I love this desert, this microcosm surrounding the San Juan drainage. The river canyon and the water call out to me. The red rocks, the burning sun, the peace and stark beauty of the landscape sooth me. I am at home here. This is a place of joy.
There is no human habitation for many miles; no lights obscure the summer sky. Except for the abandoned ruins of the old ones, the Anasazi, scant evidence remains that anyone ever traversed these lands. The elegant dwellings carved into the sandstone alcoves bear mute testimony to the adaptability of the human spirit. A window ledge facing the river carries the unmistakable marks of grinding corn. It is a simple exercise to imagine a woman standing here day after day tending to the needs of her family. She must have truly reveled in her surroundings.
The river is fast, very fast and colder than you would imagine. It provides a sharp contrast to the incessant heat reflecting off the canyon walls. This is the year of the wettest spring I can remember. July is now upon us and the snow pack still glistens in the La Sal range. The runoff keeps coming and the flow is fourfold what one could expect for this time of the year. For those of us who run these rivers, the conditions are ideal. Huge waves pummel my tiny raft as we drop through the rapids and my companion pummels me as well with her complaints about the constant bailing. The river is trying its best to make us part of herself, to enfold us in her embrace.
We tuck into the smooth water of the eddy below the last rapid where a herd of bighorn sheep grazes on the banks. A small lamb, born just a few months ago and far too bold for her own good, eyes this odd device and approaches. She is so close I could reach out and touch her. A protective mama glares at me and stomps her tiny hooves. This is no idle warning. Reluctantly, I put my shoulders to the oars and continue the journey. Canada geese escort flocks of protesting goslings along the sandbars, their honking echoes through the canyon and reverberate forever. We barely sense the otter and the muskrats diving into the safety of the water; but for the telltale splash there is no sign of them. Great Blue Herons stand like statues on the boulders as we drift silently past. They spread their powerful wings and launch into the air, soaring over the raft only to land on another rock short distance downstream. It is a perpetual game of leapfrog, one they never tire of playing. I recall watching a beaver a few years ago, a large creature with a neat bite taken out of his tail, but I have not seen him this trip. The river will always be here though so perhaps we will have another chance to meet.
A likely camp is just ahead, a pristine beach located at the top of an eddy. Red rocks line the embankment and we can see collared lizards doing pushups in the cedar trees. There is a small pond here, separated from the river and fed by springs. It is home to thousands of baby frogs each about the size and color of a tarnished penny. It is their presence that decides this site. Shrill peeps promise to fill the evening hours with a symphony peculiar to this place. It is no wonder the Diné consider frogs as sacred beings. They are uniquely constructed to survive the ebb and flow of the riparian world.
Once the raft is unloaded, I sit and watch the still life of cliffs and salt cedar mirrored in the quiet waters. It is a most mythical place, one that provides impetus for contemplative thought. A monstrous bullfrog leaps for an insect in front of me. It is more than a little startling and breaks my reflective mood. I gleefully return the favor and chase him around his pond for over an hour. It’s a game of hide and seek, of stalking, of lurking in the rushes and waiting with infinite patience for the other to reappear. When at last I concede defeat I discover an unexpected benefit from this wallow with frog. The pond is lined with clay, silky kaolin, the exquisite stuff of European facials. With every centimeter of my body covered with mud I release the howl that is building inside me. It accompanies a striking realization. Some women pay hundreds of dollars for this treatment.
This desert fills me with delight. There is so much of life here. Everywhere you turn there are creatures and plants eking out an existence. In the morning a motorized raft filled with shouting humans passes by our haven. The roar of the engine and the noxious fumes shatter the tranquility, driving the animals into the hidden places. These people do not see nor hear nor even smell the diversity of this ecosystem. Perhaps that is why we call it desert. They cannot possibly know what the landscape offers in their haste to experience nature. For them there is nothing more than rocks and river, harsh, barren and forbidding. Devoid of life…without spirit. These observations create an epiphany. I think I finally understand now, the true desert lies deep within us.