Road report: Reflections on coming home

When Richard and I woke in Moab on Friday morning, we fully intended to drive home that day. It’s only 300 miles, a fairly easy drive compared to our 4,000+-mile tour of the inland West and the Pacific Coast.

But first we stopped at Back of Beyond Books, a landmark for readers of western literature, and owner Andy Nettel was so warmly welcoming, I almost settled right in. Then when we turned onto Utah 128 outside town to follow that winding two-lane along the Colorado River, I spotted the new pedestrian/bicycle bridge, and stopped to get out and look at the mighty river flowing by, all colorado, “colored” olive-green by the sediment it carries. What we saw under the bridge caused us to slow down and reflect on what we each take home from this belated honeymoon trip.

The dense ribbons along either side of the river looked like a miracle. A green fur of native willows and other riverside shrubs sprouted where once nothing grew but invasive tamarisk or salt-cedar, trees native to Asia that over the past five decades have infested western waterways like kudzu vines taking over southern forests. Salt-cedar gulps water, lowering precious flows in desert streams and springs, crowds out native species, increases the chance of wildfires, and its salty rain of leaves degrades vital riparian (waterside) habitat.

The recently dominant salt-cedar were dead or dying (the gray skeletons on the upper left corner of the photo above), defoliated by a beetle imported specifically for that purpose. Growing up through their no-longer-dense canopies were native shrubs full of insects and birds, reclaiming their riverside habitat. Swallowtail butterflies flitted past; a chat, a large warbler, chattered from the willows right below the bridge, as a yellow warbler chased insets between sprouting shrubs. With a little help from the imported beetles, the natives were coming back on their own, and how!

We walked back to the car and drove the winding two-lane along the curving river between walls of orange and red sandstone, elated at the healthy green ribbon of habitat returning to the riverbanks.

It reminded us forcefully that miracles are possible, and this is one we never thought we would see.

The rest of the drive that day, up and across the shadscale desert and back to the rush of traffic on I-70, east through the sprawl of Grand Junction, Colorado, and then south again on US 50, I thought about our trip while Richard snoozed in the seat next to me. Until I stopped at a pullout with a view of Grand Mesa rising out of the desert.

“Look,” I said to Richard. “The aspens are beginning to turn gold.” He opened his eyes, looked and smiled.

“They are,” he said. “Happy fall!”

And then it hit me: “Why are we rushing home when we could take another day or two and see the aspens?” I asked. “We don’t have any deadlines. We’re on vacation.”

We debated about various digressions, and finally settled on stopping for the night in Delta, a small farming town where the North Fork meets the Gunnison River, and then turning east the next day for the slow route over Kebler Pass, home to some of the largest aspen groves in Colorado, between Paonia and Crested Butte.


Which is why we didn’t arrive home until Saturday, after winding our way over Kebler Pass on a dusty dirt road threaded through millions of white aspen trunks, the leaves overhead turning from green to flame-bright gold, the volcanic peaks of the West Elk Mountains rising high above.


We stopped in Crested Butte for a late lunch of curry at Pitas in Paradise, an oasis of reasonably priced and delicious food in that resort town, and finally made it over Monarch Pass and home to our own valley late in the afternoon. We unpacked the car and settled in just in time for a glorious sunset.


What do we bring home from our 4,000+-mile odyssey through some of the West’s most spectacular scenery? Richard is determined to use his limited energy to get back to work on his sculpture, challenges be damned. And I am determined to find more time for writing in the midst of his care. I have things to say, stories to tell.

And we are both reminded of how lucky we are to live where the sky turns bright as roses at sunset, the community gathers ’round to support us in this journey with Richard’s brain cancer, and wildflowers bloom in our once-blighted industrial front yard.

Miracles happen, so often when we least expect them. Thanks for being part of our miracle.