Playing the Name Game (and enjoying it)

Essay by Ed Quillen

Geography – September 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

PLACE NAMES have always fascinated me. I admire the exuberance of “Oh Be Joyful Creek” and the rough honesty of “Son of a Bitch Hill” (a/k/a Cerro Summit between Gunnison and Montrose). “Fairplay” and “Tarryall” are charming names for towns, and it’s refreshing to know that we Salidans have been mispronouncing our town’s name since it was christened in 1880.

I wonder how “Shoe and Stocking Creek” got its name (did somebody lose some clothing in the mud?), and I delight in the arguments as to whether Saguache means “Water of the Blue Earth” or “Blue/Green Place.” I relish the disputes over whether it’s “Bwayna Veestah” or “Bjüni.” I mourn the arrival of political correctness and the consequent assault on the Squaw creeks and lakes, as well as the eradication of names like “Granny’s Nipple.”

Place names put stories on the landscape, and make a territory a place we inhabit, a “Salida” rather than railroad milepost 215.15 or 81201 or 105°59’54 W 38°32’05” N.

With this fascination, I feel privileged to have been a close observer of the naming of Headwaters Hill in Saguache County.

Actually, “close observer” understates my role, but any other term that comes to mind would overstate my participation, since the work was really done by three other people: Dale Sanderson, George Sibley, and Grace Nugent.

Dale lives in Denver and works as a cartographer for Qwest. The map in your telephone directory is likely his work. And he must like his work, because cartography is also his hobby, and one of his interests is “Triple Divides” — places where water flows to three different destinations.

Until recently, Grace Nugent lived in Gunnison with her husband, Richard. Actually, they lived in a dormitory on the Western State College campus. They’re in their 60s, and after selling their bed-and-breakfast in Crawford a few years ago, they decided to go to college, and believed that dorm life is an important part of a college education. They were graduated last spring, and are now on their way to China to teach, if they’re not already there.

George lives in Gunnison and teaches at Western State College there. He’s a regular columnist for this magazine, and he organizes a gathering every year at the college — the Headwaters Conference, which is about the issues of the “Headwaters Region,” which is pretty much the same area that we like to call “Central Colorado.”

George isn’t the first to see Colorado as a Headwaters region where the rivers start. There’s no record of how the Utes regarded their hydrology, and one suspects there is no reason that they would have cared which rivers flowed into which oceans — oceans they may not have even known of.

BUT OTHERS DID CARE. Early treaties that divided North America among various Atlantic powers used rivers as dividing lines. Thus empires needed to know the origin of rivers in order to set their boundaries, and that’s one reason that Lt. Zebulon Pike was ordered west from St. Louis in the summer of 1806. He was supposed to find the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers, so that the United States could determine the limits of the territory it had just acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase — a limit that would be the boundary between the United States and Spain.

Pike was a veteran of this sort of thing, since he’d already been sent to find the source of the Mississippi. His wanderings around here have been amply recounted, but for this purpose, there’s one significant (and typically grandiose) entry in his journal:

“The source of La Platte [our South Platte] is situated in the same chain of mountains with the Arkansaw, and comes from that grand reservoir of snows and fountains which gives birth on its northeastern side to the Red river of the Missouri [the Yellowstone], and La Platte; on its southwestern side it produces the Rio Colorado of California [Colorado River]; on its east the Arkansaw; and on its south the Rio del Norte of North Mexico [Rio Grande]. I have no hesitation in asserting that I can take a position in the mountains, whence I can visit the source of any of those rivers in one day.”

In other words, Pike envisioned a sort of Grand Central Mountain from which great rivers radiated: Platte, Yellowstone, Arkansas, Colorado, and Rio Grande — their sources all within a day’s ride.

Pike’s Grand Central Mountain was about as real as the Big Rock Candy Mountain, but geography does offer some smaller versions, as Marshall Sprague observed in The Great Gates: The Story of Rocky Mountain Passes.

HE CALLED THESE headwater peaks pyramids, and observed that “Leadville stood — and stands — near the tip of the tallest of the three Rocky Mountain pyramids. Its altitude is 10,152 feet above sea level. Its windy valley below Tennessee and Frémont passes is an elbow of Mount Elbert, whose supreme summit is ten miles from Harrison Avenue. The South Platte, Arkansas, and Colorado rivers have sources within that ten-mile radius. The Leadville pyramid is three thousand feet higher than the Yellowstone Park pyramid, where the Missouri, Snake, and Green rivers begin. It is a mile higher than Canada’s Banff-Jasper pyramid, which contains glacier sources of the Columbia, Fraser, Athabaska, and Saskatchewan rivers.”

The actual point of hydrologic divergence is 13,780-foot McNamee Peak, which sits about two miles east of Climax. Clinton Creek, a tributary of the Colorado, flows from its north side; Platte Gulch, a tributary of you-can-guess-what, drains its east side; the Arkansas starts a 1,459-mile journey under its west side.

And if you looked at a map of Colorado, you’d likely surmise that there was another such “pyramid” southwest of Salida. There’s the Arkansas on the east, the Gunnison and thus the Colorado on the west, and the Rio Grande on the south. Logically, there ought to be a point where the waters flow into three directions, never to unite again until they reach the great ocean.

I have no idea who first made that deduction, though it must have emerged more than a century ago after the completion of the Hayden Survey and the publication of the first reliable maps of Colorado. I remember musing about it in 1978 or 1979, shortly after I’d moved to Salida, but that’s as far it got.

Back then, I didn’t know about the Closed Basin. I just presumed that Saguache Creek flowed into San Luis Creek which flowed into the Rio Grande. Thus even if the formal Rio Grande began above Creede, these northern tributaries were part of the same drainage system.

I wasn’t alone in that mistaken presumption. In 1983, as the 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail began to take form, guidebooks began to emerge, including Guide to the Continental Divide Trail: Southern Colorado, by James R. Wolf. In his description of the area south of Marshall Pass, he noted the 11,862-foot nameless hill, and observed that the water flowed in three directions from its summit. He proposed christening it “Arkarado Grande Peak” for the Arkansas, the Colorado, and the Rio Grande. Good name, except that the peak’s drainage goes to the Closed Basin, not the Rio Grande.

That appears to be the only published mention of this spot until the 1990s, when Colorado’s 14ers started feeling a lot of footprints.

THIS SUGGESTED that people looking for less crowded high-altitude recreation might try climbing mountains that were distinctive for reasons other than their elevations.

Among those people was Allen Best, an old friend (as well as climbing companion — our first 14er was Mt. Elbert along with Rex Ewing on Labor Day weekend in 1979) and frequent contributor to this magazine. In May of 1995, we published one of Best’s essays, wherein he suggested that people find new summit collections to replace the 14ers — like every Sheep Mountain or Bald Mountain, for instance, or all mountains named for minerals: Galena, Granite, Rhyolite, Porphyry, etc.

That idea of looking beyond the 14ers inspired George to look for the mountain he had often talked about at the opening of every Headwaters Conference in Gunnison: “a mountain somewhere to the east, from whose slopes the waters run off one side into the great Mississippi Basin via the Arkansas, off another side into the Rio Grande Basin, and off yet another into the Colorado River Basin via the Gunnison River.”

But as he confessed in an article we published in December, 1995, he’d never actually been on this mountain or even seen it. It just seemed logical that it would be there.

And it was. He looked at the topographic maps, found the summit along the Continental Divide and Colorado trails about 4½ miles south of Marshall Pass, and on Labor Day, 1995, he and some friends hiked to the summit and confirmed the triple drainage.

In that 1995 article, George proposed several names, ranging from Headwaters Hill to Madre de Agua. My favorite was Headwaters Hump — alliterative and a bit raunchy. As he noted then, there was no hurry, and if more people hiked the route, conscious of where they were, then eventually a name would come.

Dale Sanderson climbed Mt. Elbert in 1997 with some family members, and he recounts on his website that “I was glad to say I had been there — but afterwards, as I wondered where to go for my next hike, I began to form the opinion that a mountain’s height alone is not reason enough for me to climb it. So I began looking for peaks that were significant in other ways. That’s how I became interested in Triple Divides.”

And with that interest in mountains that weren’t 14ers, he poked through his maps, just as George had done, and found the unnamed 11,682-foot peak hiding behind imposing 13,268-foot Antora Peak. In the fall of 1998, he and his father and some friends hiked to its summit. He thought it deserved a name, and proposed Three River Point.

George and Dale had been sharing a strong interest in this place without any knowledge of each other.

That’s where I came in. In May of 1999, I wrote a column for the Denver Post which mentioned the Closed Basin.

That inspired an e-mail from Dale, whom I’d never met (although, as I later learned, I had met his uncle John and aunt Linda, who in 1989 had sold us the house we now live in because they had moved to Sargents). Dale was curious about the Closed Basin; like me and many other people, he’d just assumed that water from the northern San Luis Valley ended up in the Rio Grande.

I told him what I knew about the Closed Basin, and put him in touch with the Rio Grande Water Conservation District for more information about the plumbing of the San Luis Valley. Then he explained why he was so interested in the Closed Basin — he’d found this 11,862-foot mountain that appeared to be a triple divide for the Colorado, Arkansas, and Rio Grande drainages.

IT WAS A BETTER triple divide than McNamee Peak, because its waters never met until they reached the sea, whereas on McNamee, the South Platte, and Arkansas both flow into the Mississippi before reaching the ocean. He had found only five such triple divides in the United States.

I put him in touch with George.

Over the years since his 1995 “discovery,” George had been organizing an annual hike — a “Naming Quest” — with about 20 people on some fine fall afternoon.

I went on the 1999 excursion on a gorgeous Saturday in late September. It’s a nine-mile round-trip, along clear trails without any serious grades, but still a pretty good work-out for a desk-bound chain-smoker like me. (So I generally brought up the rear with a lot of gasping, but I made it.)

The summit is not a pinnacle. It’s a couple of acres of rolling ground punctuated by aspen, spruce, and boulders. You need to walk around a little to see the three drainages, but they’re all quite clear.

George was there, of course, as was Dale, along with about 20 other people, mostly from the Gunnison side. (I ran into Kirby Perschbacher of Salida on the drive up Marshall Pass, and he even had some horses that would have replaced my aching knees with saddle sores — but he was there on other business and couldn’t make the trip.) The hikers ranged in age from muscular Western students to retirees like Grace and Richard Nugent.

I thought Dale would be disappointed that the “Rio Grande” side was really a “Closed Basin” side, since that meant that his proposed name, Three Rivers Point, wouldn’t fit. But he said that made this place even more special — water goes to the Atlantic, the Pacific, and to no ocean at all, unlike the other triple divides where all the water goes to oceans.

And George pointed out that, thanks to the Closed Basin Project, which pumps water from the San Luis Lake sump to the Rio Grande, the south side is Rio Grande Drainage on account of the herculean labors of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “It has always been the Bureau’s mission,” he said, “to correct the mistakes that God made in plumbing the West.” One way or the other, it was still a distinctive hydrologic convergence (or divergence).

AT THE SUMMIT on that Naming Quest, we discussed names while eating our daypack lunches, and a consensus emerged that Headwaters Hill was the best candidate. It fit, in that we were at the head of several drainages, and even if this eminence would have been the highest spot in 38 of the 50 United States, it was by Colorado standards no more than a hill — indeed, that’s probably why it hadn’t yet acquired a formal name.

But I thought that before proceeding, it would be best to check with those who inhabited this region before white folks started naming things, and I wrote to Sage Douglas Remington of the Southern Ute nation. He passed it along to the Tribal Elders Council, and, well, that’s the last anyone heard of it. Acquaintances who have dealt with that council say that’s not unusual — the lack of response means “it’s not something we care about, one way or another.”

In response to my inquiry, Sage did note that he could easily construct a Nuche term for “place where a man can urinate into three basins at once,” but he said it would be way too long for a convenient place name, and that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names doubtless had translators who would catch us in that act of accurate landscape description.

ON HIS END, Dale revised his website to promote Headwaters Hill as a name, and offered an electronic petition for those who agreed.

(His site has an inconveniently long URL; the easiest way to reach it is to go to our cozine.com site, where there’s a map on the right, and click on Headwaters Hill on the map.) (Further parenthetically, Dale’s site has plenty of other interesting stuff about other triple divides, his discovery of a new lowest point in Colorado, and much else to intrigue geography buffs.)

I wrote about the Headwaters Hill project in a Denver Post column that November, and in Gunnison, Grace Nugent agreed to handle the paperwork in submitting a formal proposal to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

The Board doesn’t want to ram anything down the locals’ throats, so it wants to see evidence of local support for any new place name. (The lack of local support is why the proposal to change South Elbert to Mt. William & Mary never went through.)

Headwaters Hill is entirely within Saguache County and Rio Grande National Forest. But because of its triune drainage, it’s not far from Chaffee and Gunnison counties, and from Pike-San Isabel and Gunnison national forests.

Grace and George got letters of support from all three sets of county commissioners and all three ranger districts. District rangers weren’t enough — they had to get the Forest Service on board, too, along with various agencies of the Department of the Interior. They collected about 200 residents’ signatures on petitions. They dealt with the Colorado geographic names agency, which is part of the state archives office. And there are doubtless agencies I don’t know about — I do know it was a lot of work.

At its July 12 meeting this year, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names agreed that the obscure 11,862-foot summit in the rolling Cochetopa Hills will henceforth be known as Headwaters Hill on all federal documents, like U.S.G.S. maps and databases.

In time, the guidebooks to the Colorado Trail and Continental Divide trail will reflect the name.

I’m not too worried that the area will suffer from overuse, just because one more point got a name — the area already has two prominent named trails with “official” guidebooks, and if you worked at it you could also put it on the Rainbow Trail by pursuing the Silver Creek segment to the top. Nearby peaks like Antora and Windy have borne names for a century or more, and even so, a Colorado Trail guidebook cautions that the stretch south from Marshall Pass is the emptiest place along the 470-mile route.

Headwaters Hill is not in pristine wilderness. Along with the trails, there are old logging roads nearby. It’s less than five miles from what was once a transcontinental railroad route. There was considerable mining at Bonanza, less than a dozen miles away, and that inspired some prospect holes in the vicinity.

The area around Headwaters Hill, in other words, is a microcosm of much of the rest of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado — a place where people once tried to extract a livelihood by dint of harder work than I’ve ever done. And I prefer to see the remnants — the mine dumps and the stumps and the railroad grades — as memorials to their efforts, rather than as blights on the landscape.

IF A FEW MORE PEOPLE visit it could be educational, providing that, in George’s words, they’re conscious of where they are (which is more or less why we publish this magazine).

They’ll learn about the Closed Basin, as Dale and I did in the process of getting better acquainted with that part of the world.

And the more that people know about the Closed Basin, the better they’ll be able to understand the water wars of the San Luis Valley, which have state-wide significance and more, considering that the Closed Basin has been connected to the Rio Grande, which flows to New Mexico, Texas, and the Republic of Mexico.

If there’s ever a summit marker, I hope it explains the Closed Basin, and meantime, I wish the roadside signs at spots like Poncha and Cochetopa passes were accurate and had “Closed Basin” rather than “Rio Grande.” The next time I talk to Ralph Curtis at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, I’ll try to convince him that his job would be easier if there were some explanatory signage and maps at the passes into the Closed Basin, giving travelers a better understanding of the terrain they’re crossing.

But that can wait. As I mentioned at the start, place names fascinate me because they have stories behind them. This is one story I happen to know, and one that I’m glad to have played a part in.

When people rag on “the media,” they’re often correct in their criticisms. But the word is the plural of “medium” — that is, somebody in the middle who makes connections. By being in “the media,” I was able to connect Dale to George and Grace, and now the little mountain that deserved a name has one. This business can cause a lot of aggravation, but once in a while, you get to feel good about what you do.

— Ed Quillen