Last night was met with a very sad event. I fear my bug (glue) traps are a bit overzealous, having trapped a bat. Following advise by my neighbor Gilbert from a few weeks ago, I applied olive oil as an anti-goo agent. I was able to free this inadvertent visitor to my home by applying light pressure to each of his limbs using a ceramic chop stick. It took about 45 minutes in all. He (or she) was exhausted once free, and fell to sleep in the palm of my gloved hand.
She was reluctant to release my glove, but I coaxed her into the corner of the box where she wrapped her body around the bottle and fell to sleep. He woke to preen himself of the goo and oil, and was eager to drink from the water-milk-sugar-salt solution I prepared delivered in the fibers of an artist’s paintbrush. I could see and hear this tongue lapping the solution, like a very small dog. Four full brushes, and he was no longer interested.
Roughly two hours later, at 12:30 pm, she crawled out of a hole in the box I thought too small, and rested on the outside of the box, next to my bed. I lifted the box, he flopped around on the floor and then quickly took flight. I opened the door and out she went!
I am reunited with home ownership, in a most robust manner.
The french drain attached to the clothes washing machine was totally clogged, causing most of the water in the washer to shoot out of the connection for what was likely an under-sink garbage disposal. We learned the gas range and stove were never converted to propane, long yellow flames and black soot on the bottom of all pots and pans tell-tail signs of something not quite right. And tonight, our third in this new home, the winds drove the branches of the mesquite trees against the galvanized steel roof, scratching and screeching until I realized neither Colleen nor I would ever sleep. At 2:30 AM I pulled on my work pants, shirt, and boots and grabbed a tree saw from the tool bin. I carefully leaned the extension ladder against the large wood perimeter of the otherwise all steel frame and for an hour trimmed the trees that line the house on three sides.
The joy of owning a house again.
For the past three years, since my return to the United States from South Africa, I have been searching for a place to call home. This has taken me from city to town to relative isolation, a study in the complexity of the definition of home and who I am.
If it were as simple as “I am a city person” or “I am a country person” then the path would be relatively easy to follow. But when I find joy in live music venues, a certain pleasure in hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and delight in live theater, I cannot say that cities do not offer a draw.
In those places where humans are as scarce as animals are in the city, I find that I open, my senses return to their full capacity. No longer am I tuning out, rather, I am actively tuning in, seeking, engaging, and absorbing all that is given. Bird calls, the rustle of debris with a gust of wind; movement of every mammal, small, medium, or scary is a reminder that I am a part of something that I cannot control nor can it be defined by measures of glass, steel, and concrete.
In the confine of a single month I was simultaneously envisioning myself in a large, warehouse studio in downtown Phoenix and a straw bail house past the high desert town of Oracle, two places so much opposites that I questioned how I could be attracted to both. Proximity to my parents, brother, and airport drew me to Phoenix while the passion that my partner Colleen and I share for the wild places, the splendor of dark night skies, and a craving for an analog community told me to wait … just wait … until it all comes together and feels right.
Through circumstances too complex to describe in this immediate story, I found myself in Cascabel, a place where ranchers, New York escapees, university professors, wild life conservationists, an astrophysicist, archaeologists, a medical professional and boat builder, bird watchers, artisans, and a filmmaker have each arrived through their own, non-linear paths. In Cascabel I found a personal connection to both land and people that feels rare in this digital world. In Cascabel, I finally found home.
The property is seventeen acres of mesquite forest and another forty that includes the confluence of Hot Springs wash and the San Pedro river. This second parcel will immediately move into the protective care of a conservation association. The house is a former mill that for a half dozen years in the 1990s generated mesquite wood products. Open, spacious, and naturally lit from all sides, it is a place that will never let you forget you are a part of something much bigger, just outside.
The San Pedro river valley is the longest undammed river in the American Southwest, with a diversity of mammals greater than anywhere in North America (or at least, that is what I have read). Some 350 species of migratory birds pass through twice each year, more than 500 including those that call this place home. Javelina (Peccary), deer, fox, skunk, coyote, mountain lion and an occasional black bear leave footprints for us to follow, a puzzle whose playing pieces change each day. I look forward to sharing with Colleen morning trail runs across gullies, down ravines, into the foothills of wilderness. On weekends, we will travel further, on foot, into the places you simply cannot find saddled atop a 4×4 nor fully engage from the air.
Most of all, after eight years on the road, most everything I own in storage, I look forward to wall lined with books, the rich sound of my home theater, and a place to explore working with wood, clay, fabric, and metal. It is time for the persistent digital interfaces to be set aside so that we can once again recall what it means to disengage and just … be.
Welcome to the Towering House of Cascabel! We hope you will visit soon, and stay for a while.
Rain in the desert is unlike rain in Pacific Northwest, the midlands or Florida. In Seattle it is anticipated so much so that it has become part of the folklore, the first thing someone mentions when you state you are visiting or live there. In Florida, the rains increasingly come not as a light afternoon shower, but as torrential downpours, the kind of storm that forces people to evacuate their homes.
In the desert, rain is a welcomed friend, the one that visits just a few times each year. Children rush out to meet her, the adults smile at the sound of her approach. The burden of the sun is temporarily pushed aside by cloud cover of her cloak.
When rain comes to the desert, it brings with it the generation of aromas that otherwise require the crushing of arid leaves between finger tips or stirring of debris underfoot. Sage, mesquite, and flowering ground cover entice human memories, stimulating something deeper than olfactory alone.
The emotions invoked are not unlike the embrace of a friend or caress of a lover, brought to life in the rapid transition from brown to green, dry to soaked. Yet they are fleeting, as quick to arrive as they are to depart. The aroma of the desert rain is diminished. We anticipate, but never expect.
Just one hour from downtown Phoenix, no matter if I arrive at dusk, well after sunset, or midnight, I am always eager to step out of my Subaru onto the rock of the turn-out where I frequently car-camp. The sound of crickets welcomes me to sleep. Birdsong wakes me to the rising run and immediate warmth that it brings.
With every step comes a surprise, something new to discover and observe. I join wrens, hawks, lizards, chipmunks, rabbits, spiders and coyotes on the trail. There are homes made among the rubble of old mine shafts, in the hollow spaces of saguaro, and spanning the paths in hope of catching a small passer by. I fetch a light stick to tease a spider from its home, but it retreats back into its den when my large figure looms. A pair of hawks ride thermals, changing direction with effortless adjustment to the feathers on the very tip of their wings. A quick dive and recovered altitude suggests a potential meal escaped their talons, for now.
The only sounds are those of the breeze, a distant jet, and the rustle of needles, leaves, and stones under lizards feet as creatures scurry at my approach, or to stay cool against the warming sun. The aromas of creosote and cactus blooms mix with the ash of last night’s fire and I am, for this morning, at peace.
I am sitting in a cafe on the West end of Bluff, Utah, less than a mile from the San Juan river and the tall sandstone wall which defines the Northern boundary of the Navajo Nation.
Nearly every seat is filled. Between the expected sound of steamers and coffee grinders and juice mixers I hear German, French, and English. I am surprised, for this town is comprised of but a few hundred people tucked into a small pocket of Southwestern Utah. Yet, Bluff attracts tourists from around the world in the summer months, a landing spot to study archeology and launch point for the San Juan river.
Noah is sitting across from me, both of us winding down and out of our recent seven day excursion on the Colorado river, putting in west of Moab at the terminus of the Potash mining road, taking out on the north side of the eastern reach of Lake Powell’s stagnant waters, across from Hite.
I was the fortunate guest of Wild Rivers Expeditions, a more than 50 years old commercial outfitter whose founder Kenny Ross is known for a life spent on the San Juan and Colorado rivers prior to the dams and regulations and deep, cold blue water, where warm red rivers once freely ran.
There were eleven of us on this journey: Kristen (the owner of Wild Rivers) guides Jim, Noah, Colleen, Morgan, Marcus, Kate, Paul, and guests Herm and Val Hoops.
Herm’s history with the rivers of the Southwest goes back four or five decades, his stories of rapids run, battles (and pranks pulled) with Park officials, and drinking beer with Edward Abbey started on day one and ended, literally, on the final stretch as we passed beneath the steel girder bridge before the takeout where he pulled a Halloween mask over his head and then turned ’round grinning, his belly shaking as he laughed. He then passed the mask to all who desired to pose for the camera on our flotilla comprised of five lashed boats pushed against the wind and across the lake by a single motor at Marcus’ control.
We pushed off of the boat ramp with five boats and three kayaks, nintey gallons of water, at least four hundred pounds of food, and a quantity of beer that seemed improbable, but in the end the exact amount required by those who consumed.
The upper canyon is a dreamy mix of perfectly flat yet steadily flowing red-brown, warm water. The campsites are numerous, nestled beneath massive uplifts of beige, red, and blue-black sandstone and limestone whose histories are best described by those who make a living in their study. But one does not require a degree in geology to appreciate the raw beauty of complex striations, overlapping layers of sand and organic deposition squeezed, shifted, split, and lifted by time, pressure, and patience.
We floated that first day until half past ten in the night, the hot sun long since below the canyon walls, the full moon then illuminating our way. The oars hardly touched the water for the current was sufficient to keep us moving in the desired direction and free of the walls, boulders, and trees that would otherwise provide only a harmless bump to the boats.
We found anchor at a rocky ledge, unloading the bare minimum to establish camp. I placed my paco pad and sleeping bag a few meters upstream from boat “94”, my head at the edge and eighteen inches above the water’s surface. As I was not ready to sleep, I dangled my headlamp just above the water, mesmerized by the reflection of the red LED shimmer in the soft movements of the river beneath.
The next morning I rose before the others and hiked for an hour, finding opportunity for a little bouldering en route to the bottom end of a wash and pour-over which came from the higher ridges of the Canyon Lands to the north. Stark reds contrasting bright yellows and greens. The slight chill of the night was rapidly replaced by the bold rays of the sun which forced the dew to evaporate from sleeping bags slung over rocks and oars. Soon, we were again floating downstream, then under the protection of umbrellas, sleeved shirts, and sunscreen.
Throughout the trip I read from a book I have had in my library for too long, “A Tour of the Calculus,” fulfilling one of my goals for 2010 as I desire to rekindle my love for mathematics. This, however, gave my companions a nearly bottomless supply of fuel for humor. But when I asked for help to understand some of the foundations presented in the text, and the same who made fun were unable to assist, we all realized how much we have lost since our college classes and I was for the most part (but never entirely) allowed to read in peace.
I look back and realize I do not know nor do I care when I lost track of time. Without watch or mobile phone, the concept of time was wonderfully abandoned. I could not, without counting backward, have told you the name of the day on which we found our feet again on the ramp across from Hite. It simply didn’t matter. Days of the week and hours of the clock are useful only for communication between two or more persons who need to plan for something in the future, something not immediately within their reach.
When the entire world is but a river and a set of boats and the people who guide them, the world is wonderfully simple and beautifully without the need for the management of time. While Einstein said something like, “Without time, all things would happen at once,” time passes on a river not by seconds, minutes, nor even days, but by movement past geographic markers. Remarkable cliff bands, contributing side streams and ancient dry canyons, and fine, white sand beaches make clear that all things are unfolding in slow succession, in the proper order, where distance traveled is a living, breathing function of speed and ever patient time.
Stories from Water
By camp fire I listened into the night of the stories shared between Herm and Kristen, speaking of more than fifty years of Wild Rivers through three successive owners, each a contributor to the history of the Southwest. The politics of water and waterways and the people who use them are as complicated as any such matter. Public hearings and private deals paint a history of use and abuse of what will continue to be a subject of controversy and litigation for centuries to come as fresh water in the Southwest, as with many places in the world, is in growing demand but of diminishing supply.
As our boats passed through more than twenty rapids, some in the Class 3-4 range, it occurred to me that we speak of the people who have move through these places, the ancients with the knowledge of their artifacts and the modern people by name and photos, each leaving their mark in one or more ways. But what of the water itself?
Water has for a substantial part of the history of the planet made the journey from cloud to snow capped peak to melt water, from mountain stream to the Colorado and back again to the ocean (as it once flowed) only to be taken from the surface by a warm wind and lifted to the clouds once more.
Does the water molecule recall each journey and look forward to the next? Does the water enjoy giving foundation to the river wave as much as we enjoy riding over the top?
Gooey, Stinky, & Happy
In certain places, there was this wonderful, gooey, stinky, brown-red muck that rested in long, warm swathes adjacent to the sand beaches and dunes. To stand in the mud with bare feet offered an incredible sensation. Warm, wet, and welcoming.
But the odor was to me too close to that of the sheep fold on my grand parents’ farm in Iowa and so at first, I avoided the whole thing. However, once off the boat, the more I struggled the more I sank, up to my thighs at one point. There was no turning back, for my pant legs were coated and I was only sinking further. When I let go of concern (and my pants as well), I followed Noah’s lead and ran along the sandy crust, diving chest down and head first onto the mud, sliding as far as momentum would carry me.
I had to remember to keep my mouth closed, despite the desire to grin, for fear that I would swallow the goo. I made the mistake of turning on my side which resulted in the packing of my right ear with mud, both ends of five cotton swabs later required to remove it all. I am not yet convinced I am clean, subtle gurgling sounds give fear that some ancient microbial life has found refuge in my brain, eating my memories for breakfast and my dreams for dinner at night.
Into the Dolls House
At our third camp, at the bottom of the fifth rapid we stayed for two nights. A strong wind pummeled our camp as the sun set, followed by scattered rain showers which continued into the morning. Noah and I left camp early just as Herm and Val rose to make breakfast. We hiked the back route to the Dolls House in the Maze District of Canyon Lands, a place notorious for its wild, twisting, challenging rock. Surprise Valley, roughly three quarters distance from the river bottom to the Dolls House was indeed a surprise, a welcomed wash of green after a steep climb up loose scree.
As Noah and I lost the trail above Spanish Bottom, having come in from the southwest, we climbed instead straight up a cut high to our left. Not entirely comfortable, the scramble was by no means simple and involved a few slightly exposed climbing maneuvers. At the top, we were pleased to find the way not only possible, but welcoming onto a high slung saddle. En route to join the Dolls House trail, we found two ancient graineries with sand mortar tucked slabs of sandstone yet in tact.
Marcus, Paul, Colleen, Kate, and Jim came later, trying at first to follow our tracks but in seeing our forward and then back again confusion, they continued high above Spanish Bottom, cutting across deep red soil to find the end of the switchback trail. Marcus later laughed, saying we appeared to have been lost, and then disappeared, having moved from soil to rock.
To describe each of the narrow slots and caves in which we walked, slid, and climbed would be too much for this single entry, but one stands out in my mind. The Dolls House trail cuts across the very top of a long, narrow grassy valley, moving into a long slot created by a split in a massive formation. Near the top, to both sides are splits which welcome only those whose girth is lean.
I removed my hat, glasses, and pack, then turned my feet opposite each other, sliding in a few inches at a time. I found myself stuck within the first few feet, the rock pressing hard against my ribs. But when I blew out all the air in my lungs, my chest relaxed and I was able to continue. When I breathed in again, I was immediately jammed. And then it occurred to me–I stood on my toes, breathed in deep, and lifted my feet from the ground, and did not fall! I waved my arms and legs, and Noah laughed hard. Only when I laughed too did the air escape and I sank back down to the sandy bottom again.
Lake Powell is advertised on countless post cards, posters, and travel brochures as a paradise in the midst of an otherwise harsh desert of the Southwest. Scarcely clad golden men and well endowed women lounge on houseboats or dive from red sandstone cliffs into turquoise blue water. High powered personal water craft and skiers are drawn to this place every summer for long weekends of recreation.
The western waters certainly provide an incredible contrast, a man-made wonderment in what would otherwise be a deep river gorge, as it was when Colonel Powell traveled its length and before him, natives of this land who for millennia traveled along the deep canyon in order to raise crops along tributary deltas, storing grain in high, protected storage facilities.
What is not advertised is that when richly laden warm water meets cooler stagnant flows, the silt drops to the lake floor. Not an insignificant amount, between 60,000 and 100,000 acre feet per year are deposited in Lake Powell, currently on the eastern reaches near Hite.
While calculations give a wide range of estimations for how long it will take silt to fill the entire space behind the dam, from three hundred to as many as one thousand years, the current situation is one of immediate concern and public conversation. The Sierra Club demands that Glen Canyon Dam be removed to restore natural, seasonal water flow, saving more than 1,000,000 acre feet of water from evaporation each year, while others warn of economic disaster for local economies if the lake top recreation were removed. In the end, the Colorado River Compact remains the primary reason the dam exists, to ensure that ample water reaches downstream customers per the 1922 contract.
As I am neither a geologist nor an economist, any data I present here would simply be a regurgitation of my own research. Instead, I will share the impact Lake Powell had on me.
In the eastern reaches of Lake Powell, where it is difficult to discern where river ends and lake begins, massive piles of silt cling to bleached sandstone walls, some thirty to forty feet above the current water line. From the last rapid (currently #23) to Hite there are virtually no places to camp, let alone walk, for the water meets silt which meets canyon wall.
It appeared to me as I might imagine a flooded city, a bathtub stain high above the flash waterway on decimated buildings whose foundations are encased in mud and debris. The lower canyon invokes this sense of sadness as I see human engineering giving rise to something entirely contrary to the postcard and advertisements. It just feels wrong, as one might feel when looking up to see a car wedged in the lower branches of a tree or a building on its side, far from its foundation.
Only when the water level rises again will the deposition of the last high water be covered, temporarily making all things appear beautiful again. But beneath the surface, the silt will continue to fill the space between the canyon walls.
I look to a future not of thirty or another fifty years, but hundreds of years and wonder who will be here to manage the dam. Who will maintain the silt level by allowing discharge through the turbine bypass tubes? Who will check the concrete for cracks or open the gates when the fierce Colorado winters give way to saturated Utah springs?
If humans do not remove the dam, the cavitation and wave harmonics of massive seasonal floods will cause large portions of concrete to break free, pulling sandstone and rebar from the canyon walls. As the water moves to flow freely again, what silt was laid down will be carried downstream by the slow cutting of a meandering channel and by the rapid flash floods which will tumble concrete blocks until they disassemble into their basic elements of sand, aggregate, and cement.
The dam will be torn down, with or without congressional approval, by the natural process of reverse engineering that created the Colorado river way. The tools will not be diamond tipped blades nor dynamite, but the machinery of time, gravity, and tiny particles of sand.
For now, boatmen and their passengers will continue to enjoy what portions of the river they may run, telling stories of those times before the dam while looking to a future when the entire river will again be free.
In September, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to float the San Juan river which divides the Navajo Nation from Utah on the Arizona/Utah border. This Grand Canyon Field Institute and Wild Rivers Expeditions trip was lead by my favorite river guide Christa, 2 additional boatmen, and 7 passengers. A good group it was, gelling in a way that I have been told is less frequent than not. We all told stories, listened, and worked hard as we explored 87 miles of this muddy, brown stream.
It is hard to explain what I experienced, for it remains overwhelming to me even now. The knowledge shared between Christa, Taylor (the new co-owner of Wild Rivers) and Greg (a botanist and archaeologist) was astounding. While I did my best to absorb the information conveyed about the history of the people (from ancient native Americans to the Mormon settlers), the million years old rock formations, fossils, and the river itself, I must humbly admit that I remain completely ignorant.
As an assistant in training to the crew, I was removed from the comfort of being an expert in my geek world, instead learning again how to do the simplest of tasks. Cutting vegetables, anchoring a boat with the bow line, even shitting in the out of doors (a task for which I would have claimed to be an expert prior to this trip) was given a new, strict, and valid set of rules.
I sat silent night after night in the kitchen and around the campfire, having little to contribute to the conversations. My favorite subjects of climbing and highspeed internode communication fabrics were utterly boring in comparison to discussion of the means by which people lived in that arid land, leaving just enough evidence for us to piece together a compelling story of who, why, and where they lived and died.
I was brought to tears one afternoon as Christa told the Hopi creation story, while our dozen rested on a sandstone shelf beneath a several hundred (perhaps thousand) year old cliff dwelling. I hid behind my camera to mask the upwelling emotional invoked by the passion with which Christa sang, without instrument nor even melody.
It feels so good to be moved that way, for ultimately it is the stories of humans that humans remember most.