Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Aboliton of Global Diplomatic Intrigue?

"If our own government was responsible for the deaths of a hundred thousand people, would you really want to know?"

The whistleblower website Wikileaks was recently in the news for releasing classified battlefield reports this summer from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that exposed the American Military for killing tens of thousands of civilians, which of course the Pentagon and the American Media never talk about, and instinctively deny whenever an incident leaks out.

The release of this information has raised many ethical issues. Military hawks are upset because they are worried about tactical information being released and they worry the information has endangered American military personnel and informants. Antiwar activists and Wikileaks itself has pointed to the fact that American military personal have been killing tens of thousands of civilians for years and that exposing this behavior, and in so doing bringing a faster end to the war, is a morally noble task that is far more important than allowing, through inaction, the efficient killing of people by a secretive and unaccountable military. They also point out that besides their hyperbolic complaining to the press, the Pentagon and the State Department have not been able to produce a single case of a single individual person who has been harmed or killed by wikileaks' releasing the information.

As to the charge that releasing the truth about civilian killings will endanger the popularity of our troops now serving in the Middle East, let me remind you that these killings are hardly unknown to Middle Easterners themselves! Iraqis and Afghans and Palestinians know more pain and suffering than Wikileaks will ever be able to report. The rest of the Arab world sees this daily on Al-Jeezera. It is only our own insulated population, living a sheltered existence of denial, to whom these deaths are a surprise.

It is my belief that if the conduct of our troops abroad is able to win them popular support, the "the hearts and minds" of the people, well then so much the better and onward to victory!

But if the actions of our troops impose such burden upon local populations that these populations turn against our troops and endeavor to drive them out of their countries through whatever means they feel is necessary- well, then let us recall the history of another country that took up arms against an occupation by another group of white, English-speaking troops, long ago "serving" their country by draining its treasury to get themselves killed in unpopular, unwinnable wars against uncooperative populations far away.

Whatever happens, paying attention to how this case develops is guaranteed to be one of the more interesting stories of the year. It is very similar, I think, to Daniel Ellsburg's (in)famous release of the "Pentagon Papers" in 1971. You may recall that Daniel was working for the Pentagon and the defense "think-tank" The Rand Corporation for years. Over time he gradually came to see the war as immoral, and he felt the public should have access to the same facts about it that he, with his security clearance, had. He spent months secretly photocopying, by hand, one page at a time, a 7,000 page official "secret" history of the Vietnam War. This history revealed the government knew many things that it was lying to the public about, such as how corrupt the South Vietnamese Regime was, how unstable their own strategic position was, how many civilian deaths they were inflicting, etc...

Ellsburg leaked these documents to the New York Times and several other papers who began to publish excerpts of this material. He was found, arrested, and charged with Espionage. Eventually he was released by the Supreme Court, and the papers' right to continue printing this material was protected.

The release of Ellsburg, and the "freedom of the press" thus protected, was as much a legal victory for the First Amendment as it was a sign that elite as well as public opinion was finally turning against the Vietnam war- recognizing it as unwinnable and a strategic liability in addition to being immoral.

Check out these video's of Ellsburg on Democracy Now talking about the Wikileaks Documents:

Wikileaks is in the headlines again today for releasing a cache of 250,000 leaked American embassy documents. This release is likely to embarrass more than a few officials, spies, and ambassadors, as well as Foreign Heads of State. Several global papers have been releasing them. The British Guardian is publishing them here:


They make for interesting reading. It's sort of like if the guys who wrote "The Economist" were doing a "People Magazine" of international politicians. Qaddafi's "Voluptuous Blonde Ukranian Nurse" is in there. Saudi Arabia's secret willingness for military action against Iran is in there. American ambassadors attempts to spy on the UN is in there. And much much more...

The implications for global policy, "secret" diplomacy, etc... here are very interesting. What Wikileaks is doing to secret diplomacy is sort of like what Napster did for the Music Industry. Even if the CIA assassinates Wikileaks' leaders and blows up the servers that are hosting their files, the "cat is out of the bag" as regards the currently released documents, and I have little doubt that in the future we will see similar sites appearing to expose the intrigue of different governments.

It looks like the internet is finally catching up with international relations. It will be interesting to see how much this changes the world. There will definitely be high level global tensions and embarrassment, but there will also be a better informed citizenry. Is this trade off worth it? I'm willing to consider that it is. For I have a feeling that the Saudi Arabian Oil-Princes, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, Kim Jung- Il, Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nicolas Sarkozy, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Prince Charles, Vladimir Putin, Muammar Qaddafi, the Russian Mafia, and the Oil and Gas Honchos of Kazakhstan have a lot more in common than they disagree on.

These are all people who rule by secrecy, who owe their positions of power to money, who regularly use state violence to get what they want, who construct elaborate national security states to rule over and spy on their citizens, and who are financially insulated from the effects that their decision making has on the mass of the citizenry.

I'm willing to believe that all of us would be better off if our Emperors "wore no clothes". If rather than hiding behind our own corrupt leaders' lies, spies, and missiles we were able to look at them clearly in the face, all their intentions exposed and visible, all the consequences of their actions apparent, and with no "dirty secrets" swept under the rug, we might all be better off.

If our countries' intentions are noble and our politicians are eager to honestly fight for the interests of the people they rule over, they would of course have nothing to fear from the existence of Wikileaks. If otherwise, I hope documents such as these will hasten the downfall of all the world's tyrants, and their replacement by leaders morally fit to serve in this new era of scrutiny and truth.

The Corporate Media traded truth for advertising dollars years ago and sold the whole package to Defense Contractors. When General Electric makes billions on arms contracts and they have a controlling interest in NBC, you can bet that you're never going to see a dead soldier or a dead Iraqi on the nightly news. So let the corporate media fade into oblivion. Don't worry about laid off journalists- they're already laid off! Every local department has already been outsourced to the Associated Press and Gene Siskel. Let the papers and the news stations join Tower Records, EMI, Media Play and Blockbuster in History's Dustbin! Let's see a Wikileaks in every country!

Here's to the revival of the Fourth Estate!

Resistance is Futile

Because, you silly terrorists, the new American embassy in England is going to have a fucking moat!

Read about it here

Remind you of any other race of cube Dwellers?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Considering the Largest Corporations...

Found this online today

Considering the largest corporations as analogous to a nation state reveals the following properties:

1. The right to vote does not exist except for share holders (analogous to land owners) and even there voting power is in proportion to ownership.
2. All power issues from a central committee.
3. There is no balancing division of power. There is no fourth estate. There are no juries and innocence is not presumed.
4. Failure to submit to any order may result in instant exile.
5. There is no freedom of speech.
6. There is no right of association. Even romance between men and women is often forbidden without approval.
7. The economy is centrally planned.
8. There is pervasive surveillance of movement and electronic communication.
9. The society is heavily regulated, to the degree many employees are told when, where and how many times a day they can go to the toilet.
10. There is little transparency and something like the Freedom of Information Act is unimaginable.
11. Internal opposition groups, such as unions, are blackbanned, surveilled and/or marginalized whenever and wherever possible.


Normally, I gravely distrust the popular TV series, "CSI".

Why? Well, of course it is entertaining, intelligently written, and the characters are amusing. But I think it is also propaganda for the Criminal Justice system. You see these very intelligent, incredibly observant people in lab coats with a passion for finding the truth, armed with high tech equipment and solving the case on every episode. You get the sense that anyone convicted of a crime probably should be rotting away in prison (all 2+ million of them!) because with our accurate forensics, fingerprinting, and DNA analysis, they all are undoubtedly guilty.

Well, here is an article about Claude Jones, who was executed in 2000 in the state of Texas. You probably didn't hear about it in 2000. In 2000 it was just another routine murder, intelligently solved by the lab coat wizards with the DNA analysis. Well, today it seems the DNA analysis, based on a single hair found at the crime scene, was originally analyzed improperly. The hair belonged to the victim, not to either the murderer, or to the man the state of Texas put to death "within reasonable doubt".

Maybe that's just one case taken out of context? Well, if that is what you think, and you have no moral qualms with the murder of one or a few innocent people here and there in order to satisfy your outrage against other criminals who perpetrated completely different crimes, here is an entire database of wrongfully convicted people. Pull up a chair. Spend a few hours. It will be very educational for you.

Thus, I have been greatly disturbed by the soothing effect shows like CSI have on the national psyche. We might as well have a show where every week in Iraq heroic F-16 pilots drop 500 lb bombs on terrorist compounds without killing any civilians, or perhaps throw grenades into roomfulls of plotting Al-Queda. That would really help me to forget the troubling, actual facts of my government knowingly murdering over a hundred thousand people in a country that never threatened mine, and then concealing this information from me.

You can imagine my shock then, when, I learned CSI had done a show about the effects of Fracking Fluid disrupting life in a small town!

Read about it here.

If you don't know, "fracking" is the technique of injecting tremendous quantities of highly pressurized water, laced with over 600 toxic "trade secret" chemicals deep into the earth in order to break up rock and release natural gas. These chemicals have hospitalized and killed humans and livestock that they have come into contact with. The use of them also poses the risk of contaminating water supplies. Poisoning the earth to mine a product that, when burned, will poison the atmosphere. For profit.

So, read that article... it's a review of the show by an anti-fracking organization that is fighting the legality of the process on the East Coast. And props to CSI! I think you still impart a false sense of confidence into our tremendously flawed Criminal "Justice" system, but it seems you are not completely evil after all! Thanks for going out on a limb to produce this socially and environmentally conscious episode.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I Am Fucking Awesome

So I woke up in the car today, and I was a little bummed out, cause it was 15 degrees outside, and, it's gonna be less than 15 degrees outside in the nights to come. I have a nice job lined up but it hasn't started yet. So here I am in the car. And I was feeling kinda blue.

But then, I went to Durango Joe's coffee shop, and I started working on my story about Desolation Canyon some more. And then I found some old pics from the Red Rock Regatta that I hadn't seen yet.

And I realized...

That I Am Fucking Awesome.

I am a cardboard viking. I can walk around in my underwear at family events. And I can captain a cardboard viking ship to victory and win first prize in two races AND in a costume contest! My pics be up at the Grand County Public Library.

Top That!

Oh Wait.

You can't.

Cause I am fucking awesome.

Monday, November 22, 2010

NGOs in the Service of Imperialism

by James Petras

I first read this back in the early 2000s as one of many articles in this book. Recently something was brought to my attention that caused me to recall this useful chapter. Doing a quick search, low and behold, I find the entire text, online here!

So I am reprinting it.

Throughout history ruling classes, representing small minorities, have
always depended on the coercive state apparatus and social institutions to
defend their power, profits and privileges. In the past, particularly in the
Third World, imperial ruling classes financed and supported overseas and
domestic religious institutions to control exploited people and deflect
their discontent into religious and communal rivalries and conflicts.

While these practices continue today, in more recent decades a new social
institution emerged that provides the same function of control and
ideological mystification - the self-described non-governmental
organizations (NGOs). Today there are at least 50,000 NGOs in the Third
World receiving over $10 billion in funding from international financial
institutions, Euro-US-Japanese governmental agencies and local governments.
The managers of the biggest NGOs manage million dollar budgets with salaries
and perks that are comparable to CEOs. They jet to international
conferences, confer with top corporate and financial directors and make
policy decisions that affect - in the great majority of cases adversely -
millions of people ... especially the poor, women and informal sector
working people.

The NGOs are significant world-wide political and social actors operating in
rural and urban sites of Asia, Latin America and Africa and frequently
linked in dependent roles with their principle donors in Europe, the US and
Japan. It is symptomatic of the pervasiveness of the NGOs and their economic
and political power over the so-called "progressive world" that there have
been few systematic Left critiques of the negative impact of NGOs. In a
large part this failure is due to the success of the NGOs is displacing and
destroying the organized Leftist movements and co-opting their intellectual
strategists and organizational leaders.

Today most left movement and popular spokespeople focus their criticism on
the IMF, World Bank, multi-national corporations, private banks, etc. who
fix the macroeconomic agenda for the pillage of the Third World. This is an
important task. However, the assault on the industrial base, independence
and living standards of the Third World takes place on both the
macro-economic and the micro-socio-political level. The egregious effects of
structural adjustment policies on wages and salaried workers, peasants and
small national businesspeople generates potential nationalpopular
discontent. And that is where the NGOs come into the picture to mystify and
deflect that discontent away from direct attacks on the corporate/banking
power structure and profits toward local micro-projects and apolitical
"grass roots" self-exploitation and "popular education" that avoids class
analysis of imperialism and capitalist exploitation.

The NGOs world-wide have become the latest vehicle for upward mobility for
the ambitious educated classes: academics, journalists, and professionals
have abandoned earlier excursions in the poorly rewarded leftists movements
for a lucrative career managing an NGO, bringing with them their
organizational and rhetorical skills as well as a certain populist
vocabulary. Today, there are thousands of NGO directors who drive $40,000
four wheel drive sports vehicles from their fashionable suburban home or
apartment to their well-furnished office or building complex, leaving the
children and domestic chores in the hands of servants, their yards tended by
gardeners. They are more familiar and spend more time at the overseas sites
of their international conferences on poverty (Washington, Bangkok, Tokyo,
Brussels, Rome, etc.) then at the muddy villages of their own country. They
are more adept at writing up new proposals to bring in hard currency for
"deserving professionals" than risking a rap on the head from the police
attacking a demonstration of underpaid rural school teachers.
The NGO leaders are a new class not based on property ownership or
government resources but derived from imperial funding and their capacity to
control significant popular groups. The NGO leaders can be conceived of as a
kind of neo-compradore group that doesn't produce any useful commodity but
does function to produce services for the donor countries - mainly trading
in domestic poverty for individual perks.

The formal claims used by NGO directors to justify their position - that
they fight poverty, inequality, etc. are self-serving and specious. There is
a direct relation between the growth of NGOs and the decline of living
standards: the proliferation of NGOs has not reduced structural
unemployment, massive displacements of peasants, nor provided liveable wage
levels for the growing army of informal workers. What NGOs have done, is
provided a thin stratum of professionals with income in hard currency to
escape the ravages of the neo-liberal economy that affects their country,
people and to climb in the existing social class structure.

This reality contrasts with the self-image that NGO functionaries have of
themselves. According to their press releases and public discourses, they
represent a Third Way between "authoritarian statism" and "savage market
capitalism": they describe themselves as the vanguard of "civil society"
operating in the interstices of the "global economy." The common purpose
that most resounds at NGO conferences is "alternative development."

The phrase-mongering about "civil society" is an exercise in vacuity.
"Civil society" is not a unitary virtuous entity - it is made of classes
probably more profoundly divided as ever in this century. Most of the
greatest injustices against workers are committed by the wealthy bankers in
civil society who squeeze out exorbitant interest payments on internal debt;
landlords who throw peasants off the land and industrial capitalists who
exhaust workers at starvation wages in sweatshops. By talking about "civil
society" NGOers obscure the profound class divisions, class exploitation and
class struggle that polarizes contemporary "civil society." While
analytically useless and obfuscating, the concept, "civil society"
facilitates NGO collaboration with capitalist interests that finance their
institutes and allows them to orient their projects and followers into
subordinate relations with the big business interests that direct the
neoliberal economies. In addition, not infrequently the NGOers'
civil society rhetoric is a ploy to attack comprehensive public programs and
state institutions delivering social services. The NGOers side with big
business' "anti-statist" rhetoric (one in the name of "civil society"
the other in the name of the "market") to reallocate state resources. The
capitalists' "anti-Statism" is used to increase public funds to subsidize
exports and financial bailouts, the NGOers try to grab a junior share via
"subcontracts" to deliver inferior services to fewer recipients.

Contrary to the NGOers' self-image who see themselves as innovative grass
roots leaders, they are in reality the grass root reactionaries who
complement the work of the IMF by pushing privatization "from below" and
demobilizing popular movements, thus undermining resistance.

The ubiquitous NGOs thus present the Left with a serious challenge that
requires a critical political analysis of their origins, structure and

Origin Structure and Ideology of the NGOs

NGOs appear to have a contradictory role in politics. On the one hand they
criticize dictatorships and human rights violations. On the other hand they
compete with radical socio-political movements, attempting to channel
popular movements into collaborative relations with dominant neo-liberal
elites. In reality, these political orientations are not so contradictory as
they appear.

Surveying the growth and proliferation of NGOs over the past quarter of a
century we find that NGOs emerged in three sets of circumstances. First of
all, as a safe haven for dissident intellectuals during dictatorships where
they could pursue the issue of human rights violations and organize
"survival strategies" for victims of harsh austerity programs. These
humanitarian NGOs however, were careful not to denounce the role of US and
European complicity with the local perpetrators of human rights violations
nor did they questions the emerging "free market" policies that impoverished
the masses. Thus the NGOers were strategically placed as "democrats" who
would be available as political replacements for local ruling classes and
imperial policy makers when repressive rulers began to be seriously
challenged by popular mass movements. Western funding of the NGOs as critics
was a kind of buying insurance in case the incumbent reactionaries faltered.
This was the case with the "critical" NGOs that appeared during the Marcos
regime in the Philippines, the Pinochet regime in Chile, the Park
dictatorship in Korea, etc.

The real boost in NGO mushrooming however, occurs in time of rising mass
movements that challenge imperial hegemony. The growth of radical
socio-political movements and struggles provided a lucrative commodity which
ex-radical and pseudo popular intellectuals could sell to interested,
concerned and well-financed private and public foundations closely tied with
European and US multi-nationals and governments. The funders were interested
in information - social science intelligence - like the "propensity for
violence in urban slum areas" (an NGO project in Chile during the mass
uprisings of 1983-86), the capacity of NGOers to raid popular communities
and direct energy toward self-help projects instead of social
transformations and the introduction of a class collaborationist rhetoric
packaged as "new identity discourses" that would discredit and isolate
revolutionary activists.

Popular revolts loosened the purse strings of overseas agencies and millions
poured into Indonesia, Thailand and Peru in the seventies; Nicaragua, Chile,
Philippines in the 80s; El Salvador, Guatemala, Korea in the 90s. The NGOers
were essentially there to "put out the fires." Under the guise of
constructive projects they argued against engaging in ideological movements
thus effectively using foreign funds to recruit local leaders, send them to
overseas conferences to give testimonials, while effectively encouraging
local groups to adapt to the reality of neo-liberalism.

As outside money became available, NGOs proliferated, dividing communities
into warring fiefdoms fighting to get a piece of the action. Each "grass
roots activist" cornered a new segment of the poor (women, young people from
minorities, etc.) to set up a new NGO and take the pilgrimage to Amsterdam,
Stockholm, etc. to "market" their project, activity, constituency and
finance their center - and their careers.

The third circumstance in which NGOs multiplied was during the frequent and
deepening economic crises provoked by free market capitalism.
Intellectuals, academics and professionals saw jobs disappear or salaries
decline as budget cuts took hold: a second job became in necessity. NGOs
became a job placement agency and consultantships became a safety net for
potentially downwardly mobile intellectuals willing to spout the civil
society-free market-alternative development line and carry on the
collaborative policies with neo-liberal regimes and international financial
institutions. When millions are losing their jobs and poverty spreads to
important swaths of the population NGOs engage in preventative
action: they focus on "survival strategies" not general strikes; they
organize soup kitchens not mass demonstrations against food hoarders,
neo-liberal regimes or US imperialism.

While NGOs may have initially had a vaguely "progressive" tincture during
so-called "democratic transitions" when the old order was crumbling, and
corrupt rulers were losing control and popular struggles were advancing.
The NGOs become the vehicle for transactions between old regimes and
conservative electoral politicians. The NGOs used their grass roots
rhetoric, organizational resources and their status as "democratic" human
rights advocates to channel popular support behind politicians and parties
which confined the transition to legal-political reforms not socio-economic
changes. NGOs demobilized the populace and fragmented the movements. In
every country that experienced an "electoral transaction,"
in the 1980s and 90s, from Chile to the Philippines to South Korea and
beyond, the NGOs have played an important role in rounding up votes for
regimes which continued or even deepened the socio-economic status quo. In
exchange, many ex-NGOers ended up running government agencies or even
becoming Ministers with popular sounding titles (women rights, citizen
participation, popular power, etc.).

The reactionary political role of NGOs was built into the very structures
upon which they were (and are) organized.

NGO Structure: Internally Elitist, Externally Servile

In reality NGOs are not "non-governmental" organizations. They receive funds
from overseas governments, work as private sub-contractors of local
governments and/or are subsidized by corporate funded private foundations
with close working relations with the state. Frequently they openly
collaborate with governmental agencies at home or overseas. Their programs
are not accountable to local people but to overseas donors who "review"
and "oversee" the performance of the NGOs according to their criteria and
interests. The NGO officials are self-appointed and one of their key tasks
is designing proposals that will secure funding. In many cases this requires
that NGO leaders find out the issues that most interest the Western funding
elites, and shaping proposals accordingly. Thus in the 1980s NGO funds were
available to study and provide political proposals on "governability" and
"democratic transitions" reflecting the concerns of the imperialist powers
that the fall of dictatorships would not lead to "ungovernability" - namely
mass movements deepening the struggle and transforming the social system.
The NGOs, despite their democratic, grassroots rhetoric are hierarchical -
with the director in total control of projects, hiring and firing, as well
as deciding who gets their way paid to international conferences. The
"grassroots" are essentially the objects of this hierarchy; rarely do they
see the money that "their" NGO shovels in; nor do they get to travel abroad;
nor do they draw the salaries or perks of their "grassroots" leaders. More
important none of these decisions are ever voted on. At best after the deals
have been cooked by the Director and the overseas funders, the NGO staff
will call a meeting of "grassroots activists" of the poor to approve the
project. In most cases the NGOs are not even membership organizations but a
self-appointed elite which, under the pretense of being "resource people"
for popular movements, in fact, competes with and undermines them. In this
sense NGOs undermine democracy by taking social programs and public debate
out of the hands of the local people and their elected natural leaders and
creating dependence on nonelected, overseas officials and their anointed
local officials.

NGOs foster a new type of cultural and economic colonialism - under the
guise of a new internationalism. Hundreds of individuals sit in front of
high powered PCs exchanging manifestos, proposals and invitations to
international conferences with each other. They then meet in well furnished
conference halls to discuss the latest struggles and offerings with their
"social base" - the paid staff- who then pass on the proposals to the
"masses" through flyers and "bulletins." When overseas funders show up, they
are taken on "exposure tours" to showcase projects where the poor are
helping themselves and to talk with successful micro-entrepreneurs (omitting
the majority who fail the first year).

The way this new colonialism works is not difficult to decipher. Projects
are designed based on guidelines and priorities of the imperial centers and
their institutions. They are then "sold" to the communities.
Evaluations are done by and for the imperial institutions. Shifts of funding
priorities or bad evaluations result in the dumping of groups, communities,
farmers and cooperatives. Everybody is increasingly disciplined to comply
with the donor's demands and their project evaluators. The NGO directors, as
the new viceroys, supervise and ensure conformity with the goals, values and
ideology of the donors as well as the proper use of funds.

Ideology of NGOs Versus Radical Socio-political Movements

NGOs emphasize projects not movements; they "mobilize" people to produce at
the margins not to struggle to control the basic means of production and
wealth; they focus on the technical financial assistance aspects of projects
not on structural conditions that shape the everyday lives of people. The
NGOs co-opt the language of the Left: "popular power," "
empowerment," "gender equality," "sustainable development," "bottom up
leadership," etc. The problem is that this language is linked to a framework
of collaboration with donors and government agencies that subordinate
activity to non-confrontational politics. The local nature of NGO activity
means "empowerment" never goes beyond influencing small areas of social life
with limited resources within the conditions permitted by the neo-liberal
state and macro-economy.

The NGOs and their professional staff directly compete with the
socio-political movements for influence among the poor, women, racially
excluded, etc. Their ideology and practice diverts attention from the
sources and solutions of poverty (looking downward and inward instead of
upward and outward). To speak of micro-enterprises instead of the
exploitation by the overseas banks, as solutions to poverty is based on the
false notion that the problem is one of individual initiative rather than
the transference of income overseas. The NGOs "aid" affects small sectors of
the population, setting up competition between communities for scarce
resources and generating insidious distinction and inter and intra community
rivalries thus undermining class solidarity. The same is true among the
professionals: each sets up their NGO to solicit overseas funds.
They compete by presenting proposals closer to the liking of the overseas
donors for lower prices, while claiming to speak for more followers. The net
effect is a proliferation of NGOs that fragment poor communities into
sectoral and sub-sectoral groupings unable to see the larger social picture
that afflicts them and even less able to unite in struggle against the

Recent experience also demonstrates that foreign donors finance projects
during "crises" - political and social challenges to the status quo. Once
the movements have ebbed, they shift funding to NGO - regime
"collaboration," fitting the NGO projects into the neo-liberal agenda.
Economic development compatible with the "free market" rather than social
organization for social change becomes the dominant item on the funding

The structure and nature of NGOs with their "apolitical" posture and their
focus on self-help depoliticizes and demobilizes the poor. They reinforce
the electoral processes encouraged by the neo-liberal parties and mass
media. Political education about the nature of imperialism, the class basis
of neo-liberalism, the class struggle between exporters and temporary
workers are avoided. Instead the NGOs discuss "the excluded,"
the "powerless," "extreme poverty," "gender or racial discrimination,"
without moving beyond the superficial symptom, to engage the social system
that produces these conditions. Incorporating the poor into the neo-liberal
economy through purely "private voluntary action" the NGOs create a
political world where the appearance of solidarity and social action cloaks
a conservative conformity with the international and national structure of

It is no coincidence that as NGOs have become dominant in certain regions,
independent class political action has declined, and neo-liberalism goes
uncontested. The bottom line is that the growth of NGOs coincides with
increased funding from neo-liberalism and the deepening of poverty
everywhere. Despite its claims of many local successes, the overall power of
neo-liberalism stands unchallenged and the NGOs increasingly search for
niches in the interstices of power.

The problem of formulating alternatives has been hindered in another way.
Many of the former leaders of guerrilla and social movements, trade union
and popular women's organizations have been co-opted by the NGOs. The offer
is tempting: higher pay (occasionally in hard currency), prestige and
recognition by overseas donors, overseas conferences and networks, office
staff and relative security from repression. In contrast, the
socio-political movements offer few material benefits but greater respect
and independence and more importantly the freedom to challenge the political
and economic system. The NGOs and their overseas banking supporters
(Inter-American Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the World
Bank) publish newsletters featuring success stories of micro-enterprises and
other self-help projects-without mentioning the high rates of failure as
popular consumption declines, low price imports flood the market and as
interest rates spiral - as is the case in Brazil and Indonesia today.

Even the "successes" affect only a small fraction of the total poor and
succeed only to the degree that others cannot enter into the same market.
The propaganda value of individual micro-enterprise success, however is
important in fostering the illusion that neo-liberalism is a popular
phenomenon. The frequent violent mass outbursts that take place in regions
of micro-enterprise promotion suggests that the ideology is not hegemonic
and the NGOs have not yet displaced independent class movements.

NGO ideology depends heavily on essentialist identity politics, engaging in
a rather dishonest polemic with radical movements based on class analysis.
They start from the false assumption that class analysis is "reductionist"
overlooking the extensive debates and discussions within Marxism on issues
of race, ethnicity and gender equality and avoiding the more serious
criticism that identities themselves are clearly and profoundly divided by
class differences. Take for example, the Chilean or Indian feminist living
in a plush suburb drawing a salary 15-20 times that of her domestic servant
who works 6 1/2 days a week. Class differences within gender determine
housing, living standards, health, educational opportunities and who
appropriates who's surplus value. Yet the great majority of NGOs operate on
the basis of identity politics and argue that this is the basic point of
departure for the new (post-modern politics).

Identity politics does not challenge the male dominated elite world of IMF
privatizations, multi-national corporations and local landlords. Rather, it
focuses on "patriarchy" in the household, family violence, divorce, family
planning, etc. In other words, it fights for gender equality within the
micro-world of exploited peoples in which the exploited and impoverished
male worker/peasant emerges as the main villain. While no one should support
gender exploitation or discrimination at any level, the feminist NGOs do a
gross disservice to working women by subordinating them to the greater
exploitation of sweatshops which benefit upper class men and women, rent
collecting male and female landlords and CEOs of both sexes. The reason the
feminist NGOs ignore the "Big Picture" and focus on local issues and
personal politics is because billions of dollars flow annually in that
direction. If feminist NGOs began to engage in land occupations with men and
women landless workers in Brazil or Indonesia or Thailand or the
Philippines, if they joined in general strikes of mainly female low-paid
rural school teachers against structural adjustment policies, the NGO spigot
would get turned off- by their imperial donors.
Better to beat up on the local patriarch scratching out an existence in an
isolated village in Luzon.

Class Solidarity and NGO Solidarity with Foreign Donors

The word "solidarity" has been abused to the point that in many contexts it
has lost meaning. The term "solidarity" for the NGOers includes foreign aid
channeled to any designated "impoverished" group. "Research" or "popular
education" of the poor by professionals is designated as "solidarity." In
many ways the hierarchical structures and the forms of transmission of "aid"
and "training" resemble nineteenth century charity and the promoters are not
very different from Christian missionaries.

The NGOers emphasize "self-help" in attacking the "paternalism and
dependence" of the state. In this competition among NGOs to capture the
victims of neoliberals, the NGOs receive important subsidies from their
counterparts in Europe and the US. The self help ideology emphasizes the
replacement of public employees for volunteers and upwardly mobile
professionals contracted on a temporary basis. The basic philosophy of the
NGO view is to transform "solidarity" into collaboration and subordination
to the macro-economy of neo-liberalism by focusing attention away from state
resources of the wealthy classes toward self-exploitation of the poor. The
poor do not need to be made virtuous by the NGO for what the state obligates
them to do.

The Marxist concept of solidarity in contrast emphasizes class solidarity
within the class, solidarity of oppressed groups (women and people of
color) against their foreign and domestic exploiters. The major focus is not
on the donations that divide classes and pacify small groups for a limited
time period. The focus of Marxist concept of solidarity is on the common
action of the same members of the class sharing their common economic
predicament struggling for collective improvement.

It involves intellectuals who write and speak for the social movements in
struggle, committed to sharing the same political consequences. The concept
of solidarity is linked to "organic" intellectuals who are basically part of
the movement - the resource people providing analysis and education for
class struggle and taking the same political risks in direct action. In
contrast, the NGOers are embedded in the world of institutions, academic
seminars, foreign foundations, international conferences speaking a language
understood only by those "initiated" into the subjectivist cult of
essentialist identities. The Marxists view solidarity as sharing the risks
of the movements, not being outside commentators who raise questions and
defend nothing. For the NGOers the main object is "getting" the foreign
funding for the "project." The main issue, for the Marxist is the process of
political struggle and education in securing social transformation. The
movement was everything the objective was important in raising consciousness
for societal change:

constructing political power to transform the general condition of the great
majority. "Solidarity" for the NGOers is divorced from the general object of
liberation; it is merely a way of bringing people together to attend a job
retraining seminar, to build a latrine. For the Marxists the solidarity of a
collective struggle contains the seeds of the future democratic collectivist
society. The larger vision or its absence is what gives the different
conceptions of solidarity their distinct meaning.

Class Struggle and Co-operation

The NGOers frequently write of "co-operation" of everyone, near and far,
without delving too profoundly on the price and conditions for securing the
co-operation of neo-liberal regimes and overseas funding agencies.
Class struggle is viewed as an atavism to a past that no longer exists.
Today we are told "the poor" are intent on building a new life. They are fed
up with traditional politics, ideologies and politicians. So far, so good.
The problem is that the NGOers are not so forthcoming in describing their
role as mediators and brokers, hustling funds overseas. The concentration of
income and the growth of inequalities are greater than ever, after a decade
of preaching co-operation and micro-enterprises, and self-help. Today the
banks like the World Bank fund the export agro-businesses that exploit and
poison millions of farm laborers while providing funds to finance small
micro-projects. The role of the NGOs in the micro projects is to neutralize
political opposition at the bottom while neo-liberalism is promoted at the
top. The ideology of "co-operation" links the poor through the NGOs to
neo-liberals at the top.

Intellectually the NGOs are the intellectual policemen who define acceptable
research, distribute research funds and filter out topics and perspectives
that project class analysis and struggle perspective.
Marxists are excluded from the conferences and stigmatized as "ideologues"
while NGOs present themselves as "social scientists." The control of
intellectual fashion, publications, conferences, research fund provide the
post-Marxists with an important power base - but on ultimately dependent on
avoiding conflict with their external funding patrons.

Critical Marxist intellectuals have their strength in the fact that their
ideas resonate with the evolving social realities. The polarization of
classes and the violent confrontations are growing, as their theories would
predict. It is from this perspective that the Marxists are tactically weak
and strategically strong vis-a-vis the NGOs.

Alternative NGOs

One could argue that there are a great many different type of NGOs and that
many do criticize and organize against adjustment policies, the IMF, debt
payments, etc. and that its unfair to lump them all in the same bag.

There is a grain of truth in this but this position belies a more
fundamental issue. Most peasant leaders from Asia and Latin America that I
have spoken to complain bitterly of the divisive and elitist role that even
the "progressive" NGOs play: they, the NGOs want to subordinate the peasant
leaders to their organizations, they want to lead and speak "for"
the poor. They do not accept subordinate roles. Progressive NGOs use
peasants and the poor for their research projects, they benefit from the
publication - nothing comes back to the movements not even copies of the
studies done in their name! Moreover, the peasant leaders ask why the NGOs
never risk their neck after their educational seminars? Why do they not
study the rich and powerful why us?

Even conceding that within the "progressive NGOs" there are minorities that
function as "resource" people to radical socio-political movements, the fact
is that the people receive a tiny fraction of the funds that go to the NGO.
Furthermore, the great mass of NGOs fit the description outlined above and
it is up to the few exceptions to prove otherwise: a major step forward for
the "progressive NGOs" is to systematically criticize and critique the ties
of their NGO colleagues with imperialism and its local clients, their
ideology of adaptation to neo-liberalism and their authoritarian and elitist
structures. Then it would be useful for them to tell their western
counterpart NGOs to get out of the foundation - government networks and go
back to organizing and educating their own people in Europe and North
America to form social-political movements that can challenge the dominant
regimes and parties that serve the banks and multi-nationals.

In other words, the NGOs should stop being NGOs and convert themselves into
members of socio-political movements. That is the best way to avoid being
lumped with the tens of thousands of NGOs feeding at the donor's trough.

Conclusion: Notes on a Theory of NGOs

In social structural terms the proliferalism and expansion of NGOs reflects
the emergence of a new petit bourgeois distinct from the "old"
shopkeepers, free professionals as well as the "new" public employee groups.
This subcontracted sector is closer to the earlier "compradore"
bourgeoisie insofar as it produces no tangible commodities, but serves to
link imperial enterprises with local petty commodity producers engaged in
micro-enterprises. This new petty-bourgeois at least its "middle age
variants" is marked by the fact that many are ex-Leftists and bring to bear
a "popular rhetoric" and in some cases an elitist "vanguardist"
conception to their organizations. Situated without property or a fixed
position in the state apparatus it depends heavily on external funding
agencies to reproduce themselves. Given its popular constituency however, it
has to combine an anti-Marxist, anti-statist appeal with populist rhetoric,
hence the concoction of the Third Way and civil society notions which are
sufficiently ambiguous to cover both bases. This new petty bourgeois thrives
on international gatherings as a main prop of its existence, lacking solid
organic support within the country. The "globalist" rhetoric provides a
cover for a kind of ersatz "internationalism" devoid of anti-imperialist
commitments. In a word, this new petit bourgeois forms the "radical wing"
... of the neo-liberal establishment.

Politically the NGOs fit into the new thinking of imperialist strategists.
While the IMF - World Bank and MNCs work the domestic elites at the top to
pillage the economy, the NGOs engage in complementary activity at the bottom
neutralizing and fragmenting the burgeoning discontent resulting from the
savaging of the economy. Just as imperialism engages in a two pronged
macro-micro strategy of exploitation and containment, radical movements must
develop a two prong anti-imperialist strategy.

The mass of NGOs have co-opted most of what used to be the "free floating"
public intellectuals who would abandon their class origins and join the
popular movements. The result is a temporary gap between the profound crises
of capitalism (depressions in Asia and Latin America - collapse in the
ex-USSR) and the absence of significant organized revolutionary movements
(with the exception of Brazil, Colombia and perhaps South Korea). The
fundamental question is whether a new generation of organic intellectuals
can emerge from the burgeoning radical social movements which can avoid the
NGO temptation and become integral members of the next revolutionary wave.

James Petras, Dept. of Sociology, Binghamton University, NY

Publication Information: Article Title: NGOs: In the Service of Imperialism.
Contributors: James Petras - author. Journal Title: Journal of Contemporary
Asia. Volume: 29. Issue: 4. Publication Year: 1999. Page
Number: 429.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Green Capitalism vs Revolutionary Ecology

Life lately has been very interesting. There has been a disturbing employment and housing scarcity as well as job insecurity. It's not for me to talk on this blog too much about it now, if for no other reason than my quest for a winter income and stable housing is not yet complete, and, how do you tell as story that does not yet have an end? Suffice to say, I have two winter jobs lined up, plowing snow in Durango (it snows rarely in Durango, at least this year), and, more lucratively, being a fancy waiter at a fancy restaurant at the ski resort. A positive cash flow from these has not yet started, as the first day of plowing might be tomorrow morning, and the restaurant job training does not start until Dec 8th. However, there is at least light at the end of the tunnel!

With these massive amounts of free time I've been largely hanging out in coffee places or the public library, catching up on lots of reading that I didn't have as much time for in the busy summer.

Taking a break from my usual regimen of geology and Western History, I have been delving back into politics. I recently went to my first protest in, gosh... too long, and I wrote an article about it that got published. I discovered xtranormal.com and made an "ultra left and hilarious" video in which I address an audience of left wing Americans and disparage their general failure to walk the walk they like to talk. As of today it has gotten 531 views, which, even if you allow for multiple views and reloads, is more of an audience than I have probably ever spoken to in a meeting or even at a rally, with perhaps only one or two possible exceptions.

As another experiment I re-created a condensed version of Eugene Debs' famous Canton, Ohio anti war speech he was put in jail for delivering during World War I. It is of couse also in cartoon format, here. It has gotten less views than the Left Wing Americans one, but still has received a modest 126 as of today.

Big thinking recently I have devoted to the issues of sustainability in our planet. This is a really big issue, you might say, The Issue, and if not checked it will trump all others.

The rate at which we are burning through hundreds of millions of years of resource deposition, the impact fossil fuels are having on the environment, global warming, and coastal flooding as the ice caps melt... all these things have greatly troubled me, and they have troubled me for a long time. I have an early memory of being 10 years old and lying on my bed at a summer camp, thinking about the future of the world, and realizing that by the time I graduate high school the world will be so overpopulated so as to doom us all. This prediction may have been a bit hasty, but one thing about it is certainly true: While optimistic leftists and Malthusian conservatives disagree on whether we have currently crossed the line of earths' carrying capacity, or if, in a post capitalistic, more equatable society, we could support an even higher population with super green, super efficient, methods of energy production and food distribution, there is one fact that everyone who reads books and believes in the scientific method seems to be able to agree on: the present population the earth can not be sustained if it manages to catch up (as it is hell bent on doing) to the environmental impact that first world living standards are currently responsible for.

I found this diagram today on Wikipedia while reading about "sustainable development":

It seems to me that most of the efforts people come up with get channelled into either the "bearable", "equitable", or "viable" areas, but almost none could be said to be truely "sustainable". In the United States today, there are a lot of forces at work to shuttle us off into one of these directions, generally missing the truely "sustainable" intersection of social, economic, and environment justice.

Pretty much every social or environmental justice issue out there today is treated as a single issue, a separate competing agenda among many. Women's Rights, Gay Rights, Global Warming, Global Peace, Access to Food, Sustainable Farming, over fishing, Solar Energy, Wind Energy, Workers' Rights, Homeless advocacy, Wilderness Protection...

All these agendas tend to be promoted by unique sets of activists, each with their own "NGO" with its own funding and support that tries to get political attention for itself, largely by trying to "out compete" public and political attention in the "marketplace" of ideas.

In the US, where we don't have a mass social democratic party, where we don't have a mass green party, or even an influential "communist party" (for better or for worse) like most European Countries still have, the tendancy towards single issue NGO activity is much greater. Young, intelligent, energetic people, looking to get involved, to "change the world", to "make a difference", are much more likely to find themselves working (for a pay check) for some single issue NGO, attempting to "raise awareness", "pressure politicians", or directly address one or another consequence of capitalism through sisyphean charity independently of and separate from a broader systemic challenge of the political and economic systems that are in place and that are the root from whence all of these problems spring.

It's time we all devoted a lot of thought to this, to viewing social justice, economic justice, and environmental justice as inter connected.

Any two, in the long run, can count for precious little as long as the third is missing. What really is the point of labor and capital managing to resolve or transcend (though a union movement, benevolent management, or proletarian revolution) their differences if workers and managers are simply finding a way to cut down the forests, to burn fossil fuels, and to pollute the rivers and drain the aquifers in a way that- in the short term, enriches both at an aggreeable rate?

What is the point of being accepted for being openly gay, or winning to the right abortion, if the island nation you live on is going to be flooded by rising sea levels?

How about social and the environment? I've been hearing a lot about this lately, a lot about such attempts to avoid having to interact with the economy all together. The early years of the great depression, before social movements had managed to take off, there was a great deal of increased experimentation with homesteading and running independent, "off the grid" farms on a small scale. In late 1960s and early 1970s, many activists, frustrated with seemingly unchangeable issues like the war in vietnam and the indifference of politicians to social or environmental justice, removed themselves from society and experimented with alternative ways of living, growing their own food, and housing themselves.

Few of these efforts managed to succeed for long before the communes devolved amid personal differences and frustration with the lack of personal space. Many of participants of these experiments were college graduates who increasingly grew frustrated with their own voluntary impovrishment, and after a few months or years many of them began to leave for better paying jobs and educational oppertunities for their children. Sustainable business attempts were generally outcompeted by capitalism and failed, or those who survived became capitalists themselves, in time falling far short of the equitable goals they had set for themselves.

The "homesteads" of the great depression, where they were able to survive at all, were dwarfed to irrelevance as fleeting, individual solutions at a time when millions were having their livelihoods destroyed by the dust bowl, countless acres of farm land had been mismanaged into oblivion, and what homesteading land there was left was unable to absorb and support the county's homeless population. The bombs of pearl harbor, and Germany's war declaration days later, were the death blows to this fantasy. As isolationist America was to painfully join the rest of the world in finding out, peace anywhere is impossible in a world of scarcity everywhere. You can have no small island of peace for yourself if your neighbors lack peaceful and stable lives abroad.

The last combination, that of the environment and the economy, is today more loudly promoted than it has ever been. The debate and discussion it has sparked is most welcome. To the extent the we even hear about any of this, that we are even talking at all or experimenting with things like earthships, "Passivhaus" technology, grey water recycling, wind power, or "organic farming", it is largely due to years of agitation and political pressure waged by environmental movements. Germany isn't one of the most environmentally conscious countries today for no reason. It is so because decades ago Germans got together and started the world's first Green Party, which today remains one of the planet's largest.

Today we hear much less about the need to fight politically for "green" or sustainable development. We're told much more to shop for it. This question is at the heart of today's environmental debates, and anyone seriously interested in true "sustainability", the actual unity of economic, social, and environmental peace, must be brave enough to look beyond the hype and critically ask, is this really possible?

I was reading John McDonald's review of Green Gone Wrong, a book that is high (actually, next) on my list of things to read. In his review John mentioned a few examples of today's masssive greenwashing. One I was most struck with is the irony of the increased demand for "organic sugar" resulting in more rain forest clear cutting- to make way for more "organic" sugar plantations in Paraguay. This looks like the direction that, without social movement intervention from below- most "green" marketing is likely to take us.

Even if all organic farms do not cut down rainforests, there is no garantee that they will not be pressured by competition to adopt, for example, the same labor standards that are prevalant across agriculture. Does it really matter to me, if I work on an organic farm, about the quality of produce if I am an undocumented immigrant with no rights, who is abused and cheated by my employers, and I am afraid to return to my developing country where a drug war exported by first world demand has made it impossible to live and safely raise a family?

Perhaps this touches on the biggest question of all today, that of disparities in environmental impacts between First World and Third World lifestyles. This is worth mentioning because of the tremendous resource consumption we in the First World often ignore or take for granted.

"Of course the children are starving, and a billion live on less than a dollar a day, but what can I do? Why should I care? How could this even be changed?""

The answers to these questions do not depend upon the apathy of people in the first world, whose consumption of most global resources, responsibility for most global waste and pollution, whose disastrous colonial legacy, and whose disproportionate access to knowledge, technology, and education, might in a rational world at least motivate to making an effort to find solutions to the environmental crisis.

No. Whether we lift a finger or not, the Chinese and Nigerian and Indian sweatshop workers are huddled tonight around the one flickering TV in their dormitory, and they are watching Baywatch, and they think that is how we live, and their leaders are going to get them to work as hard as they can so their country can be as much like that as possible, whether we in the first world notice, care, or do nothing about it at all.

This planet is an island, and we all have a stake in keeping it alive. Whether we are Chinese, Nigerian, Paraguayan, German, or American, all of us would like to think there might a future for our children. What is not certain, and where I will call the utility of Capitalism (whether "free" like in the US, or state dominated like in China) into question, is whether or not our leaders will wake up and change the way our societies operate before it is too late.

Asking this question, one must realize that many of our leaders in the commercial sector, the owners and mangers of industry, the investors, the leading stockholders and boards of directors, the unelected few who make the decisions that impact the environment and our own lives the most, all to often, these people have a direct, personal, profitable interest in doing things that are wasteful, short term, environmentally destructive, and socially catastrophic.

The difficulty of "reigning them in", to the extent that this is hypothetically possible, is compounded by the fact that in most of the world's countries (such as the US, China, Russia, India, and Haiti to name a few) there is a seperate political class, living above and apart from the rest of the population. This political class takes upon itself the responsibility of making decisions that affect the entire population while at the same time they do everything they can to insulate their own personal families from the effects of these decisions. They have expensive private schools, private colleges, gated communities, bullet proof glass, body guards, private doctors, large and diversified investment porfolios, better food and finer wines, etc...

I consider serious environmentalists to be those who are interested in finding solutions to our problems that will allow our species to continue. I do not consider among them those who care only about maintaining the illusion of "doing right" for their own country, or for members of their own country who can afford to shop at Whole Foods, while ignoring the impact they have on the rest of the world. Neither do I consider among serious environmentalists those care only about their own, personal survival, in their own lifetime, by adopting personal solutions that they are able to afford or tolerate but which are not solutions everyone can adopt.

I might ask, Mr. Survivalist, if the workers are all dead, and the hospitals and antibiotics factories are all closed, who is going to build your solar panels, or maintain your windmill, or replace your deep cycle batteries, or operate on your son's appendicitis, or resolve the complications of your wife's childbirth?

Among those, whom I consider to be serious environmentalists, I see two main schools of thought. The first, advocated by many, including the entire "buy green" movement, is the idea that through our purchases we can motivate capitalists to invest in environmentally sound business practices. This solution (though to his credit, he calls for, rather than disparages, political action), is called for among others by the influential author Jared Diamond, whose book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, I have just read, and heartily recommend.

The other idea, which has much less funding behind its advocacy, is the idea that the short term focused, for profit, personal enrichment of the few at the expense of the many characteristics of capitalism make it incompatible with true sustainability- with a realistic unity of social, economic, and environmental balance. The forces behind this school of thought are much weaker, and you cannot support them with your purchases at whole foods.

Unfortuneately, valuable ideas about ecology and economics are not always heavily marketed by those marketers whose profits derive from waste, exploitation, and maximum efficiency at the expense of the environment. It is this, the radical wing of the environmental movement, that asserts capitalism is incompatible with ecology, and that the sake of the latter must necessitate the overthrow of the former.

To make myself a more educated person, and to be able to more usefully contribute to the debates between these schools of thought, I am going to spend much of my winter familiarizing myself with the literature that acknowledges this divide, and fights for either one alternative or the other. In addition to many of these books that focus on global impacts of the ecological crisis, I want, as a personal motivation, to focus on the challenge and debates of water in The West, something I have a direct professional interest in learning about.

Maybe these are really two issues? But they are so related... You can't talk about capitalism and food without talking about irrigation and salinization, and you can't talk in Colorado about irrigation and salinization without talking about the Grand Valley, the Colorado River, and the Mancos Shale.

Books on my list so far:

Ecology and Capitalism

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

Green Gone Wrong: How our Economy is Undermining the Environmental Revolution by Heather Rogers

Ecology Against Capitalism by John Bellamy Foster

The Corporate Planet: Ecology and Politics in the Age of Globalization by Joshua Karliner

Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis by Chris Williams

Field Notes From A Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert

Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature by John Bellamy Foster

Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply by Vandana Shiva

Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel

Water and the West

Cadillac Desert: The American West And its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner

Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River by John Waterman

The No Nonsense Guide to Climate Change by Dinyar Godrej

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis

The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert by Craig Childs


Forget Shorter Showers by Derrick Jesnsen

Review of Green Gone Wrong by John McDonald

The Greening of Capitalism by Heather Rogers

If you know of more pro "Green Capitalism" books please share, I'd like to learn more of this side of the argument as well.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Desolation Canyon

Author's Introduction

Part One: There's a place called...

An idea
Fellow Travelers
Getting a Permit
Chris P

Part Two: Happy Canyon

The Shuttle
Sand Wash
Bear Attacks
Desert Bighorn
A 55 Million Year Old Lake
Oil Shale
Rivers That Make Rock
A One-Armed Veteran
Death of a Pool Toy
A Hike Discovers Fresh Springs, Salt Springs, a Corpse
Rock Creek
Gumdrop Falls
Forest Fire!
A Ghost Ranch
Swimmer in a Rapid

Part Three: Bonus Canyon

Cretaceous Seas, Coarse Grained Sediments, Coal, and Iguanadon
Coal Creek Ruin
A Mild Scramble

Part Four: Desolation

Takeout Day
Tamarisk, an Interstate, and Green River, Utah
The Uinta Basin: Armpit of the Desert
Death of a Lake
A Sexist Money-Cult
Wal Mart
Tall Mysterious Rocks

* * *

I have been unable to write the story of my favorite river trip of the summer for quite some time because someone who was on the trip with me, Chris P, took a month and a half to send me his pictures. It was only once they were finally developed, scanned, emailed, and downloaded into my possession that I could at long last use them as the basis to write this story.

You will be very quick to notice this story does not begin at a put in and end at a take out. It encompasses my learning about the existence of Deso, my planning for it, running the canyon, taking out and returning to "civilization", with of course the last third of the story entirely devoted to the quest to replace my tire that was destroyed late at night while driving the shuttle. In addition to numerous trip photographs, discussions of meals, campsites, side hikes, and various tidbits of entertaining dialogue, you will find numerous explanations of much historic, geologic, social and economic phenomena that anyone doing this trip is going to encounter- whether they recognize it or not. My ability to write a story of this length is largely due to the fact that for two and half months I have unemployed, between seasonal jobs, and living in my car in Durango, Coloardo. Thus I had plenty of free time to devote myself to writing, and I was quick to catch on to the fact that the interiors of Durango Joes' coffee shops are a lot warmer that the interior of my car. Especially at night.

I had many questions about this trip that I wanted to solve for myself through research, which writing this gave me the opportunity to conduct. Furthermore, in producing this I have been able to effectively procrastinate from my Ghost Town book for three solid months now.

It is my hope that the approach I have taken will answer a lot of questions you might have about running "Deso" before you plan a trip of your own. I also hope that this article could become a resource for anyone who, in an amateur or professional capacity, finds herself drawn to this part of the world and developing an interest in being able to explain a bit more about what is going on here. It is in everyone's interest that Utah river guides, when asked how the rocks got here, be able to avoid one sentence dismissive "explanations", like, "The rocks are interfingered Wasatch and Green River Formation that was deposited in an ancient lake 50 million years ago." Such phrases are all too commonly encountered by those paying someone to take them down a river and what they don't explain is always infinitely greater than what they do.

I've also tried to keep this article accessible to those who are unfamiliar with the routines of river runners, the geography of Eastern Utah, or the culture of seasonal workers in the desert. I've taken steps to avoid jargon where I can, and I've tried to explain it where it is necessary.

If you find any of this story helpful, if you find some of it inaccurate, or if you are just another seasonally homeless person killing time by hanging on in coffee shops surfing the internet, I'd appreciate any comments being left at the bottom. My generation is no longer paid to write. But peer review and mutual encouragement might keep us going yet.

-LF Dec 17, 2010

Part One: There's a place called...

The existence of a place in the West actually named Desolation Canyon was first brought to my attention in the fall of 2009. The previous summer had been my introduction to river guiding as a marginally compensated "trainee". The season had not been long gone before I was online reading about the Green River, whose Labyrinth Canyon I had had the chance to navigate, twice. In my searching I came across someone's online story about how they had done something called Desolation Canyon of the Green River. It was just upstream of the section I had run, and was even more remote country. And there were bigger rapids. Which is to say there even were rapids. This person I found myself reading about had done their trip in rafts because the rapids would have swamped canoes. I then looked online for pictures. "Deso" seemed to have been appropriately named, the photos that came up appeared barren and foreboding. Reading further, I found this stretch was longer than Labyrinth (84 verses 60 river miles), and at one point it was even deeper (5,500 ft) than the Grand Canyon.

And it was called Desolation Canyon!

I decided I would find a way to do this trip. As of May I still had no boat and no solution to the shuttle issue, but that didn't prevent me from picking up the Belknap Deso guide at Down River Equipment on my last trip for supplies there before moving away from Denver.

If you want to do this trip for 5 to 6 days you are going to be spending about $1,000 per person, before tip, (give or take) to do it with a commercial outfitter. If you are going to do this trip solo, by yourself, you are going to need your own boat and you are going to have to pay someone to drive someone else to Sand Wash, pick up you car, and drive both vehicles to the takeout. You will be paying for their gas and time to do this as well, with the standard going rate at the time of this writing being around $200 per vehicle.

A perk of guiding is that I am allowed to borrow inflatable kayaks ("duckies") from an outfitter I work for on occasion. I am also able to borrow a pump, patch kit, fire pan, and a few cam straps from this outfitter. And a paddle. And a spare paddle. These are really welcome perks. I mean, getting paid would be nice too, but being able to borrow river stuff! Now, that is my kind of business.

With boats secured, it was time to start making plans. When could I do it? It would have to be in the early fall, after the guiding season had winded down. And I would need to find some worthy fellow travelers to do it with. Partly because it's cheaper when we all pitch in for gas, shuttles, and permits together, and also because it might actually be nice to have someone to share the canyon with, maybe even to rescue me if I hurt myself.

Earlier in the summer, I had facebook chatted with Tyson from Denver and I had convinced him that he should come out here and go down a river sometime. Tyson is the guy I met on the Colorado Trail who later helped me get a job where I was a street sweeper and a pressure washer and where I got to go to the minor emergency clinic for four shots and a few stitches on my birthday when I cut my head on the dump truck I was driving. Surely, I owed him a little bit of "Desolation" in return.

Before I started working for the outfitter that lets me borrow duckies I was already working for an outfitter that would let me borrow canoes. Expecting to make use of them we soon had a trip planned for a trip down Labyrinth Canyon. Another friend of mine from Minneapolis had also expressed interest in coming to visit and doing a river trip, so with two friends and with two canoes this would have been a nice and very do-able trip. However, when I found I had someone to borrow duckies from (and not just any duckies, but good duckies!) I convinced Tyson to move the trip to Deso instead. He could get a whole week off from work which would give us enough time for the trip and for the shuttle. He was a little nervous about the rapids but I figured he could learn how to deal with them easily enough (I was proved right!).

It's a lucky thing that we moved the trip. On August 19th, an apocalyptic rainstorm bombarded the Canyonlands area. I was doing a trip on the Colorado River that very day and the storm was producing large flash floods and water falls off the cliffs:

Among the many flash floods produced, one particularly remarkable one occurred at a place called Mineral Bottom. Mineral Bottom is the takeout for Labyrinth Canyon. The road there was blasted out of solid rock by a Uranium mining company in the 1950s. This storm destroyed the Mineral Bottom Road, stranding cars and boaters at the takeout, 7 of whom had to be airlifted out by helicopter. As of this writing Labyrinth Canyon is not being run by anyone who is not also planning to run the next hundred plus miles of subsequent Stillwater and Cataract Canyons. The only other alternative also involves running the next fifty miles of Stillwater canyon, but then paying $100 per person to be JetBoated back up the Colorado River from the Confluence with the Green fifty miles to Moab. Either way, it's a hundred miles to the next takeout, and you're looking at class IV-V rapids or paying someone money either way you go.

Once Tyson gave me his dates, and I had convinced him to move the trip to Deso, I started looking online for a Permit. The BLM site lists what days permits are available. You check for days you want, and then you call the Price, Utah BLM office to reserve them. They take your credit card over the phone and send you the permit in the mail.

There's a sentence on the BLM site that says "Reservations are made 5 months in advance to aid in trip planning. " Don't let that make you nervous. It is convenient for the BLM schedulers for you to make a reservation 5 months in advance, but it is perfectly acceptable for you to call them up in the middle of July about a permit in September and get it. If you then call them in mid September to add an extra person onto your trip that is leaving a week later they can email you the new permit instead of snail-mailing it so you won't have to worry about it not being there in time.

The only trouble with this system is that the Price BLM is apparently very understaffed and it is rare that they answer their phone when anyone calls it. They also do not return voicemails. So you have to keep calling, day after day, between the hours of 8 am and noon, Monday through Friday, hoping that eventually you'll get lucky and a human will be there to answer the phone.

Finally, I got in touch with them. They were very informative and helpful, and were able to answer a lot of my questions. I bought the permit.

Over the summer I started drawing up a logistics plan for the trip. Not knowing where any campsites were, I just looked at the map for sandbars and planned a trip for 8 days in about 12 mile increments. A little more or less paddling is easy enough to make up, or squander, the next day.

After that there was the matter of planning food for three people for 8 days. This was a little harder. How long would the ice last? How much propane would we take and how long would that last? At what point do we need the cooler empty so we can put fire ashes into the cooler when we start cooking on fires because we have run out of propane?

I've never done a river trip longer than five days before.

By the time I was doing the actual food shopping I had a pretty intense shopping list, budgeted down to specific quantities of ingredients. The City Market in Fruita had plenty of good food, though like most City Markets, they didn't have the best deals. I probably should have gone to the Wal Mart in Grand Junction instead.

When all was said and done, the cost of this trip was $125 per person. If you included the cost of everyone's gasoline, to drive from Denver or Moab it was more like $175-200 per person. That is a pretty good deal. A lot of people can't even keep themselves alive in a city for a week for that little.

The only remaining loose end was just the small matter of my friend from Minneapolis deciding not to return any calls or emails as our launch date got closer and closer. Correctly assuming that they were flaking out, I asked Chris P, of the Moab Hostel and The Dark Crow, if he'd like to come. He said yes. He got excited. I got excited. It was about as axiomatic for him to go down something called Desolation Canyon as it was for me to join and captain his Viking- themed cardboard boat crew to victory in two races in Moab. We made a pretty good team then, and having done Ken's Lake and the Moab Daily section of the Colorado River together several times over the summer in inflatable pool toys and cardboard boats, I felt he was definitely ready to take on an entire 84 mile long canyon. Just look at this guy.

How would you NOT want him on your river trip?

The last bit of planning involved the gnawing unpredictability of exactly what kind of weather we would be facing. It is one thing to find yourself cold and wet on a camping trip you have planned for yourself. It is quiet another to have your own optimistic assurances be the reason why other people are cold and wet. On that day in sunny July when I bought the permit the ranger had assured me that by late September- October, we could get away without wetsuits in Deso. That sounded good at the time. But it didn't stop me from being nervous two months later, sitting in the coffee shop in Grand Junction.

I recently done my first trip through Westwater, a narrow, dark canyon of the Colorado River, where the wind and the shade and the water temperature- no longer steadily rising but now falling- first told me that Summer was ending and the Fall was coming on. On that trip I put on my splash jacket after the first few minor rapids. Unlike all previous trips that summer, where I'd often jump out of a boat for the heck of it to swim around a little bit, on that trip I was actually worried about falling out into the cold, cold water. It was my memory of this trip, and the knowledge that on Deso I'd be taking two friends along, who if they died, I would have to deal with, that prompted me to use my NRS account to put in an order. Besides a new headlamp and a few more cam straps I could use, I ordered the rescue model wetsuit. It's the thickest one NRS sells. Just before Deso, I took it to the lake in Fruita to test it out. It was great. With that and the other wetsuit my river friend Martin had offered to loan me, I felt that if the worst came to the worst, I could put the two friends in Wetsuits, and I'd be okay with a splash jacket and a few layers of wool and poly on my legs.

After all the careful logisticizing, my thoughts eventually drifted over toward wondering at what point the plans would start to go wrong.

No trip leader can avoid thinking about these worst case scenarios, after having done all they can to prepare, but still knowing that they cannot predict everything in advance. Would the weather sour? Would someone get hypothermic? Would someone flip in a rapid and have tied gear down wrong and in that case, what would we loose? Would it be the food? Or the fire pan? Would Tyson figure out the rapids or would he flip and drown? Would we get eaten by bears? Just how "desolate" would we be, marooned on some rock, with no cell phone reception and an evacuation to plan?

Turns out the trip would be for the most part fine, with our only problems cropping up in the form of a flat while running the shuttle the night after the trip was finished. That first picture of me replacing the tire, after traveling 150 miles to buy a new one, will be my enduring memory of the most desolation I have seen all summer. For sure, more desolate than the great salt flats where the skin and throats of California emigrants were burned by alkali dust and unrelenting sun. More desolate than the vertical shafts and mining ruins of Death Canyon. More desolate than the Fish Springs Range. More desolate than El Diente Peak where two people were killed by rocks this summer after I had climbed it without being killed by rocks. More desolate than my sideways run through the right hole in Big Drops Three on the BLESMA trip in Cataract Canyon, or even my recovery and unintended run over Little Niagara in Big Drops Two. More desolate than the Moab Hostel after a certain unnamed resident freaked out and beat up Nicholas and everyone got sketched out and left except for the two creepy unemployed old guys who play chess all day and watch bad TV. More desolate than even backing into the wash in the Dixie National Forest, which I assure you sucked horribly, but had the fortune to occur in a region of ready help capable of fixing the problem on the spot. My Desolation would be the Desolation of the car, in the Uinta Basin, with a flat tire, on a Sunday, about as far away and on bad dirt roads as it is possible to get from a tire repair shop in the lower 48.

The trip started so innocent.

Part Two: Happy Canyon

Wrinkles Road I had heard was the worst damn back road in the state of Utah for flat tires. Infamous to many who run rivers, the road winds its way across a Tavaputs Mesa of Green River Shale to its final, menacing five mile section down Salt Wash- not just a name for a place- but an actual Wash that you drive down. The Wash is graded. But that both hurts as well as helps. A hard, flat, smooth graded road is an easy place for a razor sharp tooth of shale to get stuck in your tire, nowhere to go for it to fall or crumble or be pushed out of the way.

"The issue with the Sand Wash road is that you can drive 5, 15 or 25 mph but if you drive over the shale, a rock can kick up and slice the tire. "

I had heard horror stories.

Just before leaving to explore the Ghost Towns ( 1, 2 ), I was amid some beer drinking festivities at Arland and Chris' house in Moab. They have this kind of friendly drunken farmer for a neighbor who laughs a lot when you say funny things around him. Or anything around him. That evening Chris and I were throughly educated as to this guy's opinion of the Sand Wash Road, as it existed years ago when he last did Deso. Driving there in a truck, the road was for him no problem. That made me feel a little bit better but I was still of course not willing to trust this guy's opinion.

Time passed. I rushed through my ghost towns. It was time to start getting ready.

I finished assembling gear the day before we were to meet up. I spent a few hours at the sheds , making sure we got equipment in good condition, boats with few scratches and intact carrying handles, enough cam straps, a patch kit... I put everything into piles on the pavement before loading it into the vehicle and double checked the permit one last time to make sure I didn't forget anything.

The next morning in Fruita I did the shopping and was hanging out in the parking lot repackaging everything when Tyson showed up. A few minutes later, we had consolidated our cooking gear into just what we'd need for the trip. Once it and the food were thrown in dry bags, we were on our way to Green River to meet Chris and drop cars off at the takeout, Swaseys' Rapid. We got there about 50 minutes late. But we didn't wind up needing anything on the river itself that I hadn't thought to pack (or have Chris or Tyson bring), with the possible exception of a grappling hook that would have been convenient. In my book a record like that on a private trip is an acceptable enough reason to be late.

At Swaseys' we got into Chris' truck, which is a 2005 Chevy Colorado with a cab and a nice topper. I folded myself up into the cab for the first leg of the journey, North on Highway 6/191, to Wellington.

This incredibly scenic stretch of state highway is bordered on the right by steeply eroded "Book Cliffs" of stream deposited Cretaceous sandstone. On the left is the San Rafael "Reef" of petrified sand dunes dating from the Jurassic. Sandwiched between the two in space as well as time is a highway paved over Mancos Shale, once the bed of an ancient sea, now uplifted to 4,500 feet and containing abundant clam fossils. The Good Lord, indeed, must have been as busy as he was indecisive on that Third Day.

At Welligton, I switched places with Tyson to help navigate. We headed into the cliffs, past a coal mine, and towards Nine Mile Canyon.

The road was well marked, and we had no problems finding our way or getting lost. I knew before the trip that Nine Mile Canyon is famous for its petroglyphs, but being so focused on just making the trip possible I didn't study up on "interp" as much as I would have if this was a commercial trip. Nonetheless, we saw a few examples of the Ute and Fremont cliff etchings along the way, stopped, pondered, and examined.

We got to the put in just as evening was coming on and our desire to explore was tempered by a need to slip into something more insulated than T shirts. We walked around, checked out the place, and discovered the ranger was out for a hike and that we wouldn't be able to check in with him until tomorrow. This we learned from another group of friendly river runners that we'd be running into off and on throughout the trip. We admired an old historic cabin, and some newer bug screened huts* we hadn't reserved before settling on the number 2 campsite, behind the shitters.

You can't smell the shitters in this photo, but they are there, just out of the frame off to the left. And I tell you, there is no smell of desert river running in Utah quite like the smell of a BLM shitter. This campsite didn't smell as bad as the other one, but...

There at least were no bugs! Nor commercial launches, nor threats of heat stroke. I must say, this end of September is really a great time to run rivers. Water is down, no bugs, no crowds, things are nice...

Chris P made us one of his trademark steak dinners that night. We also took a moment, er, rather... a few moments, to assess and confirm the quality of our liquor supply. As we were doing this trip with smaller craft, space was at a premium. We settled for more concentrated stuff as opposed to beer. We had a nalgene of Sky Vodka, a nalgene of unidentified Rum, a handle of Ancient Age Bourbon, and a handle of Sauza Blanco tequila. Feeling the cool air and looking at our warm drink provisions, we settled on the cocktail whose potential would be thoroughly explored and exploited over the next 8 nights: hot chocolate with booze.

Chris is a Park Ranger Academy graduate. He likes camp fires and he likes them big. For most of the trip we had to have smaller ones as our fire pan is a thing of finite proportions, and because we were packing out the ashes in accordance with leave no trace ethics (as well as BLM regulations). But this first night he had a large fixed campfire ring to work with, and he was in his element, with characteristic armbound headlamp, making a large cooking fire.

We had many potatoes, so we fried them up as a side to the steak with oil, salt, and rosemary, in Tyson's lovely cast iron pan that cost $40.

That pan is what we took to cook with, and it would over the next 7 days become something of a source of tension within our group. Chris P, who was a former fancy chef, and myself who is a former fancy waiter as well as professional river chef, made clear on several occasions our desire to wash the pan, so that it would not emit a bear attracting smell while we slept. We offered to re-season it immediately after we washed it so it would not rust. Tyson, however, was adamant in his refusal to let this happen. The pan was clearly his piece of equipment, which he was going to take care of, and until he drowned in a rapid or was eaten by a bear himself, there was going to be nothing we could do about that.

Here are a few links to stories about bear attacks late season (when bears are hungry and stocking up on fat for the winter) in Desolation Canyon:





Coming to grips with this state of affairs I decided to allow Chris and Tyson to pitch their tents each evening where ever they liked. I then just slept on my thermarest or in my duckie just a few feet from the river, with the bear spray out and next to me. Thataway, a bear would first smell and have to eat through either Chris or Tyson before it got to me, and I'd likely be awakened by their screams in time to act heroically or run away, depending of course on the situation.

Fortunately, no bears were seen or felt by our group on this trip.

Though I still think he should have let us wash that pan.

This is what it looks like where Sand Wash empties into the Green River, constricting the channel, though it is still wide enough and the gradient is still gentle enough so as not to cause a rapid:

A "wash" is like a gully or ravine. It is usually dry. But on those rare occasions when it rains in the desert, washes, often draining a large area, can fill up quickly and become raging torrents, eroding their banks, carving deep gullies, and pushing large boulders over one another along their bottoms, the sound of which you can hear should you ever be "lucky" enough to witness a wash in flash flood.

Washes can be extremely dangerous. They can eat roads. This is what my car looked like when it fell into a wash that was eating a road in the Dixie National Forest. It took myself, an old man, three rednecks, two tow trucks, a pickup trick, a z drag, $250 and a whole day to get that thing out of there.

Luckily, it didn't rain and our time at Sand Wash was rather peaceful.

Here we are on Day One, Sept 26th, unloading the truck and pumping up the duckies:

Loading the duckies:

Notice the sunshine. It would be sunny for our entire trip, the day before, and the day after. Three days before the trip, a torrential downpour (1, 2, 3) caused flooding throughout the area. The night our shuttle was completed, the rains returned again. We were very lucky!

Things get tied in with cam straps, which are a great invention. It's important to be able to start with a lot of them, though as days go by and you repack each morning, you learn how to become more efficient and you tend to acquire extra straps, which you can then use for bow and stern lines.

As we set off paddling Chris P announced that he had brought along the lawn chair. If only I had known! I would have brought along the Dirty Dog! The lawn chair (with cupholder!) and the Dirty Dog are both $11 inflatable pool toys we bought at Walker Drug in Moab. I did the "Moab Daily" in the dog three times (once at 20,000 cfs and once at peak snowmelt of 30,000!) and Chris did it in the lawn chair at least twice. Well, the lawn chair is a more relaxing ride anyway, and after fixing a leak with duct tape I paddled it for a while. As days one and two were basically still water, we took these with no hurry, enjoying the relaxation of finally being on the water.

We passed "Little Horse Bottom" and saw wild horses who had come down to drink the river. They actually looked a lot like Mark Peesel's picture of a wild horse that's in the guidebook. About this time we passed through our first named bit of aquatic turbulence: "Tabyago Rifle." There were no casualties.

Chris on his vessel

I make my dry bag into a pretty comfortable back rest

The walls began rising pretty steep pretty fast, with deep alcoves and "amphitheaters" carved by erosion.

Late in the afternoon we found a small sandbar and camped out on it.

One of the many advantages of doing light, self supported duckie trips (still far more luxurious than backpacking) is that with a small group like ours you can camp pretty much anywhere. This came in very handy for us, as in the planning stage I had opted not to spend the extra $30 to be able to camp (or set foot) on the left side of the river- which is part of the Ute Reservation and which has a separate usage fee in addition to the already mandatory BLM fee. That afternoon we passed at least one marvelous looking sandbar river left- the first of many such great looking campsites we would pass and not camp on. When I do this trip again I am definitely picking up the Ute permit. Being able to pull over at the next best place is a pretty nice convenience to have when you are tired from a long day of paddling and the sun is going down over the rim and temperatures are starting to drop.

That evening we had steak and couscous.

The next day was more still water, with a few riffles, and two or three rather unintimidating rapids. Deso isn't just a great trip because it of its name, or because of its remoteness, or because of its rapids... but the whole canyon from Sand Wash to Green River couldn't have been built better if you were trying to design a place to teach someone white water river running. This is what Bill Belknap- the guy who wrote several popular waterproof guide books- used to do professionally. He founded a company called Fastwater Expeditions that took people who hadn't been in rivers before down Deso in "sport yaks"- 7 foot plastic dinghies rowed with oars. You start with two days of riffles to get used to the wilderness, and to learn to maneuver your craft amid faster moving water. Then on day three you're hit with a few actual rapids. They eventually grow in size until you're ready to run Three Fords, about the "biggest" rapid at this water level.

The University of Northern Arizona has a fascinating online exhibit on the life and photographs of Bill Belknap. Few boaters using his guides today probably know one of Bills first jobs was as a publicist for Boulder Dam, that he accompanied Roosevelt to Potsdam as a photographer, or that his highest level of completed education was the 8th grade.

None of the rapids in Desolation Canyon posed any great technical challenges. A few rapids had rocks to dodge in them, but this was fairly easy to do. Cow Swim was probably the "hardest" in that you had to turn to the right mid way through the rapid so as not to hit the steeply cut wall river left, but even this was pretty easy. Square up to waves and holes, avoid the rocks, and follow the "tongue" on everything and you'll be fine in Desolation Canyon.

By no means, though, should you interpret this to be me saying that the rapids are not exciting. For in several: Lower Wildhorse, Chandler Falls, Surprise Rapid, Cow Swim, Three Fords, and Coal Creek, to name but a few, you get some bounce!

The morning of this second day we slept in pretty late, and in doing so set for ourselves a comfortable pattern for the rest of the trip. In the morning we'd be passed by groups of early risers while we ate breakfast. Eventually we'd catch up and pass these groups- often already at their campsites- later in the afternoon. With the folks we met at Sand Wash we wound up frequently stopping to trade some liquor for a few river beers to finish our day on the river.

I definitely appreciated finally being able to sleep in late, and to not have to set my alarm for 5:30 am to wake up in the cold, pack all my gear, and rush to make breakfast for 25 people!

After breakfast on "morning" 2, in a bit of calm, deep water just off our sandbar, we conducted our first flip drills. I wanted to be sure everyone could manage to get back on top of their over turned boat, flip it back over, and then get back in, before we got into any of the bigger class three rapids. Tyson and Chris got the hang of this pretty quick, and even figured out some ways of using their knees to flip the boats back over that seemed to work a little faster than what I was doing.

We continued down the canyon.

Suddenly, river right and downstream, we spotted a herd of Desert Bighorn Sheep. Desert Bighorn are a lot like the regular Rocky Mountain Bighorn, but they have adapted to a harsher environment and can go longer without water. Tyson got his camera out and maneuvered his craft so as to glide right by the sheep. In time he was closer and closer and had still not taken his picture. We were basically shouting at him by this point to take the damn picture already before the sheep got scared and ran away, and he continued to hesitate. Finally, he got some great shots, very up close. The sheep finally wandered a bit, but hardly "ran".

We ate lunch while floating this second day, an innovation we would continue throughout the trip. In an easily accessible "rocket box" were bagels, peanut butter, pretzels, chocolate rations, gold fish crackers, tangerines, oranges, and pringles. These were kept upright and accessible with only having to remove one cam strap to get the lid off.

Shortly after lunch, while I was standing on my boat and looking down stream, it occurred to Chris that a bit of a laugh could be had at my expense by stealthily paddling his vessel up to mine and then at the last minute using his paddle as a ram to push me off. Before I knew what had happened I was toppling into the silty, foreboding embrace of the Green River.

Though I was a good sport about this it would be inaccurate to say that I held no grudges. The sun had gone down and it was a little late in the day to be soaked.

Downstream was a little bar. What was it like? I got out and approached


Yes. Mud. Just a few inches of mud.


On the downstream end of the sandbar actual sand is deposited over the mud, and the whole bar is about a foot above river level, with just enough space for our kitchen and a few tents. We made camp.

You can see in this picture how the geology is already changing. When we started the canyon walls were gray. Here they are mostly brown. On on aesthetic level I appreciated the beauty but on a geologic level I was perplexed.

I knew there were two types of rocks in the canyon.The Green River Formation and the Wasatch Formation. But which was which? I knew from stratigraphy I had studied that the Wasatch Formation was older (deposited first) than the Green River Formation. But I had also heard that the two formations are "interfingered". If you look back to the photo of our campsite on night one, you can clearly see two interfingered formations. The gray formation from the first day was dominant, but by now it has clearly given way. The walls are now generally brown-orange sandstone, though I can still see thin gray seams of another formation (gray shale and mudstone) horizontally deposited between different brown-orange layers.

What is going on here?

The Belknap guides can be handy in a pinch, but they have their limitations. For example, on day one we admired the interesting picture of the historic "iron prowed skiff" the guide said was below "Gold Hole." However, the guide then lists two different places called "Gold Hole" (between miles 89-88, and again between miles 82-81). So which was the skiff beneath? Needless to say, we never found it.

The geology section in the back of the Belknap guide is pretty helpful, but it and the trip left me with more questions than answers. I would have to do more research, and I have taken the time to do this in the hopes that someone reading the article will leave it being less confused about geology than I have been after reading most Desolation Canyon trip reports.

The story begins about 55-44 million years ago, in the period of geologic history referred to as the Eocene, when Utah looked very different. Where today there are the high and dry wastes of the Uinta Basin, there was once a great lake: Lake Green River. This lake's history has been recorded in several different geologic formations. The exact borders and boundaries of this lake are difficult to pin down for sure because so much of the southern boundary has been eroded away. But, we can tell that this lake extended over the Uinta Basin, and around the Uinta Mountains into Northwest Colorado and South West Wyoming. It would have looked something like this:

The black line on the map above represents the present-day location of Desolation Canyon.

The Wyoming section of this ancient lake is referred to as "Lake Gosiute." The Uinta Basin part of this lake is referred to as "Lake Uinta." It is unclear whether these lakes were one giant lake or were separated by land, connected perhaps only by streams. What is important, however, is that where these lakes once stood there is now over 4,000 feet of rock- a fossiliferous, carbon rich depositional record of life.

In the days of Lake Uinta, Utah was a much warmer place. As I am writing these words the temperature this week in Desolation Canyon will be 20 degrees at night and snowing. But 50 million years ago the climate was warm enough to support the existence of crocodiles, whose fossils are found in the Green River Formation, Lake Uinta's ancient lake bottom. The higher temperatures appreciated by the crocodiles were a condition of the earth's actual climate at the time, and not because of a more southerly location of the North American Plate, for the plate then was not at a much different latitude than it is at today.

The crocodiles were not alone, for the fish they preyed on are also well preserved and their fossils have been known to science since the 1840s. The grains of sediment in the lake bed were so fine that they were even able to preserve leaves and insects. A trip to the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park / Museum in Vernal will reward the historically curious with a very large collection of these specimens.

A few examples:

It is thought that the lake must have been very deep and stagnant, with low oxygen levels near its bottom which kept scavengers away and allowed the fossils to form.

Green River Shale has also been in the news because of its rich energy deposits. Lots of oil is found in the shale, and is drilled for enthusiastically through the Unita Basin. Oil shale as well has been found in the Green River Formation in tremendous quantities. On any river trip along the Colorado River it is common to find pieces of this shale that has been carried down by erosion. It appears flat and white, river-rounded into thick "pancakes." You can break it open to expose the black interior and immediately the smell of oil is released. You can even light this rock on fire, a fact that must have been discovered for the first time by a very unfortunate homesteader, stoking up a warm fire in a chimney he built of this flat, convenient rock for his log cabin.

No one knows for sure how much oil shale there actually is but it is estimated that there is about 213 billion tons of the rock spread across the borders of Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. These deposits represent about one half of global oil shale reserves. The Uinta Basin is estimated by the USGS to contain about 1.3 trillion barrels of oil-like kerogen, with another 1.5 trillion barrels are estimated to be in even higher quality ore in Colorado's neighboring Piceance Basin. Currently our country consumes about 20 million barrels per day of oil, and the satisfaction of this demand has hitherto plunged us into all kinds of unpleasant and expensive relations with foreign countries. So, you might ask, why not mine the stuff, and achieve "energy independence" for the next few hundred years?

There are currently several experimental sites oil companies have leased from the BLM on the Roan Plateau in Colorado where they are attempting to devise ways to economically extract liquid oil from oil shale. There are many reasons why this is a difficult process. Methods currently being experimented with require the underground application of intense heat to the shale- a very energy and water-intensive process that itself consumes much of the energy you are trying to extract in the first place. So far it is cheaper to buy pumped liquid oil than it is to do this.

Let's say cost was not an issue, and we were so desperate to get out of the Middle East that ultra- nationalists were voted into office with a mandate to subsidize oil shale development. To do this with present technology would take enormous quantities of water in an area where water is scarce. And there would still be serious concerns about air and water pollution that could effect everyone dependent on the Colorado River as a drinking source.

For now much of the oil shale is classified as a "strategic reserve" that no one really knows what to do with.

Talking about so much rock having been transformed into oil shale, and so much more of the Green River formation that is not oil shale but ordinary shale and mudstone, you might be wondering, where did all the mountains of sediment come from that filled in this lake? That question is the key to understanding Lake Uinta and the Wasatch- Green River "interfingering".

Of course some of the sediments that filled this lake were carried there from the southern slopes of the Uinta Mountains. But the Uintas alone did not supply all the sediment. To understand where all of it came from, you have to understand that during this time, the ancient river systems of the Colorado Plateau drained to the north, in an opposite direction to the way they flow today. This condition continued until only about 25 million years ago, when uplifts in Colorado and Wyoming changed river patterns.

The land around the lake was very, very flat. This allowed lake levels in high water years to expand across great geographic distances very quickly, rolling over the various sandy deltas of stream deposited sediment and then burying them beneath the fine grained muck and ooze of stagnant lake bottom- dirt, mud, dead aquatic animals, plankton, decomposing leaves and plants. Soon enough these lacustrine (lake-deposited) sediments would be buried beneath the sands carried by North- flowing tributaries. The lake level could for a time retreat, though only for a while before the process repeated itself.

A great way to appreciate just how much sediment was flowing to the north is to take a trip down Cataract Canyon of the Colorado River. The lower half of Cataract has been flooded by Lake Powell, whose waters conceal the former locations of over half the canyon's rapids. On the last day of your trip, you are basically paddling (or motoring) through Lake Powell. But on each side of you you do not see just a rock canyon. No. You see high walls of sand, the "Powell Formation"- sediment that was carried by the river and deposited here at the mouth of the lake during its high water years. Here is a picture from a trip in August of these sediments opposite our campsite just below the rapids:

To appreciate the scale, and the varieties in thickness different flows and sediment loads in different years can carry, here is the present author examining this "formation" and providing himself a human figure to scale:

All that sand was laid down in less than two decades. It extends for miles on both sides of the river as well as under it and far into lake Powell. And that is only sand from the Colorado's upper basin- the Green, the Yampa, the Gunnison, Dolores, and the Colorado itself. Lake Uinta was the recipient of this sand for millions of years, and not just from these ancestral rivers- for the ancient San Juan and Little Colorado drainages were at this time flowing to the North as well!

The Colton Member of the Wastach Formation is the name given to the sandstone deposits ancient streams once carried Northward into Lake Uintah. It is this formation that you see thin, red-orange layers of at the end of your first day. It is this formation that comes to dominate the canyon as you get deeper into it. You're passing through an ancient river delta.

Finally, in early Miocene time, about 23 million years ago, the Tavaputs Plateau was just beginning its uplift. The Yampa river was then still a powerful tributary flowing from East to West into the silted up former lake. It began cutting desolation canyon to the South. The fact that Desolation Canyon can exist at all is because the river cut downward faster than the rock it was cutting was rising. About this time, the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming began to uplift again causing the Green River to turn South and join the Yampa.

Though we commonly refer to the Yampa as a tributary of the Green, if you examine these rivers as they were formed historically, the Yampa was there first, and the Green is really a tributary of it!

* * *

That second night, while wondering and not knowing exactly what was going on with the changing rocks around us, we dined upon soup with a side of bagel, as we would for several nights to come. The cool nights of late season are wonderful for soup.

Bagels are always a nice compliment, and they fill you up in a way that helps to stretch a limited quantity of soup into seconds and thirds for hungry paddlers.

After dinner we baited lines with bits of meat, and later, fish innards, in an attempt to catch the elusive and alleged Green River Alpha Cat

Unfortunately, though we did catch many catfish, they were all small, a foot long or less. Hardly worth the effort for a meal to deal with such a slippery, spiny creature. We knew, surely, that true Alpha Cats must exist somewhere down there. But catching them was another matter. Though we had brought plenty of cooking oil, and even a fish basket in anticipation of having a fish dinner one night, this was never to be.

In less than an hour we had abandoned the futility of our fishing luck and opted to retire to our own respective liquors. We admired the stars and searched in vain for constellations we could identify within that tiny sliver of sky we could see between the canyon walls. The summer stars were turning, the winter ones were not yet out. From time to time we consulted the star chart, before finally deciding the stars looked good no matter what they are called. We sat back and conversed, drifted to politics, social issues, families, and back again. From the trivial to the serious. Big issue conversations on the river are curious things. The environment is relaxed enough, and the presence of bears and rapids and other forms of potential death is able to instill a sense of comradery deep enough, that even representatives of a culture as adverse to meaningful political conversation as ours find themselves asking questions and stating views with a frankness rarely present in more "civilized" environments. With all their distractions. But here... with these canyon walls and sandstone rocks, a flood plain that 50 million years ago was formed from other eroded sandstones that themselves had already been laid down long before the Dinosaurs. Nature silently listened, in stoic wonder, as three young members of this new, stumbling species struggle to define the "proper" way to legislate their own emotional and reproductive exuberance... while vacationing paleontologists fail to applaud, condemn, or even notice the sexual preferences of those ungainly, early mammals whose entire species' cultural development had been reduced to a few disorganized bones sticking out of a crumbling rock wall twenty million years before the fist monkey walked upright...

I participate, fully, in the ensuing discussion. Not so annoyed to be reminded of "politics" this far from organized humanity as I am invigorated by my surroundings.

"As much as I love listening to this... I need to tell you that my mother is a lesbian, and she raised me herself. She was an active parent in our Boy Scouts and when she came out they kicked us out. Are you saying you there is something wrong with me because I was raised by a gay parent?"

* * *

The next morning we were treated to a fantastic view of what Desolation has to offer. This picture was taken from our sandbar just upstream from Lighthouse Rock, which is the distant phallic object river right. The red cliffs are the dominant (Colton Member of the) Wasatch Formation, the seams of Green River Formation are quite thin and difficult to see in this photo.

Such a beautiful morning, and our trip so far unimpeded by serious injury, deprivation, or death. Seeing quite little we could at all seriously describe as "desolate", we began to doubt the name bestowed upon the environs. Is it truly deserving of so lovely a place? Ah, but it was not the pioneer who had inflatable rafts, 10 lb blocks of ice, chicken apple sausage and Hawaiian Hazelnut in the morning. The canyon, here, was dubbed thus Desolate in 1869 by the exploratory crew of famed geologist and one- armed civil war veteran John Wesley Powell. Not the first white man to travel this section of the Green, Powell was the first white man to travel this section of the Green who was also a trained geologist with a specific license to replace white space on a map with contours, boundaries, features, and names. Though today you may at times doubt the justice of his assessments, it is impossible not to admire the poetic and literary value ("Gates of Lodore", "Dellenbaugh Buttes") of that expedition's command of the English language.

Having personally paddled or rowed across much of their route along the Green and Colorado Rivers, I can't help but wonder if many of the names given to places by this party (Dark Canyon, Disaster Falls, Hell's Half Mile, Lucifer Rock, Satan's Gut, Desolation Canyon, Dirty Devil River, etc...) really tell you more about the preparedness, attitude, and boating skills of those early river runners themselves than they do true justice to the natural aquatic and geological features that they "describe."

Today we thought of a new, more appropriate name: "Happy Canyon." I'll introduce it here. Let's see if it sticks.

Day three had a bit more of what could be considered class two rapids. We camped out on a small sandbar island, river right just below Firewater Rapid.

It was infested with large wolf spiders.

It was here that Chris pointed out to me, "Hey, if you are sleeping out in the open anyways, why don't you just sleep in your duckie, rather than on your thermarest that isn't as soft as a duckie?"

That was a pretty good idea. Duckies are soft, and nice

In the days to come I'd learn a few more duckie sleeping tricks, like deflating the floor a bit more so it's "flatter" and more comfortable, and putting my thermarest in the duckie as well to provide an extra layer of insulated air.

While Chris and Tyson set up their tents, I decided to try out my wetsuit, neoprene gloves, and neoprene socks for how well they'd hold up when the sun went down. Suiting up, I put on my helmet and took the pool chair above the last riffles of Firewater that we were camped below.

The suit was great, I was warm and comfortable.

The current was swift.

As I jumped in, disaster struck. The arm rest detached from the body of the lawn chair, which then instantly filled with water and sunk. Yet the headrest compartment was perfectly intact and retaining air. So instead of luxuriously relaxing on this thing, I found myself swimming the rapid with a liability of sinking plastic wrapped around me. I couldn't let it go. That would be littering, which is greatly frowned upon by the Bureau of Land Management and wilderness ethicists. So I held on and swam it out as best I could.

The next day, day four, we ran a few fun and unintimidating rapids. Along the way, we stopped to look at some Petroglyphs. I know there are a lot of them in the canyon, but I didn't know where they all were. These are the ones marked prominently in the Belknap guide at mile 63.

Very little is known about the authors of these inscriptions, except that they were pecked by Fremont Indians, who inhabited the region until sometime around 1200 CE. They did not leave behind the same large cities as did the Ancestral Pueblos (Anasazi), who lived further to the South. With less archeological evidence it is harder to speculate about their lifestyles, other than that they combined hunting and gathering with the cultivation of corn. The images of some animals, such as bighorn sheep, deer, and bear tracks are fairly obvious. But are these reverential images of worship? The story of a successful hunt? Were they intended to communicate some important message, or are they simply "art for art's sake?" Many books exist which endlessly speculate about the meaning behind various strange symbols, but no one really knows for sure.

One fact I think I have learned from studying many Fremont and Anasazi Petrogylphs is that most of them must have been were pecked into the earth by men, due to the prominence of phalluses among several. Here's a great example, from a slab of Wingate Sandstone near Moab:

Paddling along we found the canyon opened up beautifully. This was just above Fretwater Falls about mile 59.5. The side canyons were epic. We decided to make camp and explore them the next day.

When I woke up Chris was cooking the breakfast sausages and toasting the bagels. I can't tell you as a guide what a treat it is to just sleep in and let someone else do the cooking!

We put on boots and started our hike. Of the two side canyons we had camped near, we decided to explore the lower, forked canyon.

We found remnants of deceased herbivore.

It looked well picked over by scavengers.

Exploring two forks of a side canyon, several times we saw "routes" from afar that looked feasible. Clearly, this looks pretty easy to climb, right?

Yet each time, though we made some progress, it was always stopped by about a 15-20 foot layer of near vertical cliff forming sandstone. Twice we saw "ways" it could be climbed, but at each of these places the sketch factor was too strong. It was too steep, the rock was too crumbly, the exposure was too high, and definitive medical care was very far away. So we retreated.

As a side note, up these canyons we did find natural springs dripping in two places, and natural salty springs dripping in another. The locations of natural springs are pretty good to know about when you are in the desert. I marked them on my map.

Here is Chris washing himself off amid the dripping waters of a spring. He looks like he is having a pretty good time.

Maybe he was dancing?

Here is me hiking out of the side canyon back towards the boats. My hat is a little floppy and I'm slightly disappointed that we didn't summit. But. I'll be back. Next time we'll have grappling hooks.

Tyson looked like this.

Getting back on the river, we had a blast in Lower Wildhorse and Surprise Rapids. Next time I'll have to plan to camp at one of these, though our hike was pretty nice and I don't regret doing it.

We stopped to get water at Rock Creek, one of the few places in the canyon where springs or streams provide the traveler with "fresh", non-silty water.

At this point in the trip, the unseen top walls of the canyon are 5,390 ft above the river- deeper than the Grand Canyon is at Bright Angel Trail.

There is rock art here as well but we didn't know about it at the time. We didn't fish for alleged rock creek trout either. Maybe next time?

We had brought along 3x 6 gallon water jugs, as well as personal water bottles and 2x 1 gallon MSR reservoirs that are convenient to have during the day. At this point in the trip we still had an entire 6 gallon jug we hadn't touched yet, though the other two were empty. Not sure which method would taste worse, we treated the water in one jug with iodine, and in the other we used bleach. I'm not sure we were able to figure out which we preferred. The iodine tasted better (we added the other pills you use to make it drinkable after the bacteria and protozoans are killed off), but it had an aesthetically disturbing cloudy appearance. The bleach water at least looked clear, but the smell and taste was bad. Perhaps more of the bleach would have disappeared if we left this water jug open at night? Maybe. Bleach does break down naturally after all. Ahh... but the threat of inextractable floating moths or spiders down in the jug the next morning was too much to bear. We kept it shut tight.

Whatever the appearance or taste, at least no one got sick.

Below Rock Creek the canyon opened with deep side canyons on river right. After visiting briefly the other rafting party's far superior camping site below the creek- complete with big healthy cottonwood shade trees and plenty of flat, sandy surfaces- and there exchanging tequila for PBR, we continued on to the mouth of Snap Canyon, where we found a few rocks with mud and sand for our own campsite.

We played frisbee there, among the cactus and the antlers.

The antlers we found were quite large and from an elk. We were now deep in the heart of the wilderness.

Soup and bagels again. By this point in the expedition it was speculated that the sodium in regular cans of black beans was having an adverse effect on the digestive tract of one of our participants. Though black beans in soup is one of my favorite ingredients, I grudgingly went along and moderated their use for the next several nights.

The author cooking on the river.

The headlamp is the Princeton model that is sold by NRS. Very bright and highly effective.

We woke up to day six. A great rapid day. We had no problems, just red and run and followed the "tongue" on everything. Mostly. Oh yes, one or two rapids had some rocks in them. Don't hit the rocks. And if you hit a rock, lean into it and then bounce off, so your boat doesn't get "wrapped" on it and flip. Though none of us had this problem. I don't think we hardly hit any at all, even.

Finally, we got to the rapid we had been anticipating for a while. Joe Hutch, or "Cow Swim" rapid, so named because its location used to be that of an easy ford for ranchers back in the day, before a flash flood occurred that turned it into a rapid. How my mind had been intrigued by this place, ever since I first heard Sara's description of duckie-ing it that highwater day this summer back at the hostel. Not the "biggest" rapid on the river (that honor would probably go to Three Fords Rapid), it was the only one we felt compelled to scout. There's a horizon line which is always ominous, as well as a turn to the right that might require some thinking to accomplish.

And there was another reason.

Our boats are light, fun, capable craft. I had wanted to find a fun rapid to camp above the whole trip, so we could run it over and over. Here was such a rapid. And at the scouting point, on river right, was just a tiny enough sandbar, and a lot of somewhat horizontal ish rocks, that we were able to improvise a campsite. Finally, we could run a great rapid. Over and Over. Until we were blue in the face!

Flip drills! Great time to practice:

I had put on my wet suit because I wanted to spend a lot of time running this rapid, I was probably going to get wet, and it was getting late.

The rapid looks a lot bigger when you are in it than when you are taking pictures of it from the shore. That is because it is bigger when you are in it!

The first drop is awesome.


I had some good lines :)

I even ran it backwards. Like a champ!

Chris approaching the rapid

Chris in the first drop

Yer Doin It!

Where's Tyson? There he is!

Tyson's Doin It!

A rather uncoordinated tandem paddle that miraculously did not result in a flip

Carrying the boats back up to do it again

Holy shit Chris, how did you not flip?

Sideways in a hole. That was pretty sweet. These boats are Tributary Tomcat Tandems, and they are great, very capable things in whitewater. They can also carry a heavy, multi day load and they track decently in flat water. Did I mention they look pretty good and are comfortable? Or that they have numerous handy tie-down loops for gear? Or that they self-bail relatively fast? I endorse these boats, and my review of their performance on this trip is even printed on AIRE's site!

I ran Cow Swim many times, I think 8 total. On the last two I flipped both times, though to be fair, I was sitting dangerously far back in the boat in an attempt to make the run more exciting the first time, and the second time, I flipped when I tried to surf the hole that Chris, above, is sideways in. I flipped once with a straw hat on, and once with a helmet on. Both times I was able to get back on the boat okay, re-flip, and finish the rapid right side up. The second time I flipped, while climbing on, I kicked a rock. Not enough to hurt or anything, but enough to remind me that rapids are serious things- there are rocks down there than can mess you up!

If you are going to flip in a rapid it is a better idea to flip with a helmet on.

Otherwise you might wind up like this... and not to be found for years to come!

Cow Swim Rapid.

Gumdrop Falls.

Right next to the Licorice Forrest.

Below the rapid evening light was turning the canyon to a beautiful panorama.

You can just see in the right of that photo the other group of river runners that we were passing each day and getting beers from. Today they passed us, and got a much nicer campsite BELOW the rapid. What an idea!

They were pretty cool people.

Here they are coming in above the rapid where our "campsite" was, so they could scout it:

They had some pretty nice old school hypalon bucket boats from the early 80s. I didn't know they had hypalon back then. Over the course of interacting with this party we were educated as to the many oft-forgotten advantages of bucket boats, which I recall are, in descending order

1) It's a boat you already have and don't have to buy because you bought it 20 years ago

2) When it fills up with water in a rapid in the Grand Canyon you no longer have to worry about flipping because it has so much weight it will punch through anything

3) They track better because their bottoms are flat. Thus they can be rowed faster for the same amount of effort as self-bailers, which is particularly handy if it is windy.

One thing that happens around here in the summer is you get forest fires. There was a big one earlier in the month in Central Utah. Now, while we were in Desolation (Happy) Canyon, the walls themselves were catching on fire.

To envelope us with inferno?

Or just to provide a dramatic night time view?

Smolder, smolder, smolder... and suddenly, BANG! A whole pine dried to tinder bursts into flame!

Chris told us stories about the forests, redwoods, and the bristle cone pines late into the night. Of particular memorable interest was his tale of Donald Curry and the oldest tree in the world.

Sometime around the wee hours of the morning, I awoke, somewhat chilly, despite my five million layers and my ancestral sleeping bag that's held together with tape. I started a small fire in the fire pan, heated up some hot chocolate, and drank a few cups while reading about Butch Cassidy by headlamp. It was great. I liked my book a lot and I had not yet gotten much time to read on the trip. Just before dawn, the fire extinguished, I went back to sleep. I awoke to Chris and Tyson making breakfast and coffee. Breakfast in Bed!!

The next day was the last we spent in"Desolation" Canyon. After breakfast we packed up and ran Cow Swim fully loaded, with no problems. While it's a little slower to turn the duckies hard at an angle when they have more weight in them, the extra weight gives them an advantage when you hit waves or holes head on, as you can "punch through" them a little easier without being tossed around quite as much.

After Cow Swim, next stop was the historic McPherson Ranch. Which is a scary place.

The ranch is in the Belknap guide as a visitable destination but apparently it is privately owned today by the Utes, and visiting it is legally ambiguous. We checked it out. Approaching nervously, we agreed it looked like the kind of place where cannibals hang out waiting for you to trespass so they can have an excuse to kill and eat you. Something like the "House of a Thousand Corpses."

Old Jim McPherson himself was a homesteader here who lived here with his family around the (last) turn of the century. It was hard, isolated living, and they ran cattle in the Canyon. McPherson also traded horses on some occasions with members of the Wild Bunch "gang", whose numerous successes were largely due to meticulously well planned getaways, which were often aided by friendly locals who didn't mind swapping a horse or two for others that were tired and came with cash to compensate the owners. Eventually in 1940 Jim's daughter Pearl and her husband Budge Wilcox, who had by then bought the place, sold it to the Utes and moved away to easier living elsewhere. In the 70s' the Utes built the more modern buildings and experimented with running a vacation resort here. Eventually they gave up and today the place is abandoned and generally dilapidated. But there are picnic tables, and "modern ruins", as well as the older historic ruins of the original McPhearson ranch and corral behind the newer structures.

I approached a bit closer to look at the older historic buildings. I stared at them for a while. It was quiet. I turned around. Tyson and Chris were Gone!

I marched back to the boats.

There they were.

"You know guys, it is a pretty sick trick at a sketchy place like the ruined McPherson ranch to just quietly 'disappear' like that. I mean, anywhere else, whatever. But a place like this. Man. Don't scare me like that."

We shoved off.

And made haste for Three Fords, the last major rapid of Deso (though Gray Canyon, which starts immediately after Deso, also has rapids). I remember having heard something about it, like it was worth scouting maybe.

As the river curved to the right we stood up in our duckies, as we had before "reading and running" every other rapid save one. The riffles looked harmless. What hype! What nonsense! A bit disappointed we started round the bend.

Oh, there's the rapid. It's around the bend. You don't see it at first. In this picture from someone else's trip's website, the rapid doesn't look that intimidating. That is because that picture was taken at a higher water level when more of the rapid's features were washed out. As we ran it, there were big hits, duckie flipping holes, and, well, it was a lot of fun.

I didn't notice it as I was in front, focusing on getting through the waves myself, but behind me we had our closest call to a flip thus far (I don't count the flips in Cow Swim as real flips, because we were running it unloaded, and being playful). Apparently, a wave knocked Tyson out of his boat. Finding himself popped up right next to it by the buoyancy of his vest, Tyson grabbed the vessel and climbed back in, to finish the rest of the rapid without me even knowing what had happened. Great job!

Part Three: Bonus Canyon

And Deso was done. The separation between Desolation and Gray Canyons is not just characterized by a change in color and Geology but there is a mile of flat, open meandering separating the two. Here is a picture looking back upstream, from one canyon to the next.

We looked back and admired the familiar, friendly, brown cliffs as they stood out, and then suddenly, ended.

And then, bang: Bonus Canyon.

When you do Desolation Canyon, for the price of an ordinary Desolation Canyon Permit, you also get a second canyon, free! It is a pretty good deal. The second canyon you get is called "Gray Canyon", because the Mesa Verde Sandstone that makes up its walls is grayer than a lot of the red-orange Wasatch Formation that dominates most of Deso. Gray's walls are pretty tall, as we'd soon discover, but they are of lower, "Book Cliff" altitude as compared to the higher, and more densely forested, "Roan Cliff" altitude. Less vegetation makes the canyon look grayer as well.

At the beginning of Gray Canyon we found some large boulders of collapsed Mesa Verde Sandstone that had fallen into the river. Mesa Verde Sandstone was deposited by river sediments that carried material from the Sevier Uplift of today's Central Utah to the eastern swampy low lands where once existed the Cretaceous Sea. This sea at its fullest extent stretched from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico. By the end of the Cretaceous it had retreated and disappeared, as the Laramide Orogeny started to uplift the rocky mountains and raise the sea bed above sea level. The grain sizes of the Mesa Verde are larger and more coarse the further you go to the West, where you had the source of the sediments. Inter bedded with the sandstone are many Coal Seams, varying in thickness, some of which are quite thick.

It was from that rather useful material that Carbon County got its name, branching off from Emery county to manage its own, carboniferous affairs in 1894. Mines sprung up along the Book Cliffs and the Wasatch Plateau. The Coal they mined was used to fuel the Denver, Rio Grande and Western (later, Union Pacific) Railroad, as well as the heaters, smelters, and stoves of Salt Lake City. Numerous towns, some still thriving off the fossil fuel, others dilapidated and half abandoned, and still others true ghost towns, dot these hill sides today. They have great, mysterious, Western names like Hiawatha, Price, Wattis, Helper, Sunnyside, Kenilworth, Castle Gate, Castle Dale, Huntington, Mohrland, National, Spring Canyon, Coal City, Winter Quarters, Scofield, Mutual, Rains, and Peerless, to name several.

Be sure to check out the Western Mining & Rail Road Museum in Helper if you are interested in this kind of stuff. Plan to spend plenty of time, and don't over look the basement or the attic, for that is where some of the most interesting exhibits are kept.

You might be wondering why Mesa Verde Sandstone is being talked about in Utah. Isn't Mesa Verde an Anasazi ruin in Southwest Colorado? Well, it is! The Mesa Verde Sandstone is a huge deposit, with out crops all over the four corners area. You can find it North of Vernal, West of Hanksville, South of Farmington, and East of Grand Junction. And if you are an Anasazi Indian, you may find between its ledges an ideal place to build your house.

There are no proper dinosaur fossils in this, the last Cretaceous deposit of the Colorado Plateau. However, whilst trampling through marshes of decaying plant matter the dinosaurs left behind numerous foot prints that were preserved through the millenia while the peat was turning into coal. Finally in the late 1800s they were rediscovered hanging down into the roofs of coal mines by confused miners. There are a few on display today at the Helper Museum. Many of them are thought to have belonged to a species of Iguanadon.

On our trip we saw no dinosaur footprints and we mined no coal. However, we did enjoy parking our boats behind and climbing over the ancient boulders that had conveniently fallen into the river for our entertainment. We took frequent breaks to stretch our legs and "summit" several. On one or two occasions we were even able to maneuver our craft through "caves" between undercut boulders and the shore.

We soon came to another ruin, this one below Coal Creek Rapid. Coal Creek was a fun rapid, but the giant "hole" pictured in the Belknap guide was a tiny remnant of its high water self by the time we ran it.

The ruin walls were old.

Did you notice the cactus growing on the roof?

Chris explored a bit of an old road grade.

It went along the cliff river left, and for some miles distant we could still discern its outline parallel to the river. What work it must have been to make! And when did they make it? Do you build a road to the home stead and then build your home, or do you build your home first, and then build a road? If the former, where do you stay while building? And if the latter, how do you get building materials into the homestead in the first place?

Surely not by Iron Prowed Skiff!

These and other questions circulated about in our minds like the little bits of suspended sediment bumping along the river bottom, carving the canyon ever deeper.

We paddle a little further, and start to think about dinner.

* * *

This is a picture of Tyson and I at our last campsite in Gray Canyon.

It is not much of a picture of the campsite, and it is more of a picture of Tyson walking and me fiddling with cam straps. That is ok though, because we look like pretty awesome and experienced river runners in this picture, and there is nothing wrong with that.

It wasn't much of a campsite, just a little peninsula of mud and rocks with a little sand and a few tamarisk and willow shoots eeking out a low water existence. Still there was enough space for a tent, some duckie sleepers, and a kitchen. It was hypothesized that the bit of still backwater might be an Alpha Cat pond, so we baited and cast a line, confident of the catch we'd be sure to get. After a few minutes of no bites we tied off the pole and played frisbee in the mud, which was every bit as fun as it was dangerous.

This campsite was just above Curry Creek, where rustler and sometimes train robber George "Flatnose" Curry was killed in April 1900- ambushed himself while camping there by a posse he didn't count on. Chris P and myself were almost killed here too. That is not because there was a posse chasing us, but because we decided on a whim at dusk to go for a peer pressure inspired 2,000 ft summit attempt with only a liter each of water to drink.

Peer pressure is a marvelous thing. I will admit it can get you into trouble and you can wind up doing foolish things sometimes with peer pressure, like... a lot of things I can't talk about here, or ever. That being said, I've also done some of the funnest things I have ever done because of peer pressure, and I have gotten myself into plenty of trouble and done plenty of foolish things all by myself.

This night's scramble was about equal parts fun and danger. I don't know whether it was right or wrong to have tried it, but I am glad it happened.

It all began like some kind of Holy Wood script. Here we were, late afternoon, at the last, or second to last, campsite of the trip. We had gotten there after a nice long day of paddling. Here's a picture that is not exactly where our campsite was but was taken in its approximate location and gives a better view of the contours of the Canyon Walls. This view is looking back upstream and is about the same view (though more obstructed) that we would have on our climb.

Tyson had gone off for a rest. And I was about to do the same thing, lying in my duckie rather comfortable with some warmer clothes on and reading about the Wild Bunch. All of a sudden, here comes Chris. He's got his hiking boots on and he looks like he's about to go do something. I can't tell what. He's walking around our little peninsula trying to find a way off it and staring at the cliff on the opposite shore.

"Hey Chris, whatcha doing?"
"I'm thinking bout going for a scramble."
"Up them cliffs?"
"What kind of scramble?"
"Just a mild scramble."
"You mean like, just a liter of water worth of scramble?"
"Yea... just a little one. I wanna see if I can get to the top of that cliff."
"That one right there?"
"I think I might be up for a mild scramble. Tyson's sleeping. Why don't we take his duckie and use it to paddle across the Alpha Cat pond, so as to get to the cliff?"
"That's a good idea."

So we get the duckie and we paddle across the Alpha Cat pond, and we go a- scramblin' up the cliff. Chris finds a route through the sandstone ledges that takes us up to the next, slope forming area.

Gray Canyon is not as deep as Desolation Canyon, but it is still pretty deep. You're cutting through the Book Cliffs now, whose tops are really mesas, large, flat, and back sloping mesas. The back of this backsloping mesa we were on was cut by the rivers' canyon.

"Hey Chris."
"How high are you trying to get?"
"I wanna get to that point right there."
"That rock outcrop thing on the ridge?"

We come to the base of another cliff, much like the cliffs that had frustrated our progress to summit the canyon the previous day. This time, however, the cliff is not as smooth. It is more "bumpy", and there are eroded, fallen down pieces we can climb on. Near the top, we actually climb under a fallen ledge, through a "hole" in the rocks, and get to the top of the Rim.

We continue up to the point.

The view is well worth the hike. We can no longer see Tyson or the camp. It's been cut off from view by the angle of the cliff. However we can see the river upstream and to the left, before it curves out of sight to the right. The great Roan Cliffs of the West Tavaputs Plateau are fully in view as their majestic slopes are tinted pink by the setting sun.

"I bet we can make it up there."
"It's getting late."
"Yeah, and we don't have much water."
"We better do it fast."
"Yeah, just don't get clumsy and fall off."
"Lets go!"

On and up we went. Up slopes of eroded, steep grade sediment. Stepping on rocks, which usually didn't give way beneath our weight. Carefully as a guide and as an aspiring park ranger, Moabites both, well aware and experienced of the fragile, nitrogen fixing, erosion retarding cryptobiotic soils we carefully avoided, lest a rouge foot print be allowed to fall upon a dark patch and set back the colony's growth a decade or two.

We got pretty high. The clouds that had been marvelous were much more marvelous.

"I bet we can make it to the top."
"I'm almost out of water."
"Yeah me too, but if we hurry, we can get to the top about the time we are out of water, and then it is all down hill from there."
"We might be coming down in the dark."
"Good thing we didn't bring our flash lights on our evening scramble to the top of the cliff in Desolation Canyon just before night time."
"Yeah. Good thing we didn't bring matches, or a first aid kit either."
"Or a whistle. Or warm clothes, or extra water."
"Yeah. Good thing we live in Moab and know all about the desert and we're wilderness professionals."
"Yeah. Good thing you spent $6,000 on Park Ranger school to know all about how to go hiking safely."
"Yeah good thing you spent $450 on river guide school to not get hired."
"Dude. We can totally summit."
"I don't know if we're going to summit this mesa tonight"
"Let's go!"

Higher, higher, we wound our way through gnarled juniper and pinon pine, and cactus, in its small and runty varieties, far enough apart to forget about while walking, though close enough to consider when reaching for handholds. Another ledge of rim rock. Another sneak. Another climb up its separated boulders, split apart by eons of wind, rain, and frost freezing and thawing, to produce just enough space for a tall skinny guy with high metabolism to squeeze between.

I don't think that George "Flatnose" Curry ever worried too much about cryptobiotic soil.

And finally,

The ledge is in sight!

The top of the mesa, surely. And how fine the good earth looked behind us! How majestic were the ridges and the cliffs in their painted glory! The blue mesas! The Sagebrush Desolation!

"I think this is about as far as I am going to go."
"We're pretty high. The top is right there. And even if we got to it you're not going to be able to see over the other side anyways."
"Yeah. Hmm..."
"Hey Chris."
"I'm gonna leave my water bottle right here. That way I won't be tempted to keep on going forever. I'm going for the summit."
"Are you kidding?"

I reach the top of the last cliff.

"Good thing we didn't bring a camera!!

Of course, as I had known before hand, "summit" is a really inferior word to use in conjunction with the backsides of Book Cliff mesas. I knew, very well, that these cliffs had not so much "peaks" as rather rocky terraces cliffing out here, there, in ledges of various heights before their flat topped juniper forested "summits" backslid to the North, away from the very view I had hopped for all along, but which I knew would have been impossible to reach tonight. The edge of the cliff could have been a mile or more away, through the thick, woody scrubland whose lush density remains completely unknown to most I-70 travelers, only able to gaze from afar upon the cliffs as barren, lifeless, sandstone faces.

No- the Book Cliffs are a mirage! Concealing not only oil and gas wells but an immense Wilderness Study Area, miles and miles of hiking, wildlife, wash exploring, cliff climbing...

"Hey Chris!"
"I'm over here!"

"Oh, cool. There you are."
"How was the summit?"
"It's pretty sweet man. It's a lot like here, but it's a little higher, though you can't see over it because it's a mesa that slopes uphill slightly and you can't tell how long it goes on."
"I think we're going to be hiking downhill in the dark."
"Yeah. We should probably get started."

And then, of course, even swifterly and more carefullier we proceeded, faster than the ascent had been. In the distance, up stream, we could see the camp fire of our fellow group of hypalon bucket boated river runners. We held up, on this prominent cliff, and tried to think of something intelligent to yell off the top so as to at least share and announce our feat to the world. We yelled.

Further down, through the narrow slit, down the ridge face. No, not this way, that way! To the right! Down down down, careful, sliding rock. I need to pee but I am out of water. Chris has lost his water bottle. His shitty carabiner, attached to his belt loop, ripped out the loop and rolled down away some unknown wash or gully unnoticed minutes ago. It is lost forever. I wonder, who will ever hike here after us? Anyone? Will someone find it? Will the bottle lie there and rust? Will it be carried downhill by the erosive forces of the Green River and deposited, eventually, onto some point bar or mud bank whence, millenia later, future archeologists will one day discover and revive the object, speculating and tale telling one another ideas about the race of men who once ran rivers in PVC boats and who climbed cliffs at Twilight with no flash lights or matches or warm clothes, only to loose their water bottles on the way down!

Only time will tell. But for now, I need to pee. But I am saving it. If I have to drink pee, I want to drink this nice, well hydrated, relatively clear pee. If I pee now the next pee will be more concentrated, yellowish, stinky pee. But I want to get down and off this mesa. I don't want anyone to drink pee. Because we have two guys and one empty water bottle, and every pee drinking scenario I can think of is a bad one. I push the thought out of my mind.

Suddenly, a whistle!

We yell back, "We're OK!'

Tyson, evidentally roused from his slumber, has discovered it is night time and his companions are missing. Intelligently he has found the whistle on my life jacket and blown it across these vast distances, too far for the human voice to itself ascertain our condition. We're happy he has found it and he has checked up on us though as a general principle I get nervous about any whistles blown in the wilderness, lest they disturb some other party of fellow adventures into thinking some real true emergency is taking place.

The last cliff. The cliff we scrambled. We're cliffed out.

"How's it going?"
"We got to the summit!"
"Didja hear us yell?"
"It was pretty sweet."
"How are you gonna get down?"
"We climbed up that cliff."
"It looks pretty steep."
"Good thing you were able to fix that super expensive REI Caving light that sucked and broke!Can you shine it over here?"
"Like that?"
"No, not that high, you just destroyed my night vision. On the cliff, below us."
"Oh, okay."

Slowly, carefully, we retrace our route of the initial, brief, "scramble". Where is the duckie? Oh there is it, at that path. Get in, shove off. Paddle back across the Alpha Cat pond.

"Did you check the line for Alpha Cats?"


Checking the line we find the world's smallest baby catfish. Removing it from the hook we set him free. Clearly, Alpha Cats had been breeding here just months earlier. But where were they now?

"Hey Tyson, what would you have done if you woke up and we had disappeared and it had gotten dark and we had not come back?"

Part Four: Desolation

Some canyons hit you over the head with the full force of their capacity the moment, or just moments after, you have entered them. Pritchett Canyon in the "Behind the Rocks" area of Moab is like that. You don't even have to go there. You can just hang out at the hostel and listen to stories of Torrey getting lost there and spending the night shivering in 40 degrees in a tee shirt and a space blanket with Chris. Cataract Canyon is the same way. You can't get near Moab without hearings stories about it. You can't camp out at red lake below the Confluence without the solemn ominiminity of upstream flash floods raising the water level and turning the waters beneath your raft into chocolate milk. And that wave, that launch pad at that certain water level on Rapid Five, taller than a car is long and passing just to the right of my boat. I will never forget that wave.

"Desolation" Canyon, I have found, is very different.

For us, we were welcomed with open arms. The road was good, the ranger was friendly, the campsite was ok, our permit was in order, the petroglyphs along Nine Mile Canyon road were nice, the truck handled the road well, the other rafters were friendly, and the bears were non-existent. We were allowed through the canyon and through its successor canyon. We ran the rapids and the food didn't go bad and was great and we all survived and had a good time.

We would not really understand about The Desolation until the last day, the day we got off the river. The day we tried to eat at a restaurant in the town of Green River, Utah. The day we did the shuttle in the dark. And the day we woke up on a Sunday and found ourselves with car trouble deep inside the Uinta Wastelands. Some of my comments, here, you may find to be gnarled with bitterness. Remember that I do laugh, because I have to laugh, and in the first and foremost picture of this article you see me laughing as I replaced the tire. But this is my article. That was my tire. And it would be a lot of extra money and wasted time before I was back in Colorado. So I will make no apologies for the poignancy of my observations.

There had been this strange, ongoing theme throughout the trip, where my meticulous planning of campsites and river miles beforehand was questioned and doubted at least once a day. And what threw us off so bad on this last day? Not my own plans, but my catering to a change of plans, allowed at a time I should have held firm and asserted my "authority" as trip leader and shuttle driver.

"Are you sure we're only paddling 3 miles on the last day, and then driving home?"


"Let me see the map. It looks like of like four miles."

"It's three. Which is about maybe an hour, max, of continuous paddling. You'll have all day to drive home and we'll have all day to do the shuttle."

"I hope so. I need to get back to put my stuff away and plan the week."

"You'll get back in plenty of time to crawl back inside of your finance. Don't worry about it. You have to relax. We are on the river. If you can't chill out here and stop worrying about plans there is no hope for you."

We launched.

We paddled.

There were some fun rapids. Not major. Just fun little ones.

We talked. We decided, instead of sticking to the plan, to just finish Gray Canyon that day. 16 miles. And then five hours in a car to do half the shuttle. For better or for worse. Though of course it would be worse. But you have to acknowledge this directly, and accept responsibility for it. You can't shy away from your decision. You have pass for one last time the amiable flotilla of fellow rafters you have been passing every day and on this last day when you are still paddling you will have to talk to them when they will ask you,

"So are you guys doing another day or are you taking out today?"

"We're taking out today."
"Yeah, that way we get to do our shuttle in the dark!"
"You're doing your own shuttle?"
"Yeah, it's a helluva shuttle."
"That sucks. When we get to the takeout, our cars will already be there for us."
"That sounds pretty nice."
"Yeah, it is!"
"Can I have another PBR?"

16 miles the last day. Paddle paddle paddle.

Throughout the trip I had been marking campsites, sandbars, points of interest, on my Belkap guide. Today I let it go. Not because there weren't still campsites to consider. I just wasn't thinking about it. It was time to paddle. Not to write. The point was to get off the river, and to get to this shuttle as fast as possible so that I could get it over with as fast as possible. It is, God willing, five hours each way from the take out above the town of Green River, to the put in at Sand Wash. 57 miles on I-70 and US 6/ 191 to Wellington. 68 miles on paved - dirt - paved - dirt- shale roads through Nine Mile Canyon, with the final 30 miles spent driving at 15 miles an hour over the tire shredding daggers of Green River Shale on Wrinkles Road. Five hours each way. About. If nothing bad happens.

Focused soley on the taking out I didn't make a lot of notes but I did enjoy the waves. Nothing too difficult or technical or big, just fun waves the whole way. I didn't even notice the Price River coming in stealthily on the right. The Price, much like the San Rafael ( 1, 2) or the Duchesne, is a small, lesser known desert river. Effectively choked by Scofield dam and mostly irrigated to death, in wet years when the snow melts there is a short boating season on it. In their narrow channels the Price can become a class five run. Its path is also a geological marvel, cutting a canyon from open desert directly through the book cliffs, only to feed into the Green just a few miles before the Green itself exits the cliffs.

Check out Durango Bill's page to learn more about the geographic marvel that is the lower Price.

Takeout day is always strange enough, even without a shuttle to run.

On the river, everything has a way of just making sense. There are no bank accounts. There are no bills. There are no voicemails or text messages or emails. There is no advertising. There are no television programs. There is no celebrity gossip. There is just a river, some people, some boats, and some adventure. You can plan all the stops and campsites and meals in the weeks before. But here, now, you can basically do whatever you want and pick your own schedule. You can reach into coolers and dry boxes and cook whatever you want, whenever you want. You can stop wherever you feel like it, not where you have to. Flat water, white water, it doesn't matter. River running in the West is about the freest, funnest, and (especially with private trips) most unregimented form of life you can find anywhere. Things make sense here in a way they don't, it seems, most places.

Even your body agrees. The act of floating on a boat prompts the brain to release greater amounts of dopamine and serotonin. It's good for you, and highly addictive.

Getting to know people on the river, the importance of skills you've learned, the success with cam straps you've eliminated from your rigging by more efficient rigging, the constellations you know, the Wild Bunch, the history of the lonely cabins, the discovery and identification of animal remains, the proficiency of catching a frisbee while sliding in the mud, the accomplishment of righting your flipped vessel, getting back in, and finishing the rapid. How to set up for a perfect line. Yes.

And then, No.

No more. Not now. Now. It is time again for debit cards. For Fall plans. For negative cash flows. For cleaning out the river shitter. For flat tires, music, personal obligations, and 2.5 months of unemployment and living in a car until the ski resort opens. For walking on pavement!

The car is still there. My key is still where I hid it. It turns on.

And then everything happens so fast. Boats washed and deflated and rolled. Gear emptied, sorted, returned, stolen, "donated", and before you know it, the comradery that developed between strangers, customers, guides, and friends old and new begins to fade. Torn apart and replaced by a physical absence, by the irresistible forces of jobs, rent, housing, fiancees, breweries, and girlfriends in Durango.

Driving back down the river road, I don't turn my phone on. That final, significant, re-integration back into the Twenty-First Century I will postpone for a while.

* * *

Let's eat dinner in Green River.

The Tamarisk Restaurant ("This restaurant serves plain basic food"), fittingly named after a noxious invasive specie, is a happening place tonight. Plenty of cars and trucks parked out front. Right here, along the East bank of the river. Hell, we could eat here without even having to go in to Green River at all.

No. Impossible.

No way could we do this. Green River is the dictionary defined, picture book story-tale of small town America in decline. We felt compelled to support it.

Once upon a time, before I-70 had made its way this far, were the proud old days of Highway 6: The Grand Army of the Republic Highway. In those days, passers by would be forced to slow down and drive through the town proper. They'd pass its rows of kitschy businesses and weary travelers would decide on a place to eat by how it looked, rather than because they recognized a certain brand logo on a blue metal sign 300 yards away at 75 miles an hour.

Then came the end of World War Two, the dismantling of the street cars, the spread of the automobile, and the idea of a nation wide interstate system. But I-70's present route West of Denver was never a forgone conclusion. Original plans for a nation wide interstate system drawn up in the 1940s had the freeways stop in Denver, going to the North and South and East of the city but not through the mountains. The state of Utah was perfectly happy with this, and saw no need to build a parallel route to I-80 through the remote, rugged, and thinly populated Eastern part of the state. Congress agreed. Legislation had only budgeted the construction of 40,000 miles of interstate, and all of them had already been allocated. It wasn't until 1956 than an act was passed allowing the Bureau of Public Roads an additional 1,000 miles of roads to plan. Sure enough, Colorado's incessant lobbying for a Western route would take half of them.

Salt Lake City was not impressed. Not at first, anyway. I-70 was not designed to serve the Wasatch Front at all- that part of the state where the great majority of the Utah's population was concentrated. The new road was primarily designed to facilitate a route from Southern California to the Denver area, by connecting with I-15 at the historic (though economically insignificant) junction of Cove Fort. Sloppy public relations by the Bureau of Public Roads- announcing the new route at a press conference before informing Utah of its final route decision- surprised and angered many. But not all. Southern Utahns, at least, were happy. Sometime passed before the Utah State Road Commission finally came around to realizing that shortening the Denver to Los Angeles distance by 200 miles was in the national interest. Certainly at least the economic boost of today's tourist dollars would be a fraction of its actual self were it not for I-70 and its opening of the Canyonlands.

Of course, Utah prioritized updating its heavily trafficked Wasatch corridor before devoting time to I-70. The interstate didn't make it past Green River and through the San Rafael Swell until 1970. The last few miles- in Colorado's Glenwood Canyon- were not finished until 1992.

Here as elsewhere when interstate surveyors mapped their routes they would often place exits just outside of the town proper. In the above photo, you can see the actual town as indicated by the presence of trees far off in the distance, quite a bit away from the on/ off ramp. Such planning would have a transforming effect on numerous small towns. Downtowns would decline. The way they had grown up around the earlier highway traffic no longer suited the needs of interstate travelers looking to "waste" as little time as possible getting gas or a bite to eat as they "passed through." The basics of gas station, restaurant, and motel commerce were superseded by new construction at the off ramp outskirts. The interstate, passing just a few hundred yards from main street, but with off ramps a few miles away "to allow for growth", eventually killed the neighboring town of Cisco. And it would have killed Green River too, were it not for the namesake river that continues to give melon farmers, river runners, and a few gas station attendants reason enough to hang around.

Today flanked by a pair of gas stations at each exit, and one or two functioning motels intercepting travelers before they have a chance to even get to the town itself (where they might be tempted to actually purchase something!), "downtown" Green River looks more like just another Mancos Badlands ghost town than any place you'd expect to find a real sit down and eat restaurant.

How unnatural, really, for us to try and eat there; to support this dying downtown. Pretty soon I-70 will have existed longer than the old US- 6 / 50 route... just as eventually (the effects of diorhabda elongata notwithstanding) the evolutionarily superior non-native Tamarisk will in one way or another replace much of the West's native cottonwoods and willows. What strange beings we are, to cling sentimentally to the past- to evolution's declining, outmoded, and inefficient designs! Deep down, does it make any more sense to mourn the loss of Historic Downtown Green River than it does to more the loss of the equally Historic Allosaurus Fragilis? Or the Three-Toed Sloth? The Anasazi? Or the Cottonwood?

Logic has its merits. But we have never been logical beings. Romanticism, emotion, beauty, love, attachment... things familiar and the memories of things lost... have always been more important to more people than precision or efficiency. Our conceptions of ourselves are more important to us than the reality of our lives. Our polity and environment tends to suffer from the same handicap. What a beautiful and perplexing specie! How psycologically advantageous the weight of known conservatism! How rare and reckless innovation and revolt!

Just as we would pay a price, against all logic, for our decision to support a dying downtown restaurant in Green River, we as tax payers continue to pay for our inability to accept the definative superiority of natural selection's track record for decision making. To fight the tamarisk every year we devote over $15 million to an uphill battle. At the same time that the State of Arizona balances its budget by cutting its funding for heart, lung, liver, pancreas, and bone marrow transplants, it puts hundreds of thousands of dollars into poison, chainsaws, and man hours to remove a better adapted species from its waterways- a species that every indication of increasing population, decreasing snow pack, and dissapearing aquifers suggests is likely to outlive the cities of Phoenix and Tuscon.

I wonder, after we disappear, will any future archeologists- perhaps while pondering the fossiliferous remains of some Quaternary landfill- evolve the same capacity to romanticize quaint inefficiency that we have?

Tamarix Chinensis- last guerrilla warrior of the Far East. Wearing down the empire, losing every battle, and winning through attrition.

"They'll spend a million dollars to kill one Gook!"

We headed into town. A mile of boarded up windows and cracked neon signs. The padlocked doors of economic decline.

A closed hotel. Another closed hotel. A third closed hotel. Closed restaurants. A closed gas station. Another closed gas station. Empty storefronts in every arrangement of spatial relation closed. Next door, closed. Caddy corner closed. Across the street, probably closed. Closed motels.

"Dude, what the fuck is up with Green River?"
"I'm not sure this is going to be the easiest place to find something to eat."
"Let's keep going and find out. There's got to be some kind of authentic, mom and pop type small town diner still alive here somewhere."
"Yeah. There's gotta be."

Welcome to Green River.

Finally we see something that is open. A small Mexican restaurant. All right!

I love small town Mexican restaurants.

Except for this one.

"This is your choice."

Oh the staff was nice, and by that I mean the guy there was friendly. We really do wish him all the best, and about everything I am going to say I know how he feels. I have been that host / waiter / bartender / manager / busser of a small, sad, slow restaurant before. It is absolutely with no malice of my own towards him that I recommend to all of you never to go there. In fact, I cannot in good conscience avoid recommending to all of you never to go there.

We should have listened to the warning signs.

The Rape Me / Rob me ATM, in the dark corner of the parking lot, sort of crooked, and probably not working. Probably abandoned there after it was stolen. And probably not missed enough to have been replaced.

The dim interior lighting.

The sad, lonely, "Yes, We're Open!" sign, taped in desperation to the window, trying just a little too hard to make up for the overall drab appearance of the faded, 1950s era paint chips peeling off the exterior walls.

The employee's friends and family seated next to the window, pretending to be customers ordering things but not eating, making it look to innocent passers by that actual people actually eat here.

The bathroom. The floor in the bathroom. The floor in the bathroom that probably hadn't been mopped since the previous owners were murdered fifty years ago. The razor blade by the urinal. No. Not a shaving razor, forgotten by the sink. A razor blade. Clearly, they must come standard with all Green River bathrooms, just in case the overwhelming sense of despair and futility ever gets too great. Cause, I mean, then at least you'd have options.

The blinds were drawn on our booth, window facing West on Main Street. We opened it to counter the gloom a little, and in case there was a shooting or mass suicide while we were eating we didn't want to miss it. Did I mention we had a very long shuttle to still do half of that night?

We sat for a while... taking it all in.

"Why the hell did that guy want to leave so early anyway?"
"So he could finish the trip early and drive into an elk at night going up Vail Pass?"
"That's not a good way to get home to your girlfriend."
"In a box?"
"He'll probably be okay."
"At least he's not trying to eat at a restaurant in downtown Green River."
"He's going to get there at like 1 AM and wake her up getting in."
"I don't think most girlfriends prefer to provide gratuitious welcome home sex when they are woken up at 1 AM by a guy who hasn't taken a shower in 9 days."
"We really need to bring females along next time we do Desolation Canyon. All that guy ever talked about was his fiance, and all you ever talked about was how cute that girl with the rafters was."
"It would probably provide a more balanced and intelligent element to our night time conversations."
"The reason I go to Desolation Canyon is totally to have intelligent and balanced conversations while drinking hot chocolate and tequila."
"Yeah. Good thing you moved to Utah!"

It's pretty hard to screw up Fajita. Yet, we probably should have taken a hint from the glimpse of our salsa coming out of the Arizona Iced Tea jug kept unrefrigerated in a cupboard, and ordered even more conservatively. We didn't, so I got the special.

What I remember most about the Fajita special were the beans. Not that they were that great. But there actually were beans. I know because I spent a long time searching for them in the tepid brown water covering half of my plate. I looked a few times. Yes, there were beans in the water. I am sure of it. Well, that's a relief. And the rice is okay. Cold of course, but okay. Though, when you think about it, it's pretty hard to screw up rice. That's kind of like getting an A in class for managing to show up the day of the test.

I remember going back and forth for a while between the chicken and the beef, trying to avoid one because of how it looked before switching and deciding that the other actually looked worse. There was some kind of pale, tepid, mucousy paste coating the chicken, and the beef if poked too hard seemed dissolve into marrow and spice. We ate slowly and some times stared at each other, and smiled, thinking the same thoughts, the same answer to the same question!

Though this wasn't, really, how the meal after is supposed to go. But there are times you just have to laugh and smile. They tend to be more frequent in a recession.

Not the concluding meal to a successful trip. No. This was a different meal. A new meal. The trip had ended back there on the boat ramp. This was the meal before a whole new chapter of adventure. And for temperature, quality, and taste, it set the tone perfectly.

"He said 10 minutes--we waited for at least half an hour. The food wasn't very good (not very healthy either if you care about that)."

We should have gone to Ray's instead. "Where Everybody's Welcome". Nope. That would have made too much sense. No one moves to Utah for logic.

Deciding to make another mistake we asked the waiter where we could buy some alcohol. It's a Saturday. This is Green River. It's 6pm. Of course we should be able to buy alcohol. He gave us directions. We followed them. A bit down main, turn left, and go down.

We found the store. It had a nice, neon "beer" sign in the window. The only problem was that it didn't look like anyone had flicked the switch for a decade or more. To be fair, some of the glass in the windows wasn't even broken- just covered in dust. We should have suspected as much.

"I don't think this place is open."
"I don't think this place has been open since you or I were born."
"Well, the last time that waiter ever thought about alcohol, it might have been open."
"He probably just hasn't checked since then."
"Yeah. He's a pretty nice guy. He just doesn't know."
"They didn't even have beer or tequila at that restaurant."
"We never should have trusted them. How are you supposed to trust a Mexican Restaurant that does not have beer or tequila?"
"Every Mexican Restaurant has beer and tequila."
"They have hundreds of different types of beer and tequila."
"Every one but the one in Green River."
"We'd probably have had better luck if we asked for meth."

Giving up completely and pulling out of town, we failed to notice any spectacular change of momentum at the gas station. I pumped while Chris set off for an ATM. I left him there, with the fat lady in a blue dress, with too much blue eye makeup, and no money trying to find out

"Where'd that cute boy with the hat go?"

"Hey you, how'd you get that machine to work?"

While I focused on more important things, like whether I'd rather have a fake mustache, or a "guns and grenades" key chain from the coin operated machines at the front of the store. Most likely, like a lot of these hairstyles, relics from the Cold War...

"Let's go to Sand Wash."

* * *

And who would have guessed, but we got there, hours later, with no problems! The Subaru did it! Fully loaded with all the gear from the trip as well as with an extra human in the passenger seat! Those new tires I got after the blow out in July musta'did the trick! No flats, no bearings going out, no falling into holes, no clutches dead. We were stoked. After setting up our tents Chris made another patented roaring fire. And we did the best we could to finish off the extra hot chocolate and tequila rations. One last night of camping in the desert. One last night in Utah. The last night of the summer. Best river trip in Utah.

Such a successful night. Therefore, you can imagine my astonishment the next day as I got out of the tent and looked at the car.


It was exactly what I thought it was.

"Hey Chris."
"How's it going?"
"Pretty good."
"Wanna know something fucked up?"
"Uhhh.... okay."
"Check out the car and tell me what's wrong with it."

"That tire looks kinda flat."
"Chris, that tire is flat. It is a flat tire. We have a flat tire at Sand Wash ."
"Do you have a full sized spare?"

"I got that donut. But I'm not sure its a good idea to drive to Wellington on that thing."
"It's pretty far, and that road sucks."
"Let's ask the ranger what he thinks."

There was a new ranger. He was still a friendly, helpful, knowledgeable BLM ranger to be sure. But he was a different guy that the one who had greeted us a week before.

"You know, that ranger might have a pretty good thing going if he got himself a patch kit and learned how to patch a tire. He'd have a pretty nice little side business there on the side."

"Yeah. But. I've always heard that Roosevelt really sucks. At least now I finally get to go there."

We headed to Roosevelt.

Roosevelt is a small town in the Uinta Basin, which is sort of a black hole of the desert. With the exception of Fantasy Canyon, tourism is generally restricted to the basin's margins- to the North in the Ashley National Forest and Dinosaur National Monument, or to the South where a few thousand people a year run Deso and an equal number of hunters visit the Book Cliffs in search of game.

The Green River goes through the basin, but almost no one runs this stretch of it. The whole hundred mile section is completely flat with only oil and gas wells to break up the monotony. Most people take out from the Green's scenic run through Dinosaur at Split Mountain, just at the beginning of the Basin proper. High use boating starts again back at Sand Wash where the basin ends. Only then really does scenery change, civilization fade, and cliffs, rapids, and wilderness begin anew.

One rarely finds a piece of vegetation in the entire basin, other than someone's personally planted and watered tree, higher than a sage brush. No National Park here. No National Forest. Not even any forest to nationalize.

Half the basin, deemed worthless land at the time, was "given" to Ute Indians after the Meeker Massacre of 1879. They'd still be about as despondent today as they were then were it not for large natural gas and oil fields the White Man inadvertently demanded they re-construct their homes over. Of course, when gilsonite- a valuable oil like mineral- was discovered on the reservation, developers succeeded in getting congress to carve out a five mile strip from the reservation so Anglo companies could mine it. When oil and gas reserves themselves were finally discovered, they were simply too broadly distributed for such theft to be repeated.

The rest of the basin that is not Ute Indian land is either privately owned, or (and this includes the vast majority) is owned and managed by the Bureau of Land Management, that useful and contradictory Federal Agency charged with managing most of the 264 million acres of public lands in the West, which it does for the relatively modest price of just over a billion a year.

The BLM does a pretty good job of installing porta potties, building camp sites, regulating river use through permit systems, and encouraging safety and minimization of environmental impacts by making sure both commercial as well as private river trips have first aid kits, repair kits, life jackets and fire pans before they can launch. BLM rangers do not carry guns as often as park service rangers and they act less like cops. They are usually pretty friendly. A lot of them are former guides who love the outdoors as much as you.

At the same time, the BLM sells off mining and drilling leases to extractive companies. What kind of leases these are varies from place to place, but for much of Western Colorado, Eastern Utah, and Northwest New Mexico, these leases are for oil and natural gas exploration. It is comforting to read on the BLM website that "less than one percent of all BLM-lands is developed for oil and gas resources. " However, when you realize that one percent of all BLM lands (including the 700 million addition acres of subsurface mineral resources managed by the Bureau) is equivalent to 14,765 square miles of above and below ground area, which is the size of Massachusetts + most of Connecticut, it becomes clear that BLM leasing policies can have a big impact.

In the Uinta Basin, Oil and Natural Gas extraction accounts for over 50% of employment and 60% of wages. Add to that the service sector where these people and their families spend their money and you have practically the entire economy. While this provides jobs to a lot of folks (current population of the Basin is just under 50,000), extraction is also for good reasons looked down upon as a rather ecologically destructive way to make money. And of those who judge certainly many are the environmentalists, hikers, hunters, amateur geologists, and river runners- most of whom often cook at home over natural gas stoves when they're not burning oil and gasoline in their cars driving long distances to their wilderness adventures.

Vast fields scatter to the four directions away from the cities. There's black gold in the Green River Shale. In the Mesa Verde. In the Mancos and Dakota. There's enough oil and natural gas out here to keep most of the city of Vernal employed (in boom years) and to have transformed suburban Jensen into a parking lot of big rigs and fleet trucks.

Worldwide, there's another 60 years left of Natural Gas. Interestingly enough, this rather important fact is only found in the second to last sentence of the Department of Energy's latest 11,581 word report that praises Natural Gas development throughout. Undaunted by the ratio of short term benefit to global warming consequences, the same report optimistically predicts a 69% increase in our country's consumption by 2035.

Today Gas is a booming, providing 24% of electricity production in the US and 15% of electricity production in Utah. Here like the rest of the country, the great bulk of electricity- 82%- comes from instate burning of 17 million short tons of coal a year. For Utah the coal will last for fifty more years. All this ought to make things pretty interesting the time I am a crotchety 75 year old. I'll be able to preside over the decline, while leaving it to my kids to actually be affected by the search for alternatives.

"Make the Desert Bloom..."

In addition to the long term greenhouse gas impact, there is an immediate environmental impact of disruption of animal pathways, feeding grounds, and breeding areas that inevitably comes when you build roads, drive big trucks through them, and install heavy, loud machinery (1, 2, 3). And in a place like the Uinta Basin, where drilling is taking place side by side on private lands, BLM lands, and Ute lands, the entire landscape changes into something resembling the endless panorama of wells pictured above.

There's pretty much no reason to be here at all unless you are working for an energy company. Or unless you woke up one day to find out that, some time in the previous nights' drive to Sand Wash, a fractured tiny tooth of shale had lodged itself inside your brand new drivers' side rear tire, causing a slow leak, which by morning would be completely flat.

Roosevelt is closer to Sand Wash than Wellington. After assessing our options, we decided to go there first, see if we can get the tire fixed, and then go back to Sand Wash. And then do the second half of the shuttle.

"Thanks for the ride man. I really appreciate it."
"I wouldn't leave you hanging, bro."
"But no matter what happens, I do have to be back in Moab tomorrow for work."
"That makes sense. I'm sure we'll find something open and get this fixed by then."
"Hey Christian."


And that's about as excited as I look, unshaven and sun tanned after a week on the river, suddenly re-inserted into the global economy in about the most frustrating way I can think of.

On a Sunday.

I didn't think about car trouble when I made Sunday the shuttle day on the trip plan. It never occurred to me. I am open Sundays. I work Sundays. Why wouldn't anyone else?

"I grew up in Roosevelt."
"How'd you like it?"
"I hated it."
"It's just awful. There's just nothing there. I was so happy to get out."

Maybe there is one good thing about going to Roosevelt on a Sunday to fix a flat. And that is that you get to experience and learn about an additional rock formation that most people that run Deso do not get fully acquainted with. We heard about Lake Uintah, and we heard that Green River Formation and Wasatch Formation were created by deposits into Lake Uintah. Okay. But then what is this stuff I hear about called Uintah Formation? What the hell is that?

Towards the end of Lake Uinta's life, as it was silting up and disappearing, sediments from the North were carried by streams and were deposited as the last geologic memory of lake Uinta. These sediments, part lake deposits and part stream deposits, have long since turned to rock and are today called the Uinta Formation. Whether you realize it or not, they too are part of the geologic story of any Deso-Gray's river trip.

When you are driving to Sand Wash on Wrinkles' Road, they form the slightly "browner" colored, upper portion of the cliff that is on your left. When you get a flat tire and you have to drive to Myton to then go to Roosevelt or Duchesne, you drive over and through Uinta Formation. At one point, near Myton, you even drive through a road cut that exposes ancient river rounded rocks that represents the bottom of an old stream channel. Uinta formation is the stuff you see when you are near Bonanza to do the White River.

The lower Uinta Formation also "intertongues" with the upper part of the Green River Formation, over a distance of about 40 miles. As with the Green River - Wasatch contact, the Uinta - Green River contact occurred gradually over time as geography was changing.

I was unsure exactly where this contact was visible. I read in another Deso blog about it being visible on the way to Sand Wash but that just made me confused. Finally I started to look at maps. Here is the big, beautiful, 14 meg PDF document of where different geology layers are visible in the state of Utah. Zoom in to the area near Sand Wash is. Sand Wash is easy to find because county borders are marked on that PDF and Sand Wash is just at the meeting of Duchesne, Carbon, and Uintah Counties.

Now get out your big red topographic Utah Atlas and Gazetteer and turn to page 48.

The contours of the hills to the left as you drive Wrinkles Rd to Sand Wash correlate exactly to the contact between the Green River and the Uinta Formation. It is here the contact is exposed.

You can see in the above photo a slightly different color to the higher part of the cliff. That is the Uinta Formation. The Gray slopey stuff just below it- which you are driving on and that gives you a flat tire- is the Green River Shale. Notice here how there is not a "clean" stratigraphic break but that "tongues" of the Green River Shale appear as horizontal layers sandwiched in between layers of brown Uinta Formation.

We got to Roosevelt.

I can tell you, having been to Roosevelt, that I have never been to any small Western town with more tire repair shops than Roosevelt, Utah. I can also tell you that there is not a single tire repair shop open in Roosevelt, Utah on a Sunday.

We pulled into the gas station to ask for advice.

"Yeah, you're best bet is probably the Wal Mart in Vernal."
"That's like 30 miles away in the opposite direction than we're trying to go today, isn't it?"

Utah is generally a lot more diverse and interesting place than most people, who have never been there, give it credit for. It's not just conservative Mormons everywhere. There's meth heads and meth dealers and meth makers too. There's also quite a few hippies, from pot addicted and smelly lecherous hustlers who eat all your food and bum all your cigarettes to rather responsible, upstanding, clean shaven, knowledgeable, and socially conscious breeds of hippie outdoorsmen and women who are a pleasure to be around. There are the BYU types, the suits, the Mormon Church and business hierarchy, and then there is the army of pickup truck driving trailer towing Republican voting worker bees they depend on. And then there is Gay Pride, which is the second largest annual gathering of humanity in Salt Lake City (after the Mormon- associated Pioneer Days), and whose growth is outstripping the Mormon gathering and is likely to become SLC's largest annual event within a half decade.

More than a few dozen young, white, intelligent American Utahns of Mormon stock have grown up to become "Jack Mormons" if not unbelievers all together. These people will drink alcohol, use condoms and not get married to their high school sweet hearts. They will become rock climbers, river guides, and work for the Division of Wildlife or the National Park Service. They will go to concerts and have one night stands and contribute useful insight to conversations about politics. They will vote Democratic out of fidelity or simply in lieu of something better and they will give a lot of hope to non-Utahns disparaging the state's future.

SLC itself is a much more diverse city than I had given it credit for, before I had ever visited. Suppose you are intelligent or ambitious or part of some repressed minority and you happen to have been born somewhere between central Colorado, Phoenix, San Francisco, and the Canadian Border. If you want somewhere to go live where you'll have at least a chance of being accepted and fulfilled, SLC is the largest, most cosmopolitan city in the entire inter-mountain West. It's where you're going.

The rest of the state outside the Wasatch Front is made up of scattered, smaller towns, with every kind of people in them.

All that being said, here in the far North East corner, with just 1.68 % of the state's population, the Uinta Basin is among the most solidly Mormon regions in the state. And Vernal, clearly, is the uncontested capital of the province.

There are few hippies in Vernal. "Slipnot" and Rob Zombie are about as culturally avante-guarde and politically enlightened as you are likely to find. Critical thinking and long term vision are in desperately short supply. The ordinary, rank and file roughnecks struggle to envision a world beyond oil dependence and the warm, familiar cycle of good years and shiny pickups followed by bad years and lean times.

The church keeps it all together. It solidifies the community through thick and thin in the warm, predatory embrace of a sexist money cult. It projects a vision of order and reason upon a world completely chaotic and devoid of reason. It allows innumerable, highly profitable advantages to the up and coming young businessman who regularly attends church, shakes hands, and pays his tithes. And to the rest, to the masses of the great unwashed, truck driving faithful... well at least the energy economy will allow them to drive and drill and fix and drive inefficient fossil fuel burning trucks in circles for decades, well into their retirement, confident that as they depart this world for the lofty hereafter the wells and the fields will remain, the fleets will remain, and their own little kids and grand kids themselves will grow up one day to drive inefficient fossil fuel burning trucks of their own. In circles. Shopping at Wal Mart and eating at family restaurants and not having abortions and controlling their wives for the rest their lives, too.

Recognizing resources as finite and environmental impacts as real and not easily reversed is not exactly to be found within the traditional orthodox framework of the Latter Day Saints. When an unquestioned faith in divine intervention and reward for exponential population growth and unsustainable resource consumption are the central tenants that hold communities together, "seeing no evil" amid the destruction wrought by one's own economic habits is likely to prevail. Passing through such communities, I am unable to shake my general sense of unease, as if the Basin were some "Children of the Corn" forgotten backwater of conspiracy and secrets, a citizenry in dubious cahoots.

Fortunately, I have been a waiter and a barista late night in DC and New Orleans. I have lived on V street and in Five Points. I have learned to innocuate a healthy sense of paranoia and awareness when dealing with people who may be drunk, high, armed, and/or crazy. Today I have traded my river shorts and sandals for blue jeans and hiking boots, which around here generally get me more cooperation.

Pulling out of Roosevelt, we pass several more closed tire repair shops.

* * *

Pulling into Vernal, weary travelers can look forward to a greeting by this rather confident, pink dinosaur.

We get to the Wal Mart.

Chris has made the mistake of turning his phone on and he is now obliged to start calling people back. I get out and stand in line to talk to the lady who is checking people in to the Tire & Lube Express. She looks like she would really rather be retired right now instead of checking in people for the Tire & Lube Express at the Wal Mart in Vernal.

"Hey there. My tire is flat. Could you guys fix it?"
"Okay, but it's gonna be about a three hour wait."
"Really? Just to fix a tire? Isn't that like a really quick thing to do?"
"Yeah, but there are a lot of other cars here too. We're pretty busy today."
"Gee, I'd really like to not wait three hours here. I tell you what, I bought this tire new at the Wal Mart in Cortez about a month ago. Could you just sell me an identical tire, this same make and model, really quick, and I'll be on my way?
"Sure, but you're still going to have to wait three hours."
"Well we can't just sell you a new tire that you can right away use. We have to take the rims off your old tire and put them on the new tire, and because there are already these other cars here, you'll have to wait about three hours until the mechanics can get to it."


"Okay, well, here's the old tire. If you can fix it, great. If you can't fix it, just put a new tire on the rim and I'll buy a new tire."
"Okay. What's your name?"

And she puts it, and other useful things like Chris' phone number (my battery is almost dead) and the zip code of Moab where I no longer live into her small handheld electronic device, and then gives me a receipt.

It's 12:00 pm.

"So... if they get it fixed in three hours, and nothing else goes wrong, I should be able to get back to Moab just before Midnight, huh?"

"That sounds about right."

Next door to the Wal Mart Vernal has this restaurant called Wingers.

It is basically a TGI Fridays type of deal with a sports bar feel and pictures of airplanes in it. It's right there. We go in for some food, and are pleasantly surpirsed to discover they even have beer! Perhaps my prejudices were too strong. There may be redeeming qualities to this place after all.

I go to the bathroom and splash warm water on my face. Chris sits down and begins interacting with our fabulous waiter.

"...be very selective in ordering and temper your expectations."

The food arrives. We eat. It is actually quite good. I have a burger.

I notice another waiter. He seems to be about 20 years old, and has some kind a metrosexual, "punky" look with some kind of creatively dyed hair color. He seems a bit out of place in Vernal, Utah.

"Hey Chris"
"What's up with that waiter guy?"
"That guy right there?"
"Yeah. He looks like he really wants to be punk rock, but like, he is stuck in Vernal Utah. I want to ask him what the hell he is doing here, and maybe tell him there are other places he could live that do not suck as bad."
"He might need someone to tell him that."
"At the same time I want to, part of me also thinks that maybe I shouldn't. I mean, how many people like that do you really think are in this town? He's probably like their cultural vanguard. Maybe I shouldn't encourage him to leave. Vernal might need people like that and they are probably few and far between."
"That's a good point."

I refrain from talking to the waiter.

After we eat we decide, well, we might as well go cruise the strip and see what downtown Vernal has to offer.

I had already been to the dinosaur museum in May. It was really well designed and full of fascinating exhibits. At the time I was living in Vernal for a week and by the end of that week I had concluded that the Vernal dinosaur museum is about the most interesting place to spend time at in Vernal. But I don't get up here that often and I wanted to see if there was anything else I had overlooked.

"Hey, check it out."
"Woah, that place looks open!"
"Hell yeah dude! It is open! That's an open tire repair place! Turn around man, lets go check it out."
"That would be sweet if they could fix your tire in less time that the three hours we have to wait for Wal Mart to *look* at the tire."
"Yeah, and then we wouldn't have to be supporting evil Wal Mart."
"Wal Mart sure is evil."
"Though they are damn convenient. Hey, I think you should pull in here."
"All right man go check it out."

I get out of the truck and go to the office. There are customers inside of it waiting. Alright! I open the door.

"Hello there. I've got a flat tire and I was wondering if you guys could fix it."
"Oh, I'm sorry, we're not open today."
"What? What do you mean you are not open? I just walked in your door and it was open! There's other customers hanging out here!"
"Those aren't other customers, that's my family. They're in town and we're just meeting up here."
"Oh, I see."
"You can try the Wal Mart. They fix tires and I think they are the only place that is open on Sundays."
"Yeah, I know, I already talked to them. I was just hoping I could support some small local business besides Wal Mart."
"Well, not even the mechanics are here, so we can't help you, but you could come back Monday."
"Can't wait that long. Looks like it's Wal Mart. Well, have a nice day."
"You too."

Wal Mart, of course, is evil. The Walton Family amasses billions in profits from an army of over a million workers, most of them barely making above minimum wage and not getting enough hours. The company tends to purchase the most efficiently produced, factory farmed, hormone & antibiotic ridden, ammonia - bleach rinsed, genetically engineered and artificially flavored food it can get its hands on. It has great deals on massive quantities of cheap sugary food-like material that gives people diabetes, weight problems and heart conditions. The "Made in China" part of the Wal Mart supply chain is probably where they got their labor standards from. A visit to any store is guaranteed to be a surreal journey into a dark netherworld of humanity. The degraded and crippled creatures, faces carved downward into permanent frowns, wandering through the aisles, pushing along carts full of unhealthy food and plastic, poorly assembled crap beneath the florescent lights. It is the sad, sad, condition of what Americans have been reduced to.

I would of course have preferred to support some friendly small business that keeps its money in the local economy and pays its workers enough to give them a bit more tolerable quality of life. But if every damn tire shop in the Uinta Basin is going to be closed on Sundays when I am in trouble, well, then screw you local tire shops! I don't want to hear your whining when you close down because everyone went to Wal Mart instead. You put yourselves out of business.

We drive East, down Highway 40, Main Street Vernal Utah.

"Dude, that looks like a bar."
"That looks like a bar that is open on a Sunday in Vernal, Utah."
"I think that's what we need."
"I don't think there's anything else that is going to make this day any more bearable."
"I can't believe there is a bar in Vernal that is open on a Sunday. I thought they'd been made that illegal or something."
"Let's check it out."

Having made an inspection I can say that we approved of the bar in Vernal, though regrettably I have forgotten what the name of it was. It was the bar on the East end of town on the North side of the street. They had many nice Halloween decorations and inexpensive Bud Light beers. They had a friendly drunk guy at the bar who gave us slices of a pizza he had had delivered. This bar came equipped with a pool table, air hockey, and foosball. We were about evenly matched for foosball and air hockey and I even won pool once because Chris screwed it up on the 8 ball. I will say if you ever go there that the foosball is more bang for your buck than air hockey, where the games seems to end frustratingly too soon.

And that's about it.

Finally I got the call.

"We can't fix the tire. But we can put a new one on the rim."
"Okay, just as long as it is the exact same kind of tire."
"Sure thing."
"How long will that be."
"Maybe about half an hour."

The tire is done. It's almost 4pm. We pay our tab and head back to the Wal Mart and pick it up. $70. $70 I could have definitely used. But that day I could have used a tire more. We point the car at Myton and hit the gas. Finally after only one wrong turn we recognize where the road turns to dirt. The sun is starting to dip into a love shade of early evening. After about 15 minutes on the dirt we find ourselves behind a tanker truck as wide as both lanes.

We're worried about passing it because the truck is kicking up so much dust we can't see around it. And he's certainly not about to stop to let us pass. Finally, about the time Chris realizes his dust filter has just taken all it can take, he goes for a pass.

No collision. We pull ahead.

NPR is audible over a weak signal. It turns to static in the dips and comes back again on the hills. The program is talking about big game hunters' efforts to remove coyotes to improve the size of deer herds. I tell Chris about Coal City, off the road just up from Price, where a sign informed me about the Juniper removal program and the planting of grass going on to enable the land to support larger herds of hooved game. Chris shakes his head.

What're those piles?

On the way out we had noticed three large towers, too big to be cairns, standing by themselves on a ridge just off the road. Needing a break and an excuse to stretch our legs we pulled off the road to check them out. One looks like a few of the top rocks have fallen. Chris replaces them with some that were lying around. We're not sure who built these things or what purpose they serve, but they are pretty neat.

Then in the distance, we see the gas truck we had passed coming up the road we had just pulled off of. He hadn't turned. He was coming this way. The calm is shattered. Rather than risk getting stuck behind him again we dash off for the truck and beat him to the road.

Miles pass...

Until at last, a familiar sign tells us that we are finally back to exactly where we started, at 10 am that morning.

The view behind us was beautiful as evening came on.

I changed the tire.

Let's get the hell out of here.

There's two ways. Or actually three, to do this. At this point we are more determined than ever to not get a(nother) flat tire on Wrinkles Road. However, the shortest way to where both of us were going was back down Wrinkles and through Nine Mile Canyon. The first bad alternative involved driving back up how we had just come- through Myton- and then to Vernal, to Dinosaur, CO, through Rangley, down 139 to Loma, and then I-70 to Fruita for me and SW to Moab for Chris. 454 Miles.

The next bad alternative is to, again, drive back up the way we had came, through Myton, West on I-40 through Duschene, South West on 191 to Price, then South East on 191 to Green River, and then to Moab or Fruita. 343 miles.

There is no "good" alternative.

Finally we settled onto chancing Wrinkles Road again. Chris chooses this opportunity to tell me for the first time that he has two cans of "fix-a-flat" in his truck and that if I get another flat I can use one.

To help me out, we took all the gear out of the Subaru and put it into the Colorado. Less weight on my tires pushing them into the shale. Then I went first so I could set a slow pace, and if (heaven forbid) I got a flat, I wouldn't be left behind in the dust.

I drove very, very, slowly.

I turned on my playlist of Quiet, Please, and listened to the series' first episode. Quiet, Please was a sci-fi / horror radio show in the late 1940s, and sometime in 2009 I found out that there was an mp3 archive of most of its episodes online for free download. These are pretty interesting to listen to, and while the plots are of course eerie, it can be comforting to listen to the radio announcers' voice. Whenever I'm worried about getting lost, or the car getting killed by some sketchy road, I like to listen to Quiet, Please. It helps me relax- not too much- but enough to keep the heart rate down.

By the time we get out of the Sand Wash Road and on the Wrinkles Road it is dark. We make it through Wrinkles and head for Nine Mile Canyon. The first turn is easy. Most of the other turns are easy to see but in the dark it's a little harder. You can't make out the full contours of the canyon and you can't always tell what is the main road, what is some side road that is about to dead end, and what is the road you are trying to turn onto.

Finally, several hours later, we make it to Wellington and park at the Chevron. I transfer the stuff back to my car. We go in to get a coffee, say our goodbyes, and part ways. Ted's Place in Green River is closed by now so there's no point in stopping for a last meal. And besides, I spent too much money on that new tire. I make it back to Colorado and to the shop. I unlock the door to a shed, make a little bed for myself out of some rental paco pads, and lie down, shutting the door to a falling rain. Tomorrow I'll unload. Tomorrow I'll change the oil, check the damage on my bank account, do laundry in Ridgeway, and get to Durango. But tonight I am going to sleep. Right now, while the rain pitter patters around me.

* * *

Desolation Canyon is a great river trip. You can avoid most of the Desolation by not doing your own shuttle, or if you do do your own shuttle, don't just do it with "good" tires, or "new" tires. Do it with expensive off road tires. The super high tread, lower highway mile-per-gallon tires that look like snow tires but which you can leave on year 'round. And, if possible, avoid Wrinkles Road.

Shuttle drama aside, a trip down Deso-Gray's takes you through one of the deepest, wildest, and most beautiful canyons on the Colorado Plateau. This is one of the most enjoyable river trips in that region that I have done. The Tavaputs Plateau, Book Cliffs, and Green River Desert are a truly enchanting part of the world. The rapids in Deso are real and fun, but it's not all about the rapids. It's the beauty and the history and the geology and the sheer, remote locale of the place that keeps people coming back. I've obviously done much in the writing of this story to relate various aspects of both the human and natural histories of the area, and I've been able to touch on some ongoing conflicts, issues, and debates surrounding the land, the people, the economy, and the resources of Eastern Utah. In doing so I have but scratched the surface. I decided to write this piece not just to show off a few pictures from a fun trip I took, but to explore and start to answer the many questions I developed about the area before, during, and after my time there. It has been incredibly educational for me to write this, and hopefully you the reader may have learned a few things as well.

As a last note, if you ever do this trip, please do yourself a favor and leave the rafts at home. Self-supported and in duckies is the way this canyon is meant to be run. You'll become a better paddler, and you'll enjoy the rapids a lot more. You'll also have no trouble with rocks at low water.

About a month after the trip, while sitting at a Durango Joe's and typing this story on my laptop, out of curiosity I sent an inquiring email to River Runners’ Transport, one of the companies the BLM lists on their page of shuttle companies. This is what i got back:

Thank you in advance for your interest in services our company offers. The price for a Deso shuttle in 2010 is $200 per vehicle. WE DO NOT DRIVE THE WRINKLES ROAD NOR DO WE TAKE THE 9-MILE CANYON ROAD and your experience is the reason we don’t. We go back to Highway 40, west to Duchesne, and south on 191 to get to Swaseys. The road back to highway 40 can also be difficult, but there is only 25 miles of dirt as opposed to 75 miles on the 9-Mile Canyon Rd. We take a full emergency kit with us and check tires at least three times before we get to Highway 40 so we can catch any problems that may occur as we drive out. The issue with the Sand Wash road is that you can drive 5, 15 or 25 mph but if you drive over the shale, a rock can kick up and slice the tire. We try our best to prevent tire failures but sometimes flat tires are hard to avoid.

Give us a call at 1-800-930-7238 if you have any other questions or concerns.

Thank you again and we hope we can assist you in the future.

For more information on the Desolation Canyon Area, and Utah River Running in General, check out these links:

Desolation Canyon River Information Official BLM Site. Go here to figure out when permits are available, to get your permit, to figure out what you need to bring, to get shuttle information, and to learn about bears in the canyon

Moki Mac River Trips Green River, Utah based Commercial Outfitter that runs Deso

Holiday River Expeditions another Green River, Utah based Commercial Outfitter that runs Deso

Deso River Log From Adventure Bound- points of interest by mileage from Sand Wash.

Colorado Discover Ability Adaptive Outdoor Recreation, great summer rafting program

AIRE Rafts, Catacrafts, gear, and Great Inflatable Kayaks at all price points

Northwest River Supply River store

Down River Equipment River Store based in Denver

Geology / History

Geology Happens Blog

Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum (Vernal)

Durango Bill's Page on the Ancient Rivers of the Colorado Plateau

Fossils of the Green River Shale

History of Interstate 70 in Colorado and Utah

* The bug screened huts at Sand Wash are available on a first come first serve basis.