I didn’t discover the wonders of the desert until I was well into my twenties. My former partner took me to Moab and introduced me to its cranky bee-drinking bard, Ed Abbey. After that, I was hooked. The Colorado Plateau is actually considered a “semidesert” but I’ve also learned to love the Sonoran Desert and have learned to “not hate” the Mohave Desert. While mountains have my heart, it’s no accident that the mountains that I inhabit are so close to the desert and that I make regular pilgrimages to those parched lands.
Fellow Western Slope resident, Craig Childs writes about the deserts of the American West in a way that resonates with me more than anyone else, including Cactus Ed. Childs incorporates history, science, and landscape in a way that makes my Western loving nerdy heart sing.
The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert delves into the intimate relationship between the desert and water. Throughout the book, Childs looks at both still water hiding in remote canyons to sustain life and the dramatic floods that rip through the arroyos and canyons of the desert tossing boulders.
I find myself getting pulled into writing like this both as someone who follows along with Craig on his adventures and seeing places through his eyes but also as someone who has walked (albeit more superficially) through some of the same landscapes.
The book opens with Childs discussing his exhaustive study of watering holes in just one range of Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The Cabeza Prieta feels incredibly remote and has always seemed very dry to me; however, because I’m a hiker with a peakbagging problem, I have spent more time on the rocky spines of the mountains than probing the quiet canyons just below them. As is usual with Childs’s writing, the scene is made strikingly visible even to those who haven’t visited the locations he describes.
He discusses how ignorance of where to find water in some of America’s driest country can easily lead to death and gives the briefest outline of the history of traversing the El Camino Del Diablo. I was excited to learn more about Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and how he successfully traversed the Camino repeatedly by listening to natives of the area. (The peak for which he is namesake is one I really wanted to climb when in the Ajo area and is pictured below but then the western side of Organ Pipe National Monument was closed to the public; it’s since reopened, I guess it’s time to go back!)
After discussing hidden water holes in the southern deserts of Arizona, the scene shifts north to the Colorado Plateau. While some more standing water is discussed, the story shifts to moving water in the canyons surrounding the Grand Canyon.
Childs impetuously watches flash floods from close range and makes the reader imagine standing on hot desert rock when thunderstorms open up and let water course down the dry falls and canyons. (I was really distracted in this section by the fact that I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon. I’m going to have to figure out when to get down there…)
While I live on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, I was still born in the northwest and learned to love the outdoor in the wet temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest so I am still fascinated with the extremes of the desert. The Secret Knowledge of Water was a book that gave me a deeper understanding of how life survives in the desert. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the southwest.