Monday, February 4, 2013


The origins of the Matthew River begin several miles above the cut at the foot of the Maro Mountains where a seep forms near the base of a sandstone cliff. Beneath the cliff a greenish-brown pool, choked with decaying leaves and crowded about with willows and cottonwood trees, gathers in a low spot. A small trickle of water escapes over the lowest rim of the seep and drips down into a rocky stream bed. This marks the spot where the river begins its journey to the sea. A wooden sign with weathered yellow lettering placed by the forest service alongside a nearby hiking trail, advises passersby that this spot is the source of the mighty Matthew River. For two miles below the seep the Matthew starts and stops in fits. A small algae-choked pool will mysteriously appear among the rocks and for a ways a modest little stream will flow above ground, negotiating its way between the boulders, before disappearing altogether again into the sand.  Motorists driving down  S.H. 206 cross a dry, sandy wash not far from the town of Henderson. A small sign next to the bridge says ''MATTHEW RIVER'' in large, black lettering. No water is in sight. A mile below the bridge the river begins flowing in earnest, and even from a long ways off can be clearly discerned as a thin, thirsty ribbon of green winding its way across the arid plain.

On the expansive Henderson ranch, for which the nearby town of Henderson is named, the river flows down into a narrow canyon known to locals simply as ''the cut.'' There the water's course follows a channel, over a hundred yards deep at its deepest and over a half mile long, cut into rock as black as charcoal. The walls on either side, close enough in places to touch with both hands outstretched, have been worn smooth over the millenia and the stone floor beneath the ankle-deep water is cold and slimy.  Only for a brief while, when the sun is directly overhead, does sunlight reach the bottom of the cut.

At the cut's deepest point the river flows out into a slow-moving, knee-deep stretch of water beneath sheer, near-vertical walls. Far above, the sunlight at the rim of the cut appears as a jagged tear running the length of a back-lit curtain. A waterfall, which does not originate from the plain above but from an opening fifty feet above the stream in the side of the cut, crashes down into the slow-moving water. The opening, perhaps thirty feet wide, ten feet high and roughly oval in shape, is the entrance to a shallow cave. Water flows out of cleavage planes along the back wall and collects in a pool, called ''The Bathtub'' before flowing over the lip and down into the inky darkness of the cut. Some forgotten primitive people had carved channels into the floor of the cave to direct the flow of the water into the bathtub which itself had apparently been carved out by human hands at some point. For what purpose no one could say for sure.

Any other evidence of the cave's ancient inhabitants had long ago been washed away by flash floods, which had also deposited drift wood and other debris across the floor of the cave. Such severe floods were not common but perhaps once or twice every fifty years a really good gully washer would send torrents of water into the narrow confines of the cut and the waters would rise above the cave. The destructive force and sheer power of such floods is difficult to comprehend.

The Henderson family, who were fiercely protective of their property rights, kept the secret of the cave until this past year when young Bruce Henderson wanted a memorable place to propose to his longtime girlfriend, Jenna Utherfoot. He packed a picnic lunch and guided Jenna down into the cut. He had strategically tethered a canoe to a spur of rock at the point where the river deepened, and with their flashlights dancing off the water and their voices echoing off the walls they floated along in the canoe until they came to the spot where the waterfall crashed down out of the cave into the river. Bruce tied off the canoe and encouraged Jenna to precede him up into the cave via a rope ladder.

In the weeks before, Bruce had painstakingly transported a number of things including a table, chairs, and lantern to the cave so that when he lit the lantern everything had been neatly arranged for their romantic rendezvous. In the warm glow of the lantern they ate, and then Bruce took Jenna's hands and without ceremony asked her simply if she would marry him. However, before she could answer they heard a crashing sound from down below in the cut. Bruce shoved back his chair, and with his flashlight in hand he directed its beam down toward the river, which was rising rapidly. The crash had been caused by the canoe which had become wedged between the walls of the cut and rent in two by the rising torrent.

''Bruce, what is it?'' shouted Jenna as a great roar began to fill the narrow canyon.

In the light of the lantern Bruce's face was a perfect mask of terror. Jenna began sobbing, ''What is it?!?!''

Then with surprising speed the roiling water came growling at the lip of the cave. They ran to each other, embraced, and before the waters snuffed out the lantern and swept away table, chairs, Bruce and Jenna she looked steadily into his eyes and with a slow, deliberate shake of her head she said, ''No.''

No comments: