The most efficient way of walking on rounded cobbles of varying size that have only recently been deposited by flood and are in no way stably placed is to assume you will twist your ankle, which will consign you to great unpleasantness, as you are thirsty and far from water under the best of uninjured circumstances. Clear your mind of the expectation of pain and a path will display itself to you through the forest of stones. You will run in an odd, stochastic tiptoeing manner, landing atop the cobbles on the balls of your feet with toes flexed, ready to push off should the stone give way beneath you. You may move two feet sideways for every five feet gained in the direction of intended travel, but you will cover ground. Not quickly, you who measure hikes in miles and thousands of feet climbed: you will measure your progress in units of time rather than distance, else you will become demoralized. An hour and a half out, two hours back, and no water on a warm day in the desert, a mere ninety Fahrenheit with a good breeze to dry you further.
A clarification is necessary here. You are not, in fact, far from water. You are merely far from water that will do you any good. Contrary to the speculation in which you and your friend Kat had indulged a few weeks previous, the creek does in fact possess enough water to drown a pocket mouse, or for that matter a pocket moose. There are deep pools at the base of slickrock cliffs and in the lee of midstream boulders. Were it not for the creek’s smelling as though a number of pocket moose had lately drowned in those deep pools, you would swim. You take shoes off to cross at a shallow spot. The water is cool, if redolent. The algae are well fed.
Across the creek and upstream, across a hundred feet of flowing water, bracketed by sheer-walled bank cliffs that ascend perhaps a hundred feet from the creek, there is a forested bank awash in bloom, small red flowers you cannot identify. Your binoculars and camera are with your drinking water. Cascades punctuate the green, a foot or so high and a few inches across, fed by a slot canyon. Their song echoes off the walls. A great blue heron bursts from a hidden pool, wheels overhead alarmed, lands on a ledge a hundred eighty feet up in the saguaros. Something has been drawing you into the desert these past few days, more so than usual, a siren song that bade you leave the ten essentials behind the passenger seat in the truck. With the backpack, you might spend two days in this canyon in some comfort, if one defines comfort rather loosely. The innovation of carrying water and extra skins dates to the Pleistocene, but it is no less insulating for its great age. You are an hour in with nothing, no one knows where you are, and you are vulnerable to mishap. This knowledge opens your pores. Without that bubble of reassurance hanging on your back, you dilate in all directions.
You arrive at prime snake habitat on this warm day in the desert: large rocks tumbled to the ground from 300 feet up the canyon walls, forming many crevices, grass making seeds to make rodents, and no other way to proceed that is not through eight feet of stinking water. You must either turn back or pick your way painstakingly through the snake field. Turning back occurs to you only briefly, a notion discarded in the face of incomprehensible motivation. It is as if a cord exists, or a chord, one end tied around your sacrum, the other to a winch on the vanishing point. Fortunately, all the reptiles you encounter have legs. Unfortunately, one of them is the rare and deadly Arizona legged cottonmouth. Fortunately, that animal does not actually exist. You wonder whether dehydration might be setting in, clouding your already-battered mind. Halfway through the rock field is a small stretch of sand on the water. You argue with yourself. You have crawled on hands and knees, no stick to probe the recesses for angry rattles. The stick is back with the binoculars and camera. Just a snack by the water’s edge, the voice had said, bring that bottle with the swallow of water in it, it’s just fifty feet away, and you acceded, and then you were off up the canyon. You have two choices now: back on hands and knees again through half the snake field, or forward through the other half with the guarantee of retracing steps? You shiver a little in the warm wind.
You look upstream. A path across the tops of the rocks has opened itself up to you.
Another hour and the conflict reaches a literal fever pitch. Mind pulls you back, heart forward, until you are afraid your neck will snap. A crossing looms, a literal one. It is nothing: a foot of stinking water bouncing over cobbles. It marks a boundary. You are thirsty. This is likely the last point at which, you decide, you can turn back without facing real danger. There is another enticing bend upcanyon. The decision is intolerable. You sit on the cobbles.
A canyon wren’s song glissades down the sun-baked walls of the canyon.
What a diversity of stone in those cobbles! The better part of them lava with vesicles, gas bubbles, so that a cobble a foot across might weigh only thirty pounds. Most of the lava is black, a significant minority red. And then there is the granite: amazing quartz and feldspar grains of thumbnail size, whole blocks of olivine, some of them flecked with shiny muscovite. One close at hand is red bubbly lava, but it cooled and then the magma reintruded and cooled slowly, and crystals of quartz grew in the vesicles. Crumbly siltstone and limestone form angular blocks: enough storms to round them will dissolve the siltstone completely and the Gambel’s quail will eat the lime for bones. Rock from a hundred different geological domains tumbled down in flash flood off the Aquarius Mountains. Flash flood wrack is bent hard against the limbs of trees fifteen feet above the surface of the creek. It is still wet, though whether from rain or flood you cannot tell.
An impossible glint of blue among the rocks: a lazuli bunting, blazing brilliant in the inexorable sun. There is his mate, shaped the same but drab. They work the cobbles for insects. A juvenile golden eagle circles far overhead. Swallows swoop from the cliffs, catch flies and land again. A least sandpiper works along the beach, spies you, flies away in a panic of shouting. Ravens circle.
A quarter mile from your truck you see the vermilion flycatcher, a blinding red mite bending a tule under its negligible weight. A laugh rises in you, blunted only slightly by your parched, near nonexistent voice. You remonstrate with yourself about taking water the next time you hear that voice. You keep that promise for a full twenty-four hours.