We approach the bench by the river, pleasantly surprised that it sits empty, waiting for us. It rests next to a path and overlooks a narrow stretch of the Arkansas Headwaters that flows near the town of Salida, dividing the small cluster of civilization from the snow-capped peaks to the east. The path runs for just a few miles along the water, a small, winding strip of concrete that still retains the beauty of the scenery that characterizes this little corner of Colorado. A boat ramp lies next to our bench’s small cutout beside the path, but the only vessels that enter the water here are rafts and kayaks, free from the sound and pollution of motor-driven recreation.
The bench swings gently, as if recently vacated, and we take our seats on the repurposed ski lift chair and look out over the water. Through the thin air, the mountain sun heats our skin despite the cool temperature. The stark contrast between the shade and the sun seems to echo the harshness of living here, a town perched above seven thousand feet and hours from a major airport that receives over four feet of snow each year. Our backpacks full of books lie forgotten on the bench next to us; we are content to simply sit and watch the river pass by. Besides the occasional jogger moving across the trail in front of us, our afternoon perch is deserted.
The loudest noise is that of the river as it rushes over a small waterfall across from where we sit. No cars, no planes, only the dull roar of the Arkansas River cuts through the bright air. A couple appears on the path, holding the hands of their two young children as they jump between the boulders that dot the river’s edge, their voices barely a whisper above the gurgling water. The sun begins its slow progress towards the western horizon and we watch as black patches appear on the water where before the sun had glinted from every corner. There are birds here – I can see them – but the river drowns their song from the sky.
Restaurants are slowly emptying of patrons as the sun drops lower. A group of young revelers gathers on the opposite shore, some enveloped in animated conversation, others stretched in blankets of sun on the rocks, beers in their hands and smiles on their faces. Vacationers and locals alike fill in the empty spaces around us, like a puzzle whose pieces slowly fall into place. We are watching the same thing, all of us – the river, its dance between rock shores and colors morphing in the fading light.
Three friends meander down the boat ramp, aiming for the corner where the river stones and the concrete meet. The lone woman draws a book from her purse and perches herself on a rock to read, while her two companions prepare for an evening of art by the river. One pulls a cello from its case, tossing his long, ungroomed hair out of his eyes as he extends the stand. I think perhaps he is lost, with his Nirvana shirt and ripped jeans, until the sounds of scales and classical pieces emanate from his instrument. The other, a painter, stands with his back to me as he assembles the tools of his trade. Unfolding his easel and aligning his color palette on its portable shelf, he turns repeatedly to gaze at the scene downriver, the bridge that links Salida to the eastern mountains across the water. He forms a square with his fingers and extends them towards the bridge, framing his intended subject before beginning to transpose it onto his canvas. Daylight is dying and the sunshine begins to snake through the trees before it reaches the river, illuminating the rapids beside the painter and the rocks holding the group on the other shore while leaving the rest of the scene in shadow. The color of the water changes with every passing moment as the sun falls lower, and I envy the painter his ability to capture this spectrum of time in one picture. As he paints, his loose button-down and looser ponytail block our view of his canvas, but occasionally he moves aside to look at the bridge or joke with his friends and we glimpse the evolving watercolor in front of him. The sunlight jumping off of the water is fit for nothing better than the painter’s brush, which slides across the canvas and leaves streaks of color in its path.
A fourth man saunters up to the group close to the shore, jeans sagging and feather cap perched atop his head. The other three barely acknowledge him as he pulls his guitar from its case, but soon he and the cellist perform an unlikely duet, barely audible over the river’s roar. Only a few deep notes and the metallic strum of a pick against strings travel the twenty feet to where we swing. I’m staring intently at the two of them in an effort to extract their music from the sound of the river when four kayakers pass in front of me, carrying their boats towards the small waterfall next to the boat ramp. As they slip gently into the river, their boats’ bright colors strike a contrast with the deep green of the river, darkening still as the sun slips ever lower in the sky. One by one, the men guide their boats into the rapids downstream of the waterfall, only a foot or two in height but generating a great deal of turmoil that churns the otherwise calm water and emits the cacophony of sound that overpowers nearly everything else. They flip and roll in the wake, attempting stunts and occasionally floating upside down until calmer water allows them to right themselves again. A small crowd has gathered in the various seat-worthy rocks along the path, and their cheers along with the periodic impacts of the boats against the water punctuate the soundscape that makes this recreation possible.
The cellist and the reader slowly repack their belongings and depart, leaving the painter and the guitarist to their corner of the boat ramp. The musician pulls two cans of beer from a paper bag and the artist joins him, leaving rest his painting for the moment to absorb this scene and his drink. Strangers wander down the path, spending a few seconds each gazing at the kayakers, and the painting, and the sunlight that lands on the higher shore but no longer on the water buried beneath its horizontal trajectory. They come and go, each glance a small part of the whole experience, each person leaving his tiny mark on the evening. As the painter sets down his beer and resumes his work, the guitarist rises and begins his main performance for the evening. He moves toward us, part of the small crowd gathered along the path, and his raspy voice and the strumming of his guitar rise in the background of the rushing water. When he is close enough, I can hear the words of the heartbreaking songs of long-lost love as his tanned skin turns an even deeper shade of red from the strain of the highest notes.
His song draws to a close and a man approaches our swinging bench from behind, absorbing the pre-sunset scene at its peak – the quirky musician collecting tips in his guitar case, the kayakers paddling and splashing in the water, the artist whose painting evolves with every passing moment, as the river itself evolves in the setting sun.
“This is great, isn’t it?” he says to us, or to no one in particular, a small, contented smile spreading across his face.
“Yeah, it’s pretty neat.”
“You from around here?”
“Me neither, but I try to come at least once a year. You don’t see stuff like this every day, though.”
“No, you definitely don’t.” He stands there with his arms folded, frozen in this bustling moment, like us, wanting nothing more than to watch. Soon he continues his progress down the path, through the families and groups of friends scattered along the sides.
After his song, the guitarist returns to the rocks next to the painter and begins an impromptu musical narration of the world around him, still playing heart wrenching chords but singing of the painter’s endeavors and the kayakers’ recreation. Only a few words carry across the boat ramp and through the rumbling of the river, but enough of his flippant improvisation reaches our ears to draw a smile across my face.
The last hints of sunlight are disappearing from the tops of the trees and the distant mountains are fading into the obscurity of a twilight sky. As if by some invisible and soundless signal, the kayakers paddle to shore and empty their boats of water accumulated during the last hour. They exchange stories and laughs of their antics in the waterfall, carrying their joyous attitudes up the boat ramp as they leave for a hot shower and later a warm bed. The painter pauses his effort to talk to a family passing by, and as he does so, the groups of people surrounding us depart, one by one, taking the impending darkness as their cue to return to their homes or hotels or campsites. The guitarist serenades the thinning crowd one last time, and then counts his tips and stows his instrument in its case when we are the only ones left. Repacking his brushes and paints, the artist folds his easel and tucks his finished piece underneath his arm in preparation for the journey home. The spectators are gone and the sun has set as the two friends walk up the boat ramp. We are left with a dark sky and an even darker river, having witnessed a few hours, a moment, in which life danced in the sunlight and then surrendered to the arrival of the night. This moment existed with no goal, no aim for forward progress, but simply because it was right that it should happen this way, this mix of artists and athletes and passers-by all appreciating, for a variety of reasons, the roar of the river and the last breath of mountain sunlight.