Edge of Time
By A. J. Martine
As a small child growing up in rural southwestern Colorado I had no idea where the Colorado Plateau was located. I had never heard of Major Powell. I knew that the landscape around my grade school and our ranch was cut by flat mesas and narrow valleys and rocky canyons. And even though I knew that the world was round, at least in theory, I could easily visualize a flat earth whenever I peeked off of the side of one of these high escarpments. Major John Wesley Powell had named it the “Colorado Plateaus” when he navigated the Green and Grand Rivers (Colorado River) in 1869. Then like now it was a place, a physiographic “province,” unlike any other in the west or on the planet.
“Kuydado.” My grandfather said whenever I looked off of rocky edges.
“Mira.” He said pointing with a hand-rolled cigarette at the bluffs and canyons that went on in endless rows all the way to the brass monument at the four-corners; where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah shared a geographic point in the sand. I called him Agüelo which meant grandfather in the Judeo-Spanish that we spoke.
Agüelo was an old cowboy who refused to leave the 19th century behind. He made decent whiskey and gently broke the rough horses he roped in Mesa Verde National Park and sold them to the Mormons in southeastern Utah. Agüelo was a man colored by the sun and wind and a man whose emotions, except for me, were as arid as the land he roamed on horseback. I rode beside him every chance I had. We stopped with regularity that I at first thought was to be easy on our horses but as I got older I realized that he loved to stop to look across a canyon or at the distant vistas. The horses stood sleeping and blowing delicately through their soft nostrils. I could not understand how or why he could sit on a rock smoking cigarettes and stare out at this rough world for long periods of time.
I didn’t think that sitting and staring at bare rock or at the tip of Ship Rock—clearly visible from our ranch before power plants—was a productive use of my time. There was too little time to explore under old piñon trees where I stopped long enough to twist a stick through the pitch flowing from a fresh porky pine wound or cautiously peered around the base of sagebrush plants where the small vipers of our land slept. Lizards dashed from one sandstone crevice to another dodging my attempts to capture them and keeping a wary eye to the sky to keep from being snatched by one of the many hawks that circled on updrafts looking for prey.
It was many years after I explored our part of the plateau with my grandfather that I flew across it. By that time I had heard about and studied the Colorado Plateau. From the air it became clear that it was not really a plateau. A geology professor told us it was a huge primordial basin ringed by mountains and highlands. He, during one of our frequent field trips, would point vaguely at the landscape around us—like my grandfather—that was larger (130,000 square miles) than any of the rest of the fifty states except Alaska, Texas, California, and Montana. It sprawled across much of eastern Utah, northern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and western Colorado.
Since my childhood in the four-corners I have hiked, ridden horse back, and driven through this diverse place. Few places in the world where I have traveled have ecosystems that vary from peaks that are high enough to support alpine tundra, mesas that seem to leap from the bottoms of deep narrow canyons, and down to the desert shrub systems on the lower elevations along the Colorado River and on marine shale sites in all four states. Much of it is arid but it is not a true desert. The Plateau is home to a high diversity of life. Its varied texture has habitat for rare species in special niches and the abundantly common plants and animals found across this land like the mule deer we watched out of our grade school window.
“Look,” Agüelo said, pointing at the dark door and window of an abandoned Anasazi ruin in a rock niche high above our heads. It was in one of the side canyons of the Colorado River before it was filled with the water of Lake Powell. The Plateau has been home to diverse cultures, like the mysterious paleo-archaic hunters, the Anasazi, and the Fremont. All flourished and then disappeared. Some left beautifully fluted “Clovis Points” in buried camp sites, others their stone houses and the enigma of their rock art. Now it is inhabited by an ethnically and culturally diverse population who call it home.
No one can come to the Plateau and not be moved by the experience. Agüelo and the Plateau shared a texture you can taste and smell. If you rubbed against them you could, through an emotional and intellectual osmotic process, absorb their pulse. If you listen closely you can hear the Plateau breath; you can feel your pulse regulate and try to match its rhythms. The Colorado Plateau is more than a word or a destination, it is a place that defines time and takes time to define. It is a noun, a breathtaking collage of color, texture, and vast unobstructed distances, wrapped into an evolving definition of time.