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Go As a River: New Colorado novel explores love and loss on the Western Slope

 Author Shelley Read spoke about her first novel Go As a River at the Boulder Bookstore on Thursday March 9, 2023.
Maeve Conran
Rocky Mountain Community Radio
Author Shelley Read spoke about her first novel Go As a River at the Boulder Bookstore on Thursday March 9, 2023.

Author Shelley Read's new novel is set against the backdrop of Iola, the town that was flooded to make way for Blue Mesa Reservoir.

The Gunnison Valley resident spoke with Maeve Conran about her debut, Go As a River.

Shelley Read:  A lot of people know of Blue Mesa Reservoir, it's the largest reservoir in Colorado, that is on the Western Slope in Gunnison County, but what a lot of people don't know is that in order to create that reservoir, people, generational ranchers, and towns folk in the towns of Iola, Sapinero and Cebolla, had to be displaced from their land.

And of course, that displacement was deeply painful for the people who had to lose their ranches and lose their homes.

This happened throughout the early 1960s, the reservoir was flooded, (it) was created in 1965 and 1966.

And so yes, there are people who still live in the Gunnison Valley, moved to Gunnison or Montrose or other places in the area when they had to leave the Iola area.

And they carry a lot of the pain of that displacement when they tell those stories.

I also dig into the displacement of the Indigenous people who were the inhabitants of that area of the Gunnison Valley, because clearly well before the displacement of the farmers and ranchers in the 1960s, we have the legacy of the painful displacement of the Ute people.

And so the layers and layers of displacement that are present, that many people are not aware of actually is the history of that portion of the Gunnison Valley.

Maeve Conran: What's interesting is in the book, of course, it shows you that secrets never go away, and whatever you personally try to suppress or drown out or run away from will always follow you.

And what's happened in real life is because of the drought, we're seeing remnants of Iola now emerging actually from the reservoir.

What did that do to people when several years ago we started to see Iola because the reservoir itself was shrinking?

Shelley Read: Yeah, I think it was a really poignant moment for those of us who live in the Gunnison Valley.

We're so used to swimming and fishing and boating and ice skating and enjoying Blue Mesa Reservoir, it feels like it's our reservoir .

However, what we learned is as a result of the Colorado River Compact and the very complicated politics about water in the American West is that Blue Mesa Reservoir actually is susceptible to a water call for down river.

Where we in the Gunnison Valley have to, are legally obligated to, send our water downstream, primarily this time around for the benefit of Lake Powell.

And so, yes, when the old foundations and actually the old concrete pad that held the flagpole for the Iola school emerged a few years ago, and then again this year for the first time since Blue Mesa Reservoir was created in 1965 and 66, it was actually very shocking, I think, for the residents of the valley.

It helped us to understand how complicated water politics are in the American West, as well as how vulnerable all of us are to those situations of drought.

Maeve Conran: There are so many iconic locations in Western Colorado that feature in the book.

Of course, the Gunnison Valley, Iola, Paonia, Durango.

Many people think of Colorado almost as a monolith, it's the West, and yet all of these places have such unique features, geographically, sociologically.

You yourself (are) a fifth generation Coloradan.

What do you hope people will take away about the Gunnison Valley, about Paonia, about Western Colorado that you write so beautifully about in the book? What do you want readers to take from that?

Shelley Read: Oh, well, you know, Western Colorado is a beautiful and also a much more varied place.

As you mentioned, the landscapes differ dramatically based on elevation.

There are many different cultural heritages that we have in the Western Slope of Colorado.

We have some very productive, very rich farmland, but also some of the highest peaks in Colorado.

And so I think those of us who consider Western Colorado our homeland, definitely feel an affinity to one another, but also it should be known that there are many, many different lifestyles and many, many different kinds of people and many different landscapes on the Western Slope of Colorado.

One of the things that I think is most primary to that area is the wilderness and the wild landscapes.

A lot of pristine and remarkable natural areas that really have so much to teach us.

I dig into that quite a bit with my character Victoria Nash and the setting of our book.

The wild landscapes of Western Colorado can teach us humility and so many life lessons, and that is a theme that runs through my entire novel.

Maeve Conran: And peaches, peach trees are such a wonderful metaphor as well, and such an iconic part of that part of Colorado as well. Why peaches as such a central theme and actual object in your book?

Shelley Read: Yeah. A lot of people are unaware that we grow some of the most wonderful peaches in the world on the Western Slope of Colorado in the North Fork River Valley, in the Paonia, Hotchkiss area, and then obviously in Palisades and the Grand Valley around Grand Junction.

It's the warm days and the cool nights that create the sweetest peaches and they just get sweeter as the season goes on.

But what I learned through my research is that it's actually incredibly difficult to grow a peach in Colorado, mostly because they're very susceptible to frost and temperature variations.

And so ancestral peach farmers, people who have been farming peaches and gathering the knowledge and the know-how, generationally handed down throughout the generations in any given peach farming family, really captured my imagination as I was writing this book.

And the fragility of the peach, the fragility of the blossoms, the fact that peaches really do grow in Colorado against the odds, that they can be resilient in new soil.

These are all themes that relate to my character, Victoria Nash and her journey throughout the book.

Read is embarking on a book tour throughout Colorado and Utah. She'll appear at Maria's Bookstore in Durango March 23 at 6 PM.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including KSUT.
Copyright 2023 Aspen Public Radio . To see more, visit Aspen Public Radio.

Maeve Conran
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