On The Page: The Secret Knowledge of Water

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.

 

On The Page: House of Rain

I’ve always struggled with coming to an understanding of Four Corners archaeology. Although I really enjoyed the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding and visiting Mesa Verde, I’ve never been able to read something in a discplined enough fashion to understand how Chaco, Aztec Ruins, Cedar Mesa, Hovenweep, and Mesa Verde all hung together as cultures in the region.

House of Rain

When I downloaded House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest, Craig Childs’ writing transported me to a place where evidence of this vanished civilization was visible all across this high plateau landscape I’ve been wandering over the last couple of years. Childs focus on the Four Corners civilization was driven by his attachment to the Southwest. Aside from my intimate ties to the Pacific Northwest, I identified with his statement that “The impulse that commands me to go is balanced by another that commands me to stay, the two working together to send me into quick but returning orbits around certain places: the Mogollon Rim of Arizona, the low desert south of there, the high desert north, and the castle perimeter of the Rocky Mountains beyond. I am constantly in motion among these landscapes, yet my life rarely ranges any farther, tethered by history and experiences to the Southwest.”

I finally learned about how culture had developed in Chaco Canyon before spreading to Aztec Ruins, Solomon, and Mesa Verde. I learned how the Hopi, the Acoma, and the Zuni fit into the ancient Aztec history. I learned that the Navajo are completely unrelated to the Aztecs yet are responsible for the common name “Anazasi” meaning “enemy ancestor.”

Mesa Verde National Park

As he moved from Chaco, north to the San Juan River and again into the Canyonlands before drifting south to Kayenta and Black Mesa, I found myself drawn in to a deeper history of these places I am beginning to know. When the book continued further and further south to the Mogollon and even to Northern Mexico, it enriched my understanding of what it means to wander and embrace these places.

I completely recommend House of Rain as a great introduction to the history of people in the Southwest from the twelfth century to the early fifteenth century, especially for people who love to put their feet to the ground as they learn.

Butler Wash Ruins

On The Page: The Way Out

The Way Out

Craig Childs’ The Way Out: A True Story of Ruin and Survival wants to be a deeply introspective book. Childs details the story of a trip through canyons of Northern Arizona (specific location unspecified) with his friend Dierk Vaughn. The two have traveled extensively though the deserts of Utah but this trip into unknown territory challenges them both physically and mentally.

Although Childs and Vaughn are traveling together, most of the true narrative takes place in Childs’ mind. Much of the book is devoted to recollections of his alcoholic late-father. One gets the sense that Childs has never really decided how to come to terms with his father’s legacy: was his alcoholism a tragic end to a good man? or was he a father who just did not know how to love? Besides Childs own recollections, he remembers stories that Vaughn has told him about his life as a policeman. To me, these recollections were as much about how Childs saw the world as they were about why Vaughn was who he was.

My introduction to Childs as a writer was his article Heart Shaped River (subscription required) in High Country News this September. That article was entirely more upbeat than The Way Out and I enjoyed it a lot more. In the more condensed article length, Childs was more lyrical and concise. I’m a huge fan of this genre and The Way Out by all indications should have been a huge favorite of mine: reflection, fantastic canyon setting, adventure. Somehow, instead of being a favorite it left me cold, I was always waiting to delve deeper into Childs’ psyche or experience to really understand but I never got the chance.