Mother Spring


For the first time in seven years the Prunus americana (wild plum) along the driveway to the wand shop has fruit. Like the red-black berries of the chokecherry on the north slope, overlooking the ravine, the plum seemed to hang on its branches all through our dry August. Unlike the chokecherries, decimated within minutes by a cluster of starlings on Labor Day, the plums were still hanging when we returned from Pagosa Springs September 8. It has been a good year for fruit. Hikers on the Colorado Trail report abundant wild raspberries. Roadside stands selling late summer peaches from Palisade — a signal feature of holiday — bumped up against back-to-school traffic.

The Three-leaf Sumac and the Western Sandcherry also were fat. They did not respect the paper dictates of our lives, caring nothing that the party boats were no longer in the cove, that the fireworks had gone dark, the tents and swimsuits dried, cleaned, packed away for another year. It was still summer for the sandcherry, their fall colors weeks away. When could we expect the showy reds and salmon-orange of their autumn fireworks? They weren’t saying. It was none of our business. Go back to your books and calendars, they seemed to say. We’re ready when we’re ready.

Western Sandcherry (Prunus besseyi) “Pawnee Buttes”

In fact, I had gone back to the books, even before the sandcherry brought it up. We’d taken a rare vacation this year — a gift to ourselves at sixty, staying five days in a hot springs lodge twenty-five miles from the New Mexico border. There, in the atrium library of the lodge — a few bookshelves above comfortable burgundy armchairs — were eight Tony Hillerman books. I’d read all of them years before, long enough that I no longer remembered who killed who, but not too long to forget the Navajo hero Lt. Joe Leaphorn, and Hillerman’s respectful evocation of the Four Corners territory, Diné Bikéyah, “Navajoland”.

The first book I reread turns on possession of a priceless tribal rug that had woven into it the traumatic story of the Long Walk of the Navajo to imprisonment at Bosque Redondo, the “walk of sorrow” that some anthropologists believe is critical to understanding Navajo identity today. Hillerman’s books go by quickly, but between sessions curled up in the armchair, I wandered outside to the mother spring. She is a fabulous monster. At 131° F,  give or take, she feeds the 23 pools of the resort. A topographical engineer, surveying for the U.S. Army, came across her in 1858, but the Ute people, the Navajo, and their ancestors had known about the big spring for countless generations. The Ute called the spring “Pahgosa”, from the words for “water” and “boiling”.

We retain the names, and sometimes even forget them, of a long history of displacement. Tsoodzil becomes Mount Taylor; the Lakota name for Wounded Knee Creek is too long and obscure to pronounce; we drive through Arapahoe County and cycle through Niwot with a disconnected familiarity. My Western Sandcherry cultivar, the one with the fat berries this year, is called Pawnee Buttes. Names.

Today, Pagosa Springs boasts that it has the deepest geothermal spring in the world. It has been certified by the Guinness Book of World Records (in the unbookish today, Guinness World Records). In fact, no one knows how deep the mother spring is. The hydrologist who measured it in 2011 had a 1002-foot plumb line. It ran out before hitting bottom. I imagined him standing in the Ute’s 131° pah-gosa with a pained and disappointed expression, but photos show him at the edge instead, quite unboiled.

On returning, I’ve been thinking about how important the 19th century French-Canadian and French-American traders and trappers had been in the pioneer days of my own valley, and how much they had been erased. Laporte is a French word, the “door” (more informally in translation, the gateway) to the mountains north and west of the South Platte River, where it flows off the Front Range towards Nebraska. Some years back, oddly (if you knew little about Fort Collins history; still oddly, in its incongruous placement) a statue of Antoine Janis was erected at the corner of Horsetooth and Shields.

Statue of Antoine Janis, French-American settler

The plaque behind the statue’s base notes that Janis was born in Missouri and that he was the first known permanent white settler in Northern Colorado, but little else is said — nothing about the fact that his father was French, that his mother was mixed race, and that his wife was First Elk Woman of the Oglala Sioux. Nothing about the fact that when his wife was forcibly relocated to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in 1878, he followed her, along with most of the rest of the French/Indian families who had founded and settled this gateway to the Rockies. John Provost, born in Montreal, stayed. Again, appearances are deceiving, whether deliberately or accidentally. John and Mary Provost could well be on the rolls of a whites-only country club, if you only glanced at the names in passing. But in doing so, you would overlook the fact that Mary was also the Sioux woman White Owl, and that her parents were Cheyenne.

As Rose L. Brinks notes in her excellent book History of the Bingham Hill Cemetery, “[The] 1878 exodus explains why there are no continuous French-Canadian/Indian families living in the area today.” Not the descendants of Janis and Provost, and not the great-great-grandchildren of Alphonse LaRocque, buried on Bingham Hill, whose wife left the area the year following his death, because…well, because she also was Oglala Sioux, and now a widow with a daughter. Much of the “exodus” we apparently owe to some trouble George Armstrong Custer got into two years before, near the Little Bighorn River, and the resulting resentment.

Headstone of Alphonse LaRocque, Bingham Hill Pioneer Cemetery

The mother spring, like sorrow, seems bottomless. The plumb line of pain runs out. It unspools in our hands until there is nothing further to feed. Just unease, a primal confusion replacing excitement. There! Did it touch? No. The line hangs on its own weight in the milk-blue heat, bumping against nothing, sending no response up the line to expectant fingers. We fish in our memories and our guilt and catch nothing because we have relocated our past. Nothing calls us back from the deep.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s