03 March 2009

The Water Road

He’d lived his entire life on the north bank of the river and he'd grown to understand a world that went from right to left, from west to east, from high to low, from small to big, and he'd learned how someday all things went along with the river’s run and how someday everything was swept into the big, awful sameness of an ocean beyond any horizon he'd ever live to see. All things were carried within and carried away by the river. The swell of the river in late winter and spring dragged budding trees behind it; the ebb of river current let winter sneak into the world. As it cut the bank against cottonwood roots, it built a meadow elsewhere. The offal that the river washed away echoed the offal its waves brought to shore; a bloated sheep replaced a pan of night-soil and the river kept its balance.

Beyond the river’s influence, things could go any way at all, things could be back to front, upside down, inside out, or kitty-cornered. It was just dry pine forest every which way on hills and ridges scattered anywhere and everywhere. That was just the way things were outside and away from the pull and the inertia of the water’s constant. Inside the river's boundary, it was always cottonwood and ash and even meadow grasses bent with a downstream aim. With all changes, it was always the same river.

Winter smoke from hearth and oven could fill the broad canyon and, like a fog, that smoke would wander with the river to tear apart in spaces broader still. Summer gunshots would likewise ricochet down canyon walls and grow wider and thinner for the trouble of the trip.
All of this was as it should be.


From high on the ridge, from beneath his hat pulled down and from over his muffler pulled up and from between his horse’s ears, Toby could see almost a mile of river. Released from narrow, rocky banks, the river slowed and wandered here in a valley of its own creation before reentering jagged basalt walls. Ancient, grass flats were bordered with aspen against the mountain's sides with cottonwood near and each tree as bare as every other. The only sounds were a faint, crisp ringing as shelves of riverbank ice vibrated with the water and the precise notes of tack and harness, the squeak of old snow compressed by iron-shod hooves.

Toby shifted back in his saddle, standing upright in the stirrups, as the buckskin mare picked her way down the icy northern slopes to the river. He pulled the reins high to keep her head up, to prevent her from pitching forward into a leg-breaking downhill tumble. As she trottted out onto the flatland, both man and horse adjusted weight and stance; the mare gave her head a shake.

Toward the head of this small valley and above the reach of any reasonable flood was Toby’s place. Part dug-out and part cabin with a lodgepole corral nearby, it contained his few possessions and was the only house or home he had ever known. So slowly that he’d never noticed it, the cabin had shifted itself into its own surroundings and, as each season passed, became more like the earth and the forest from which it had been fashioned. It seemed to fade into the landscape, to blend completely back into the hill.

After both his folks had passed on, Toby kept the place but not in the same fashion. He never seemed to have the time his mother had used to keep a truck garden, though descendants of her corn and cucumber and cabbage still appeared in the patch run wild. Toby preferred to make his money trapping and hunting during the winter, fall, and spring. He only claimed a very few cattle in the open range beyond the canyon rims and sold his fewer calves to a neighbor.

The bundle strapped behind his saddle held staples from the stores downstream, bartered against the future of the skins now curing in Toby’s earthen room. In a few more weeks, he’d meet the broker who came up from the city, be cheated, settle his accounts, lay in new supplies, and ride back upstream to that wide place on the water. He often spent his summer doing little more than fishing and camping out. He had no visitors and had only rarely sheltered some infrequent hiker lost and cold and out past bedtime. He rode down to the pueblo on Christmas Eve and in September he rode the bus to Albuquerque to see the State Fair. He had gone for months at times and certain entire seasons without speaking a single word and was as startled as anyone else to hear the croaking mess which broke such a silence.

As of late, however, Toby had been rather social. As the weather had begun to clear, he had visited the trading post and mercantile more than once to charge a few items on account for his furs. Toby would read a newspaper and buy a magazine, listen to whatever conversation he could, and make himself available should anyone care to speak aloud to him. He might inquire after news of the world, of wars foreign and domestic, of local births and deaths. He would hold the video cassettes he’d never watch and carefully sound out the synopses on their covers. He would admire the portable radios there for sale though he would never buy one for no signal penetrated his river domain. He might offer what lonely gossip he’d acquired--cattle found frozen upright in some hidden canyon, midnight moonlit wolves teaching their children to hunt, ruined cliff-dwellings full of pottery and crumbling corn discovered along a mesa’s edge. Toby was forthcoming and he also listened carefully to all he was told or overheard. He always knew the name of the president of the United States though he had never cast a vote in any election. He would stand and watch the television perpetually playing behind the store’s counter whether it played a soap opera or a game show or just people talking about their problems with love, money, and weight. He would indulge his long-starved sweet tooth with some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

On that particular trip, Toby had lingered for several afternoon hours, had engaged in a fair amount of new year’s discourse with the store owner’s son, so his throat was sufficiently loosened to smoothly utter a soft “whoa” when he caught the glow of lamplight in his own front room’s window.


As many things in his diluvial world were washed downstream in the grasp of dark waters, so too did things beat themselves against the current to work their way upstream. Along their seasonal migration, cattle and elk and deer moved against the run-off as snow began to melt. Flowers opened in narrow waves that slowly rolled to higher altitudes until even distant peaks were covered with blankets of mossy bloom. As yellow leaves and frost lines always dropped from above, the next season always brought a rising tide of sudden green and paintbrush orange.

There is no judgment nor appreciation within the river’s whirlpools, its darkened ponds, or calcified white water; there is only the current and the cycle of its repeated variation.


Toby dismounted and tethered the mare in a knot of willow brush. He stood in silence, watching the cabin for quite some time, until real nightfall had begun to settle in the canyon. A plume of smoke began to rise from his chimney and there was movement thrown as shadow against opaque window glass. He began to step, each one-at-a-time, around the outskirts of the open space around his home. It took him fully one whole half hour to reach his own front porch, to stand in shadow and stretch to see within. He hadn’t thought to bring his rifle on his short trip to town and wondered where it was right then, in whose hands it might be held, and where it might be pointing. He strained to hear whatever noise was made by whoever was inside. Toby was starting to get pretty cold as the river drained away the day’s small warmth.

He finally turned, crept back to the mare, and led her again to the corral. He turned her in but left her saddled and cinched tight. He clomped across the wooden porch, cleared his throat, and knocked politely on his own door.

The woman was dressed in jeans and a couple of wool shirts. She wore boots of the variety called “hiking.” Her shoulder length hair was pulled back into a small tail, strands of hair framed her oval face. She looked to be a youngster, maybe in her twenties and certainly at least half his age.

“Whoa,” he said again and he ducked his head to eyeball the entire room behind her. “Mind if I come in?”

She pulled back from the door and stammered, “I don’t know, really. I mean...it’s just...I’m not...I mean, I don’t really know whose house this is.”

“Anybody else around we could maybe ask?” Toby rumbled. His eyes caught the rifle slung as always near the smoothstone fireplace.

“Well, now,” the woman answered, “I mean, I don’t really...I haven’t seen...”

“That’s all right,” Toby cut her off as he stepped inside and shut the door behind him. “This here’s my place.”

“Your place? I’m sorry. I didn’t realize...I hope you’re not...I haven’t...”

It was almost funny. There hadn’t been another person standing inside that door since the day Toby rode back home alone after his own father’s lonely funeral. Everything around him looked somehow different, as if he, too, was seeing it for the first time. He noticed a nylon shoulder pack like a soldier’s in the corner and a light-weight parka draped across a chair. They looked out of place among his leathers and wools and cottons.

“I mean, I’ve really only been here a little while. I mean, it was like I knew I wasn’t going to make it out of the canyon before dark and I was looking for a place to pitch a tent and I came down there to that meadow and I started looking around for firewood before it got dark,” she said and glanced at a wristwatch she was wearing. Toby followed its sparkle and she moved her hands a lot when she was talking. “Then I saw this place and it was getting really cold and I called out a couple of times and peeked in the window and everything and then just came in and found that lamp and started a fire not more than forty minutes ago. I mean, I hope that’s okay.”

He could tell that she was nervous and he truly sympathized. It must have been pretty hard to be surprised like that inside of someone else’s home. Toby knew he’d feel pretty funny if it happened to him. He wanted to put her at ease but didn’t quite know how.

“Don’t worry about it,” he finally told her. “I mean, it’s okay.”


The river cuts its own path through the hard rock mountains and everything else moves with it. Meat-eating birds, the eagle and the hawk and the vulture, use it as a highway. They ride the currents of air born below in the current of water and they soar beyond the tree-ringed skyline.

There is release in the melting of ice, a relaxation and a letting go of those things frozen, a rush toward the gushing whole. There is a violent bathing, a fierce scouring that cuts and tears and scars.

Even in the winter when it tunnels under ice, the river carries an astringent promise. It seems invigorating and strangely not cold and whatever passes through it can be charmed again by gray.


Toby brought his groceries inside and put them on his shelves while looking back over his shoulder at the woman in the room. He edged his way around her, through the door, and back outside to unbridle and unsaddle, blanket and feed the buckskin mare in the corral.

When he returned, she was next to the fire.

“You know,” she told him, “I should probably go back out to the meadow and set up my tent. I mean, it’s not going to be that cold tonight and I’ve got a sleeping bag.”

“No,” he responded. “You don’t have to do that. I was just stopping by on my way somewhere else. I was going be to gone all night, anyway, and won’t be back ‘til morning. You’re more’n welcome to pass the night here alone.”

“Really? I mean, are you sure? I mean, it’s really okay?”

“Just let me eat a little dinner and boil up a thermos full of coffee, and I’ll be on my way. Help yourself to anything you want to eat. I’ll fetch a pail of water shortly and you can sit here as long as you want.”

“Well, actually, I’ve got my own food, too,” she said while rummaging through her duffel. “How about it?” and she held up a vacuum-packed pouch of dehydrated chili and beans.

“Well,” Toby said. “I was going to fry up some bacon and make a sandwich and you’re sure welcome to any of that, too.”

“Oh, no,” she answered. “I never eat meat.”

He thought that sounded kind of funny as he tossed the thick slices into a hot frying pan. When there was grease, Toby started frying his bread and when everything was good and crispy, he put it together and wrapped it in a sheet of newspaper. He left a few curled strips of fried pork on a plate for her, just in case. By that time, the coffee was boiling and she had put her own little aluminum pot on the stove to boil up water for her supper.

“Now, help yourself to anything you need,” Toby told her as he put his greatcoat back on. He put the sandwich in one pocket, the thermos in another, He got his muffler and his gloves and his hat and he grabbed a blanket from a pile of blankets. As an afterthought, he took the rifle.

“Thanks a lot, mister,” the girl said. “I mean, really. Thanks a lot. I mean, you’re being really nice.”

“That’s okay. I’ll be back at first light,” Toby said and he closed the door behind him. He waited for a few moments on the porch before he stepped down to start climbing the ridge back into the forest and away from the river’s chill.

He found a little pocket surrounded by lichen-covered granite and he built a little fire and wrapped himself in the blanket. He ate his sandwich and he drank his coffee and Toby never really got to sleep that night. He dozed a little with the rifle cold across his thighs, but mostly he sat shivering to feed twigs into the flames until the sunrise began to lighten a cold winter sky to blue.

Toby stood up slowly, popping and creaking as his knees and his back and his hips unbound themselves. He climbed higher up the ridge to get to the place where the sun directly lit the canyon’s rim and then he slowly walked within that place of stretched out first light all the way back down to the cabin and the stove was already going and he could already smell coffee starting to boil.

He stopped at the door and, as the night before, knocked.

“Come on in,” she called and he followed her voice inside.

“Hi!” she greeted him. “Good morning! Would you like some coffee?”

“Thanks,” he mumbled and shrugged out of his coat, replaced the rifle on its pegs, and tossed the blanket back onto the pile. He moved to the table and she brought a mug to him. Toby thought that was kind of funny, too.

He noticed her backpack all tidied back up and ready to go and he wondered if she had slept either. Maybe not.

“It’s good,” he told the contents of the mug.

“Thanks,” she answered anyway. “I think I’ll be leaving pretty soon. I really have to be back by tonight.”

“I’ll be going that way myself,” he said to his own astonishment. “Would you mind company?”

“Well, no,” she answered thought he could see she was still thinking about it. “I mean, I guess not. Why not?”

Toby saddled up the bucksin mare while his visitor sat on the cabin’s porch step drinking a last cup of coffee. She watched as small birds flew whistling across the crusts of dirty snow and yellow meadow grass around a ruined dam of aspen logs, abandoned by beaver long before Toby’s father had ever seen this valley. She watched the sunlight warm the canyon bottom and watched as everything was changed by the movement of sunlight and of shadow.

All that morning, he rode alongside the woman and sometimes he led the horse and walked beside beside her while she walked along the river and sometimes she would talk about something she was seeing or something she’d been reminded of and sometimes he’d answer her, but mostly they were both quiet and didn’t say much at all in their walking together. He stayed with her until the black rock of the canyon changed to the red bluffs of the badlands and he didn’t turn completely back until the river had spread and widened and meandered itself into an empty bed, dry and barren in such winter months.

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