How important is our communion with nature? Our wanderings and exploration met with the uncertainty of existing in the hands of what is much older and grander than you? Your wit and arrogance bundled together into a kit of tools to: cut, make fire, feed, survive.
Few spaces rend the flesh of that arrogant ego in such a way as the desert. And as we step by the carnage and craft of countless flash floods, November, we sweat generously.
The wide mouth of the dry wash quickly swallows us into a narrow slot of towering andesitic walls and in a small dry fall rests what could only be assumed is the feature giving the canyon we are to walk its name. There are few other travelers on the trail as we set off later than most for the time of year, so we have the space largely to ourselves to interrupt or absorb the tall, long silences.
As seldom are our encounters with others, infrequent too are any with other "lesser" forms of life; the occasional raven briefly cuts the quiet with its wings or words. We see not insect or ungulate despite passing the occasional pool of slowly vanishing remains of some previous hydrological event. It's not until we traverse a memorable stretch of stone funneled and potted by indeterminable eons that we encounter a gravel lined pothole, purporting to be a dark herbal tea and cohabitated by mosquito larvae and the tadpoles of any one of a variety of desert toad that capitalizes on these rare and wondrous oases.
Aware of the dizzying variety of stones strewn along the ephemeral wash, we kicked along the gradual descent to that ancient river, now bearing the bridle of humankind for nearly a century. The place reveals a peculiar duality: rendered impotent by the hand of those who preceded us and baring the fangs of imperceptible time, hurtling skyward, only to fall away into wide swaths of talus being gradually led downstream to the emerald embrace of the Rio Colorado.
The lower reaches of the canyon offer as sparse a collection of life as the upper; occasional scrubby Salt Brush punctuated by even rarer instances of Mesquite, and as one canyon fold releases us to the cupped hands of another the first glimpses of unfrozen geologic and hydrologic forces reveal themselves in the form of the White Rock Seeps; barely a trickle emerges in a few locations on either side of the narrow canyon. The water runs over a foot or so of vertical dacite before disappearing into a fissure caked with damp, red silt. There is no visible vegetation; only a patina of green molds or mosses and what appears to be precipitated white mineral, covers the rock near the place where the water exits the face. There is some evidence to suggest that the emergence of water in these places is influenced by the immense mass of pressure created by the water held back at Hoover Dam; forcing wayward trickles through any possible path in the rock downriver.
This place marks "most of the way" for those of us who have taken the relatively short walk before; this particular party comprised entirely of veterans of the place, though we seem to pay little attention to the start or the end. In honoring that ideal, we emerge in the broad fan of the wash as it collides with a Colorado River whose surface is cracked in a tumultuous emerald cascade. The Hoover Dam, just a few miles upriver, was clearly operating at a higher flow period. The gentle din I had recalled from earlier trips was replaced by a roar, emanating from the upriver Ringbolt Rapids. Since its commissioning in 1935 the Hoover Dam has disrupted hundreds of river miles of habitat for endemic species within the Colorado River Basin. The naturally red, silty river has been transformed into a frigid, clear artery from which millions of residents of the West draw their water.
Visiting this space always injects a generous amount of humility into the observant visitor. A landscape crafted by wild forces we still struggle to comprehend, irreversibly altered by human action in less than three generations. Clinging to the ancient volcanic rock are Tamarisk, an invasive species of shrub brought to the river basin in the 1800s to control erosion that has spread like wildfire and choked out many of the native species that previously provided diverse habitat and food sources for the inhabitants of the region.
Visiting this space always begs to ask the question: "what is it we feel we can do to improve upon what natural process has so generously provided us?" Is there a knee-jerk need to dominate as a means to surety of our place in nature? Do we endeavor to sculpt and harness and alter to affirm some promise to ourselves that we are the pinnacle of life on the planet?
Visiting this space always grants me the sensation that I am grateful to be a part of something and not simply the master of it.
Colliding with the river marks the last leg of the walk that generally sees you or your party face one of three possible outcomes: 1.] encounter Boy Scout troop camped in sprawling arrays within the occasionally damp mouth of lower Arizona Hot Spring Canyon, 2.] encounter myriad river people and gaze in wonderment at the assortment of lackluster disregard for the place and feverishly vocalized efforts at preservation, or 3.] encounter no one (excluding Bighorn).
In this particular chapter, we scrambled along the mixed sedimentary and volcanic hills, over talus, up cracks, and along cliffs with no visible way down, to option two. No matter the number of times you walk into this place, it's guaranteed you "take the hard way up" and "swear this didn't terminate into the river". Eventually, all paths lead somewhere, and in these circumstances, anywhere in given good company is more than anyone can ask for.
Backpacks explode their contents across the polished stone of this part of the banks, much to the dismay of their carriers. Camp is set, we collect whatever dead timber that can be harvested from the devil Salt Cedar lining virtually every portion of the area that isn't liquid or solid stone, we gather around a fire, we share a meal, and we share our stories: those we're currently penning, included.
We so readily accept the diversity in the spaces surrounding us, some of us come to appreciate every fine detail comprising the grander landscapes we exist in; if we can infuse the same patient serenity we practice in our solitude to the spaces we share with others, and specifically, those that differ from ourselves, we may just find that rewarding path through the heat of the desert or the barren peak of the mountain.
Andrew Paffrath is a Photographer, Filmmaker, Musician, and Visual Artist based in Flagstaff, Arizona. Much of his work centers around humankind's interactions with nature and has sought to capture the minutiae that aggregates the greater sense of place and the abstraction that comes from dissecting it. The convergence of visionary creative art and the natural world has long been a feverish motivator for this East Coast native and he has spent the last 12 years traveling Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, and Oregon creating a piecemeal tapestry of uniquely abstract creative works and storytelling set in nature.
Find more work from Andrew Paffrath at http://www.lanterncitymedia.com/