A Red River watershed tour – The Red River tells a compelling story. A few million years or so ago, before the earth moved, the Red River was not a tributary but the source of the Rio Grande. Now, however, the Red feeds the Rio Grande as it makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico from the high mountains of southern Colorado. Time carves slow changes, but the Red remains one of the most studied, conflicted, and fascinating rivers in all the Southwest.
Near the summit of Wheeler Peak, the Red seeps out of the ground high in the Rockies, in the Sangre de Cristos. Here, Colorado’s fourteeners wane to puny thirteeners, and Wheeler Peak, at 13,161 feet, is the highest point New Mexico boasts. If the mountains are the spine of the New Mexico landscpe, then water is its lifeblood.
Here in the arid Southwest, water is a lot more than H20; it’s culture, agriculture, religion, recreation, and just about anything else you can think of. It’s been a source of the state’s unity and of its conflict.
In New Mexico, rivers help show us where we are and who we are – both good reasons for knowing a watershed.
A watershed is just a catchment system, a sort of spiritual geography fed by pretty much everything else in the universe. This basin includes all the land, forests, creatures, and communities, human and otherwise, within it. Everything froma discarded Kleenex to our most deeply-held beliefs ends up manifesting in the water, either in parts per million or in fish you can catch but can’t eat, or in swimmable or drinkable water.
The Red is a perfect example. The recent (last hundred years or so) history of the Red is the story of the West, which is the story of Manifest Destiny itself, environmental history, and an extractive industry, in this case, mining.
This rivershed is almost unmatched in terms of its geological, ecological, and cultural diversity. The two towns along it, Red River and Questa, are separated by only 13 miles but couldn’t be more differnt. Though they’re united in the watershed, Questa bears the additional challenge of being just downstream of one of the earth’s richest sources of molybdenum, which is used to harden steel. As a matter of fact, Questa is literally surrounded by the mine, including 600 acres of tailings ponds. Add to the geological mix several ecological zones, from towering mountains to the bottom of the Rio Grande Gorge in just a few short miles, and the picture gets pretty complicated.
Actually, the Forest Service (located between the Molycorp Mine and the Village of Questa) is a great place to orient yourself toward the land. Their maps will get you off the road into the upper watershed, past an array of second homes, jeep roads, and onto trails to high alpine cirques and lakes, and even to the top of Wheeler. You can also visit some of the area’s 200 abandoned mines, a legacy from silver and gold’s heyday in the late 1800s.
Driving north from Eagle Nest in the Enchanted Circle on Highway 38, you will soon notice the river as you head into the Town of Red River. Watch for the vintage Little Red School House off to the right. If you’re lucky, you’ll run into one of the docents, octogenarian Bob Prunty, who went to school here. Historic photographs, inkwells and bear traps tell a story of bygone days. Bob recalls going to the river and hauling the school’s drinking water as a kid. By the age of 14, he was making a dollar a day working at the moly mine.
Next, you might stop at the Chamber of Commerce on Main Street, check out the town’s western facade, or head for the base of the Red Chair at the ski area at the south end of town. Stroll along the Nature Trail, which takes you out across Placer Creek and the Red River, viewing old mines, cabins and a water wheel. You can also get your feet wet, and learn something of ecology and history.
Back on Highway 38, the road loops and swoops, matching the river’s natural sinuosity. Soon enough, you’ll see evidence of the huge Molycorp Mine, along with its requisite pipes and huge tower. You won’t really be able to take in the mine’s vast scale, however, until you’re down in the valley by Questa. From there, its open pit resembles an enormous dam implausibly built high on the mountainside.
The huge open pit was dug in 1965, and by the 1980s, Molycorp employed about 600 people. Any change in global economics, with a corresponding correction in Asian steel markets, for example, resulted in roller-coaster economics for Questa, a traditional Hispanic community. The Molycorp mine is owned by the huge conglomerate Unocal, and thus the life of a miner depends on the whims of the price of molybdenum.
Though people in one of the poorest counties in the country once welcomed the economic boon, they were left with something that resembled a drama from the movie “Erin Brockovich,” whose de fact law firm investigates alleged environmental illnesses.
Questa’s open pastures reveal its roots, embedded deep in the land. The village depended on subsistence farming, with families raising sheep and cows, a few vegetables, and maybe some wheat. People often left for long periods of time, shepherding, potato picking, or mining in other places. Some say the mine gave them a way to stay close to home.
On your way into Questa, keep a lookout for Artesaños, right by the Post Office. This lively little community art gallery provides economic alternatives for many locals, and good deals for visitors, with paintings, jewelry, and beautifully crafted contemporary and traditional furniture for sale.
A few more blocks and you’re at the town’s one traffic light. Stop across the street for famous sopapillas at the El Sevilla, run by the same family for generations. Or meander some back roads and breathe in the smell of earth and listen to the music of water running to thirsty fields through old acequias, or irrigation ditches. When the Spanish arrived in what later became New Mexico, the first thing they did was to build a church and dig acequias. A basis for spiritual and physical survival in these parts, acequias are unique to Northern New Mexico. They are still operated traditionally, with majordomos, or ditch managers, seeing to it that all parcientes get their fair share of community water by opening and closing a series of gates. Despite devastating recent droughts, water is glistening, alfalfa is greening and people are hoping to raise a few more cows this year.
If you’re heading towards Taos on State Highway 522, you’ll see a sign for the turnoff to the Red River Fish Hatchery a few miles south of Questa. Follow the signs two miles in and get ready to cast. From the parking lot you can easily wind your way along the river. There’s also a fishing pond reserved for kids, seniors, and the disabled.
Now for the best part. If instead you head north from Questa 2.5 miles on 522, you canget to the astonishing Wild and Scenic Rivers Recreation Area, which is a miniature Grand Canyon without the people. Here, ancient rock walls tower over a thousand feet above the rush of the Rio Grande. A few miles north of Questa you’ll see the turn-off. Follow it in eight miles on State Road 378, through the tiny village of Cerro toward the Wild and Scenic Rivers. Cerro is hardly more than a bump in the road with an old church, a few homes and Ruth’s Plaza Café – a good place to sample local culture as well as northern New Mexican food.
At the Visitors Center is a huge 3-D map of the watershed, which offers an eagle-eye view of the lay of the land and the flow of the water. There’s also archeological evidence here of early Paleo-Indian people, the first tourists some 10,000 years ago.
You can do the “scenic overlook” thing and gawk from the rim at the bottle-green snake meandering below – part of the nearly 2000-mile-long Rio Grande. Better yet, take a water bottle and descend the steep path until you’re sitting on a big smooth gray rock watching light change on water.
Among the trails to the bottom of the canyon is Little Arsenic Springs where water still slides pure and drinkable as the day it was born. This stream is a major refresher for the Rio Grande. There’s also the petroglyphs, a classic art show that has been running for several thousand years on nearby rocks. Or hike La Junta Point Trail where a mile-and-a-half walk nets you spectacular views of the confluence of the Red River and the Rio Grande. Splash some water on your weary skull and consider yourself blessed.
Better yet, take more than a day and stay overnight at one of the eight or so shelters along the water. Spend the night listening to the river’s voice beneath obscenely bright stars. You’ll find yourself deep in time, deep in place, lulled to sleep by the sound of the river weaving a new story or retelling an ancient one.
For more informataion, call The Red River Watershed Group, 575-982-9805; Amigos Bravos, a Taos-based protection group for NM rivers, 575-758-03874; BLM Wild Rivers Visitor Center, 575-770-1600; or the Forest Service, Questa station, 575-586-0520.
Michele Potter works with the Red River Watershed Group, Amigos Bravos, and UNM/Taos. She’s writing her doctoral dissertation in American Studies, an environmental justice case study of Questa, Molycorp, and the Red River.
This story appeared in the 2003 edition of HighCountry magazine.