but not a drop to drink

The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs (Back Bay Books, 2000)

The first time I went to the Grand Canyon I disobeyed all the warning signs.

If you’ve ever hiked in the Grand Canyon, you know that not very far down whatever trail you choose, you will pass a sign telling you not to attempt to hike all the way to the bottom and back up in a single day. Don’t do it. You won’t make it. You will perish. Certain doom. The words are accompanied by delightful little illustrations of a swooning fool moments from dying of dehydration or exposure.

The trick to ignoring all the warning signs and not turning into a statistic (over 250 people rescued from the canyon every year!) is to not be an idiot about it. The signs are there not because it’s impossible—it’s a long day hike, but it’s not outrageous for experienced hikers—but because most of the people who attempt it have no clue what they’re getting into. I was there with a geology field trip, a group of fit young college students who were in large part studying geology because it’s an excellent way to get course credit for spending time in the mountains. Collectively we had a lot of desert hiking experience. We did know what we were doing. So we hiked down the South Kaibab Trail to the bottom, along the river a ways, up the Bright Angel Trail to the rim. A long day, but nowhere close to impossible, or even dangerous. It was fun. We passed the time on the long haul out of the canyon by making up songs and mnemonics to remember the rock formations we passed. Tapeats, Bright Angel, Muav. Temple Butte, Redwall, Supai. Supai, Supai, Supai. That one got a little tiresome after a while.

About one third of the way up the Bright Angel Trail—well above the river but not yet near the springs at Indian Garden—we encountered the reason for the signs in the form of two red-faced khaki-shorts-clad bros who had thought it would be really fun to dare each other to race to the bottom without food, without water, without sunscreen. They had ignored the signs too, and they were the statistically likely idiots about it. We gave them some food and water and left them panting miserably in the shade. I suppose they made it up eventually. We didn’t hear any gossip the next day about a rescue.

That was my first trip to the Grand Canyon. The next time I went back, it was again for a geology field course. We rafted for three days from the road access at Diamond Creek on the Hualapai Reservation to Lake Mead. The canyon through that stretch isn’t as deep, but it’s narrower, steeper. Rather than marching away in magnificent staircase vistas, the walls are largely vertical, blocking the sky. The river passes Separation Canyon, where three members of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition called it quits and tried to climb out, never to be seen again. It’s beautiful and strange and wild.

I describe all of this not just because I like talking about the Grand Canyon—although I do, as it’s one of my favorite places in the world—but to demonstrate that I am not unfamiliar with either the extreme topography or the river itself, so it will carry more weight when I tell you that my primary reaction to reading about Craig Childs’ explorations of the canyon in The Secret Knowledge of Water was holy shit this man is a complete fucking lunatic oh my god.

The Secret Knowledge of Water is Childs’ first book. It’s an account of the two years he spent researching water in the deserts of the American Southwest: mapping and measuring water holes, searching for underground springs, studying desert floods. His field research took him into some of the driest, most remote, and least hospitable regions of the southwestern deserts, where a person might walk for days without seeing a single drop of water, where living organisms can be dormant for years or decades waiting for just the right amount of rain.

It’s a fascinating look at all the different ways water (or the lack thereof) shapes desert environments, ecosystems, and cultures, with a healthy portion of outdoors adventure writing in the mix. The description of climbing into the outlet of an underground river was amazing, but it’s mostly the flood-chasing where the holy shit this man is a complete fucking lunatic oh my god comes in.

I knew before that people chased storms, but I did not realize that people also chased flash floods. Or maybe “people” don’t. Maybe it’s just this guy. He wanted to study desert flash floods, and to study desert flash floods you have to get up close and personal with them. That means he did some completely crazy things, like climbing down into slot canyons while thunderstorms gathered overhead, with absolutely no way of knowing whether the randomness of the storm would send a killing surge of water his way or not.

It’s a sign of powerful writing that even though I knew I was reading a nonfiction book and clearly the author survived to write about it, I was still thinking, “There is no way he is getting out of this alive.” The whole book is great, but I especially loved those passages, even while I was boggling, and would recommend them to anybody interested in examples of strong, gripping adventure writing.

I very much enjoyed the book and look forward to read more of Childs’ work, but it had the same effect on me as House of Rain: When I finished all I wanted to do was get in the car and drive to the desert to spend a day or ten with the rocks and the sky and the quiet.

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