I’m hiking down a dry riverbed on a cold morning in winter, and with each step my boots make a sharp sound in the gravel. This is Cimarron Crossing, where travelers along the Santa Fe Trail had a serious choice: They could continue up the Arkansas River on the mountain route, which would take them to Bent’s Old Fort and then south over the Raton pass. Or, they could choose the middle crossing. They might ford the river here, or at points nearby, and follow the Cimarron Route, which was shorter but had less water and poorer grass, often called “The Waterscrape.” Neither route was easy, and the consequences of a bad choice could mean hardship or even death.
The river today would be unrecognizable to those travelers who paused here beneath the trees on the north bank and weighed their choices. With the absence of surface water, the cottonwoods that once marked the course of the river across the plain and provided the weary with a bit of shade are gone. The last anyone can remember seeing the river here—the real river, in which you could wade and picnic along the bank or catch a fish for your dinner—was in the late Seventies. Instead of a river now there is a dry bed, heavily rutted by the passage of ATVs and four-wheel-drives. An occasional tumbleweed rolls down the bed, driven by the wind.
But even this symbol of the Old West would have been unknown to travelers on the Santa Fe Trail, because tumbleweeds are an invasive species. Another invader that came late is the scrubby saltcedar, originally imported to America as an ornamental bush. As it eventually spread across the American southwest, this “thirsty plant” was blamed for drying up rivers and killing indigenous species. But a 2009 study suggests that hatred of the saltcedar is misplaced. By diverting surface water and depleting ground water stores, we have changed the ecosystem necessary to support the native trees. The cottonwood and other species are at a disadvantage when compared to the drought-resistant and salinity-tolerant saltcedar. It isn’t the saltcedar that’s been killing the cottonwoods; we have.
The Arkansas River is so saline when it comes into the state that it’s unfit to drink. This change in water quality has taken place in the last few decades, and is a result of the way in which we’ve changed the river. We’ve altered its natural recharge by damming and pumping, by storing water for agriculture, and sending water to cities along the Front Range.
As I hiked along the dry bed near Cimarron Crossing, I paused to take some photos of the massive trunk of a fallen cottonwood. This tree, I thought, might have been alive when travelers along the Santa Fe Trail forded here. But a red-tailed hawk, perched nearby, eyed me with cold birdlike disdain, mocking my romanticism. The hawk’s russet plumage was made suddenly golden by a ray from the low winter sun.
As I raised my camera, the bird flew, an opportunity lost.
I slung the camera back over my shoulder and kept hiking. But something in the back of my mind was nagging. So I stopped, pulled a notebook from my pocket, and began to write. We are the most invasive species, I began. But unlike other species, we have the ability to choose, to sacrifice a bit now for the common good of all, or to embrace narrow and short-term self-interest—and ultimately, self-destruction. What’s there left to fight for after the last of the wild is gone? Without nature, all talk is just eulogy.
But the river will come back one day—whether in generations or in geologic ages, it will return. The question is, will any of us be around to see it? Or will the only living witness be the hawks with their hard bright eyes?
Max McCoy is an author and journalist and an associate professor at Emporia State. The excerpt is from Elevations, a book-in-progress about the Arkansas River, from the headwaters down to the plains.