Quiet Country, and the Sounds Inside It
Hanging Out in Bluff
Sunset in Bluff is accompanied by the sounds of a barking dog and dinner plates being passed. Few cars make it down the main street - the town is small enough to just walk around - and almost no one is passing through. Bluff is so far from everywhere that if you aren't where you need to be by now, you likely won't get there tonight, anyway. So hunker down for the night.
Over at Recapture Lodge, a local expert is giving a lecture and slide show about some of the ruins and rock art panels that surround the area. The crowd, a polite group of hotel guests, listens attentively and asks good questions.
Back in Recapture in the morning, I pick up a book of poems titled, The Logic of Broken Country, and one poem strikes me:
On the Wings of an Owl
Mexican Hat, Christmas Eve, 1997
By Eric Walter
(This poem is copyrighted and used with permission. Some of Eric's poetry is available at www.powells.com)
There's a quiet
on the highway tonight.
A half metal moon
is strapped on the charcoal sky
and stars (not headlights)
flash across the steel
that spans the ancient ravine.
You can actually hear the hiss
of the river down below,
as floating ice scrapes
at the green water's edge.
You can hear the mischievous whispers
of old stray cats that prowl
the crumbling limestone cliffs,
scratching for food
and perhaps a little warmth.
on the highway tonight
(all the engines are shut down)
and you can hear the swirling currents
in the canyon
on the wings of an owl.
The poem, after a third reading, reminds me of a small placard posted in our room's bathroom. I don't remember all that it said, but basically the sign admonished guests to turn their TV's down after 10 p.m. 'Remember,' said the part of the sign I do remember, 'this is quiet country.'
Bluff is in the heart of quiet country that seems at times to want to scream, it is so quiet and powerful. Town lies in old river bottoms formed by the meandering San Juan, a tributary to the Colorado and Gulf of California and Pacific Ocean. The river gurgles just beyond the end of town, though it's hard to hear it for all the rustling of cottonwood leaves. Beyond the river hulks the Navajo Nation.
The river and its wetlands and riparian areas form an oasis that teems with wildlife and beauty here in the low desert. Beaver burrow into river banks or dam small channels. Great blue herons, snowy egrets ('No regrets,' late Utah poet Larry Levis said of the birds) and white-faced ibis hang out on the shore while all manner of falcons, hawks and vultures soar around the cliff tops above. Two endangered fish, the Colorado squawfish and the humpbacked sucker have been found in the river here. Above the river, slickrock badlands lead south towards the low sandy red deserts of the Four Corners and Monument Valley. North, giant steps lead up to spectacular formations like Comb Ridge, Valley of the Gods, Grand Gulch and the towering Abajo Mountains.
Recapture Lodge has stood at the heart of all this for about 40 years. It began as an extension to a home with just three rooms and has grown in fits and spurts to about two dozen rooms that stretch away from the road. Now, Jim and Luanne Hook, two knowledgeable and friendly folks, run the place. In the morning, over coffee and bagels, my friend Staci and I chatted with a group of people from New York. They had seen the San Juan River yesterday and were rather underimpressed with its status as a river. In the East, said a man, it would barely qualify as a stream. The Hudson River, he said, now that's a river. It's a mile wide at its mouth, he said. And almost every town in the East has a river like that through it. Why, he wondered, was the San Juan such a revered river but no one really cares about, say, the Connecticut or the Tennessee or the Hudson.
That's a good question. I mused on it as we tanked out of town towards Hovenweep National Monument, into the Navajo Nation and along the banks of the river. It depends who is answering it, but I suspect it has to do not with scenery or productiveness but with discovery and exploration. The San Juan, after all, weds the Colorado and heads into the Grand Canyon. The Connecticut? Where does it go that anyone cares about?
Jim Hook, the hotel owner, gave me a map of Bluff that took up a whole 8x11-inch sheet of paper. On that large of a piece of paper, nearly every home in town was sketched in. The entire population is 293, which would appear to mean that everyone here either works at one of the five hotels or five restaurants or two gas stations, one of which serves as a sort of grocery store.
Bluff got its name, so the story goes, after a unanimous vote taken by a local settling expedition. 'Bluff,' as you might guess, is an obvious, if understated, adjective. (Noun, I suppose, but used as an adjective, I'd go on to argue.) Bluff was the first white-persons town in southeastern Utah to establish reasonably friendly relationships with the Indians. It also served as a strategic outpost of the Mormon church.
Those who settled the sandy riverbanks did a pretty good job. Though I always think small towns have it easier - because there is less to screw up - Bluff is among the more scenic of them. A 'historic loop' winds along the town's two streets and shows off a dozen beautifully preserved homes built in the late 1800s. Their bright colors and often-dainty accouterments stand starkly against the vivid rough red cliffs back of town. Also right in town are the ruins of a Pueblo great house and great kiva and a prehistoric road. Overlooking town is the old (and only) cemetery, home to members of the original settling expedition.
At night I sit outside the motel room, typing on this computer, kept company by the warm battery on my lap and birdsong. Birdsong made me think of something else I heard in the lodge at breakfast: A woman touring the area said one day it was so quiet that she actually heard the flapping of bird wings. She'd seen wings flap before, of course, but had never actually thought the wings had a sound. It was that quiet, she said. And I thought to the polite note back in the room by the bathroom: 'Remember, this is quiet country.'
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