole life or that my parents moved to a town on the other side of Sleeping Ute Mountain thirty–five years ago. I could tell him that when my girlfriend, Amanda, got a job here, we both decided our first week that there was no place we'd rather live. I could explain how we were married last year in a redrock canyon outside of town, that we've moved into a small home near the San Juan River that we never want to leave.
Instead, I tell myself that he is right. I am a typical white American, someone who moves in but does not stay. I know that this land was promised to his people, not to mine. His Mormon ancestors tried to escape America and create their own kingdom in the desert. They partly succeeded. The town where he lives serves no alcohol, even the grocery store closes on Sunday. In the story he tells, the mountains do not come to life, but in their way they still provide for his people. We shake hands but keep talking.
As he recounts the hardships of his pioneer ancestors, we lean against his truck and stare out over the sagebrush dunes to the blue domes of a mountain range and the outlines of mesas on the horizon. The hills roll gently away from where we stand, hiding the incisions of a hundred canyons that bore into mountain flanks and sever veins of uranium that run through the rock below our feet.
It is 1879 and church leaders direct a band of devotees to settle in southeast Utah in part to bring a peaceful solution to the raids Ute, Paiute, and Navajo are making on Mormon settlements. Brigham Young, the recently deceased prophet, had said it was "cheaper to feed than to fight them" and the new leaders agree. The Book of Mormon, translated from golden tablets found buried in the hills of upstate New York, has been on paper for forty–nine years. Indians, according to the tablets, are members of a wayward Israeli tribe who strayed from the righteous path long ago and who were cursed with dark skin. It is written, however, that they will one day return to church teachings and become "white and delightsome" people. It is a matter of duty for the devotees to convert, to save, to civilize. The faithful spread through Utah's redrock country to feed and redeem its lost inhabitants.
A brave group of Saints agrees to heed the leaders' command to cross southern Utah, and more than 230 people gather to form a wagon train. They take livestock and seeds and expect the journey to last six weeks. Their crossing is not easy. Canyons block the way. Mesas stretch flat then fall away all at once. The pioneers spend weeks blasting a path through a notch in the cliffs above the Colorado River, in parts constructing platforms of timber to hold up the wheels of the wagons as they rattle over an otherwise sheer drop–off. Starving livestock feed the expedition, and no Saints die. On the trail, two children are born.
Six grueling months after setting out, what becomes known as the Hole–in–the–Rock Expedition stops twenty miles short of its destination and its members found the village of Bluff where the San Juan River has carved a wide valley between walls of sandstone. The Dineh herders and the few white Gentile families who already lived near Bluff did not understand why the newcomers with their cumbersome wagons hadn't followed older, easier routes to the north. But, for the Saints, it was all part of the plan. The Heavenly Father had tested them but because of their faith, He had delivered them safely. They had struggled and triumphed. And didn't this mean that the faithful were now entitled to the land?
They multiplied. As the years passed, the settlers' bones went into the ground. Near my house, a rectangular stone pillar marks where one of them is buried. On the front: a man's name. On the other three sides: the names of his three wives and their children.
Year after year the silty river overflowed and filled in the irrigation ditches of the Saints. Floods rampaged down canyons and knocked over the homes they'd made of quarried sandstone. A fire consumed the town hall. The Navajo Nation was expanded following the arrival of the Saints so that the river became the boundary between peoples. Colorado cattle companies pressed into the Utah Territory. Hungry, exhausted, and surrounded, the children of the pioneers eventually abandoned Bluff for higher ground, carrying with them the story of their miraculous arrival.
Now restaurant owners inhabit the sturdy stone houses built by the pioneers. Artists and archaeologists grow green chilies in backyard plots. The irrigation ditches remain dry.
The trucks come in along the tangled roots of highway that hold this country together. They roll across many states, across the northern border, bearing loads that glow through Geiger counter screens. Laws regulate where you can put this waste, and the laws cause problems for those who want to get rid of it. But there is a solution. If you call it "alternative feed" and run it through a mill to extract the elements of the bombs we say we'll never use, the laws see the loads differently. And then the waste can pass through evaporation ponds and into storage mounds topped with crushed gravel where it is said the waste will stay put for centuries.
There is only one uranium mill left in the United States, and it is on the border of Ute lands. It's a mill calibrated to perform a legal alchemy that allows the useless waste to come to rest underground. But beneath the surface, those burials twist like troubled spirits. They rise and return to the wind. They search underground for water and every year the samples turn up more proof of this movement—heavy metals, chloroform, radioactivity. Below the mounds lie older burials still, bones that moan in the dark earth.
(My first memories are of dust swirling in the light. I am dropped in the world near a river, a juniper tree, the red dirt of an old uranium mining road. My mother has my hand. She's leading me around a rapid which roars up through the trees. I steal a glimpse of it—whitewater, foam, chaos. But through the branches the light is silent, cottonwood tufts and dust particles ride toward the cool air of the river across spangles flung on the earth. My mother is all of this. The warm hand knowing where to go. The serenity of the light. The path around the danger.)
A month after the march, one hundred people file into a brown building in Blanding and sit on metal folding chairs. Many people from the protest are there. As the Ute man who went to high school with the mill manager speaks, he notices that no one will look at him. They lower their heads. He speaks about his uncle who fought years ago to stop mill tailings from being buried near the Ute lands. Who fought and won. Later, he tells me the people lowered their heads because they knew he was right: the mill has to go.
Other Ute locals address the room. They tell of children and elders on the reservation with asthma, leukemia, and lung cancer. They stammer and curse and yell. They speak about the dust.
(Another memory from that same year: light from the rising sun is falling through the window of the Colorado cabin where I grew up. I'm standing half–asleep on the stairs, stopped by motes disappearing through the line between shadow and day. I hear my mother weeping below me on the couch, my father too. They're in each other's arms. There has been a death. Steve. He breathed the dust biking home in the uranium bust town of Moab, sixty–five miles north of Blanding. Asthma closed up his lungs. He suffocated in the sunlight. Thirty years old. I know the name but I don't understand what has happened. I climb onto my mother's lap and my tears darken into her shirt.)
Next a series of people from nonprofits in cities a few hours away take the microphone. They speak of fines and water quality violations. They explain the geology below the mill, how a shallow aquifer with elevated levels of heavy metals rests above a deeper aquifer that supplies the Utes with drinking water. They describe what's behind the fences of the mill: ponds with plastic liners, some of which had been rated to a twenty–year lifespan when they were installed thirty–five years earlier. They tell of a lawsuit which argues the mill is in violation of the Clean Air Act for excessive radon emissions. The lawsuit identifies an eighty–mile radius around the mill as a cause for concern. They say the EPA lists radon as the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States after smoking.
(There was always dust in that house in Colorado. An unpaved road wrapped around it, and rolling tires kept the earth unsettled. The walls of the living room were set into the hillside a century earlier when the house was a stable for passing stagecoaches. And in the ground: uranium, to which a century means as little as the branching of species, extinctions, ice ages, rising seas. But even though it takes billions of years to decay, radioactive radon gas escapes from it each day; radon clings to dust particles, drifts through the air, settles on table tops, flows into and out of lungs. Those particles rode in bodies, my family's bodies, as we ranged out into the world, seeds of mutations carried through life—to cross–country ski trails every winter and Utah canyons every summer. Earth becomes flesh, and flesh surrounds our bones. And eventually, bone burns back to dust.)
The mill has its defenders too. It's a way of life, they say. The mill manager from the protest is at the meeting. He says to look at the facts. He wants to sound calm and reasonable. He says there are high standards for safety in place, plans for mishaps. The chemical spills still being pumped out of the ground are from decades ago. Technology has improved since then, he says, there is nothing to worry about.
Phil Lyman, the county commissioner, takes the stand. He alludes to the million–plus dollars Energy Fuels pays annually in taxes to local coffers. He talks about the jobs the mill provides: fifty to one hundred at any given time. The livelihoods. The way of life.
Lyman was arrested a few years earlier for riding an ATV down a road that had been closed to protect ancient burials, skeletons with ceramic pots resting on their chests. Roads are also part of the way of life here, worth sacrificing your freedom to defend. The county spends six million dollars annually, about a third of its total budget, on road construction and maintenance. Thousands of miles of dirt tracks are kept graded and cleared each year. And from roads like these all across the Southwest rise plumes of red dust—billions of tons worth according to USGS studies—which float away with the wind and stick to Rocky Mountain snowfields. Spring runoff comes to Utah a month earlier than it used to; the dust–laden snow absorbs more sunlight. And the droughts come more often.
Bruce Adams, another commissioner, agrees with Lyman. He repeats these lines about jobs and taxes. He says he toured the facility a few years ago and was very impressed.
I recall a newspaper account, also from a few years ago, of a trip Adams took to a senator's office in Salt Lake City. He was there to beg for more funding for more cancer screenings in his hometown. Adams grew up in Monticello, the county seat, in the 1950s and 60s. Those were boom years, and many still sing praises to the money that once poured in. It was the Cold War and Monticello was on the front lines. The town mill took ore and processed it into yellow cake and shipped it off to help stockpile the US arsenal. Some longtime residents, including Adams, told the newspaper reporter of hot summer days quenched with dips into the ponds beneath the mill. He remembers kids rolling down the sand of the tailings piles and others recall loading up trucks to make backyard sandboxes. Adams' best friend died of leukemia before he graduated high school. Fifty years later a citizens' group recorded seven hundred cases of cancer from former residents of Monticello, a town which today has a population of two thousand. There were birth defects, more leukemia deaths, rare skin diseases.
But skepticism is easy. Who can say which case of cancer was caused by uranium milling, which from background radon emissions, which from cigarettes, which from bad luck?
Adams doesn't mention any of this at the meeting. The White Mesa Mill cannot be compared to the mills of the Cold War. Those were different times. He toured the facility and was impressed.
Another series of newspaper articles tells this story: at one moment, headlights taper off into scrub oak. The truck cab hums with the sound of rolling tires—hours of boredom. Then, a deer. The driver finds the brake pedal and hits it hard. A mixture of baking soda, water, and uranium leached from Wyoming sandstone sloshes in the back of the truck. The deer scampers off and is gone. Three hundred miles later, the driver stops at the gates of the White Mesa Mill, and workers notice white stains of leaking radioactive fluid along the back of the truck. The load is lighter than it was in Wyoming.
Later, on a different truck, similar stains are seen at the same gates of the mill. A "faulty door in the truck container" is to blame. Whether the spills pose a hazard to towns or not is never fully settled. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission threatens a fine but company officials request to be spared of such overreaction. No fines are levied. The company promises to do better.
A white woman approaches the microphone. She's known as a local activist. She takes on the environmental groups and fights for local values. She says the mill helps hold the community together, and she doesn't see what the fuss is all about. She tells the audience she beat cancer. You can learn a lot from cancer, she says. We shouldn’t be afraid of cancer, she says. Cancer can be a good thing.
Once again, the heads of the audience are bowed low.
The snows fell deep last winter and now the rivers are high. A great blue heron, driven off of the sandbars by the runoff, is starving near a camp of rafters. The high water has made fishing impossible, and the heron doesn't take to the air as the rafters spend an afternoon following an hour hand of shade around the base of a cottonwood. It crouches on the edge of the clearing, snapping up whole lizards with quick strikes of its neck. In its droppings: needles of bone.
My parents met in the early 1980s where the Great Plains buckle up against the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains. Their suburban teenage years—my father's saturated in tepid rebellion aided by Clash records and my mother's twelve years in Catholic school with a household full of eleven siblings—vaporized as they discovered backpacking trips through alpine meadows of columbines and, later, multi–day floats down the Colorado and Dolores rivers. They ran the San Juan, launching in Bluff and floating along the north side of the Navajo Nation towards Lake Powell. This was unlike any life they had imagined growing up. The hometowns they left behind were described to me as Sodoms and Gomorrahs, full not of sin and brimstone but of strip malls and car dealerships. To my young ears, they had the names of far–off lands: Long Island, the Midwest. I knew those were places we'd never return to live. Our home was where Colorado drops into Utah, here amid the redrock, muddy water, and night skies pierced with stars.
There were boom days. The war may have been cold, but the federal government paid handsomely for hot rocks. When it all ended, it wasn't clear who was to blame. Some blamed the feds and their arsenal for the teenagers lost to leukemia. Some blamed the feds for coming up with too many rules and killing the industry. Cal Black ran the San Juan County commission as the boom days were fading. He prospected for uranium. Part of Black's revolution was to prove the obvious. A rock was a rock, and rocks weren't sinister. They were money, but they weren't dangerous. It's said he wore a bolo tie made with a chunk of uranium around his neck. He was a Westerner, part of the chosen clan. Black wasn't a fearful man. When cancer came for him, it was unrelated to the bolo or his years in the uranium mines. It was just his time to go.
Priscilla Rabbit listens to the elders. Her hair is black and glistening, her smile warm and gentle, as she rides next to me in the van. She speaks about the enemies of the Ute people that Coyote released in the beginning. "The US government tried to eliminate us," she says without self–pity or malice. "They're still trying to eliminate us today with this mill. But we're not leaving. We're here to stay and to remain a process of life. We're here to speak for life around the uranium mill with human common sense. If you cut yourself, you're always going to have a scar."
My parents were married in the foothills of the Rockies and skipped their own graduation ceremony to keep moving west. On the Utah side of Colorado, where peaks slide into canyons, they parked my father's Dodge Dart on the banks of the West Fork of the Dolores River and pitched a tent.
Over the next few months, they built a yurt with the help of a how–to book and a truckload of canvas. The mountain stream which flowed past their front door plunged, within a few dozen miles, past the edge of the Colorado Plateau: wind–softened redrock and the boreholes of old uranium mines. Just up the river lived Steve, a friend from school who had grown up poor in Virginia, eating Wonder Bread and corn grits with his single mother. Two years into college, his estranged father died and left him with an incomprehensibly large fortune.
So Steve bought a fleet of rubber rafts and a few outfitter permits from the Bureau of Land Management. He hired my parents to manage the company and his friends to work as guides. Often they had more guides on the rafts than customers, making week–long trips down the Dolores and San Juan and weekend floats down Westwater Canyon on the Colorado. Even with paying customers, Steve would always make the rounds the last day on the river, asking everyone on the trip if they had anywhere they really needed to be the following day. "We've got enough food," he’d say. "We can do a layover here and stay two more nights."
Between trips, Steve lived in a one–room cabin he built on the river bank. A plywood outhouse stood back in a thicket between the cabin and my parents' yurt. One night the roof started leaking above Steve's bed, and he rigged up a tarp to funnel the flow into a bucket. The tarp worked so he never bothered to fix the roof.
My parents and Steve were the settlers who arrived after the wolves and grizzlies were all gone, here to harvest not beef, crops, or coal from the land but a new commodity: adventure.
When my mom and a friend wanted to learn to kayak in the frigid waters of the upper Dolores, they spent a few evenings sewing splash jackets by the light of a kerosene lamp on a pedal–driven Singer machine that had belonged to my grandmother.
Each time my parents and Steve drove the company's retired school bus to the boat ramp, they'd pass dump trucks hauling fill. Cranes rose like crooked oil derricks from the riverside. The West's great rivers had all been dammed and the Dolores was last in line. Rainfall was never reliable on the edge of the desert, but the river swelled with snowmelt every spring. That water would be captured, stored, and piped out to bean fields. The plateaus would bloom like Eden.
The mill manager is proud of his garden, especially the slices of tomato so flavorful they make the cheeks ache. He feeds them to his girls, one and three years old. There are ears of corn in late summer. The spring radishes cut into a salad of greens that his blond wife picks before dawn for the best flavor. "The wind blows right towards that garden," he says. "It blows from the mill right towards the garden and towards my house, not the Ute reservation. If it's not safe, I'll be the first to find out." He's not actually concerned that he will find out. He isn't afraid of working in the dust, and he isn't afraid of work. The money comes in, pays for his house and his garden. No water leaks from his roof. His heroes are the men who broke this land, dragged chains between bulldozers to level juniper forests, and pushed the cattle from red valleys, which offered far more rock than forage, up to mountain meadows at the right time of year. They planted big gardens and made it work, even in this desert, through work. He's proud of that. He's proud of his garden.
Before I was born, they came and killed the Dolores River. They plugged it up and turned it into a reservoir. The river once flowed through canyons just to the northeast of the sleeping warrior mountain, but now it is practically dry most years, a hot clear creek that has ceased to carve into the landscape. The raft companies, including Steve's, dried up and blew away.
As a child I was a like a river: I refused to move in straight lines. My hero was a man who slept under a tarp and always wanted to live out of rafts for one more night. He was someone who never wanted money to ruin his work, and he never wanted his life to be lost to work. His early attempts at gardens failed. Deer nibbled off the first spring sprouts. Or the summer squash wilted in the heat. He'd forgotten to water them. He was away too much, pushing rafts through whitewater and around boulders. There was nothing more to ask for, even as the dust blew in from Utah and his asthma attacks got worse.
From the edge of the mesa, it looks like a silver whale breaching in a shimmering sea of redrock: thousands of tons of crushed gravel dumped on the old uranium mill near Mexican Hat to keep the dust down. Before the gravel, in the fifties, the mines were busy and trucks would haul ore down rattling dirt roads from the high country to the mill. But just before they got there, they'd have to cross the San Juan River. The bridge was one lane and wooden. There was no guarantee it would hold a fully loaded truck. So the drivers would dump half of the ore on one side of the river, right there on the ground, and they'd take the other half to the mill before going back for the rest.
An old timer in town laughs when he tells the story. "Yessir, a Geiger counter will probably still go crazy under that bridge."
When I was seven, a few years after Steve choked on Utah's air and died, I peered down from the stairs again. My mother was on the same couch, my father by her side. They were schoolteachers now, not river guides. Our doctor friend and his sister, a midwife, sat by my mom's legs. They'd been there for hours and I'd gone up to bed and come back several times when sounds came through the walls. I'd spent months laying an ear to the white taut belly that was now seizing with strands of muscle. My mother's face was flushed, her head facing south. My father was crouched on the ground, and I saw his eyes close for a long minute. I wondered if he was praying, but I didn't know to what. I knew there was pain. I wasn't worried, though, because when my mother emerged from it for long enough to see me watching, she snatched a smile through the exhaustion. Through the window, the outlines of hills began to appear. In that early light there were first breaths, a short cry with dark pupils looking out for the first time. My father beckoned to me. I looked at the purplish skin, the eyes fighting the endless roll of eyelid, the expanding ribs.
"It's a Mollie," I said.
Over five hundred abandoned uranium mines are scattered across the Navajo Nation. For decades, chunks of uranium were laid into the foundations of hogans. The public health clinics still treat rare cancers each day and maybe it's related. In 2006 uranium mining was banned on the reservation. But prospectors still dig on sections of private land within the nation's boundaries. Trucks come down the highways trailing dust or sometimes a white line of leaking radioactive waste. Protectors with bandanas over their faces are traversing the route. They've known battle. Against coal. Against uranium. Against pipelines that now carry oil beneath rivers. They're training others. And when the shipments come across their land, they're preparing to lock themselves up: hands in PVC pipes, necks in chains wrapped to the metal of semi trucks. Up in San Juan County, Phil Lyman, descendant of the Hole–in–the–Rock pioneers and now county commissioner, reportedly says to a group of Dineh activists, "You lost the war."
Not everyone is convinced the war is over.
Dust, river, window. Life passes in orbits. The vultures that circle my Utah home in the summer heat spin off to brood over Baja canyons before the nights begin to freeze. On the sea islands where they roost, the stones are plastered smooth and white.
My mother lay on the couch one final time on the last day of February. Her head was pointing north now. Her belly was taut and white again. I'd laid my hands on it in the weeks before, resorting to spontaneous rituals of hope, asking that the mass growing on her liver would begin to shrink. Scans also revealed a small spot on the inside of a rib, a formless fly that refused to be brushed away. It started in her lungs and when it was discovered four months earlier it was already Stage Four.
On the hospital forms, she liked to answer the question that asked how many cigarettes she had smoked in her lifetime. She always checked the first box: zero to ten.
My father had our home tested. Radon, at levels beyond what they would allow if you were standing outside a nuclear power plant or a uranium mill, was radiating out of the stone walls cut into the hillside along the back of our home.
The dying took hours, days. We were by the couch all through that last night; we climbed and descended the stairs in shifts. She couldn't speak or move. The last afternoon, I was by her side, my hand on her body, my arm around my sister, nineteen years after she first saw the world in this very same spot. At the moment when our mother's chest ceased to move and her face tightened cold, I melted through the big glass window that let in the light to illuminate the dust. I floated then flew, looking down on the scene like a pinyon jay at the first green sprouts of the year glowing along the drifts of melting snow, the black leaves of last fall pasted to the ground, and above that, the red hillsides dotted with juniper trees.
Dust, bones, rivers.
We push into each other's territories. In a single landscape, tides of people ever rising. The light–skinned families from the east spread over this Ute and Navajo and Pueblo land, disrupted hunting routes, trampling over the ancestors' ground. They dried up my family's river and that water went to the bean farms of European–American settlers but also to the toe of the Sleeping Ute Mountain where it greened a patch of reservation and brought in jobs. Now the Ute community members speak out against the dust and the tailings creeping into aquifers. The white workers see a brewing battle for their homeland. They fear a future where real, honest work is an abstraction, where everyone is a hotel manager or a guide for tourists. A future where the farms are left uncultivated.
The mill manager is speaking. The protesters have all left. He is worked up because he says he was threatened by the Natives, but he must put on a brave face. He's not a fearful man. He says he would visit Chernobyl. He calls it a wildlife park. He says the radiation at Fukushima has killed no one. He says to look at the facts. Radon comes out of the ground. Uranium is in the earth. His grandfather, a uranium miner, died of lung cancer. But so have others who never got near the stuff, who never touched a cigarette. The sun gives you cancer, for Pete's sake.
We have our founding narratives. The reason why we're here and why we belong: the pouch Coyote opened too soon, the trail through the notch in the cliffs, the yurt beside a river. And many of us believe we know how the end will come—the chaos of a world on fire.
The Ute people say they've long known how to give as they take. Those who came later only took, even as they gave back to their own clan. And my people tried to only look, to see but not to touch. But all the time we were taking from somewhere else. We wanted adventure, not work. We wanted to leave only footprints. The land is here to sustain our spirits, we thought, but we were the first to assume that it didn't also have to nourish our bodies. Our gardens were small and we had to feed off the tendrils reaching through to the other side of the supermarket shelves. We pushed into the backcountry, the land that the Ute and Dineh and Mormon people called home. We called it wilderness.
In the ground, the burials grow restless.
There's a windowless prison at the base of Sleeping Ute Mountain just north of the fields watered by the dammed river. You can come and go as you please, but you'll keep coming back. There are happy tunes and the sounds of clinking coins and the gaping jaws of people who have sat too long without having to blink. There are no guards, just the songs and the screens flashing joyful colors. The buttons read MAX BET and SPIN. The chairs are sticky. There's no booze here, only complimentary soda and coffee, but the place is still packed.
In the parking lot, I see a prudent man step out of an ancient Econoline van, the paint chipped off to reveal continents of bare metal. A single green bale of alfalfa is tied to the roof rack—for the sheep back home. Best to buy the necessities before entering the place where you emerge with only the memory of a paycheck. I met the man that sold him that alfalfa a few months earlier, a Dineh grandfather with a wide smile all gums and a few blackened stubs of teeth. He said his relatives were fools. They worked all week and drove to the windowless building to donate all the money they earned to the Ute people, which was never too fond of those from the Navajo Nation and vice versa. ("If Sleeping Ute had been Dineh," an old Navajo joke goes, "he would have gotten up and gone to work.") I dip into the maze of machines behind the driver of the Econoline and in that bustling building I see only a handful of belliganas, white ones.
We traveled down the Colorado River for two nights with a box carrying the dust of my mother and the flecks of her bones. My father was sick outside of his tent the night before we released her. He insisted his sickness was caused by a real parasite, a physical problem. Not by this other problem of a wife in a box lined with a plastic bag beside a river.
She had asked to be released in the Colorado. When I die let my ashes float down the red river, let my soul roll on down to the Utah state line. We'd been here together a hundred times as a family, the borderlines of our life, the place where the river runs west, where mountain water flows into streaked terracotta canyons and in them tastes the sculpted black skeletons of billion–year–old gneiss.
The ashes swirled dry and gray on the surface of the water for a few moments. Then they were gone.
It's been a wet winter along the rim of the Grand Canyon and snow is moving through the rock. A uranium mine six miles from the hub of the nation's second most visited national park is being expanded. A new shaft cuts down into the sandstone but the mining hasn't yet begun. Water runs through the rock and the shaft fills. Work is slowed until pumps are flicked on and the snowmelt is brought back to the surface. It is sprayed into a containment pond from sprinklers that hang in the wind. A Dineh activist who in years past was repeatedly handcuffed to keep treated wastewater from being turned to artificial snow for ski slopes on sacred mountains, wears a bandana over his face and arrives at the gates of the mine. When he asks questions, the company says the sprinklers are nothing to worry about. The activist paces through the national forest land outside the compound fence and captures photos of the mist that sails into the ponderosa pine. When the mist is later tested, it's found to exceed EPA drinking water limits for uranium.
Phil Lyman doesn't want to lose the war. His supporters write letters to the local newspaper about a secret plan to make national parks everywhere in order to force the people off the land and into the cities, or maybe even camps. Guns are stockpiled. But their candidate, Trump, the real–estate baron who only goes outside to golf and who never speaks about public lands or national parks, wins. Many in Utah said he was too cruel, too much like the men who drove the Mormons east from New York to Missouri to Illinois to Deseret. But Phil Lyman sees a break in the onslaught. In the days after the election, he writes that it is time to get rid of "our sworn enemies the environmentalists." He sees work ahead. "I don't know if we can get rid of the neo–environmentalist parasites, but maybe we can get them the heck out of Utah." But we keep arriving. Parasites who produce nothing. Who don't want to gather our own firewood but complain about the drill rigs going in. Who pretend beef comes from supermarkets and that hummus is food. Who talk about the changing climate but who always seem to be driving or flying off to exotic vacations. Who leech and leech and work at keyboards and keep growing in numbers with each attack against us like coyotes. Who imagine ourselves as allied with the Native American communities even as we move in and crowd the homeland as so many others have before.
A respected Ute Mountain Ute elder carried the flag at the front of the procession for five miles. He'd been ousted from the tribal council for asking the last US president to create the lines of a national monument around the graves of his foremothers and forefathers. He looks at the dry earth being carried by the wind and thinks of what's underground. "Water is life. From day one, I've mentioned that," he says. "This land is a way of life for us as human beings." He says the uranium mill was constructed on the graves of his people, that the fences of the mill block Ute hunting routes. The place, he says, is sacred and powerful. The ancients have not left.
"I saw a vision as we were walking," he tells me. "It was a calmness, a whisper in the wind. I could hear the ancestors were with us."
It's after the protest, after the public hearing. The state will renew the mill license. The trucks will keep rolling. The parasites will keep leeching and will not be exterminated. I need to orient myself. I walk out my front door and down into the floodplain of the San Juan River—a tributary of the Colorado. I see the stone warrior lying on the eastern horizon. He's pasted black against the clouds which are just starting to glow pink in the evening light. His eyes, nose, chin, and the great mound of his arms on his chest are so distinct against the sky, he seems ready to spring up and take to the battle again.
I walk for fifteen minutes until I'm standing beside the brown waters of the San Juan. Crouching on the bank, I plunge a hand beneath the surface. My head is bowed toward my knees, my toes just staying dry, and as my eyes slide shut, I reach out with fingertips to see in the dark. The current presses past, lifting my hand with its pulse.
This is how I remember where I am and how I got here. I reach into the rolling San Juan and imagine my way downstream through the canyons where no road follows. I feel where the water cuts through a ridge of sandstone and into domes of ancient seabed. This was the first river I floated, my carseat strapped to the wooden deck of an army surplus raft when I was fourteen months old, my mother carrying me around even the small rapids. For miles the San Juan sparkles around graceful bends that canyon walls have been instructed to follow.
Reaching farther, the current slackens, the mud and sand and uranium in its waters sifting back to the riverbed. The river pours over a sloped, sliding waterfall and halts in the clear dead waters of Lake Powell. Where jetboats rip down the main channel, I turn right and press on. When the current begins to move again beyond the borders of the lake, I'm in a new river, the Colorado, and I head upstream through the explosive whitewater of Cataract Canyon, past Satan's Gut, and slide through the confluence of the Green River. I move through lazy golden waters and across the valley that holds the town of Moab, then on into another carmine red canyon burnished with a black patina where my parents scattered Steve’s ashes twenty–five years ago. I reach past the arched scaffolding of an old wooden bridge destroyed by a tourist's wayward campfire a few years back. From the remnants of its deck sway a few chunks of charcoal.
Just beyond, the river splits. Both canyons take me home. Right goes to the Dolores River, the crazy meanders of rose–colored canyons lined with sage and Mormon tea then pinyon and juniper then, as you move higher, ponderosa pine. Most years that river is a limpid creek, choked off from its headwaters by six million cubic yards of rock, gravel, and sand pressed into a 270–foot–tall plug. Beyond is the place where my parents built their yurt.
I go left after the burned bridge, passing through Westwater Canyon before crossing the Colorado state line and the beach where we scattered my mother's ashes. I don't stop until I've gone through the heart of a city, another canyon, the grassy banks of ranchlands pocked with fracking wells and up two right turns on smaller tributaries. I've reached the creek that rumbles past my childhood home. Years ago, I would sit by its waters carving sticks into the semblance of whitewater kayaks and sending them through deadly, six–inch–high Niagaras. I'd watch them disappear around the corner, curious where they'd end up. Now after months and years of living out of kayaks and rafts, I've paddled every mile of river from the mouth of that creek to the sea. I've paddled the Dolores from the dam and the San Juan from my house to where both rivers meet the Colorado. I've seen how this landscape is sewn together by water. And now I've come to rest on the banks of a river in Utah where locals tell me I'll never belong.
I pull my hand dripping from the San Juan and stand on the beach with stiff legs. My movement startles a flock of Canada geese which had walked up on a sandbar while I was crouched motionless. They lumber into the air, honking and annoyed.
Flowing far beneath my feet are underground tributaries I'll never trace. A massive, slow–flowing aquifer creeps under this beach, adding to the flow of the San Juan as it passes from southern Utah toward Arizona. Our town's well taps into that aquifer. As does the well that feeds the Ute village to the north. And above it all rests the White Mesa Uranium Mill.
My mother was fifty–two years old when she died. Even this is a long time for a life of the flesh, as Priscilla Rabbit knows. Long enough to understand patterns, to plant tomatoes or float rivers year after year, to begin to learn respect. Our memories can stretch longer, the river that brought my parents home, the blasted–out canyon that delivered the pioneers across the plateaus, the warrior mountain that sleeps until he is needed. These stories will be forgotten. But the trucks that scream down the highways carry something more patient, elements that in five swift ticks of decay recall the age of the planet; uranium–238 has a half–life of 4.5 billion years. These elements bear our prodding and may submit to their burials, but only for a period of time that a long animal life can be tricked into believing is relevant. The burials are on the move. When they mix into the slow underground rivers and find their way out into once–sacred springs, new stories will arise. Stories about waters that kill. Dangerous powers that were pulled from the earth, tampered with, and forced back into the ground. The curiosity that opened the pouch could not be reversed. The enemies of the people escaped. Spirits of powerful stones wander in the homeland.
The warrior sleeps, the stars shine cold and close. The heron stabs at lizards on the riverbank. As our bones go into the ground, as our dust blows across the land—that, maybe, is how we begin to belong.