Runnin’ the Rio Grande

PHOTOS BY ERICH SCHLEGEL

Starting on the summer solstice last year, I spent seven months following the Rio Grande 1,900 miles by paddle and foot, from its source in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. I wanted to meet the people who live, play and depend on this disappearing river.

I walked one-third of the river because there was no water to float. As I traveled with friends and locals I met along the way, I gave up on the notion the Rio Grande would ever be anything but a regulated system of dams and levies. Invasive cane and salt cedar choke the riverbed. Officials in the U.S. and

Mexico seemed to have no appetite for the policy changes that would allow the Rio Grande to function as a river.

Then in early November, just past the half way mark, it started to rain.

I was entering the 196-mile-long Wild and Scenic reach, where the river cuts its iconic Big Bend along the border between West Texas and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. After three days of cold drizzle the desert was thick with the smell of creosote bushes rushing to bloom. The canyon walls looked to me like towers of melted candles and collapsing cathedrals. The river rose with the

rain, whisking me downstream at 6 miles per hour.

I picked a high open campsite on the Mexican shore, and was huddled over a pot of instant noodles when the blocks sprang free from the cliff face. Chunks of limestone the size of couches and microwaves tumbled off their 500-foot-high perches to pummel the surface of the Rio Grande.

Standing on the opposite bank I could feel the rumble as the force of the river shoved and rolled the new additions downstream.

The Rio Grande was finally living up to its name.

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