In a 1999 issue of National Geographic magazine, journalist David Quammen and photographer Michael Nichols chronicled the 1,200-mile “megatransect” of conservationist J. Michael Faye across Africa. Over the course of a year, Faye slashed his way from northeastern Congo to the coast of Gabon on foot, passing through impenetrable forest and swamp with the aid of 10 machete-wielding pygmies.
“Behind this mad lark lay a serious purpose— to observe, to count, to measure, and from those observations…construct a portrait of the great central African forests before their greatness succumbs to the inexorable nibble of humanity.”
He chose the name megatransect to represent his odyssey – “transect as in cutting a line, mega as in mega.”
In that same year, my friend Ole Bye and I, both high-school seniors, (he in Vermont and I in California) independently burned through Quammen’s first installment of the conservation epic with the same fervor as if we were reading a Jules Verne adventure novel.
Sixteen years later, it’s 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 7, 2014. Ole and I leave a vehicle near the turnoff for Phil’s World Mountain Bike Trail east of Cortez off Highway 160, after dropping his white box truck in the parking lot of the Hawkins Preserve in Cortez.
A photographer and Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative manager, Ole Bye tucks down a slick drop of sandstone into a wash with his Toto-esque pup, Maddy. They enter a cubed cement overpass covered in mineral stains and faded graffiti and I follow – our boots sucking deep into one of many gasping mud bogs within seconds.
Mutually inspired by Faye’s 1999 excursion, we endeavor to explore McElmo Creek from the inside out, top to bottom, and from end to end. More micro than mega, our eight-hour traverse through the mainvein drainage proves a pleasant, indelible slog that reveals the ways in which water has shaped this dry corner of the West.
McElmo Creek, a tributary beginning just east of Cortez in Montezuma County, flows roughly 70 miles to the San Juan River in Utah. Once nothing more than a seasonal stream, its banks grow wider and deeper with each gnawing storm and its story emerges in bas-relief from crumbling sandstone walls and the abandoned relics of 19th century agriculture.
The same question arises as we pass around each gooseneck bend: What happened here? In some caches the creek perks with wetness where water travels underground, flowing invisible below rushes and reeds. Sienna and ochretinted cascades form tiny rivulets over slickrock and stone-hard mud. A “Smut Line” of organic debris streaks the walled banks, showing evidence of a recent deluge, in some points reaching heights of over six feet. The ubiquitous mud soaks in at the sockline and stays, trapping feet in pockets of moisture for the remainder of the day.
Invasive tamarisk pistol-whips the unsuspecting face while Russian olive stabs deep into grasping palms. A glaze of pristine mud, like chocolate frosting, reveals the zigging tracks of a million tiny lives: insects, rodents, amphibians, birds and reptiles scampering waltzes of courtship and survival.
McElmo Creek alternates between wide tracts of water and vegetation to a constriction of steeply sloping, nearly impassable channels. Nestled within its moderate depth, one is completely removed from the highway’s hum and the distant clack of earthmovers near the county fairgrounds.
As we ascend from a muddy base to the upper cliff edges, the world expands into a 360-degree orb of monumental geography. No longer face-to-face with a microcosmic scene, the eye’s lens telephotos in and out, scanning the La Platas, Sleeping Ute Mountain and the exceptional ridge running west from Mesa Verde’s Point Lookout.
Colors are soft, gently muted, resembling a hand-colored daguerreotype from the late 1800s. The juxtaposition between the creek’s intimate interior and the grandiose expanse of the landscape beyond is striking, as is going from the quiet isolation of nature into the zooming hive of human industry. Cresting the rim, suddenly there’s the highway, the buildings, the people and the curious glow of a propane flare. There are angles and sharp edges, artificial colors and muffled explosions from a distant shooting range.
Above, there’s incessant movement while below, a velvet silence is punctuated only by the twitter of birds, the rustle of leaves and the subtle fountain of water over earth. There is stillness, except for the disappearing rump of a deer or the aerial acrobatics of small birds. A family of boorish raccoons flatten their ears with disgust as their crawfishing efforts are interrupted and a startled Pterodactyl-like heron alights, seeking solace.
In the upper chamber of the creek lie the silent monuments of 19th century irrigation efforts. A decaying flume, once carrying water from the Dolores River to Cortez via the Trans-Mountain Diversion built in 1879, is now a carcass of wood and iron ribs suspended above McElmo Creek – water engineered over water. At another site, the superb masonry of a ruined bridge has become the canvas for 21st century graffiti pictographs.
Bob Bragg, former professor of vocational agriculture at San Juan Basin Technical School, has been exploring the history of water and agriculture in Montezuma County since he moved to the West from Michigan in 1976. Having contributed numerous articles to Farm Progress as well as other publications, he now co-hosts the weekly radio program “Ag, Markets and More” on KSJD Dryland Community Radio.
“The McElmo Creek we see today is much different from how it would have looked prior to 1879, when construction began on a mile-long tunnel diverting water from the Dolores River to the Montezuma Valley,” Bragg said. “Before that, McElmo Creek was a seasonal stream – adequate for subsistence living, but not sufficient for producing large quantities of food.
“For part of the year the creek provided a water source for the Ancestral Puebloan people dryland-farming in the area, but it could not have supported a large agricultural effort on its own. You would need a thousand- year storm to have enough naturally occurring water in McElmo Creek to cause the kind of erosion you see today from over 100 years of flood irrigation in the valley.”
In a 2008 essay titled, “Eastern Capital and Frontier Initiative: The History of the Montezuma Valley Irrigation System,” Maureen Gerhold describes how funding from East Coast investors combined with the innovative pioneer spirit contributed to the settling of Montezuma County through the construction of extensive irrigation projects.
“Montezuma Valley… was ideally suited to growing fruit, due to the elevation, the southeast orientation of the valley ridges and the sunshine and cold nights. Conversely, the adjacent Dolores Valley, with only a thin strip of bottomland, was unsuitable for large-scale irrigation agriculture. The Montezuma Irrigation System…represents one of the earliest large-scale, privately funded and continuously operated irrigation projects in the southwestern United States.”
Beyond the naturally occurring flow of streams and seasonal flooding, agriculture and irrigation have carved McElmo Creek down and around, creating a meandering stretch that’s ever changing in tandem with the whims and needs of humanity.
The torrential drama that unfolded during a recent storm pummeled wide swaths of cattail and grass until they bent at their base to lie flat against the mud. Mysteries of erosion raise the question once again: What happened here? At the edge of a 15-foot cliff, the sandstone gives way and truckloads of earth cleave off to the creek below. Flowing through the cement basin of an antiquated aqueduct littered with logs, blocked water devoured the sides, eroding deep chasms and secret pools dotted with the footprints of thirsty creatures. The banks crumble easily, exposing cool, virgin sand and the roots of fragrant sage. Each new storm takes its pound of flesh from the soft walls, giving the creek a new profile and widening its ability to provide sanctuary for wildlife.
Approaching Cortez, evidence of humanity increases from scattered sherds of Ancestral Puebloan pottery to cascades of tires and mounds of garbage. In one creek-front area a strong “STEER CLEAR” vibration emanates from a cluster of abandoned doublewide trailers surrounded by a perimeter of jagged debris. Seven hours in and somewhere between 8 and 10 miles of switchback slogging, the creek has thickened with waterloving plants that make interior passage challenging. Its flow deepens and without waders or mud boots, traveling becomes muddier, wetter and less appealing. After consulting the iPhone “Pocket Oracle” it’s confirmed that Hawkins Preserve and a day’s end is less than a mile west.
Wet, tired, scratched, pierced, itchy, hungry, parched and awed… Ole, Maddy and I climb the banks of McElmo Creek one last time, concluding the first leg of our 70-mile Megatransect. The next installment of our adventure has yet to be decided and is met with some trepidation as we gaze at Sleeping Ute Mountain and the skyline beyond… the end of McElmo Creek in Utah a seemingly endless distance to the west.
Back at Hawkins Preserve the box truck engine revs, and through the outskirts of Cortez it rolls us toward frothy beverages, live music and a good night’s sleep. Once a seasonal sliver of moisture in the desert, McElmo Creek has become a cultural and geographical construct – an illustrated biography of water in the West. From the industrious irrigation engineering of the late 19th century that connected the Dolores River to the Montezuma Valley, the creek now flows year-round through McElmo Canyon into Utah on its journey to the San Juan River. Each year it morphs with the boom and bust of storms and drought in this arid landscape, carrying with it an abundance of animal life, plant life and the winding story of people.