Christopher R. Muscato
The pilgrimage was an expected rite of passage, when one had come of age, and it was acknowledged by most that such travel was best completed with a companion. The ideal companion was someone whose presence would enhance the journey, who would share in the achievement of the destination, and who could understand what it meant to be forever changed by the experience of having traveled. Whether the pilgrimage entailed kayaking through mangrove forests, or climbing a mountain range, or striding over the grasslands, most seventeen-year-olds upon declaring themselves pilgrims declared simultaneously their co-conspirator.
Miles’ experience of having a companion on his pilgrimage, his passage into adulthood, followed a familiar pattern. Together, they had selected the point of embarkation. Together, they had joined a caravan, two pilgrims among two dozen, dispersed across four boats set to navigate the sacred highway. Through the Colorado River system they traveled, penitents of the water. It was a fine choice.
None of this was unusual. What was unique in Miles’ circumstance was that his choice in travel companion hadn’t really been his choice at all. It would be unfair to say his mother chose for him as it was technically a request, one that Miles would never have forgiven himself for rejecting even without his mother’s encouragement. And that is how, instead of traveling with another seventeen-year-old—perhaps Matthew, with whom he had been friends since childhood, or Elena whose friendship had been more recently acquired due to interests shared in late adolescence—Miles was undertaking his pilgrimage with his grandmother.
“Abuela, do you need anything? Water?” Miles leaned towards the old woman, holding up his canteen. She turned, her head rotating at the steadfast pace of an ancient tortoise, her mouth spreading into a toothy smile, heavy wrinkles pinching the corners of her eyes.
“No, Angelito, thank you. I am fine. You enjoy the canyon; I am going to sit and rest a while.”
As Miles left Abuela reclined on the sandbank, he scratched his head. It seemed that all she did was sit and rest—not that she hadn’t earned the right. He took a drink from his canteen and looked around. In front of him was the water, reddish brown and flowing swiftly, if calmly enough, through this stretch; the river was flat and smooth, a slick inlaid floorboard pinched between walls of sandstone towering above. In his seventeen years he had rarely left the city and found the enveloping nature of the canyon of odd comfort. At the edge of this river, the river as far as anyone was concerned, were their boats. “Boats” being a generous term for the vessels; “rafts” was more accurate, although these were hardly the crude vessels of explorers old. Fitted with hover-harnesses to glide over the rapids, even Miles’ eighty-seven-year-old grandmother was able to weather the journey with little difficulty. The pilgrimage demanded a sacrifice of time, not personal safety, nor was it meant to be a thrill ride for the sake of entertainment. As often reminded by their guides, they were pilgrims, not tourists.
Miles pulled at the sleeves of his pilgrimage robes. They made him a little itchy but their effectiveness at protecting his skin from both the desert sun and bloodsucking riparian insects was well worth the comparatively minor irritation. As his fingers traced the hem of his robe, one caught on a thin spot. Only two days ago it had been a gaping hole, a wound inflicted on the garment when Miles caught the edge of a sandstone outcrop. Now, the bio-fabric was already repairing itself, steadily regrowing the connective threads.
“Loading up in five!” The caravan guide shouted. Miles kicked a rock into the river. It disappeared quickly. For weeks, all he had seen was rocks and water.
He sighed and turned, shuffling across the sand bar. It would take a few minutes to help Abuela back into the raft.
“Tonight is our last stop before we reach the first of the Great Shrines,” Brother del Río informed the caravan, the theatrical somberness of his voice enhanced by the sharp shadows cut across his face, the flicker of firelight. He was nice enough, as caravan guides went. Like all the other guides who led pilgrimages here, his life was dedicated in service to the river. This little temple where they rested, carved into the side of the canyon wall as a guesthouse for pilgrims, was as much a home to him as anything else.
Like most of his peers, Miles had been excited to begin his pilgrimage. Or more accurately, he was excited to soon be able to say he had done it, to carry the experience like a badge of honor into adulthood. He looked forward to the journey being a memory, an experience he could share and compare with others for the rest of his life as a part of his community.
Still, Brother del Río’s words sparked a tingling of anticipation in Miles, a hint of something that had thus far eluded him. True, he and Abuela had chosen to start at the Green River embarkment, rather than the Granby Lake point, so they could see the spot where the Rock Springs Accords were signed. As they floated down the Green River through the Flaming Gorge and old Lodore Canyon, the views were dramatic and beautiful. At the Confluence where the Green merged with the Colorado River, itself freshly descended from the Rocky Mountains, they could see the old remnants of dams and pipelines in the still-healing depressions of cleared earth, signs of infrastructure carefully and deliberately removed amid the agricultural transition. Low-water-use vertical farms now discreetly lined those valleys, instead. It was all important, but it seemed so…tidy. That wasn’t the history he’d heard. It wasn’t the messy history he thought he’d be chasing down this river. Perhaps he’d find it at this first Great Shrine.
Miles glanced at Abuela, wondering how she felt about their nearness to the first of the major shrines. Slumped into her camp chair next to the fire, her river trout, beans, and corn tortilla still unfinished, she let out a soft snore.
As promised, they arrived the next day at the base of the shrine and settled into the temple guesthouse. The shrine itself would have to wait, however, because the first order of business was always the same: service.
Miles wondered how his friends were faring on their pilgrimages. He could have been treading on soft feet through ancient forests, clearing dead underbrush with Joaquin, or repairing oyster habitats along the coast with Jessica, but here he was, waist deep in the silty river, piling sand. A lot of it.
Miles’ thoughts drifted from the soil beds he was building at the edge of the river. He scanned the other members of his caravan, several sets of teenagers on their first pilgrimages, as was to be expected, but also a gregarious older widower recommitting his life to a new purpose, some middle-aged couples focusing on service now that their kids had grown, a man in his thirties who kept to himself but definitely seemed to be atoning for something. There was a laugh from around the bend, two of the other teenagers filling the canyon with their jokes as they shifted between productivity and mud-fights. All the teens on this trip had been friendly, but as was the general custom they had all traveled with a close friend and were thus relatively uninterested in forming new partnerships. Miles ran a hand through the water. He had been preparing for this trip his entire life, but now that he was here, without his friends, the experience didn’t live up to expectations.
Miles tried to shake those thoughts from his head, glancing at Abuela sitting on shore with her toes in the water. He was lucky to be here. This wasn’t a vacation, after all. It was his honor and privilege and responsibility, and it was good work. The river landscape was one of constant motion, constant change, and so maintenance efforts existed in a perpetual cycle of repair. The Red Fellowship, the Order of saintly scientists founded at the signing of the Rock Springs Accords, needed all the help they could get. Pilgrims were a source of aid that flowed as reliably as the snowmelt that fueled this river. Miles pushed his thoughts back to his work, furrowing his brow in concentration as he secured the truss and filled it with the soil mixture prepared for coyote willow seedlings.
His renewed focus steered Miles through the morning, and the afternoon brought with it the reward for his vigilance. As the sun, and temperature, rose higher, work was set aside and replaced with fishing and swimming, rest and music, gardening and singing. Things continued in this cycle for several days, until one morning when Brother del Río woke them early and handed them backpacks. The hike up the canyon was difficult—less so for Abuela in her eight-legged walker—but Brother del Río managed to provide engaging commentary on the visible layers of rock, pointing out their beautiful features and fossils, as well as the enterprising plants and animals tucked into crevices in the stone. Wild roses and small-flowered columbines poked through the ferns of hanging gardens that burst from grotto-esque alcoves, carved into the canyon walls by spring water seeping through the sparkling sandstone. Brother del Río indicated the herons stalking the shoreline below, fissures where white-throated swifts darted, the calls of pinyon jays from the scrublands above, and he was even able to locate the abandoned nest of a spotted owl.
Miles’ muscles ached and burned as the group reached the top, but the hike left his spirits high. His eyes widened as the assembly approached a glistening sculpture, oohs and ahhs whispered among the penitents. Brother del Río stepped forward, held out his canteen, and poured some of its contents on the gilded statue. Over polished curves the water flowed, draining into the canyon and trickling down the grainy walls.
“Look at these formations, twists and bends in the sandstone polished by water over millennia,” Brother del Río gestured into the gorge. Miles’ neck strained as he peered out, eyes sliding over the glistening grains of petrified sand, dipping in the dark pockets and through the delicate arches carved by time.
“The history of this canyon, of these entire lands, is a history defined by water,” Brother del Río stared towards the river far below. “Water sculpted this masterwork from stone, and humanity used that same tool to drown it. Why was the dam built?”
Miles raised his hand. He’d learned these lessons by heart.
“The river was too unreliable for the intensive needs of agriculture and urban development, so people dammed it to build a reservoir,” he recited, eyes only briefly flashing sideways to gauge his grandmother’s approval. Brother del Río nodded.
“The Colorado has a silty runoff that made development difficult downriver, so the dam slowed the current and all that sediment settled at the bottom of the lake. We’re still restoring natural pathways for the water today, clearing out all that sediment. Of course, that’s rich soil for our plants, which is good, but if all the sediment was deposited here, then what was left for the river downstream?”
Heads bobbed throughout the small congregation. Legends of the depleted Colorado, the dying vegetation and desiccated banks, were well known, ghost tales that haunted the living. Miles knew these stories as well as anyone, but it was still interesting to hear them described by the eloquent and practiced voice of Brother del Río, here at the Great Shrine, the very spot where the dam once stood. Following the Rock Springs Accords, it was this dam that was the first to be formally dismantled.
Miles peered over the ledge, the oldest of ancestors speaking to him through the instinct of self-preservation. The river was so distant, so far below. It was so hard to envision the entirety of this wondrous canyon submerged.
Luckily, Miles’ imagination didn’t have to do much work because Brother del Río thumped his fist on a button on the shrine and suddenly the canyon was transformed, the dam repaired, the lake refilled. People gasped as the precarious rim of the canyon became a shoreline. Miles peered through the semi-translucent mirage, studying the features of the canyon below. All those beautiful arches and contours, those millions of years archived into bands of red and pink stone, the ecosystems at the river’s edge and along the canyon walls, all underwater. It seemed such a great tragedy.
“How could they not see what they were losing?” he wondered aloud as he took a step back.
“There’s no greater treasure in the desert than water, Angelito, and it is human nature to hoard our treasures. It is never until later that we realize we have become dragons, scorching the earth in our greed.” Abuela’s voice came from behind him. Miles spun, ears turning red as he realized he was being neglectful in his duties.
“Abuela, let me help you closer to the edge so you can see the hologram.”
“No, Angelito,” she waved a hand. “It’s okay. I’ve seen it before.”
By the time the golden warmth of the morning sun touched the canyon rim the next day, setting into motion a fiery awakening down the sandstone walls, the caravan was already packed and setting their rafts adrift into the river. With a final glance over his shoulder, Miles started to lift the memoculars to his eyes, but stopped. He wanted to remember the canyon as it was now, a canyon and not a lake.
The memoculars, distributed by Brother del Río that morning, were a portable extension of the technology used to view the old reservoir, and the monastic river guide encouraged their use throughout the remainder of the journey. Miles held the device to his eyes as they passed a marker indicating the remnants of a dismantled pipeline and saw the canyon as it had looked when this pipeline was active: the water lower, tamed, the vegetation lesser. They would pass many more markers on their journey.
Down the river they traveled, paddling softly over calm waters and leaning with the raft when it tipped and bobbed through the rapids. Secure in her elevated stabilizer seat, Abuela giggled at the fiercest whitewater, hands in the air and red in her cheeks.
They never left the canyon, yet the view never became monotonous, never ceased to inspire. Again, Miles thought of the towering structures back home, each edifice different and each a part of a seamless cityscape. Here, every bend revealed new wonders just as magnificent, carved and polished and washed and eroded, all made by the same artist. As Brother del Río often said, water was the greatest architect in the desert.
Then, they passed through a wide channel and the river turned. If Miles had been impressed by the lithic architecture surrounding him before, he was now awestruck. The canyon, aptly named, was simply grand.
The caravan stopped often along their route, moving with no haste, examining caves cut into the base of the rock, or learning about once-endangered fish that Brother del Río now netted with relative ease and then released back into clear waters. At nights they camped on sandbars or in temple guesthouses, performing works of service to assist the Order in their maintenance of the riparian ecosystem.
Miles found himself fascinated more and more by the river, its movement and rhythm, the life it sustained, the way it carved its presence through millions of years of compacted sands. He spent his free time hiking or paddling, the memoculars always in hand. There were countless opportunities to use them, and Miles observed that as the caravan put more distance between themselves and the old reservoir, these smaller dams and pipelines were dismantled with increasingly less care. Pieces of concrete and steel stuck out of the canyon’s edge. In some places there were marks that looked like burn scars. The big dam’s deconstruction was overseen by a team of expert engineers. These downriver demolitions had been done by hastier, and angrier, hands.
Miles often offered the use of the memoculars to Abuela. She declined every time.
“No, Angelito,” she would say. “I prefer to see it as it is now.”
Miles frowned as Abuela teetered back towards the temple guesthouse, having once again refused a chance to view an old irrigation channel through the memoculars. At home, Abuela loved to teach about history, their history, the history of the river. She talked about it constantly. Miles was raised with her voice always in his ear, filling his mind with stories of the desert drying out, people drawing more and more from the one reliable source of life until it no longer had any life of its own. She told him and his younger siblings about the dams and reservoirs, the dismantling of those structures, the Rock Springs Accords. She told him how she had left her hometown, how she had moved around many places, how years later her daughter brought her to the city, a city of angels, how she never felt like the city deserved that name until he was born. Her angelito.
Now, Abuela disappeared during many of Brother del Río’s history lessons, focusing her time instead on weaving or grounding maize to help the temple monastics. She fidgeted on the rafts and paced at the water’s edge while on shore. At nights, Miles could hear her tossing, mumbling in her sleep.
The caravan spent a full two weeks at the next Great Shrine, situated at the one part of the canyon where a small reservoir remained in order to sustain cities in the desert, although it was much better managed now and so much less water was drawn from it. It was on their final night there that Brother del Río gathered them around the fire.
“We are entering the final stretch of our journey,” he began, a simple statement that struck Miles with a profound sense of the passage of time. Had so many weeks already passed, and so much distance? He thought back to his initial nerves, anxieties, hesitation, and resentment at the departure from the Green River headwaters.
“Before we leave here,” said Brother del Río, “I’d like you all to spend time with the memoculars. I’ve uploaded images of the Colorado River delta from the days of the river’s overuse. Hold these in your mind as we complete this final passage, following the river to its terminus at the gulf, and think about what has changed. I’ve also uploaded scenes from communities on this stretch of the river. Imagine what life was like for those who relied on a source of water that was being overwhelmed, overused.”
Sitting on the shore under countless stars that night, Miles did as instructed. Scanning through the holograms, his mouth went dry and his eyes watered. When he finally lowered the memoculars, the moon had risen to its zenith high above. Full and radiant, its reflection cast a sparkling shroud onto the river. In this blanket of stars was Abuela. There she stood, motionless, hands in the water. When Miles splashed into the river, she turned and waded back to shore, and without a word returned to the temple guesthouse.
Day after day they paddled, following the river. Abuela was quieter and quieter, one hand always dipped in the water as if she had become afraid of drying out. Miles’ attention was split between concern for her and fascination with the markers, which were numerous and increasingly indicated sites of violent, rebellious destruction.
Along streams that split from the river and in wide valleys they began to catch glimpses of ancient structures, abandoned wooden frames sinking into the riverbed, derelict barns and houses listing towards disappearance. Images from the memoculars jumped to Miles’ thoughts, scenes of small farming communities choking on dust, suffocating under heat as the river reduced to a trickle. Pueblos desecados, Brother del Río called these ghost towns. Miles knew the term, but they were more folklore than anything tangible in his experience. To see them, these skeletons of lost communities poking from the marshy valleys, was like encountering a wandering spirit searching for rest, something dead trapped in the world of the living until reclaimed by the waters and released.
The first time they passed one such pueblo desecado, Miles shifted from his oar to make sure Abuela had heard the announcement, but she only turned her head, staring at the water. Water, now plentiful and swift, roaring in triumph where once it had been depleted.
Finally, they passed a point Brother del Río informed them was something once known as a border and reached the last of the three Great Shrines of the pilgrimage. The place where it all started, where the first dam fell, where the Red Water Rebellion began. Miles’ mouth gaped as he stood at the base of the former barricade, now only a pile of rocks. Such simple stones, aggrandized through years of lore and legend, their significance carried a far greater weight than the total sum of the individual blocks.
When Miles turned from the stones, Abuela was already shuffling into the temple guesthouse.
The sun began to set, and Miles found himself restless. Abuela loved history, and this history in particular. It mattered, and it mattered to her. It bothered him that she was missing so much of it, and this most of all. He was determined to convince her to share this with him, to share her stories again, to teach him. He went into the guesthouse bunks, but Abuela was not there. He checked the kitchens, the gardens, the library, and found no trace of her. One of the temple attendants, however, had seen her walking west into the desert.
Cold beads of sweat forming on his neck, Miles sprinted after her, his path illuminated by a small flashlight and the waning moon.
Within minutes, Miles’ flashlight fell over pieces of metal, bits of brick, elements of roads and buildings. In his haste he barely had time to register these artifacts. Within a half hour, he arrived, panting, in the remains of an abandoned town, blocks of crumbling cinderblock and twisted remains of rebar jumping like ghosts from the shadows as his flashlight passed over them.
“Abuela!” He shouted, nearly dropping the flashlight as the beam illuminated the old woman standing outside the withered frame of a house. Miles sprinted to her side, then slowed as he heard her weeping.
“Abuela?” He extended a hand, and as it touched her shoulder hers came up to meet it.
“I have come home, Angelito.”
Miles’ eyes slowly widened, mouth gaping, features reshaped by dawning comprehension.
“You mean, this is…” He stuttered. Abuela nodded, squeezing his hand.
“Yes, mijo. This pueblo desecado is where I was born. This is the house where I lived.”
Several moments of dry silence passed before she spoke again.
“We should have left years before. We knew the region was collapsing. So many towns had already been abandoned. No water, little food. The heat, the drought worse each year, crops failing.”
She turned to him, eyes glistening under the dim moon.
“After my sister died, my father took me to the river delta. We walked across the riverbed, sand so dry it broke under our feet. My father brought me to a place where a river meets a sea, water meeting water, life meeting life, and all I saw was dust. The red clay was parched with thirst, and I knew that this was the future. Many more would die in this desert, thirsting for water stolen from the land and our people by all those damned reservoirs and canals and pipelines. There was nothing left to reach the sea. We abandoned our pueblo the next day, and did not return. And though I have never been back to that delta, it has long been on my mind.”
Her voice cracked as she turned back to the house.
“I was sixteen, just a year younger than you are now. You have seen many markers along this river, but there is no marker where my friends and I made the decision. There are no shrines where we organized the children of all the pueblos desecados, no monuments where we taught ourselves to build the explosives, where we laid our plans to destroy the dam, where we became outlaws, fugitives, revolutionaries. The day my sister died, the day my pueblo died, that was when the Red Water Rebellion was born, Angelito. Our war against desiccation.”
With these final words she broke into heavy sobs, falling to the ground. Miles knelt next to her until all her tears were spent, an offering of water sacrificed to the dusty ground.
“Help me back to the temple, Angelito.” She said, sniffling. Miles helped her stand. She turned and walked away, and did not look back.
The return to the temple, built in the ruins of the demolished dam, passed in silence. Abuela cast one final glance at the river before kissing Miles on the head and stepping up the temple ramp.
“Abuela, wait,” Miles said. He didn’t know where the idea came from. Maybe the river whispered it into his ears.
Miles took his grandmother’s hand and led her to the edge of the water. He quietly untied a boat and helped her board. Without a word of questioning or explanation, the pair drifted into the night, clandestine pilgrims aboard their commandeered vessel.
Miles engaged the emergency engines, for this was an emergency, and they raced the current downriver. More pueblos desecados flashed in their periphery under the moonlight, ghosts in a graveyard. With each it seemed that Abuela became more awake, a light shining in her eyes, and she began to tell Miles stories of her hometown, of the rebellion that enveloped the entire arid West, of speeches that inspired communities throughout the depleted drainage basin to rise in defense of the dying river. She laughed as she described peace treaties with governments and diplomats, state officials brought low and forced to negotiate with teenagers. She held her head high and detailed the signing of the Rock Springs Accords that ended the rebellion and established the most ambitious river restoration plan in history, turning the Colorado from the most overmanaged river system in the continent to one of the most protected ecosystems in the hemisphere. She reflected on the honor of being asked to remove the first stone from the great dam to the north, after having destroyed so many others by force. She smiled fondly through memories of building new communities along the river. When her daughter was born years later, Abuela was still traveling from community to community, implementing the Accords. She never settled in any of them. Her daughter later married, moved to the city, and finally brought Abuela to live with her. It was the first real home Abuela had since her own was abandoned. Displacement is more than a fact of geography. It follows a person much further.
Miles listened with rapt attention. He laughed with Abuela at jokes from days long gone, cried with her at pains never washed away, this pilgrimage all their own carrying them through the night.
As the darkness softened, Miles noticed a change in the river. A single, great current for most of their months-long journey, the river was now parting into braids, threads that wove in and out of each other, spreading into a great tapestry.
“Abuela,” he whispered. She had become quiet as the waters slowed and he worried she may have fallen asleep, but the old woman turned with bright eyes, open wide. Dawn broke and light cascaded over the estuary, over mesquite trees shaking their branches in the morning breeze, over salt grass waving from the shoreline, over wading birds that stepped quietly through emerald waters where concentric rings indicated fish snapping insects off the surface. The delta, here where the great Colorado met the salty gulf, was rich with life.
A sob caught in Abuela’s throat, tears welled in her eyes, and before Miles could protest she leapt from the boat and splashed into the water.
“Abuela!” Miles shouted. He was answered by the sound of laughter and leaned over the edge of the boat to see Abuela floating in the current. He smiled, and looked upstream. The waters had reached the end of their journey, washing dust and stones from the highest peaks of the Rocky Mountains down to the gulf. Here, it seemed something in Abuela was washed away too. He watched the sunrise, not thinking about how they were going to explain this to Brother del Río or how long it would take to get the raft back upstream. He thought only of the water, of all it had carved.
Miles took a deep breath, reveling in the marshy delta air filling in his lungs, then closed his eyes and fell backwards into the water next to Abuela.
Christopher R. Muscato (he/him) is a writer and dad of twins from Colorado, USA. He is a Terra.do climate fellow, winner of the inaugural XR Wordsmith Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase, and former writer-in-residence of the High Plains Library District. His fiction can be found here and there, among other places.