My wife and I wait for Autumn all year, happy to relinquish the high country to those unable to visit any time they wish and instead, having to save precious vacation time for a week in The West. I smile when I see families enjoying visiting, knowing how rejuvenating time away from one’s normal day-to-day can be and glad they’ve been able to experience the great state of Colorado. But the Fall… that’s when things change. Kids are back in school, family vacations are over and the roads begin to free-up from RV’s slowly lumbering over high-passes.
The Fall… waking to a crisp, damp bite in the air, requiring an extra layer and hands jammed in pockets while standing around the stove waiting for morning coffee. Coyotes howl and yip as they awake. Birds sing. Yards away from camp the mighty Yampa River rumbles by, massive, oblivious to time of day or night.
There’s an endearing quality to the Yampa River.
“I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
is a strong, brown god–sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities–ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonored, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and
–T.S.Eliot, The Dry Salvages
If we like to anthropomorphize things – I suppose in an attempt to fit them into our frame of reference – the Yampa might feel ‘humble.’ Tumbling out of the Park Range, it’s a massive, free-flowing river with only minor diversions along the way. From its headwaters the Yampa irrigates crops, entertains fisherman and kayakers around Steamboat, then picks up a feed from the Little Snake west of Craig – another of my favorite rivers – and heads quietly across the sage to connect with the mighty Green River.
It was Labor Day weekend I began, years ago, my Fall travels. This year has been tough for me personally, largely due to struggles with family issues surrounding aging parents. This Labor Day – with things relatively stable – seems a good weekend to get away.
I’m heading back to Northwest Colorado to disappear into the matrix of dirt roads criss-crossing the Utah-Wyoming-Colorado state lines. Renewing my fishing license, getting new tires on the Trib and trying to pack as light as possible will occupy the morning. Also picking up a few Hemmingways at the cigar shop, and remembering to grab some shells for the shotgun. I’ve been carrying it with me in the car for a while – but without shells (which I’m reluctant to regularly carry) – it’s of little use. Except for the sound – the pump – creating an appropriate pause for anyone close enough to hear it; giving serious reason to consider what happens next.
The object of this trip is to explore a little deeper some of the territory described in a book I’ve been reading, “King of the 40th Parallel,” the adventures of Clarence King and James Gardner as they undertook one of the first U.S.G.S. mapping expeditions for the Department of War back in the late 1800’s. It’s a fascinating book – having caught my attention via a few, thin threads from other books I’ve been working through.
Turns out Clarence King hired Timothy O’Sullivan as his photographer for at least a portion of this survey. O’Sullivan, previously photographing war-time and battlefields of the Civil War, was probably looking for a little peace and quiet, figuring there wouldn’t be a lot of canon fire and blood shed along the western 40th parallel of the late 1800’s.
What really got me though, was that someone else ascribed notoriety to this rather obscure band of earth – one that frankly most people wouldn’t give the time of day. I remember years ago my room mate and I used to look for the compass rosetta on the maps and say that’s exactly where we wanted to go – the place they put the rosetta, figuring there’s nothing there and no one cares.
So I’ll load up, head out, bring a few cameras, some books, the tent, some firewood, coffee and plenty of film and see what I can see. I’ll be back with a report in a few weeks.