I set out this morning to walk two miles south, to visit Clear Creek. These days it’s just another neglected urban waterway, but in the heyday of westward expansion, this little creek had everything: gold and silver boom towns, a railroad racing to beat rivals over the continental divide, outlaws and lawmen, Indians and the pioneer pilgrims who displaced them like water out of a tub. Today I’m headed for the stretch of Clear Creek that runs through an out-of-the-way county park called Twin Lakes.
On the e-map provided by Google, a slash of monochromatic blue (the creek) cuts through a swatch of empty grey (the park). Apparently there is nothing there worth mentioning, nothing as interesting as, say, the Swiss Tire Automotive Service Station that, according to the map, is conveniently located nearby at the corner of 70th and Broadway. Next door you’ll find Denver County Custom Choppers, a motorcycle shop where you can accessorize your obnoxious hog with endless variations on the black leather and chrome theme.
Across 70th to the north, lie acres of bathed and polished Toyotas waiting expectantly for new owners to give them a home. To the east, Mickey’s Top Sirloin serves a wicked steak and lots of Jack Daniels to wash it down with. After dinner you can visit a gone-to-seed building in the shadow of Interstate 25 with a neon “Psychic” sign in the window. Southbound Broadway is flanked by a strip center of light industrial and retail space. It obscures Twin Lakes Park entirely, leaving the impression there’s nothing more to see in any direction, so conduct your business and move on.
Go a couple hundred yards farther south and you will drive, or walk, (let’s face it, mostly drive) over Clear Creek. It takes three seconds flat. If you should happen to glance out the car window during that precious time, you’ll see what one Wikipedia article about Clear Creek calls, “largely an ignored urban stream, with an undeveloped flood plain. Part of the creek path forms a wooded park with bicycle/foot path.”
Excellent. That’s the part I’ve come to explore. Keep the bicycle path. I want to see the “ignored” and “undeveloped” part. I want to know if the creek has retained even the slightest trace of its former self, before it was Shanghaied, along with Sitting Bull, into Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Before the 1859 Gold Rush turned it into a yellow brick road leading fledgling capitalists to the Promised Land. Before arsenic-laced mine tailings overflowed their ill-suited holding ponds, poisoning the creek. Before loggers harvesting railroad ties denuded whole mountains, dumped the trees in the creek channel, and waited for spring runoff to carry them to market (a brutal bottle brush that scoured everything in its path). Before there were concrete plants, Interstate highways, storm water spiked with Roundup, heavy metals and motor oil, before Coors brewery straddled the creek up in Golden and began turning the water into something resembling beer.
Throughout deep time, before anyone was around to give Clear Creek a name, it told the story of here very well. It sighed and rested lazily in this place after its long tumble down the mountains to the west—over granite boulders and beaver dams. Plants clinging to these banks tasted high country snow and pines and blue columbines in the silt. Raccoons, beaver, skunks, coyotes, muskrats, deer and elk all drank water here touched with the scent of heavenly fish the color of rainbows. Great stands of cottonwoods faithfully followed the creek as it meandered across the plains, where it joined the South Platte River, seeking company for a long and leisurely trip to the sea.
Now, the water and sediment tell a new story to a demanding new crop of spectators bent on seeing themselves reflected back everywhere they go.
Today I walk past the “lakes”, which are really only pools of water gathered in an apron of freshly mown lawn. The water reflects blue sky, giving no hint of its own color. A handful of Canada geese waddle around the fringes, picking at the grass. The red-wing blackbirds have left already, looking for warmer times over the horizon. A sign declares “No swimming or boating. Surface ice is never safe.” Another warns me that coyotes are about, and that they are dangerously accustomed to the presence of humans. I should carry a stick, it says. And watch my pets. My kids too, I presume. The tuna sandwich I brought for lunch definitely isn’t safe.
A ditch filled with diverted creek water runs alongside the path. Somewhere downstream there is a landowner with “rights” to this water. If we are lucky he’s a farmer who will use it to grow organic vegetables, or to raise hay for his goats—and provide milk and meat for his kids (and maybe mine). If we are not lucky, this slice of Clear Creek is headed for a golf course surrounded by a gated community.
I’m happy to see that the ditch is overgrown with dense grasses, wild roses, water hemlock, and horsetail—a shadow and a memory of what I came here to find. I stop to examine a plant I’ve never seen before, one with red berries dangling in a line along the stalk like Chinese lanterns. I reach for it and startle a garter snake lying beneath it—green, brown, and yellow along its back, blended like a watercolor landscape of wooded creek beds. It lurches forward only a few inches, leaving its tail exposed. I search for the other end, but lose the curvature of its body in the tangle of grass and stalks and leaves.
I walk on, keeping to the path a while, sharing it with bicyclists moving at high speed. I sympathize with their need for haste. Maybe they have to squeeze the ride into a lunch hour, or between sales calls offering cleaning products to Mickey’s and Swiss Tire. I also feel sorry for them, having missed out on the garter snake and the woodpecker now tapping out a woodland code on the enormous cottonwood trunks above our heads, perhaps calling back the long-gone buffalo herds that came here once upon a time.
The farther I walk, the more muted the city noises become. The wind blows in the trees and shushes the traffic to a whisper. Time to get off the trail, I think. The underbrush is thick here, but I choose my route carefully and descend onto the floodplain. I am instantly plunged into another dimension, like a priest of Avalon parting the mist and leaving the contemporary world behind. A distant train whistle blows, but suddenly the sound is only a rumor that filters in along with the sunlight, softened by the caress of many branches and leaves.
Just ahead the cattails are so thick and tall, I think I’ve entered a swamp and will have to turn back. The ground is a sponge of horsetail and moss, but firm. I press on through a tunnel in the brush, a game trail, I assume. Birds chatter all around. Soon I emerge in a thicket of willows taller than I am. Here, the going gets tougher. I must sound like a bull elephant cracking my way through the dead branches that interlace with more supple living ones. They grasp at my backpack and scratch my bare legs.
Finally I emerge on the bank of the Creek, just where a tiny tributary joins in. I’ve travelled barely a hundred yards from the path, but if the distance were measured in years, I’d say it was a century or so. I turn and look back the way I came. From this vantage point I can see no power lines, no rooftops, no billboards, no eighteen wheel trucks. I look up. Remarkably, there are presently no airplanes or jet trails in the sky. The wind has picked up so that I hear nothing but tree chatter and the “amen” of dry grasses. Oh yes, and katydids and cicadas clacking and humming along.
Most of the flowers are done for the season—except for a hardy purple daisy hanging on in the early fall. I see dry mullein stalks and wild asparagus, giant thistles that have already turned as brown as a paper bag. A pair of ether blue dragon flies skim the slow moving water. A few yards away a circular ripple appears on the surface, where a fish has risen to sip up a bug. I go looking for a glimpse of who is dining, expecting to see a frenetic fingerling of some kind.
But no. As my eyes adjust to the slightly murky depths, what comes into focus is a huge carp—nearly two feet long—patrolling the water, unhurried. Prehistoric, I think. This entire place is a time capsule preserved in the most unlikely of locations. I know there is a harsh urban world all around, but just now I find it increasingly difficult to believe in traffic signals and office buildings. Yet I also know I am not the discoverer of someplace unique and exotic. There are “ignored and undeveloped” spots in every neighborhood in nearly every city in America. These are the places we build around, rush past, overlook, and disdain, until they might as well not exist at all.
This is where I’d like to bring the college students who wear polar bear suits on downtown sidewalks, to cajole me into loving the earth by donating money to Greenpeace. I’d like to show them that “the earth”—truly in need of so much love—is not nearly as far away as we think. It is here, right under our busy little feet.
Suddenly the spell of my thoughts is broken by the sound of heavy machinery in the distance. Annoyed, I turn and look toward the south bank. In my state of awe I hadn’t noticed that the ridgeline above the creek in that direction is lined by a chain link fence. It is covered in a netting designed to block my view. But the late afternoon sunlight works against it and I can see what is on the other side in silhouette. I quickly realize it is a graveyard for worn out cars, where spare parts are cannibalized and sold. The jarring sound comes from a front end loader carrying the corpse of some late 80s sedan, from the look of it.
I laugh out loud. I sit down beside the creek and savor the image of a massive and contented carp—indeed, dozens of them—alive and well, against all odds, juxtaposed against that of a deceased automobile being carried unceremoniously to an ugly and forgotten “rusting” place. It is powerful and poetic; meaningful, like something in a lucid dream. Gaia versus Hydrocarbon Man. Not much of a match, really.
All this makes me wonder if I have made a mistake to come here looking for the past. The present is marvelous enough, for anyone willing to get off the trail and look for it. As for the future…who knows? Maybe this is it: a bunch of dead cars and life going on, wherever it can.