Swimming Holes & Lost Creeks

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West Clear Creek, A. Sato

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.

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Sheep Bridge, A. Sato

 

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).

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Salt Creek, Indiana

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.

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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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Christmas in the North Maricopa Mountains

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Margie’s Cove, A.Sato

Without family, the only thing I can hold to on Christmas is the fact that there’s nothing to hold on to. Christmas is like the idea of finding our family waiting on the banister, caked with fresh snowflakes, declaring a love for all mankind while being embraced in kisses. It’s fantasy; the wonderful life.

My thoughts return to Christmas past, where I would spend time with my grandparents. One of the best possibilities of those trips was when I could sleep under the tree at night. Looking up through those faux branches into the sparkling glow made me feel at home, precisely because it mimicked the woods and the stars.

This Christmas, I had that opportunity, except here in my beloved home, the Sonoran Desert.

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After doing some merrymaking over breakfast with friends, my friend Ellen and I packed off to the North Maricopa Mountains for some desert camping. We rambled through a short, sandy trail to Margie’s Cove, a primitive campground on BLM land, adjacent to protected wilderness and the Sonoran Desert National Monument.

This was an area severely grazed over the past few hundred years, but has been slowly returning to its former ecological glory through the efforts of closure and tightened recreational restrictions. The Monument itself contains the Maricopa Mountain ranges (north and south of the I-8), Table Top Mountains, Booth and White Hills, and the Sand Tanks.

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Rife with historical and prehistoric trails and archaeological sites, there’s reason that these places, while quiet, contain thousands of years of stories. You can feel the words under the basalt and strewn across desert pavement, so much so that they sing to life any who care to listen.

Owls lift off from a place
I cannot see. Their long silence
is riddled with the same silence.

In the desert, listening is critical. The slightest wind contains more insight than your GPS. The faint trail of a forgotten sidewinder has more to show you than your cell.

As we set up camp, the clouds formed across the neighboring ridges, looking ominous. It is winter, after all, so we were prepared for both some rain and chilly nights, and the occasional snow (like we saw in 2015). When everything was secured, I set off cross country to look for bones. Like anything, looking intently for what you want results in no luck.

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Giant chunks of quartz riddled the desert pavement, looking quite out of the ordinary against the patination. Wilderness boundary signs have been  glazed over after a few Sonoran summers – its words barely visible. The quality of quiet shifts from a treacherous gasp of unrelentingly survival to a creosote cold, with humidity setting off any scent.

Later that evening, the campfire was welcome as we quickly ate dinner. Winter nights in the desert make me want to hibernate and wake to the stillness of the stars from under the confines of my sleeping bag and wool blankets.

Next morning, I set out on the trail  with the moon to guide me. The air on my face was freezing to the touch, and my nose, permanently frosty. I had hoped to see an owl or maybe a grumpy coyote, or the mountain lion who comes down from his rocks to sip water at the wildlife cache. No sound. No movement. Just my walking motion and my short exhalations.

Walking is reverie, and I, a somnambulist walking in the desert, under moonlight, in winter.

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Late morning, we set out on the sandy back roads looking for historic trails. The north country on the boundary of the Monument has rebounded and was especially lush. Sonoran Desert at its finest, said my friend, and she was right. Every few feet, we stopped to gaze at the beauty and the sun creeping over the horizon.

Another friend says, “Sit still and look. This is everything you need right here.” I believe him.

Water has quenched the desert, and everything seemed alive and happy to be so.

 

 

Impressions of place: potsherds, one busted, displaced river cobble, many hawks, rusted out windmill, Sheep Mountain (how I longed to see the bighorns), boulder climbing, desert pavement napping, scurries of owls, coyote misfits, deep wash after wash, bajada poetry, walking for miles.

If I could only stay another few nights here…But each night could easily blend into another. The desert is without time, and my time is unfortunate. I am the longing sleeper who must pack up and be fit for the other world I inhabit.

I chase it at night when others slumber.
That which saves dwells where death inhabits.

In the moments of childhood, I would stare out through the faux Christmas tree and wonder where I will end up, what life will become. I have the same childhood curiosity, and no more information as to what comes next as I did then. Here is now. Timeless.

Nothing speaks this truth more than the desert.

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