SOUTHWEST USA: Precious Water "Abounds" in "Arid" Redrock Desert Around Moab, Utah
Is it a mirage - water in the desert? Early this summer, we journeyed there to find out. While hiking canyon trails and tromping across wide open desert terrain -- doing our best to avoid stepping on the black, crusty, very old and very ecologically sensitive, and hugely important cryptobiotic soil -- we're in perpetual awe at just how much of the precious stuff - water in the desert - we chanced upon in these "harshest" of lands, spanning elevations from 5,000 ft. to over 12,000 ft. The concept of the desert being primarily a "dry" environment - which it doubtlessly is - is turned on its head when you come upon so much freely flowing water. Somehow, in the conditioned mind, you're not supposed to see or associate water with an arid environment. And yet here! --and there! - and everywhere! - it exists, flowing (mostly) uninterrupted, from recondite and ancient sources, near and far, thanks to the age-old natural phenomena of rain and snow.
Chancing upon water in the desert is an electrifying (literally) moment, a magical sensation of deeply attuning to the force, power and special spirit of water - after all, we are 70% covalently bonded hydrogen and oxygen molecules! That water exists at all in the desert - even in the semi-arid (which also means semi-wet) Moab environs -- is a splendiferous revelation of Mother Nature's ultimate trick up her sleeve. Yin / Yang in motion. Paradoxical natural conundrums. Think life-saving, secretive water; water glistening in sunlit dappled tinajas; water pooling in a canyon stream reflecting redrock walls; water streaming endlessly into turquoise pools; water gushing forcefully down chutes and cascades; water nearly too cold to swim in; water as a seeping spring you've found in some off-trail romp when you've run out of the precious stuff, are lost and badly need a drink. (That only happened to Ed Abbey.) Think mirages, magic and miracles when it comes to water in the desert . . . the most precious stuff on earth.
The King of Water in the area is the redoubtable and majestic 450 mile long Colorado River. Flowing with characteristic turbidity and decent velocity through the heart of Moab, some 100 miles upriver from the Grand Canyon, one has, from high promontory lookouts in the vicinity of Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park, superbly expansive , multi-layered / multi-textured views of the Green River, equally redoubtable and majestic, colliding with the Colorado in one helluva great confluence of two mighty rivers in the most inaccessible area of the lower 48. It's just too wild for words, and yet people do get down in there, deep and remote into the legendary Maze.
The Colorado River defines the geography of hope, and certainly place, in and around Moab; the town probably would not exist - or would be a mining ghost town - without the perennial, powerful "unlimited" resources the great river provides. The Big Water (as opposed to the Little -- i.e., "insignificant" -- Water) is why, and how, for thousands of years, Archaic and modern peoples have survived and thrived (but also dramatically perished during extended droughts) in such climes, and why and how Moab and other cities and communities along the Colorado River corridor -- and far from it, too -- will continue to grow and prosper. Most assuredly, if the Colorado River were to surcease or drastically reduce its discharge from high in Rocky Mountain National Park, for whatever possible reason, a slew of major cities that depend on it whether directly or via aqueducts - Las Vegas, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Denver, LA - are going down. Abbey writes, there is no shortage of water in the desert, "but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” Big Water aside. (A naively pro-growth taxi driver in Las Vegas once chirped to me en route to the Rio, "Water problems? You gotta be kidding! We've got the dam!")
Water water everywhere in the desert! Intricate labyrinthine canyon systems, vast contorted folds, high plateaus, and big mountain ranges that trap storms and moisture all help produce other manifestations of precious, magical - threatening! - water in the desert: rain; snow; flash floods and their remnant pools; puny little creeks, no less beautiful and remarkable, that can turn into raging torrents in a snap; fugacious cascades off red cliff faces during an hour downpour; patches of quicksand; hidden springs. Water water everywhere in the desert will either kill you or save your life. Flash floods - immanent and terrifying natural events - leave devastation and death in their wake, and then as atonement or as sacrament leave behind life-sustaining water in shaded, cool tinajas - holes or "wells" -- in sandstone rocks throughout harsh summer months (I've drunk this water on many occasions, never life-threatening, but just to imbibe such a pure primeval essential substance); tributary streams originate in inaccessible canyon headlands and discharge crystal cold waters that eventually join forces with the Colorado, the Green, in countless debouchments / confluences; in the uniquely located Alpine zones of the high plateau desert, one admires and worships the magnificent 12,400+ ft. snow-capped Mt. Tukuhnikivatz, responsible for so much of the lower elevation water sources and courses found around Moab; finally, if you know where to find 'em, there are hundreds of springs. The most famous being Matrimonial Springs along the Colorado River Highway just outside of town, where you're always sure to see locals and those in the know stopped at the open pipe filling their containers. You can always count on this being a clean, crisp source of pure drinking water, and there goes most of it, draining right into the river! Seems amazing, and like such a waste, somehow, considering that water is more precious than food. . .Well, I suppose it's a good thing, all in all, that this water flows freely and naturally and no one has set up a spring water extraction operation here along the banks of the Colorado River outside Moab - but had it happened, given the town's penchant for blasting rock to smithereens and seeking fortune therein, it would not be surprising, only lamentable. Until then, flow forever freely, beautiful and precious water in the desert!
Naturally, for Gambolin' Man, it's the spring-fed and snow-melt tributary streams that hold the most fascination and allure. By just hiking a mile or less up any local canyon from parking areas / trail heads, chances are you won't see a soul, and yet you're so close and at the same time so far away from everything / everybody! You're deep in some magical place far from the city of your choice, sandwiched between high vermillion cliffs, following a breathlessly beautiful trickle of water reflecting here and there, in perfectly still pools, mirror images of surrounding peaks and rock walls; perhaps you're lucky enough to witness fugacious cascades pouring off normally dry cliff faces; definitely, you're charmed out of your wits coming upon cascades of rushing water cutting flutes and channels in red bedrock, plunging out of a carved lip of sculpted stone into a lovely turquoise pool in a paradisiacal desert setting. . .. simply amazing and magical. You expect this in Kaua'i. But Moab? Yep, Moab.
In some canyons, the precious stuff flows year-round and it's easy to regard these nearby, over-hiked, easy access canyon trail systems with perennial water flowing as a commonplace "to be expected" natural feature. But how can you be any less in awe of and wonder over the special phenomenon of water in the desert, or water anywhere for that matter, just because it's perennial makes it less interesting, less special? C'maan, Gambolin' Man!
Well, when you've got the Colorado knockin' at your doorstep, for most people, all else does indeed seem prosaic; somehow, a fantastically surreal, beautiful little stream winding through gorgeous backcountry desert terrain pales in comparison to the "be all end all" mighty iconic Colorado, appeals only to a few - why, you can't raft there, or fish there, or swim there, so what good is it? But of course, it doesn't pale in comparison and it is good! For unnoticed, unheralded water is what gives precious and expected life to otherwise inhospitable surroundings. When you chance upon water in the desert, you know and feel it's a special gift - always give thanks and praise and baptize yourself in the sacred, healing waters, even if just a splash on both cheeks and forehead - otherwise a full monty immersion in the chill waters is de rigueur for those seeking spiritual / cellular cleansing!
My twin sisters happen to own 10 acres of sacred land in bucolic (but destined for bustling) Castle Valley, a rural / alternative lifestyle community separated from sprawling Moab by immense Porcupine Rim (affording many incredible views in all directions from atop, attained one day during a grueling 18 mile mountain bike ride with the young-'uns, Nicole and Jarrett). CV is a mere stone's throw away as the crow flies from Moab, but in reality, to get there requires a winding, 40-minute drive for mere mortals in gas-guzzling conveyances. No hurries, on this stretch of premier scenic byway that follows the sinuous course of the Colorado River, just kicked back, takin' in the fantastic, mesmerizing, grandly iconic Big West / Southwest scenery. You could drive it all day long and not complain.
We spent three wonderful days on the Land, with friends Nicole and Jarrett from Salt Lake City, sister Cat (we missed you Col and rest of family!), Land caretaker Turiya, neighbors Vijali the artist and activist, and her 96-year-old father, Paul, who drove up from L.A., alone (!) in his pick up (and endured a major breakdown / delay!) to move to Moab recently, after more than six decades as a meditating monk in the Vedanta monastery in Southern California. (!!)
We squeezed in a week's worth of adventure in this short time -- hiking morning noon and night, mountain biking, and leisurely exploring several cherished places where we chanced upon plenty of riparian beauty, green oases and fertile lands set amid an otherwise harsh, bleak land - a land uranium-mined and gold-mined to pieces, a battered, abused and discarded land, then, of course, a reclaimed land. A Land, though, holding, besides secret piles of toxic uranium tailings, secrets and charms of magical water awaiting those who seek it out - in gorgeous Negro Bill Canyon, in special Mill Creek Canyon, in remarkably rugged Hunter Canyon, and in stunningly beautiful Professor Valley. May you encounter all manner of dramatic scenery and flowing water in your explorations . .. May you always baptize yourself in the freely flowing life blood of Mother Earth, this beautiful and precious water in the desert. . . May you always seek it out and be forever blessed . . .wherever you find it!