Halloween offers an opportunity to reflect on the legend and lore of our community, including the tales that have been told and retold through the generations. This week, Museum staff turn to the Canyon Legacy Volume 28, “Myth, Legend and Folklore.” Author Kris Johnson retells the story of the legendary River Witch:
I remember stories of the River Witch from my days at Grand County High School, way back in the 1980s. The boys from the rodeo club told me the story of the River Witch, whom they would race on Egg Ranch Road (Kane Creek Road) near the Colorado River.
One full moon night, we all set off in one of the boys’ trucks to find the River Witch. We drove to the cattle guard at the end of the pavement and turned on and off the lights to encourage her to race. The boys yelled out the window calling her names. Then one shouted, ‘There she is!’
‘Where? Where?’ I craned my neck to see out the window. Did I glimpse an image in white?
The driver accelerated, warning us that if the River Witch made it to the other cattle guard before us, our fate would be doomed. The River Witch was vengeful and would tear the car apart from within…
‘Faster, faster…’ we cried. The driver said he could see her in the rearview mirror. Was she gaining on us? The cattle guard was ahead, would we make it in time?
We flew across the cattle guard, skidding on the gravel as the driver tried to stop the car. Was it the River Witch causing us to slide on the loose rocks, or our own irresponsibility? But soon the truck stopped, safe. ‘We made it!’
I remember this experience well. And I was surprised to hear the story continues among students at Grand County High School today.
One student elaborated on the character of the River Witch, stating that she is in sorrow and anger due to an unplanned pregnancy. When the River Witch revealed her state to her boyfriend, he rejected her and their child, and in her deep sorrow, the young woman went to the Colorado River bridge, climbed onto the railing, and jumped into the river below and drowned.
This story is not unfamiliar throughout the Southwest and into Mexico. The story of La Llorna, which means ‘the weeping woman’ can be found near many rivers. One of the oldest stories is told of a rich nobleman who falls in love with a beautiful, but poor, young woman. He courts her and wins her affections but does not marry her. They have children together and live happily until he is called back to live in Spain to marry the daughter of a nobleman. He tells her that he cannot take her with him because he is to be married, but that he will take their children with him far across the ocean.
La Llorna cannot bear the thought of her children being taken from her and losing the love of the nobleman. In her anguish she becomes insane. In this madness she throws her young children into the raging river. Her children drown and she lies on the riverbank in her sorrow until she dies.
The soul of La Llorna ascends to heaven. She is told that her sins may be forgiven because of her sorrow, but she must first recover her children from the river.
Today it is said that La Llorna walks along the river, crying, combing the river with her long hair and fingers to find her children. That is why children must not play in the river, because La Llorna may mistake them for her own and take them away.
There is danger today in finding the River Witch. While her existence is left up to debate, young drivers racing along the river pose a serious threat to themselves and to other people who may use the road. Perhaps those who choose to remember her should not antagonize her sorrow by calling her out to race but should offer an opportunity for her to heal her pain.
The Moab Museum is dedicated to sharing stories of the natural and human history of the Moab area. Read the full article by visiting moabmuseum.org under Canyon Legacy Archive. To explore more of Moab’s stories and artifacts, find out about upcoming programs, and become a Member, visit www.moabmuseum.org.
This article was originally published in the 1996 Spring Issue of the Canyon Legacy, available for purchase at the Moab Museum. Read more in the Moab Sun News Moab History Column.