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Mill Creek: Relentless Whispers

October 14, 2019

I had forgotten the creek; it had slipped to a corner of my mind wherein dust, lost socks and discarded paper clips collect. I was on the corner of 3300 South and 700 East at a FedEx when I remembered. While placing my printing order at the counter, my eyes were pulled toward a set of floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooking a riparian corridor. After completing my order, I moved to stand before the window.

 

It was a creek all right, emerging from a tunnel beneath the mass of pavement and traffic that is 700 East. Cars—shining hoods flashing brightly in the afternoon sun, rubber tires a loud rassshh against asphalt—sped along the highway, passing over the water so quickly I couldn’t pick one out from the rest. Farther down, a variety of large trees created an arch over the water, more subtle and soft and transparent than the arch of stone under the road. A light breeze brushed the long, dangling fingertips of a willow, which swayed a few feet above the water. The shadows the branches cast mirrored the movement, as golden afternoon light flickered across the surface of the currents. After passing the FedEx the river bent slightly to the north—where it must duck once more under the asphalt of 3300 South.

 

On the opposite side of the creek, two men, one younger and one older, likely son and father, stood on some of the large rocks lining the steep embankment. Each had a fly fishing rod in hand. The son took a precarious step onto a rock closer to the water’s edge and brought his arm back to cast. The thin, nearly imperceptible curve of the fishing line took the shape of a serpent, slithering through the air and into the water.

 

There are seven rivers that flow from seven canyons in the Wasatch Front into the Salt Lake Valley and Jordan River Basin. Which waterway was this?

 

And then it hit me like a slap to the forehead: Mill Creek. Where I live. Where I just bought a house with my partner. Millcreek—right there in the name, and I had forgotten all about it. A creek so important that it gave this entire township its name well over a century ago.

 

The township of Millcreek, which extends from the mouth of Millcreek Canyon to the corner of 3300 South and 700 East, was one of the earliest white settlements in the larger Rocky Mountain region. When Brigham Young’s army of Mormons marched across the plains and settled in the Salt Lake Valley, a man named John Neff ventured farther south than most of his fellow pioneers. He began building a mill near the base of Millcreek Canyon in the spring of 1848. Construction on the mill halted briefly during the following summer, when crickets caused such terrible crop failures that the Mormon settlers thought they would have to move out of the valley for lack of food. But Neff persisted and so did the Mormons. Soon farmers were bringing their meager harvests to the gristmill to have their grain ground into flour using the creek’s energy. A settlement sprang up around that original mill, and Neff relinquished control of the area to a growing community. He then moved west along the creek, beginning construction on more mills as he did so. Over the next 50 years, Neff built over 30 mills. Mill Creek.

 

The noise from the road dulled for a moment as traffic lights changed. I tried to imagine what standing on the shore of this creek might have felt like prior to the city’s founding. Back then, the creek’s natural embankments changed shape with each spring runoff, passing through groves of towering cottonwoods that littered the water with feather-shaped, golden leaves in the fall. Beyond the sound of chugging printers and the scent of hot paper, I could hear the relentless whispers of the currents and rich, intoxicating smells of soil and rotting detritus. Urban creeks are often forgotten, pushed to the corners of society’s mind where they collect dust and discarded paper clips and are forced under rivers of pavement. Nonetheless, the waters keep flowing, keep moving materials from the mountains to the valley, keep swelling with the cold, swift pulse of snowmelt.

 

The fishing rod in the son’s hands started bouncing. The fish didn’t give much of a fight; within a minute the son was cradling it in his palms, its iridescent scales throwing flecks of bright light across the space like sun rays on water.

 

Some have not forgotten these creeks.

Ayja Bounous grew up in Utah and is the author of Shaped by Snow published by Torrey House Press. She loves the snow and everything it touches and shapes—from mountain lakes and arêtes to creeks and wildflowers. She currently lives in Millcreek, not too far from where John Neff built his original mill. b. 1991

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