As the temperatures climb here in the desert, I’ve had a strong urge to hit the creeks and rivers of the Central Region. Water in the desert can be hard to find, but I can rely on the Verde, Salt, and creeks like Cave Creek and Seven Springs, as well as Rose, Reynolds, and West Clear Creeks for a quick splash.
One of my favorite river spots to lull away the hours (or hike the surrounding Mazatzals) is Sheep Bridge. Sheep Bridge spans the Verde River, east of Perry Mesa, off of Bloody Basin Road. The ride down to the river is amazing, albeit rough, and you get a good sense of the enormity of the Mazatzal Wilderness and the expanse of the surrounding mesas.
On hot weekends, I can expect to see revelers heading in with their beat-up trucks and running circles with their OHVs. I want to scream at them about their behavior, but I remember what it is like to be poor and need an excuse to blow off steam. Unfortunately, in this case, it usually comes at the expense of the surrounding vegetation and wildlife.
I grew up poor and without a/c, so summers were always spent at our favorite swimming hole, much like those who enjoy the Verde. Our cherished spot when I was a kid was Salt Creek. My brothers and I would head down to the creek to catch crawdads (crayfish to polite folk), then jump into the cool depths using an old rope swing. I think the deepest hole was about 5 1/2 feet, just enough to cover your torso as you watched the leaves, branches, and occasional water moccasin float by.
The Salt Creek swimming hole was directly below an old highway, so we’d also explore the concrete barriers and blocks underneath, where drifters would camp and would-be satanists gathered to spray-paint goat heads and pentagrams gaudily on the walls. There was actually a scare in the summer of 1984, that these ridiculous, misguided youth were killing both cats and blonde children. Hey, it was a small town and the best thing we had going for us was the rare stories of the grotesque and bizarre (like the great pyramid of Lawrence County).
Other days, and when we’d have the gas money, we’d rumble down a country lane to get to Hardin Ridge (on Lake Monroe) with Big Red pops and various candy in tow. Lake Monroe is a reservoir just northwest of Needmore, my home town (apropos name for its poor residents). I learned to swim at the lake, after coming close to drowning a few times. Once, when I was a less than experienced swimmer, I swam across a cove to a small inlet. It was cold and at night, so I was terrified, but I made it. Funny thing, none of my peers or siblings dared me; I dared myself.
I remember one summer, when it was unseasonable hot and we were all too young to drive, we jumped into the cow pond on the forested land behind our house. It was a substantial pond, really, with stocked fish, but the local cattle decided that the pond was their bathtub, so we were forced to share. I was afraid of leaches, and sure enough, they were in there. That was the year my friends and I started to develop boobs. That whole event changed the dynamic of friendships entirely.
First, you could no longer be friends with the boys unless you tried really hard to prove yourself. This, I did. I joined their flag football games and caught frogs with the best of them. Second, comparison ran rampant among my girls. The girl with the biggest boobs was ostracized, as well as the flat-chested. Humans distrust any abnormality and gravitate toward what appears normal, safe. No wonder so we consider people to act in a herd-like manner, and why hate crimes, prejudice, and general ignorance run rampant. This, of course, is aside from the ingrained misogyny of our culture.
Friendships and boys were divided, but the creeks remained. In the fall, there was a particular spot I’d like to run to when my home life was chaotic. I’d sit on the banks and watch the festively colored leaves be carried off by the water until I no longer felt anxious, only mesmerized by a much greater power than people.
These lessons stayed with me.
It’s getting too hot to camp in the Sonoran now, so I plot my stay along the Black River. My dogs will be happy to splash around, and that longing to give my cares to the water is wholly felt. The great stone spirits stand guard and the prisms of light reflect back into the sun, off of water, the Old God, the life force of everything animated. I can already feel it taking me away.
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