It’s hot. The kind of hot where you slip past dozing in the hammock on the lānai to slumber, grateful no one’s around to hear the occasional snore. The kind of hot where if you were in Grand Canyon you would risk the shocking chill of 46-degree water and dunk in over your head, knowing your clothes would quickly dry but hoping your tangle of river-washed hair would cool your neck for at least a few minutes. The kind of hot where on Disappointment Creek you hunt out the remaining puddles, searching for the deepest, and splash each dog wet to the skin, and splash yourself the same way, dipping your sarong into the thick water, grateful for the cool it will give your naked body in the breeze. Which is what I have done: river girl, paddler, I know that wet is the best way to survive the heat of the desert.
Why did that boy who got lost when mountain biking above Moab with his father and brother those dozen years ago leave the cool waters of “Negro Bill” Canyon to climb barefoot up and up to the fully exposed plateau above? Was that his second day lost? His third? His last? What happens in the mind as heat and fear and the nightly thirty-degree dips in temperature cook and freak and chill the body, the brain? Clearly sanity slips away if a thirteen-year-old boy leaves behind a freshwater stream in a cool canyon. What of the covered wagon people, the mountain men, the First People who inhabited this desert land? On a day like today, where were they? Not here on this exposed ridge (though I’m in the blessed shade of a covered porch); perhaps down there under the piñon pines where Dave James’s trespassing cows and their calves pass the afternoon? I’ll report them to Dave James when I’m back in a service area—tomorrow, or the next day. The slow pace of this heat might just keep me here.
I get my dress wet and lie in the hammock. Now my ass is completely green, the fabric dye discoloring my naked skin. The thunderheads building on the San Miguels are pushing this way, spilling out over the upper valley. In front of them in their westerly crawl they push a cooling wind. Back down to the puddles we go, my green ass exposed to the sun, the dogs splashing in the small pools of water strung together by streambed, and sleeping in the shade of willows. I think about going to look for horses, but the mustangs are probably all brushed up right now, like the cattle, the deer, and me, metaphorically, back again on the porch. Later the horses will have to go to water, and wander from shade to browse. TJ might be compelled to find them then regardless of the heat. She lives out here full-time, in the heat, the frost, the snow, the spring. Regardless of season, she’s out here watching horses.
How does a woman come to this life? Hers? Mine? She’s nearly two decades younger than me, single, kid-less, a camera, a pen, and a hundred wild horses her constant companions. What drew this intelligent, talented woman here? What draws me here, to this blessed isolation, this simplicity of heat and wind and water? Am I drawn to, or driven from?
A week later, TJ comes for dinner. The blessing of rain follows her, the heat finally broken—first a female rain framed in lightning, then a full-on downpour. We move in off the lānai to escape straying drops, then the sheets flung under the eaves by wind made from the movement of water. At the simple pine table we eat fruit and quinoa salads, alternating stories—she talks, I eat, she eats, I talk. We catch up on a week, each of us having experienced stress and loss, hers far worse than mine: a mustang mare died after foaling. And the foal, wandering without the protection and nourishment of its mother, probably dead, too. TJ could not find it, only the mare with blood caked down her hind legs.
We change the subject and start on oatmeal cookies TJ has brought. And then I hear it: the change in the water. She heard it moments before me but was polite. I’m not, leaping toward the open door and heading out onto the wet ground without even putting my slippahs on. The dogs chase us to the edge of the ledge. We miss the first wall of water. I soak in the small disappointment, and eye and mentally record last summer’s highwater marks. Disappointment Creek pushes at the lowest one, a logjam on a huge slab of sandstone at the creek’s center. The thick, gray, pulsing water creeps up the rock, surging and receding in a fast-forward tidal rhythm.
TJ has horses to feed and has to go. I know she is a new friend. I know this because today we didn’t fill in the talking with the backstory of our lives, exchanging instead those recent challenges and changes, making future plans. As she drives out the road that is not yet muddy, its soil still absorbing water, I grab my journal and go back to the ledge in time to see another wave topping what’s already flowing, carrying with it more sticks and debris. It pillows up my marker rock, erasing the earlier notation of highwater. It pumps like a heartbeat, the pause a release, the pump a further push up the rock. It moves under a log two-and-a-half feet around but short, lodged against a twenty-foot long tree trunk that stopped its forward movement.
The water reaches up and over the huge stone slab but the short waterlogged log does not move. A few bursts of water deposit handfuls of pine needles on the stone, nature’s pictographs that tell of highwater. Sound changes, the intensity softened. The clouds lifted and left with TJ, drifting west with the water. Upstream the new highwater mark of the summer is carved into the banks, new logs and the pine needle debris lying out to dry on other rocks, or wrapped around willow shoots; the water gap washed out, again. All marking the day. By morning the river has shrunk eight feet in width, and slipped four feet down the marker stone, last year’s biggest flood still king of this mountain, its logjam unmoving.
Two weeks later: The huge log on the flat, wide marker stone below the cabin is gone. The stone is wiped clean, no fistfuls of debris, not even a lone pine needle left in the wake of the year’s biggest highwater. This, too, is the voice of desert.