The Forest for the Trees

The picture below was taken from an elevated walkway leading to an office building in Marietta, Georgia. I’m amazed at how tall and lush the forests here are, and how they maintain their density, even in the city.

Tall Trees
In Colorado, trees don’t grow anywhere close to this height, especially deciduous trees like these. Due to the lack of moisture and low air density, trees simply can’t grow this tall up there. To me, Georgia seems humid, though not unbearably so; everything’s green and vibrant. The people here, though, are desperate for rain, so this must be a comparatively dry Georgia summer.

Meanwhile, it looks like Colorado is going to have another tinderbox year, with several spring fires already torching thousands of acres.

Yesterday was the summer solstice, as my wonderful wife pointed out to me in an e-card this morning. Unfortunately, that means my home state is just beginning to reach its hot season.

That kind of gives a depressing meaning to the words “keep the home fires burning.”

Brother Falls after 20 years

I mentioned yesterday that I had taken a business trip to Phoenix.  I drove, and on the way back I stopped in the town where I grew up, Durango, Colorado.  I’ll be going there again next month for my twenty year high school reunion.

One of the things I wanted to do while in Durango was visit my favorite spot on Earth, a pair of waterfalls in La Plata Canyon.  I don’t know if these falls have a real name, but I refer to them as Brother Falls.  (If they do have a real name, I don’t want to know it.)  They are located up on the mountainside, away from the road, and that’s about as detailed as I want to get.  Perhaps I’m selfish, but this spot is sacred enough to me that I don’t want to give away its specific location.  There are other, more spectacular views in the San Juan mountains; let people visit those.  But I claim this spot as my own, however deluded that may be.

That said, I would like to recreate an event that happened twenty years ago, and take you with me on that little journey.  The photos below are from a month ago, but not much has changed except that the spring runoff was heavier then than it was this year.

(Please allow all photos to load completely.  All photos © Stace Johnson, 2003)

Heading up the deer trail.  It’s steeper than it looks!

Twenty years ago, just before I graduated high school, my brother and I found a couple of waterfalls while hiking on a family picnic.  He was twenty-seven and I was seventeen.  He had driven up from Phoenix to attend my graduation, and I was fortunate to have the time to spend with him.  We hiked the steep deer trails up the mountainside and, through the trees, saw a small waterfall.

If you look carefully, you can see the lower waterfall in the distance,
between the aspen trunks.

We continued up the deer trail, hoping it would curve back toward the falls.  It did, and crossed over the tailings of an abandoned mine.  My brother, being older and somewhat wiser than me, convinced me that we shouldn’t get too close to the mine, so we moved on.  Unfortunately, the deer trail switched back again, and didn’t seem to be heading the direction we wanted to go.

Two shots of the abandoned mine.  The flash washed out some of the detail in the second photo,
and probably angered some woodland creature inside the mine.

We left the trail and started working our way across to the falls, only to find that there was another, larger waterfall above the first.  We rested on a large rock at the top of the lower falls, watching the water flow beneath us.  A snow bank hung in the shadows, under the trees across from us.  Water disappeared under one side of the bank and emerged from the other, then cascaded over the lip of the lower falls.

The upper waterfall of Brother Falls.

The rock shelf between the falls.
Shot is looking up the mountain from the top of the lower falls.

The runoff was strong that year, and my brother and I just sat, not talking, enjoying the sound of the falls crashing above and below us, smelling the mix of evergreens and water.  I don’t remember ever feeling more centered than at that moment.

The lower falls.

After a while, we squeezed ourselves through the brush to the base of the upper waterfall.  It roared at us, challenging us to climb the slippery cliff next to it.  We took the challenge and climbed up the cliff face, occasionally putting a hand or foot into the water to get enough purchase to move upward.  (I didn’t say we were wise, just that he was somewhat wiser than me.)

Looking up from the base of the upper falls, just prior to climbing the small cliff
to the right.  The first time I did this, there was a LOT more water.

Looking down from the top of the upper falls.

We did make it to the top, and were rewarded with a beautiful, misty vista.  The canyon glowed with sunlight reflected from the aspen leaves.

La Plata Canyon as viewed from atop Brother Falls.

We rested there again until we heard our father’s voice calling from the aspens, wondering if we were okay.  We cut across the cliff top until we found a way down, and were soon following the switchbacks of the deer trail past the old mine again.  We met our father, out of breath and a bit worried, on the trail and told him about the waterfalls while he rested.  Then we all hiked back to the road at the bottom of the canyon, thinking the trail wasn’t nearly as steep as it had seemed going up.  I felt as if I had been in the presence of a deity for those couple of hours.

The La Plata River, looking up La Plata Canyon.

Thirteen years later, my brother passed away due to complications of lymphoma.  He ran a high risk of contracting lymphoma because he also had Sjögren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder with symptoms similar to both lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.  Before he died, we discussed how he wanted his affairs to be handled.  He was adamant that he wanted to be cremated, and that he wanted his ashes spread in the mountains.  I could think of no better place to put his spirit to rest than Brother Falls in La Plata Canyon.

Now you know why I consider this spot to be sacred, and why I don’t want to know the actual name of these falls.  I always considered the spot to be powerful and replenishing, and I consider it even more sacred now that my brother’s spirit resides there.

A small riverside meadow in La Plata Canyon.



The high mountain Earth seeps
Blood-red mud
After her molybdenum

The rapist does
Nothing but chuckle
And ask, “Did you

— Stace Johnson, 1987


A note about this poem:

A couple of people have mentioned to me that this poem bothered them because of the rape references, so I decided I’d better create some context.

On the route from Denver to Durango via Leadville lies the Climax Molybdenum Mine. Tailings ponds from the mine step down the valley on the north side of the mountain, and on one trip through there I was disgusted by the lack of respect for the area’s natural beauty. As I rounded a corner, a spring bubbled out of the ground by the road, soaking the iron-rich soil and turning it a deep, dark red.

From here, you can probably put all the pieces together, and see that this is really not a poem about violent male-female interaction, but about the negative aspects of large scale mining.