Memories of the Animas River Before it Ran Yellow

Yes, we mourn for people, but sometimes we also mourn for places.

We can mourn their loss, when we return after many years have passed and find them gone or transformed. Or we mourn their wounds, as they are devestated by a disaster.

I was born in Colorado and althought my family moved to the east coast not long after my birth, Colorado has always been an important place for me. We returned a few times when I was growing up, but the visit I remember most took place just after my first year of college.

I took a summer philosophy course on ethics and community which included a backcountry camping trip into the Rocky Mountains designed to put what we had been learning into action. The trip started on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad which runs parallel to the Animas River. Our crew jumped off halfway and hiked two days into the San Juan Mountains, up to about 10,000 feet in altitude. We were scheduled to stay up there for a week but a July snow storm, and a bout of food poisoning that struck one of our faculty members, forced an early evacuation.

To get out, we had to cover two days hiking in one day, with a sick member of our group. Throughout that frenzied hike back, all we thought about was that river. We had one chance to make it back to the river in time to get onto the train. If we missed it we would have to spend another night in the woods.

We made it out.

As we rode back down the railroad, we wound around rocky ledges and stared down into the river, which seemed to be sweeping us back to Durango, back toward the hospital for my professor. After a night in the emergency room our professor was on the mend. We were back in Durango with an extra day to spare so we decided to go rafting on the Animus River. After watching it from afar, there was something amazing about riding its rapids and feeling its force.

Today, that river runs yellow, the result of one million gallons of contaminated water being accidentally released by the Environmental Protection Agency from an old gold mine up stream.

I read the stories, and look at the pictures, and I mourn the river. I mourn for the animals that may not survive. I mourn for the communities whose lives and livelihoods are built on its shores. I know that the river will outlive this disaster, and outlive many of us, but I mourn for it all the same.

There are those places where you leave a piece of yourself.
The Animus River is one of those places.

At some point on that trip I traded a piece of my heart for a memory of that place. I picked it up, like a river rock, tumbled smooth by the current, and slipped it into my pocket. But in exchange I left a piece of myself there, in that river. Something sharp, something angular, something that needed to be made smooth.

It is that piece of my heart, left behind but never really forgotten, that aches today.

37 Comments

  1. Doug says:

    There’s a sadness to the original coinage of the name “Rio de las Animas”, River of Souls. The EPA in its hubris has made it the river of Animus. They know everything they say. If the mine that leaked is from the 1920’s how will blame anyone but themselves.

    1. Josh Stearns says:

      Thanks for that note – on the history of the name you should read this great piece from Orion Magazine: https://orionmagazine.org/2015/08/letter-from-colorado-on-the-dirty-deep-seated-origins-of-the-animas-river-spill/

      “Even a closer look at the river’s name reveals something deeper and perhaps more meaningful. It’s thought the first Spaniards to ford the Animas actually dubbed it Rio de las Animas Perdidas, The River of Lost Souls. Truth be told, this early nomenclature is historically speculative, and today we just call it the Animas. But, it seems to me, this river of goo had finally lived up to its fuller appellation. Why? Because the raw color we saw last month wasn’t simply “mustard-colored.” The River of Lost Souls flowed like liquid Hell. Its color reflected a nation’s worth of short-sighted missteps. The hue was so riveting and sulfuric you could almost picture the Devil himself, dropping his towel and giddily flapping his arms, before landing one wicked bellyflop after another.”

    2. Hip and Trippy says:

      Yeah, it’s definitely a pretty sad sight here in New Mexico.

  2. erikleo says:

    A poignant story. Have you heard of Darm Mountain, the eco-environmental ‘movement’?

  3. We give people a lot of importance but not our environment. 😦

  4. 106ferrets says:

    Colorado is my own little promised land- the beauty and adventure of the place is where I feel most alive. Deepest of sadness for the pollution of one of America’s greatest rivers 😦

  5. beautifully worded and yet there is nothing beautiful about the way we continue to ravage our planet

  6. tabbyrenelle says:

    Oh yes, your article reverberates. I mourn for the animal and rivers too. I’m in Portland , Oregon experiencing unhealthy air quality. The sky has been orange due to forest fires brought on in large part due to climate change… and people building in areas animals should live in… without civilization. From california to oregon to washington I’ve been witnessing farm lands with pristine soils for growing good healthy food…Turned into real-estate developments and housing…for people. They want to cap our reservoirs… and use our Bullrun watershed for Silicon Valley now. not drinking water and everyone knows in Cali what’s up with the water. Ask Tom Selick why he’s taking water from fire hydrants to water his lawn… while forest fires rage… and yet forest fires were supposed to happen… And we are super funding fire fighters who shouldn’t be combatting them all for the sake of housing… the whole ecosystem is off.

    I seem to be on many tangents I think, but I’m so glad you are taking time for the animals.

    thank you.

    1. Josh Stearns says:

      Tabbyrenelle – Thanks for your note, you live in a lovely part of the world as well. Thanks for sharing this.

  7. Yvette says:

    “But in exchange I left a piece of myself there, in that river. Something sharp, something angular, something that needed to be made smooth.”

    So beautifully told. I am certainly teary-eyed after this. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Josh Stearns says:

      Thanks Yvette – glad it resonated with you

  8. openminded45 says:

    You are to right it is sad.Constancy sweet constancy but alas it dose not exist. Sorry for the corny sentiment.

  9. roszac07 says:

    Many rivers have died since the evolution of man and with the onset of technology. But all man could do is only weep over the misfortunes. In the coming years, pray our descendants learn to survive without pure water

  10. Nature has been stolen from us… One of the bad brothers of development

  11. The ruins brought about by “good” of development

  12. lavanya2198 says:

    lovely post..keep writing 🙂

  13. Jom Ladan says:

    What a sad event. I hope there’s a way to fix that river, is there?

    I’m really curious though how you were able to hike that mountain in a day.

    Nice write-up. I felt sad for that event. maybe you can submit a short quote/prose to lovecorners.wordpress.com They might feature your work and your blog too. Thanks. I really hope they are doing something about it…

    I hope there’s a way to fix that river.

  14. That’s such a tragedy and it does have a personal impact when a river begins to inhabit your soul. I blog about a walk down a humble rivulet. It was just a day walk but my relationship to the rivulet had changed by the end of it.

  15. That’s horrible! But I believe the river will survive also.

  16. carpeanimus says:

    This is a really beautiful post! Even though it’s sad when the places that are valuable to us are changed or taken away, it really just signifies that we have a deep connection with the world around us, and that’s really very beautiful. Bittersweet. I know the feeling though.

  17. An amazing article, each place we visit take away a small part of ourselves with it! 🙂

  18. smiller257 says:

    We were visiting Telluride for the past 2 weeks and went over to the Animas Forks Ghost Town (https://webetripping.wordpress.com/2015/08/22/chasing-ghosts-in-colorado/). The river is still yellow but the mountains are incredibly beautiful.

    1. Josh Stearns says:

      Thanks for the update SMILLER257.

  19. I backpacked the Animas with my son twenty years ago. What magic, what an unspoiled wild river. Hopefully it will bounce back.

    1. Josh Stearns says:

      Robert – I hope I can get up there with my sons sometime soon.

  20. psv411 says:

    My husband and I are moving to Durango soon. We are moving from Texas where we live in a fast growing community surrounded by industrial towns. We are really excited to escape these industrial surroundings to nature at its best. So what the heck? When we heard about the Animas River, we looked at each other like “Is this really happening?” but it hasn’t slowed us down, we still will love Durango. Thanks for your tribute.

    1. Josh Stearns says:

      PSV411 – it is a lovely place and I’m sure you will love the town. Send an update once you get settled.

      1. psv411 says:

        Will do. Thanks. December can’t get here soon enough!

  21. I am not very good with rivers or anything but won’t that go into the sea making beautifull beaches into wastelands

  22. pixieannie says:

    There aren’t many things that make me feel emotional but your journey did just that and with such eloquence and passion. I felt as if I was with you throughout the whole journey. You have a great gift.

    1. Josh Stearns says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words, I’m glad to know it resonated with you.

  23. Oditty says:

    Nice one. Can relate

  24. elfidd says:

    I have made that same trip to Silverton, although not on foot. What a grand river

  25. Isn’t it quite sad that we’ve been destroying nature all over the places? I can feel your pain as the place I grew up became “civilized”. Buildings and roads replaced trees and streams.
    Right now I’m interning at a national park in Alaska and most of the tidal glaciers here are gone, others receding. Quite sad indeed.

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