Moving Water     

Kevin Holdsworthy

Neighbors shouldn't be too good. How are you going to recompense all those home-cooked meals, plates of cookies, or every favor large or small? You can't. I'm not saying neighbors should be bad, either; it's just easier to deal with people in between. Plus, things change—people move or pass away. Too-good neighbors leave too-large gaps, as my first Torrey neighbor did.

Torrey, in scenic south-central Utah, is an edge community. Geographically, it lies on the edge of the earth: at once on the cusp of the Colorado Plateau and as the eastern doorstoop of the High Plateaus province. The town sits at 6850 feet, beneath and between two 11,000-foot mountains, with infernal red desert country falling away to the east, and nothing but trouble other directions. In the old days, Torrey was a last outpost: heading into the canyons, into Robbers Roost, or along the Outlaw Trail, it was the last toehold of civilization for a hundred wasteland miles. Morally, at least according to the oh-so-righteous up-county people, Torrey has always enjoyed a shady reputation: for moonshine and horse racing in the old days, for hippies in the '70s, and now for outsiders. Regarding religion, Torrey has for years been a town split in thirds, a rarity in southern Utah: one third faithful Latter Day Saints, one third backsliding or "Jack" Mormons, and one third irredeemables: Baptists, Catholics, pagans, witches, birdwatchers, vegetarians, Sierra Clubbers, and sundry other heathens. There stand churches of three different faiths in town—not bad considering 125 year-round residents. Scientists, too, look to an edge community for hardiness, for diversity, for the ability to adapt to harsh circumstances. My first neighbor was a survivor, a relict, a remnant of an earlier time.

Doug Wells grew up in Hanksville, Wayne County, Utah. His nephew, LaVar Wells, actually digs wells for a living out of that sandblasted town, where the Fremont River meets Muddy Creek and becomes the Dirty Devil. Doug himself dug wells, drove trucks, gathered firewood, punched cattle, a thousand other jobs in his time, but mainly what he wanted to do in his late fifties, when I knew him, was to raise a few cattle. Not because it made any economic sense. It didn't. But because that's what he knew. He shuttled his critters between Torrey and his home at the mouth of Weber Canyon, near Ogden. He also had a winter grazing allotment near Hite, in the Cheesebox-White Canyon country, but the road was so damned rough down there, the feed so scarce most years, the waterpockets just dried up, and the predators so brazen, that he usually penned and fed his cattle up north and brought them to Torrey from late spring to early fall.

Doug and I had an unspoken competition to see who could get up the earliest and work the hardest. Dawn would find him out in the pasture moving water, irrigating. On mornings, he'd repair some equipment or run errands. Afternoons, he spent making furniture or working on his cabin. Evenings, he'd find something to do—under floodlights if he had to. He beat me hands down, even with a three-decade head start.

There's something about this land that makes you overdo it—a toehold mentality. You gaze around yourself and see nothing but wilderness—wide-stretching mountains, sun-baked canyons and mesas, moony badlands—and you'd like to do your part to domesticate your little quarter. Also there is the problem of the weather, particularly the wind: five thousand feet of vertical relief makes for some full-on shaking and rattling. Faced with a raging world out of control, you want to batten down what you can after a three-day blow.

But Doug Wells was more than just a maniac rancher; it doesn't take any Član to work hard. He was also an artist cowboy. He wrote good cowboy poetry. At the end of the day, when the work was done, he liked nothing better than to set on his back porch, abuse a guitar, and sing to his cattle. Sometimes the critters were gentled by his song. Other times they milled restlessly and probably begrudged his high-pitched coyote wail. When he warbled "Red River Valley," let me tell you, he meant it.

"Won't you sit by my side if you love me,

Do not hasten to bid me adieu—"

I've never seen anyone irrigate with such determination, as if he took the dry spells personally. Water is blood to a desert cowboy. When the ditch water was flowing onto his land, he wouldn't let it pool up, coagulate too long. Nothing much to it, he'd say: put on your boots, get down into your work, and keep it moving. Six days on the ditch, six days off—just enough to transfuse fifty acres of pasture. He irrigated during snowstorms, during the rain. I believe he went out there at night: checking headgates, fixing dams.

You know how sometimes people resemble their dogs or vice versa? With Doug, it was horses. He owned one very stuck-up open mare that wouldn't even give you the time of day when her owner was around. But one time, when he was away, I went over to give Miss Hoity-Toity an apple. It was spooky: she had the same wrinkles over the eyes, the same bulldog neck, the same perpetual sunburn, the same sly grin, even the same laconic manner as Doug.

We talked about the water level in the ditch, about the weather. Doug was a master of dry understatement. After I built a seven-foot-high windbreak fence, he said, "Guess your horse won't be jumping over that one." Or when he asked me to watch his horses while he was away, "If that old gelding don't move for two or three days, you might wanna call the vet." Or after a three-day grit storm, "Gee, don't the air smell fresh this morning?" Or when I managed to get my truck stuck in an irrigation ditch, "You probably don't want to just leave your outfit there for too long. Winter's coming— How 'bout I give you a little tug out?"

There was a more contentious side to our relationship, though. One time in May, Doug and I were cleaning out the ditch before it opened. We were both down in the clayey bottom of the main stem, grubbing around in the mud and roots. Maybe it was the feel of the shovel, or the weight of the sod, but the struggle—and it was the same old seasonal struggle: there's never enough water, and those downstream people in Hanksville have a prior right, so just when you need it most, in August, they get more than their share of it, and the damned spider-rooted sod always seems to grow, tangled up and hard to pull out, recalcitrant as children or a bad dog—the struggle must have set him off.

"Them damned environmentals," he said, apropos of agriculture, "they're against everything human. Hell, where do you think food comes from? They sure don't grow it at the supermarket."

I didn't look his way. Sometimes Doug would doff his sombrero and reveal the whitest forehead you've ever seen. His face was like some of the cliffs: red on bottom, white above, and barren on top. I knew Doug was baiting me. We were a couple of bull elk in September. I studied the vegetation.

"Nature," he said. "I'll teach you something about nature. Hell, I'm just as much a lover of nature as any of them damned environmentals."

"Sure, Doug. No doubt about it."

People can take things personally if they want.

The fact was the local water conservancy district, duped by a slick civil engineer from Spanish Fork, had big plans to build a cash-register dam one mile above town. This dam might well have provided beaucoup water to Doug and the four or five other ranchers on Poverty Flat, but the project had many problems, mainly economic and ecological, and I had been active in the dam's opposition, organizing a local anti-dam "committee."

It was only natural for Doug to want to improve nature. That a reservoir full of water—impounded, stored, and used—would be an improvement, could not have been more obvious. Moreover, you grow up in Hanksville, as Doug had, and doing virtually anything seems an improvement: shoveling sand from your driveway, gathering coal out on Factory Bench, hauling an old wreck off the place, dating someone who is not your cousin, making coffee. Improvements all. A dam was easy.

I wanted to explain how the dam would end up costing way more than the dreamy predictions of the civil engineer, that the engineer had deliberately played fast and loose with the facts, that cash-register dams never pay for themselves, that the reservoir basin would be an ugly mud flat most of the year, that constructing a power plant 800 feet from the border of a National Park was a terrible idea, and so on, but I held my tongue.

"You bet, Doug."

"And now them crooked politicians are starting to sound like environmentals too— They sure couldn't make it any harder on us."

"No question about that. What does all that money go for anyway? It sure isn't helping us any."

The shovels went down easy enough, but the sod was heavy and entwined, hard on your back. We kept at it for another hour in silence, except for grunting and occasional low curses. Maybe we taught each other a lesson.

Pretty as Doug Well's pasture was, it proved easy living to just sit outside and watch the cows and calves float along late in the day, legs half lost in timothy and wire grass. Or see how his Hereford-Angus cross Range Bull would call the ladies and kids over for a noontime lesson. Who cared about a few flies? Better cows than condos. Someday someone will carve up the pasture into a few choice ranchettes, but if you remember things the way they were before, you keep the image with you.

Sure, there was a flip side to it, and it came in late October and early November, or after calving time. I like beef—broiled, grilled, basted, roasted, pan fried, barbecued—and find it hard to imagine any western American cow as holy. The selling and slaughter is what pays the bills. Still, certain times of year brought on the distraught cries of the mothers, and insofar as the little ones knew, they knew that the gambols of summer, the games of chase and buck, the taste of ditch water and good deep grass were over. The life of a cow leads only to Salina, and thence to the Killing Floor. May is a poor time not to have a calf at your side, and November is a deadly time to be a bull calf.

In the end, though, it didn't pay for Doug. He had to sell the place to help pay medical bills for his stepdaughter. His duty demanded it, and he sold the ranch to a hobby cowboy who rode a four-wheeler and didn't even own a decent horse. The new neighbor, aside from his fondness for the internal combustion engine (he once had his tractor, truck, four-wheeler, generator, air compressor and chainsaw all going at the same time) proved to be a gentleman, even if he wore a baseball cap and went to church every Sunday. He never gave me the slightest reason to soil his memory. He sold out four years later.

More recently, the pasture was leased by Mr. J., a shithead from nearby Bicknell, who, in addition to cutting my fence, breaking a gate, digging up the bridge into my place that had stood for fifty years, letting his cattle graze in my field because the alfalfa was there and I wasn't, and then attempting to deny all of the above to my then-pregnant wife (not a good idea, to be sure) when the evidence was perfectly clear, Mr. J. then proceeded to explain how the problem was you newcomers, people that come in here and try to tell us old-timers what to do with our land. He said he just wanted to be a good neighbor, but he wasn't sure he'd be able to now. Excuse me! My wife pointed out the land in question was ours, not his, and that it would be a very good idea for him to leave and that presently. I told him I would call the sheriff. Oh yes, Mr. J. made a person nostalgic for the old days.

Years later, after I moved and was living in Ogden, while driving on Highway 89, the freeway they built through his front yard in South Weber, I saw Doug. I couldn't bring myself to stop. He had clearly aged, and I wanted to fix him in time, like a monarch butterfly, the kind that migrate through Torrey and feed only on milkweed, because there was so much of him that was both timeless and already vanishing.

Still, I imagine I see him occasionally, steering his old blue Ford tractor around the pasture, spreading fertilizer pellets in light-falling late-March snow