Source to Sea

Water in the Mountains: Colorado Trail, Episode 3
by Mark Downey -- October 16th, 2012


A thin grey light, it must be morning. Yesterday’s cloying fog crouches frozen on the walls and floor of my flimsy tent shelter in the middle of the trail. The goose down sleeping bag, thinner damp than its normal loft, is warm enough – I’m still alive – unless I shift positions and the wetness slumps differently on my skin. The icy night dragged forever while I dreamed of sun, but now at dawn I lie stalling glaring at the puddle of my soaked clothes mocking me – looking for water, are you? Hear that? Dread skulking through the snow piled around my huddled tent, it’s cold fingers tracing tiny scraping sounds on the frosted nylon, searching for the zipper I think, the wind its sniffing at the seams. It wants in, the thief, thinking to find easy prey here in my mummy bag –


Walking skin warmed my clammy fleece while steaming shoulders and breath routed the last melting fog. This region’s first snow sat watching me escape the shadowed valley, climbing higher into the blinding whiteness glistening in low-angle sun just now coming up to help me dry. Look at that, what I missed lost in the cloud the day before – the valleys still rollicking in gold and bronze falling away from the naked escarpments I sometimes had glimpsed vanishing far above now standing hulking bundled in snow –



I gained and dropped several high passes and finally landed on a yellowed steppe. It reaches to the edge of sight, ringed by just the tops of mountains. Is there really a world two thousand feet below? The map names this place Snow Mesa though it’s the only land around not painted white. In fact there is no water at all on the mesa. My body drinks these sunny miles, but my bottles sloshing with melted snow at the beginning of the day now hang dry at my side. There might be water up ahead, my map suggests, but when I arrive the seep is as dusty as the last ones. The springs under the mountains weren’t fed much in the past months. The same dry summer that scorched us down the Mississippi also parched these heights –


I’m both refugee and pilgrim when I find myself among sheep. Hay agua cerca de aqui, is there water around here? The shepherd nods, water, si, pero it’s far – and he points off the edge of the mesa into the sunset. His herd dots the grass like so many roaming boulders. Down there, okay, I guess I better get going. I drop my pack and grab the bottles. You’re going to camp here? he asks in Spanish, incredulous eyes peering from a bundle of scarves and weatherworn sweaters. I tell him, si, I’m prepared. No no, his warm chuckle, I’ve got plenty of water, you can stay with me. That night Reginaldo from Bolivia hosts me in his tiny camper far from anything, graciously quenching my thirst from barrels full of water. We eat homemade bread and mutton stew and stoke the woodstove fire to warmth I had forgotten. We chat about families and careers, what we’re doing out here, what comes next. He steps out periodically to check his sheep. Tu estas en tu casa, you’re in your house, so we turn his table into a bed for me. Early the next morning he sent me off with canteens overflowing and told me where to find more water in the coming miles. At the end of that day, I climbed the highest peak on the Colorado Trail, looked back, and could still see Reginaldo’s trailer a glimmering dot on the golden steppe.



  1. Virginia
    Oct 18, 2012

    From immeasurable volumes of water on the Mississippi, to snowflakes and crystals in the mountains , to water for sustenance shared in the remotest of steppes….beautiful and thought-provoking.

  2. Katie
    Oct 21, 2012

    I hope you write a book sometime. This is very nice writing. In this post and others there were certain passages I kept re-reading, just to make sure I got every bit of it.

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