By Ellen Meloy
Imagine the San Juan River as if it were a grand banquet spread before you, your dining room chair bellied up to the Monument Upwarp, your left elbow resting on Rainbow Bridge, your right elbow on the Sleeping Ute’s nose, your fork poised, let’s say, somewhere above the Aneth oil fields.
Think not of an inert tectonic platter but of a sumptuous feast. Mesa tops of thick-headed pinyon-juniper broccoli, meandering banks of lush cottonwood celery and tamarisk slaw, a tangy salad of hackberry, Gambel’s oak, coyote willow, and other riparian greens. Rich, teeming eddies of catfish bouillabaise and carp carpaccio. Slickhorn Canyon’s quivering green Jello pools. Sage-freckled Butler Wash custard, Nokaito Bench frybread, sun-baked tortillas rolled from the yeasty mounds of Bluff Bench. The cool slake of a pot-hole martini, garnished with tadpole shrimp and a Russian olive. Wingate Sandstone tarts softly steaming beneath a latticed cryptogamic crust. Mule Ear cutlets breaded in mountain bikers. A jumbo helping of Jurassic breadsticks and Moenkopi mud pies piled high on your sectional plate, buttressed with brave little volcanic dikes to dam off the gravy of Chinle Wash.
You carbo-load on crinoid rigatoni, swallow succulent brachiopods embedded in the Honaker limestone fruitcakes, gnaw the bony ribs of Shiprock and Alhambra Rock, and spoon up sun-ripened tomato–Red House Cliffs. You swallow Navajo Mountain like a plump, warm muffin. You work a twirl of Goosenecks linguine around your fork and sink teeth into Raple Anticline phyllo, the Perched Meander doughnut, and river terrace pastries iced with pale, sugary beige sandstone.
A faint tease of gluttony numbs your palate. Or is it indigestion? Still you must eat, for each year the San Juan menu diminishes, the diners grow more numerous and their appetites increasingly ravenous.
Munch that savory morsel of slickrock, that meatloaf of a mesa, the slow-roasted hogback, tenderest loin of Comb Ridge. Wash down Monument Valley with foamy drafts of Government Rapid. Baste the Bufos and crunch their tiny toad bones, devour the lizards, ravage the Triassic cephalopods. Never mind the desert bighorns, who are endangered, or the ravens, who taste awful. Avoid the datura. Trade stares with the dung beetle. Relish bite-size canyon wren appetizers, impaled on yucca toothpicks. Slurp the lusty juices of Canada geese, portly chukar, haunch of mule deer. Sip the dark sauces of Mexican Hat oil, fend off scurvy with Lime Creek, pop a quick antacid of Sulphur Springs, and burn your tongue on Halchita’s uranium tailings pile, that broad, glow-in-the-dark, blue cornmeal mush wedge sprawled below and beyond the Moki Dugway, insane and forever.
After-dinner Cigarette Spring in hand, plate clean clear down to bedrock, you push back your chair and loosen your belt. You pluck a few B-52s from your teeth. Life as a desert omnivore isn’t easy, you think as you launch a sated burp toward Blanding. But if we gourmands truly savor and love this magnificent feast of a river, we shall never go hungry.
— This essay first appeared in the June 1996 issue of the Canyon Echo. Republished with permission.
— Read more from Ellen Meloy