Excerpt from River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster, by Jonathan P Thompson, published by Torrey House Press, 2018. Order your copy now.
I don’t know that I really understood the turmoil of the times in which I was growing up, since I had nothing to compare it to. But moments stick in my mind still, like when an arsonist burned down almost an entire block of commercial buildings on Main Avenue in Durango, killing a firefighter and a police officer. My dad went down to take pictures of the fire and my mom drove us up on to Cemetery Hill to watch the drama unfold. A few years later, we were awoken in the night by the sound of an explosion. The next morning we learned that the owner of a motorcycle shop just across the river from where we lived had been building bombs to blow the place up so he could collect insurance when one of the bombs went off prematurely. Cops swarmed the neighborhood; my friends and I, fancying ourselves amateur sleuths, discovered droplets of dried blood on the sidewalk and on the footbridge across the river.
Sometimes the river ran yellow-gray from tailings spilled upstream, not the color of Tang, but that of Grey Poupon.
I remember the soothing rhythmic sound of my mom’s loom, the staccato of my dad’s typewriter; racing our bikes around the block in the dark; playing hide-and-seek with all the neighborhood kids on summer nights and the euphoric feeling you get just as day slips into night and you’re running for base with all you’ve got and your feet leave the ground and for a second you’re flying, really flying.
Most of my memories from the 1970s, though, are of my mom’s parents’ farm in the Animas Valley several miles north of Durango. Up until I was five or six, they lived in the old house, a rickety place with crooked floors and a thick, scratchy, hemp rope in place of a stair rail. Then they divided off a chunk of the forty acres and built a new house, which seemed luxurious at the time to me, but really was quite modest and small. They moved in there, kept a couple of acres, and sold the rest of the land. So even after they retired, they still lived on the Farm, and still lived a lot like farmers.
And sometimes, especially in the spring after the first cutting of hay, the smell and the light ignite a conflagration of images in my mind, of sensations of the Farm: The way the tiny droplets of water condensed on the side of the metal ice cream container; it is the way the apples hung so heavy on the trees in autumn when we drove underneath in the old white pickup and shook the fruit off to be ground up then pressed in the old cider press; it is the feeling of comfort hiding between rows of corn, the red dirt warm underneath; the smell of her oatmeal cookies baking in the kitchen; the precise, cloying taste of the orange-flavored chocolate my grandpa bought me when we went to the sale barn to buy or sell livestock; it is in the flavor of fresh, homemade strawberry ice cream; it is in the smell of the Avon lotion that she used to put on my hands after I took a bath; it is in her hands, snapping peas; it is in the sound of an irrigation ditch, gurgling its way down to the fields; it is in the smell of hay.
It is that stormy day when I am trying on a shirt that my grandmother bought me. It has pictures of cowboys and horses and just as I snap the last fake-pearl snap lightning flashes and thunder so loud it seems to have come from within my head. We used to play in that haybarn, climb up on the bales so itchy and wobbly and jump and dive and I think a cousin broke her leg up there once. Now a wisp of smoke issues from the roof. My dad and grandpa run down to save the tractor and the neighbor’s boat from inside. It explodes in glorious red-orange flame.
It is a place where, in the evenings in summer, it gets real cool and it gets quiet, just a few cars drive by on the new highway, the frogs chirp, the mosquitos buzz, the red-winged blackbirds talk, and in the distance a dog barks. The ditch gurgles on by and my cousins are laughing and my aunts yell to us to get inside ’cause the mosquito man is coming with the fog of malathion. The apples are small and green still, but the raspberries are ripe.
And far down below the pasture, past the new highway, through the milkweed and asparagus and beyond the cottonwood trees, is the river. It is muttering quietly to itself. Its fish come up from the murky depths for the bugs, and swallows skim the still waters. And it runs slowly here, the river does, oh so slowly.
ORDER your copy of RIVER OF LOST SOULS: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster, by Jonathan P Thompson, published by Torrey House Press, 2018.