Exploring Red Canyon

On February 6, 2021, Ted, Oggie, and I drove down Highway 276, turned onto the Red Canyon road, passed the Red House dugout where Red House Annie once lived, and headed north up a rocky track toward a mesa with no name, a large plateau not far from the Tables of the Sun.

The Red Canyon area, rich in history and geology, is one of our favorite places to explore.

In the early days, it served as one of the corridors for gold miners after they detrained in Green River and made the trek to the San Juan River, but it was uranium, not gold, that John Wetherill discovered in the canyon.

Although he filed a claim in 1898, it wasn’t until the 1940s that uranium mining began in earnest with the Blue Lizard, the Markey, and Radium King becoming some of the most productive mines.

Those mines stopped production in the 1980s when the price of uranium fell, so the canyon was quiet the day we visited.

Ted parked the Jeep and we hiked up a washed-out mining road, passing red boulders, hoodoos, Brigham tea, and stunted junipers until we approached the green and purple clay slopes where vegetation became even sparser.

We walked for a couple of hours toward, we assumed, an old mine, but the road kept going and going. When we stopped to reconnoiter, we could see it disappear around a distant point, so we started back toward the Jeep, leaving the mining road to explore the clay slopes.

Clay, especially if it has small, marble-like rocks or shale scattered across the surface, can be difficult to walk on, but it contains geologic wonders, including green and purple rocks, dinosaur bones, petrified wood, geodes, stones that look like calcified deer droppings, thin sheets of gray rock that resemble pages in a gigantic book, mica, and chunks of quartz.

We photographed pieces of petrified wood, awed by the fact that it takes at least a hundred years to become stone –often much, much longer.

The transformation occurs when a tree is buried, leaving its structure intact and resistant to decay. Over time, groundwater minerals, usually silica, replace the organic cells.

The replacement may be so complete that tree rings, bark, and even insect holes are retained in the multi-colored, crystal-studded rock, and, much to my delight, nature isn’t stingy with her crystals, producing transparent, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and black ones.

Along with the petrified wood, we stopped to look at geodes which had been so battered we could see their crystalline interiors.

The geodes, which are considered poor quality in the No Name Mesa area, are also formed from mineral-laden moisture flowing into a porous rock’s cavity. The water evaporates, leaving the minerals, and the cycle is repeated until the minerals begin to grow, sometimes filling the hollow completely.

By the time I began to ponder the effect of an area so filled with crystals, we came across evidence of a mining camp.

Along with 7-Up bottles, mason jars, and rusted cans, Ted found a broken glass teacup with a delicate handle and an embossed diamond pattern. The purple cup’s incongruity in the middle of the red desert stopped me in my tracks.

As I held it in my hands, quieted my mind, and closed my eyes, I wondered if I could slide into the reality of the person who had brought it here.

Perhaps the miners had pulled trailers onto this no man’s land, and the newly married woman had only the trailer’s thin metal skin between her and the vast desert sky to keep the unknown at bay while she cooked on the propane stove and set the foldaway table with glass dishes, her effort to bring beauty, refinement, and love into the rough mining life.

After the teacup broke and she threw it onto the trash pile, her heart must have broken along with it.

Holding the beautiful cup reminded me that sometimes more than dishes are discarded.

When I first started working at the college, I taught a young woman who had a limited grasp of written English. Fresh from a traditional higher education system, I felt dismayed and unsure how to teach her reading and writing essentials in such a short time.

I didn’t need to worry because after Thanksgiving, she disappeared without completing the term. She reappeared many years later to take another developmental writing class, her English improving in the interim.

During that semester, she wrote an essay describing how her mother had left her as a newborn in a dumpster. She didn’t know how long she remained there, but her frantic cries finally attracted the attention of a couple who rescued and later adopted her.

She had literally been thrown away, yet despite the trauma of not being cherished by her birth parents, she married, had children, and attended college to improve her and her children’s futures.

She became a hero, beautiful in her effort to overcome the past and develop her potential.

The cup turned out to be a Westmoreland English Hobnail (Round Foot) from the Depression era. Broken, yes, thrown away, yes, but still sparkling in the sun like the battered geodes and the petrified wood, transformed by time, weather, and pressure from the ordinary into the extraordinary near a magnificent mesa with no name.

San Juan Record

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