Atop the final ridge rising to the south rim, Tom Hart stopped the truck and sat behind the wheel, gazing over into the meandering trench stretching from west to east and across it to the line of blue mountains over 40 miles away. It had been his first sight of the canyon when his family moved down there from Roosevelt 46 years before, when he was five-and-a-half years old, and Tom wanted very much to see it now precisely as he remembered seeing it then. Again it was mid-afternoon of a day in mid-June, the sun tracking far north on its unhurried descent to the horizon, its long rays slanting between the thunderheads toward the dark pinyon-juniper forest surmounting the cream-colored caprock. Again the white dust beyond the green cattle-guard was blinding to his eyes; again the road ahead plunged steeply down through sagebrush, wound a turn or two above the dry wash, and lost itself in time and memory behind an intervening gravel cliff. Even the road sign immediately beyond the guard was as he remembered it, excepting only the newer bullet holes perforating the black arrow-squiggle on a faded yellow background and the warning notice, STEEP DESCENT NEXT SIX MILES.
At the first of the big benches, the wooden government sign indicating the two-track over to Sand Wash on the Green River, though splintered and faded, remained intact after five years. A couple of miles down, above the start of the redwall, the old 40’s delivery truck that had lain on its top in the wash for half a century looked as if it had had some parts stripped from it, but the shell had barely deteriorated in the dry desert air. The road through the redwall hadn’t eroded much in the hairpins on account of a three-year drought, though lack of moisture left the grassy rock terraces gray and dead-looking, as in November. And then the canyon widened suddenly, the mouth yawned ahead and opened out into the tender, green valley shaded by riverine cottonwoods verdant against the livid slickrock wall, and upstream the focused glare of the sun burning a hole through the tin roof drew his eye as it pushed away from a dry storm cloud. Even before he reached the gate, Julia had come out of the house and was standing on the turnaround with her latest child on her arm to wave him home.
Tom got out of the truck and kissed his sister around the baby. She looked thicker in the waist, though fit and strong as ever, and the gray in her reddish-gold hair had worked past the temples into the mane. Though, at 42, Julia remained a very good looking woman, still he supposed this newest kid of hers was going to have to be the last.
“You haven’t changed much, if any, in five years,” she said.
“You haven’t changed, either.”
“This is your new nephew, Bill,” Julia said, holding the baby forward. “Bill, this is your long-lost Uncle Tom, the retired Marine captain from Okinawa.”
Tom took hold of a fat finger and shook it.
“Pleased to meet you, Bill.”
Bill stared back at him, bug-eyed and solemn.
“I was really expecting you earlier, in time for dinner. From Salt Lake over here isn’t that far. Did you stop in town to see Mother and Dad, after all?”
“Nope. I didn’t. Decided I’d pay a visit on the way out, instead.”
“They haven’t been doing all that well in the past year—Dad especially. This is the first they’ve spent even part of the summer in town. There isn’t all the time in the world left for them, Tom. You seem to imagine they’ll still be around twenty-five years from now.”
He reached the heavy suitcase from behind the cab and swung it clear of the bed with one hand. “I guess I do think of them still as being stuck somewhere in their fifties,” he agreed.
“Actually,” Julia said, “they’re about thirty years older than that. I’m putting you in their room, by the way. It’s the only spare bedroom we have these days.”
The children came running from the creek to welcome Uncle Tom. After five years, he didn’t recognize any of his nephews and nieces except the oldest boy, Todd, and discovered he was hard put even to remember names. In the bedroom, he dropped the suitcase on the bed and unpacked it. Hanging his clothes away in the closet, he recalled for the first time in years a girl he’d dated in his 20’s who had insisted on making love in her parents’ bed when they were away. He lay down for a nap with the .45 semi-automatic under his pillow and awoke an hour later when his brother-in-law drove the tractor onto the turnaround and came inside the house for supper. He’d liked Roy Hunzie from the time they’d played together on the Roosevelt football team, and still liked him: a tall, balding man with brown Mittel-European eyes and straight, yellow teeth showing in a wide and easy smile.
After supper, the adults sat out on the porch with a bottle of whiskey and three glasses while the children finished their chores around the barns and Roy’s Black Angus herd chewed the cud in the meadow beside the creek. The redwall was shadowed now, but the caprock far above glowed yellow against the cutout strip of ultraviolet sky evenly divided by the contrail of a passing jet. The mosquitoes came out of the grass, and overhead the bullbats dived after them and pulled up suddenly with a hard popping sound.
“It’s amazing,” Tom said. “This place changes hardly at all, from one year to the next. Does it?”
“I don’t know about that,” Roy told him. “There’s plenty gas development going on downstream, including an evaporation pit above the creek and a new compressor station on the south rim above Cottonwood Canyon. I can take you out and show you around some tomorrow, if you’re interested.”
“It’s changed since we were kids,” Julia agreed. “Not nearly as much as we’ve changed, of course.”
“There’s always been energy development down here, since the Fifties anyway,” Tom protested. “And I don’t know about you guys, but I feel young as I ever did. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent my whole adult life in the Marine Corps. Nothing every changes in the military, you know.”
“It’s because you don’t have children,” his sister told him. “People who’ve never had children don’t understand the passage of time. And the reason they don’t understand is because they aren’t made to feel it, the way parents are.”
“It’s a different story when you get up the side canyons, between the creek and the plateau,” Roy said. “We’ll be riding in Skeleton Canyon tomorrow, after those stragglers I was telling you about. You talk about something not changing, those lateral canyons is it.”
In the morning, they saddled three horses and loaded them into the stock trailer, and then the two men, accompanied by the boy Todd, drove downstream six miles, past the boulder the size of a house with the pair of weathered cowboy boots protruding toes-up from under it someone had placed there 20 years before. At the mouth of Skeleton Canyon, Roy pulled off the dirt road and continued a hundred yards up a gravel wash. While the men finished the coffee in the thermos, Todd dropped the ramp at the back of the trailer and led the horses out.
Tom pointed to the yellow oil slickers rolled tightly behind the cantles and tied into the saddle strings.
“Feeling optimistic this morning, are we?”
“Sure.” Roy grinned. “Folks without hope don’t get into the ranching business. Or, if they do, they sure as heck don’t stay in it.”
They rode all day after stragglers, ascending by the boulder-strewn, steep-sided trunk to the top of the redwall where they split up to search the branch canyons draining the overriding plateau. A few springs ran with a trickle of water still, and around these the horsebackers found the trampling tracks of cattle imposed upon the delicate prints of deer, mice, and birds. They flushed seven animals, all of them heifers and young steers, from the brush and rocks and hazed them back down-canyon in a traveling cloud of thin, pale dust that thickened as they went until the riders were compelled to draw their bandanna neckerchiefs over their mouths and noses. When, toward mid-afternoon, thunder rolled between the high slickrock walls, the Hunzies rode forward with their heads down, never taking their eyes off the beeves. Tom Hart, glancing overhead, marked only the dry storm cloud darkening the canyon below, but what he saw was something else: five horsebackers—three men, a woman, and a boy (himself)—riding like demons through sheets of rain across a sagebrush flat beneath rain-washed walls of rock, the tails of their yellow slickers spreading behind them as the horses dodged among boulders after the panicked cows. Less than a mile farther on, the beeves began to balk, next to mill, finally to turn and break in panic—before, rounding a bend in the wash, the riders came on a bear astraddle a calf it had just killed. It was a brown bear, a yearling only recently separated from its mother, and Tom perceived in its small, close-set eyes the very human predicament of whether to stand its ground or run before Roy drew his lever-action .30-06 from the saddle scabbard and shot it three times in the chest.
“That’s the third to my knowledge’s been sighted down here since early May. They say the drought’s brought even the lions to the creek. We won’t bother reporting this to the warden in Roosevelt; it would just confuse him. He’s some kind of a rancher, himself.”
The afternoon before he returned to Salt Lake City, Julia left the baby in care of the eldest niece while Tom Hart went climbing with his sister in Indian Canyon to revisit the cliff village they had played around as children. The place was among the many Fremont Indian ruins, dating from the tenth or 11th century and abandoned 700 years ago, scattered throughout the canyon system. Thirty feet above the floor of the side canyon, a shallow cave, carved by wind and water in the redwall formation and vertically streaked with the black desert varnish, sheltered three granaries and several roofless houses constructed of flat, thin fragments of unmortared sandstone. Bats’ nests clung to the ceiling and in the corners of the cave, and clots of guano adhered to the rock. Below the dwellings, at a little above eye level for a modern Euro-American standing in the eroding creek bottom, an arrangement of petroglyphs depicting hunters armed with bows hunting herds of deer and mountain sheep, human figures like inverted triangles with round heads and outsized hands, owlish birds, and humanoid figures wearing what appeared to be space helmets was spread across a rock panel, patiently tapped into the pale slickrock underlying the varnish by ghostly small hands.
“Remember how we used to scare each other thinking about those spacemen?” Julia asked. “You wouldn’t guess these glyphs were hundreds of years old, would you? They look like they were made only last week. Except that you and I have been coming here for almost forty years, now.”
There was no way up to the village from the creek, or, if there was, they’d never found it. Possibly, the inhabitants had climbed down by rope ladders from the rock ledge ten or 12 feet above, where the pinyon-juniper forest grew to the edge of the cliff.
They pushed on up the creek, its dry bed crazed and parched from drought, searching for the pool beneath the high overhang where, in June of a wet year long ago, the clear, purling water rose to the armpits of a 12-year-old boy. What once had been a living stream was now a litter of uprooted bushes and trees, rolled boulders, and sandy berms thrown up by flash floods and forgotten springtime freshets. In one place, the debris was so thick and tangled that they were forced to scramble up the undercut bank and detour round through thick greasewood before returning to the creek again. The canyon, completely rearranged by floods, washouts, and rockslides, seemed to Tom less and less familiar until he became disoriented, and finally distressed. They should have reached the basin way before now; it couldn’t be this far upstream from the cliff dwelling. But how could they have missed the overhang of rock, he wondered?
“Where in the hell did our wading pool get to?” he asked Julia.
His sister reached behind herself for the water bottle in the day pack hanging between her shoulderblades.
“You know what?” she said. “I think it was back there under those dead, piled-up trees. You know—where we had to climb the bank to go around. That’s why we didn’t notice the rock sticking out overhead.”
Tom Hart sat down on a polished boulder and let his hands hang between his knees. If this primeval inscrutable place—his canyon—could be altered so entirely in just a handful of years, then he himself must have changed even more—how much more he couldn’t bear to think. All right, Tom conceded silently to no one in particular. I give up.
“Pass me that bottle, will you?” he said aloud. “I think I’m in need of a drink.”