4. THE SILENT RIVER


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CHAPTER IV

THE SILENT RIVER


 Rise of the Colorado.  

[page 63] THE career of the Colorado, from its rise in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming to its final disappearance in the Gulf of California, seems almost tragic in its swift transitions. It starts out so cheerily upon its course; it is so clear and pure, so sparkling with sunshine and spirit. It dashes down mountain valleys, gurgles under bowlders, swirls over waterfalls, flashes through ravines and gorges. With its sweep and glide and its silvery laugh it seems to lead a merry life. But too soon it plunges into

 In the canyon.  

precipitous canyons and enters upon its fierce struggle with the encompassing rock. Now it boils and foams, leaps and strikes, thunders and shatters. For hundreds of miles it wears and worries and undermines the rock to its destruction. During the long centuries it has cut down into the crust of the earth five thousand feet. But ever the stout walls keep casting it back, keep churning it into bubbles, beating it [page 64] into froth. At last, its canyon course run, exhausted and helpless, it is pushed through the escarpments, thrust out upon the desert, to find its way to the sea as best it can. Its spirit is broken, its vivacity is extinguished, its color is deepened to a dark red—the trail of blood that leads up to the death. Wearily now it drifts

 On the desert.  

across the desert without a ripple, without a moan. Like a wounded snake it drags its length far down the long wastes of sand to where the blue waves are flashing on the Californian Gulf. And there it meets—obliteration.

After the clash and roar of the conflict in the canyons how impressive seems the stillness of the desert, how appalling the unbroken silence

 The lower river.  

of the lower river! Day after day it moves seaward, but without a sound. You start at its banks to find no waves, no wash upon gravel beaches, no rush of water over shoals. Instead of the soothing murmur of breaking falls there is at times the boil of currents from below—waters flung up sullenly and soon flattened into drifting nothingness by their own weight.

And how heavily the stream moves! Its load of silt is gradually settling to the bottom, yet still the water seems to drag upon the shores. Every reef of sand, every island of mud, every [page 65] overhanging willow or cottonwood or handful of arrow-weed holds out a restraining hand.

 Sluggish movement.  

But slowly, patiently, winding about obstructions, cutting out new channels, creeping where it may not run, the bubbleless water works its way to the sea. The night-winds steal along its shores and pass in and out among its sedges, but there are no whispering voices; and the stars emerge and shine upon the flat floor of water, but there is no lustre. The drear desolation of it! The blare of morning sunlight does not lift the pall, nor the waving illusions of the

 Stillness of river.  

mirage break the stillness. The Silent River moves on carrying desolation with it; and at every step the waters grow darker, darker with the stain of red—red the hue of decay.


 The river's name.  

It was not through paucity of imagination that the old Spaniards gave the name—Colorado. 1 During the first fifty years after its discovery the river was christened many times, but the name that finally clung to it was the one that gave accurate and truthful description. [page 66] You may see on the face of the globe numerous muddy Missouris, blue Rhones, and yellow Tibers; but there is only one red river and that the Colorado. It is not exactly an earthy red, not the color of shale and clay mixed; but the red of peroxide of iron and copper, the sang-du-bœuf red of oriental ceramics, the deep insistent red of things time-worn beyond memory. And

 Its red color.  

there is more than a veneer about the color. It has a depth that seems luminous and yet is sadly deceptive. You do not see below the surface no matter how long you gaze into it. As well try to see through a stratum of porphyry as through that water to the bottom of the river.

To call it a river of blood would be exaggeration, and yet the truth lies in the exaggeration. As one walks along its crumbling banks there is the thought of that other river that changed its hue under the outstretched rod of the prophet.

 Compared with the Nile.  

How weird indeed must have been the ensanguined flow of the Nile, with its little waves breaking in crests of pink foam! How strange the shores where the receding waters left upon sand and rock a bordering line of scarlet froth! But the Colorado is not quite like that—not so ghastly, not so unearthly. It may suggest at times the heavy welling flow of thickening [page 67] blood which the sands at every step are trying to drink up; but this is suggestion only, not

 The blood hue.  

realization. It seems to hint at blood, and under starlight to resemble it; but the resemblance is more apparent than real. The Colorado is a red river but not a scarlet one.


 River changes.  

It may be thought odd that the river should change so radically from the clear blue-green of its fountain-head to the opaque red of its desert stream, but rivers when they go wandering down to the sea usually leave their mountain purity behind them. The Colorado rushing through a thousand miles of canyons, cuts

 Red sands and silt.  

and carries seaward with it red sands of shale, granite, and porphyry, red rustings of iron, red grits of carnelian, agate and garnet. All the tributaries come bearing their tokens of red copper, and with the rains the whole red surface of the watershed apparently washes into the smaller creeks and thus into the valleys. When the river reaches the desert carrying its burden of silt, it no longer knows the bowlderbed, the rocky shores, the breaking waterfalls that clarify a stream. And there are no large pools where the water can rest while the silt settles to the bottom. Besides, the desert itself at times pours into the river an even [page 68] deeper red than the canyons. And it does this not through arroyos alone, but also by a wide surface drainage.

Often the slope of the desert to the river is gradual for many miles—sometimes like the top of a huge table slightly tilted from the

 River-banks.  

horizontal. When the edge of the table is reached the mesa begins to break into terraces (often cut through by small gullies), and the final descent is not unlike the steps of a Roman circus leading down into the arena. During cloud-bursts the waters pour down these steps with great fury and the river simply acts as a catch-basin for all the running color of the desert.


 "Bottom" lands.  

The "bottom" lands, forming the immediate banks of the river, are the silt deposits of former years. Often they are several miles in width and are usually covered with arrow-weed, willows, alders, and cottonwoods. The growth is dense if not tall and often forms an almost impenetrable jungle through which are scattered little openings where grass and flowers grow and Indians build reed wickiups and raise melons and corn in season. The desert terraces on either side (sometimes there is a row of sanddunes) come down to meet these "bottom" lands, [page 69] and the line where the one leaves off and the other begins is drawn as with the sharp edge of a knife. Seen from the distant mountain tops

 The green bands.  

the river moves between two long ribbons of green, and the borders are the gray and gold mesas of the desert.

Afloat and drifting down between these lines of green your attention is perhaps not at first attracted by the water. You are interested in the thickets of alders and the occasional bursts of white and yellow flowers from among the

 Bushes and flowers.  

bushes. They are very commonplace bushes, very ordinary flowers; but how lovely they look as they seem to drift by the boat! How silent again are these clumps of alder and willow! There may be linnets and sparrows among them but they do not make their presence obtrusive in song. A hawk wheels along over the arrow-weed looking for quail, but his wings cut the air without noise. How deathly still everything seems! The water wears into the soft banks, the banks keep sloughing into the stream, but again you hear no splashing fall.

 Soundless water.  

And the water itself is just as soundless. There is never a sunken rock to make a little gurgle, never a strip of gravel beach where a wave could charm you with its play. The beat [page 70] of oars breaks the air with a jar, but breaks no bubbles on the water. You look long at the stream and fall to wondering if there can be any life in it. What besides a polywog or a bullhead could live there? Obviously, and in fact—nothing. Perhaps there are otter and beaver living along the pockets in the banks? Yes; there were otter and beaver here at one time, but they are very scarce to-day. But

 Wild fowl.  

there are wild fowl? Yes; in the spring and fall the geese and ducks follow the river in their flights, but they do not like the red water. What proof? Because they do not stop long in any one place. They swing into a bayou or slough late at night and go out at early dawn. They do not love the stream, but wild fowl on their migratory flights must have water, and this river is the only one between the Rockies and the Pacific that runs north and south.


 Herons and bitterns.  

The blue herons and the bitterns do not mind the red mud or the red water, in fact they rather like it; but they were always solitary people of the sedge. They prowl about the marshes alone and the swish of oars drives them into the air with a guttural "Quowk." And there are snipe here, bands of them, flashing their wings in the sun as they wheel over the [page 71] red waters or trip along the muddy banks singly or in pairs. They are quite at home on the bars and bayou flats, but it seems not a very happy home for them—that is judging by the

 Snipe.  

absence of snipe talk. The little teeter flies ahead of you from point to point, but makes no twitter, the yellow-leg seldom sounds his mellow three-note call, and the kill-deer, even though you shoot at him, will not cry "Kill-deer!" "Kill-deer!"

It may be the season when birds are mute, or it may merely happen so for to-day, or it may be that the silence of the river and the desert is an oppressive influence; but certainly you have

 Sad bird-life.  

never seen bird-life so hopelessly sad. Even the kingfisher, swinging down in a blue line from a dead limb and skimming the water, makes none of that rattling clatter that you knew so well when you were a child by a New England mill-stream. And what does a kingfisher on such a river as this? If it were filled with fish he could not see them through that thick water.

The voiceless river! From the canyon to the sea it flows through deserts, and ever the seal of silence is upon it. Even the scant life of its borders is dumb—birds with no note, animals [page 72] with no cry, human beings with no voice. And

 The forsaken.  

so forsaken! The largest river west of the mountains and yet the least known. There are miles upon miles of mesas stretching upward from the stream that no feet have ever trodden, and that possess not a vestige of life of any kind. And along its banks the same tale is told. You float for days and meet with no traces of humanity. When they do appear it is

 Solitude.  

but to emphasize the solitude. An Indian wickiup on the bank, an Indian town; yes, a white man's town, what impression do they make upon the desert and its river? You drift by Yuma and wonder what it is doing there. Had it been built in the middle of the Pacific on a barren rock it could not be more isolated, more hopelessly "at sea."

After the river crosses the border-line of Mexico it grows broader and flatter than ever. And still the color seems to deepen. For all its suggestion of blood it is not an unlovely color. On the contrary, that deep red contrasted with

 Beauty of the river.  

the green of the banks and the blue of the sky, makes a very beautiful color harmony. They are hues of depth and substance—hues that comport excellently well with the character of the river itself. And never a river had more [page 73] character than the Colorado. You may not fancy the solitude of the stream nor its suggestive

 Its majesty.  

coloring, but you cannot deny its majesty and its nobility. It has not now the babble of the brook nor the swift rush of the canyon water; rather the quiet dignity that is above conflict, beyond gayety. It has grown old, it is nearing its end; but nothing could be calmer, simpler, more sublime, than the drift of it down into the delta basin.


 Disintegration.  

The mountains are receding on every side, the desert is flattening to meet the sea, and the ocean tides are rising to meet the river. Half human in its dissolution, the river begins to break joint by joint. The change has been gradually taking place for miles and now manifests itself positively. The bottom lands widen, many channels or side-sloughs open upon the stream, and the water is distributed into the

 The delta.  

mouths of the delta. There is a break in the volume and mass—a disintegration of forces. And by divers ways, devious and slow, the crippled streams well out to the Gulf and never come together again.

It is not so when the river is at its height with spring freshets. Then the stream is swollen beyond its banks. All the bottom lands for [page 74] miles across, up to the very terraces of the mesas, are covered; and the red flood moves

 The river during floods.  

like an ocean current, vast in width, ponderous in weight, irresistible in strength. All things that can be uprooted or wrenched away, move with it. Nothing can check or stop it now. It is the Grand Canyon river once more, free, mighty, dangerous even in its death-throes.

And now at the full and the change of the moon, when the Gulf waters come in like a tidal wave, and the waters of the north meet the waters of the south, there is a mighty conflict

 The "bore."  

of opposing forces. The famous "bore" of the river-mouth is the result. When the forces first meet there is a slow push-up of the water which rises in the shape of a ridge or wedge. The sea-water gradually proves itself the greater and the stronger body, and the ridge breaks into a crest and pitches forward with a roar. The undercut of the river sweeps away the footing of the tide, so to speak, and flings the top of the wave violently forward. The red river rushes under, the blue tide rushes over.

 Meeting of river and sea.  

There is the flash and dash of parti-colored foam on the crests, the flinging of jets of spray high in air, the long roll of waves breaking not upon a beach, but upon the back of the river, [page 75] and the shaking of the ground as though an earthquake were passing. After it is all done with and gone, with no trace of wave or foam remaining, miles away down the Gulf the red river slowly rises in little streams through the blue to the surface. There it spreads fan-like over the top of the sea, and finally mingles with and is lost in the greater body.


 The blue tomb.  

The river is no more. It has gone down to its blue tomb in the Gulf—the fairest tomb that ever river knew. Something of serenity in the Gulf waters, something of the monumental in the bordering mountains, something of the unknown and the undiscovered over all, make it a fit resting-place for the majestic Colorado. The lonely stream that so shunned contact with man, that dug its bed thousands of feet in the depths of pathless canyons, and trailed its length across trackless deserts, sought out instinctively a point of disappearance far from the madding crowd. The blue waters of the Gulf, the beaches of shell, the red, red mountains standing with their feet in the sea, are still far removed from civilization's touch. There are no towns

 Shores of the Gulf.  

or roads or people by those shores, there are no ships upon those seas, there are no dust and smoke of factories in those skies. The Indians [page 76] are there as undisturbed as in the days of Coronado, and the white man is coming but has not yet arrived. The sun still shines on unknown bays and unexplored peaks. Therefore is there silence—something of the hush of the deserts and the river that flows between.


Notes

1. Colorado is said to be the Spanish translation of the Piman name buqui aquimuti, according to the late Dr. Elliot Coues; but the Spanish word was so obviously used to denote the red color of the stream, that any translation from the Indian would seem superfluous.

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