I’m within a click of having lived in my adopted home of Durham, North Carolina for 25 years. But my first 40 years were spent on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains (my decade in Alaska was in the shadows of what is known as the Rocky Mountain System.)
When Mugs (my English Bulldog) and I headed west recently on what would be a 7,000-mile cross-country trip we crested the eastern Continental Divide in my adopted state at approximately 3,600 feet.
From there we immediately dropped down into the watershed of the Mississippi River which doesn’t end on that southerly route until half way across New Mexico near the end of the the Rocky Mountains, also known as the western Continental Divide.
The Mississippi River drains 41% of the entire United States. When we crossed the river into Arkansas at an elevation of only 210 feet, we were half way across a flood plain that begins 161 miles upstream at Cairo, Illinois where the Ohio River more though doubles the volume of the Mississippi.
The floodplain covers corners of Missouri and Tennessee, more than half of Mississippi and Arkansas, as well as nearly all of Louisiana. Failing to “let flood plains be flood plains” has enriched a few at an incredible expense of millions.
From that low point, we climbed back up through the massive river’s watershed to Albuquerque at nearly 5,000 feet, (yes, there are many “mile-high cities”) one of several plains cities that form a 3,000-mile eastern front along the Rockies including Great Falls, Casper and Denver.
Several things were on my mind as we resumed our voyage and drove just before dawn out of Albuquerque and up onto the Colorado Plateau.
The light was a mix of of deep early dawn blues and purples as we listened to the lyrics to two of my favorite songs beginning with one by Jimmy Webb and the line “by the time I make Albuquerque she’ll be working.”
By the time the sky flooded with sun across the border near Winslow, we were into another favorite co-written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey, which became the first single by The Eagles. We stopped on a corner, but disappointedly for Mugs, there was no “girl, my lord, in a flatbed ford.” Fortunately, I already have “a lover who won’t blow my cover.”
A few miles earlier I had paid respects to one of my 3rd great grandfathers, Charles Shumway, who was himself the 3rd great grandson of a French Huguenot known as “Peter the Soldier.”
The elder fought in December 1675 on behalf of the United Colonies in the Narragansett War in Rhode Island, after immigrating to the Massachusetts Bay Colony earlier in the 1600s.
I paid respects as well on the banks of the Missouri River during the return segment of this trip to my 3rd great grandmother Julia Ann Hooker. She died there of diphtheria in 1846 during the year long delay before the trip west. Charles and my 2nd great grandfather, a teenager at the time, continued on the vanguard wagon train west.
Before settling this northeast corner of Arizona in the 1870s, Charles had created settlements in Kill Buck, Illinois and blazed the Mormon Trail before settling the Salt Lake Valley. He then created settlements in the San Pete and Cache valleys as well as Kanab, below what is now Bryce and Zion national parks.
At the latter he met Major John Wesley Powell during his first expedition down the Colorado River through the length of the plateau.
While visiting the pueblos nearby of the Hopi Native Americans, Powell also encountered another of my 2nd great grandfathers, Marion J. Shelton, who was finishing most of a decade among the Hopi as a missionary in a failed attempt to help them adapt an alphabet.
Both were introduced to Powell by the “buckskin apostle,” Jacob Hamblin.
Shumway and Shelton are among several of my ancestors who learned Native American languages and served to bridge differences among various tribes and settlers, most often triggered by those who came not to make a home but to seek a fortune in gold or silver.
My native northern Rockies in the Idaho shadows of the Tetons are technically divided from the southern Rockies three hundred miles southeast where my ancestors had crossed over the western divide at South Pass after skirting the Wind River Range south of Lander,Wyoming.
However, on my cross-country expeditions, it feels like the two portions of Rockies are divided two hours southeast of Bear Lake, where the eastern end of the uniquely east-west running 11,000-13,500’ range of Uinta Mountains plow through the Colorado Plateau, forcing a horseshoe bend in the Green River before losing steam in sight of the slightly higher Mt. Meeker, Colorado along the western slopes of the main spine of Rockies.
This also marks the beginning of what showed only as a blank space on maps read by Powell, three to five hundred miles long and one to two hundred miles broad, until the Union Army veteran, who lost his arm at the Battle of Shilo, made expeditions between 1868 and 1874.
John Wesley Powell had been a professor at Illinois State University in Normal where my friend Larry Long now heads up the school of communications. Powell’s grit and determination was shown when he returned to combat after his amputation to play a role under Union General Sherman at the Battle of Atlanta.
A brevet Lt. Colonel at the end of the war, he preferred “Major” and soon set off to navigate the Green and Colorado rivers as they dissected the 133,000-square-mile Colorado Plateau’s place on the map just as the transcontinental railroad was completed and two decades after my ancestors began settling along the western Rockies.
Actually more than half of the state for which it named is made up more by desert-like plateaus and plains than the mountains for which it is known. But the Colorado Plateau may cover even greater portions of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
The Colorado Plateau is a series of mountain ranges, 11,000 to 13,000 high in places with flat, tabletops. The Plateau is still rising, while its vaunted canyons such as the “Grand” are actually sinking deeper and deeper and not just due to rivers.
The Plateau begins near Bear Lake in the southeastern corner of Idaho and juts down as Dr. Wallace Stegner once described like a great peninsula between the Great Basin and the Rockies to roughly where the Santa Fe Railroad was laid through New Mexico and Arizona, not reaching Albuquerque until 1880.
The Plateau’s vertical features, including canyons, buttes and arches, are famously the backdrop for Hollywood Westerns.
Most Americans know it for the famous three hundred mile canyon through its southwestern edge, the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I suspect some of the Plateau’s best views can be seen along the nearly 100-mile Highline trail along the crest of the Uintas with spectacular views from each side.
My backpacking days are long gone but I read an incredible description by Bruce Kirby the month before last in the New York Times. He hiked the Highline recently with his 4-year-old son aided by horned pack goats. (Goat Tip – they do not like to get their feet wet or stand in the rain – just like Mugs.)
Powell’s small band of explorers cut a few miles north on their way to the Mormon settlement and supply depot of Callville where at that time the Colorado spilled out into the desert. About 15 miles upstream from what is now Hoover Dam, today Callville (aka Call’s Landing) is submerged beneath Lake Mead.
Freight steamers had begun navigating north from the Seat of Cortez along the lower Colorado River in 1852. A military vessel had proven it feasible during high water as far as Black Canyon about four miles north of where Hoover Dam is today, almost making Call’s Landing a port.
What Father De Smet means to the exploration of the northern Rockies, Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante means to the Colorado Plateau. At 26 years old, Father Escalante ventured north from Sante Fe in 1776, the first year of the American Revolution and weeks before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
A huge Catholic cross in his memory rests high above the Mormon town of Spanish Fork, Utah. Father Escalante, a Franciscan, was seeking better supply routes between missions in California. He crisscrossed the Plateau as Jedediah Smith and others would, but it still left a blank spot for Major Powell to fill in on maps a hundred years later.
Powell is responsible for development of the Intermountain West. He understood the importance of watersheds there and once recommended to Congress that state borders there be formed around watersheds.
They should have listened.