It was six feet deep today. At this time last summer I didn’t even want to look. The river was more empty space, dirt and algae than a Rio Grande. The powers that control its flow from the dam at Elephant Butte had shut it off early. This summer it’s wide, fast flowing and full, reflecting blue sky and the green of the narrow band of thick vegetation that clings to its banks. In the powerful heat, the trail smelled like sage, and butterflies and dragonflies floated by.
So did noise, and trash. I normally like my fellow humans, but I like nature better without them, except for the silent, contemplative fishermen standing on the banks. The rafters, with plastic water bottles and sunscreen bottles spilling out of their bobbing crafts, were such an obvious source of litter, even if unintentional, that I didn’t want them there. The rope swing crowd whooping, splashing, floating a ways downstream, and going back to the swing by land, scared away the wildlife. I didn’t see a single heron or even a lizard.
I found a spot halfway between the fishermen and the rope-swingers, and waded knee deep. The water isn’t very cold. But I could see how incredibly fast it was further out. Gazing at the stillness of the desert hills on the other side, I had the dizzying feeling of being the one moving while the river held still, like being on a train and watching the land fly by.
In other parts of the country this wouldn’t be a grand river, even when it’s six feet deep. The ruler goes up to ten feet ten inches, at which point the trail would be partly submerged, making the river a little wider and no longer walkable. Still, it could only be a major body of water in the parched Southwest. I remember coming to the east and crossing the James River Bridge in Newport News and being stunned, almost terrified, that a river could be that enormous and deep and blue. It wasn’t that I thought I could fall off the bridge or anything like that, it was just the strangeness of such a river. In Snake Face Jamie gets lost and crosses that bridge by accident, and being prone to panic attacks, it troubles him far more. If there was ruler in that river, it would be a deity, some god of water, not a stick.
And then there’s the Santa Fe River, whose empty bed is a major location in Shaman’s Blues. Sometimes it has no water at all. I get excited when I see water in it, especially when there’s enough to flow, not just trickle. Other times, I can walk in the riverbed as easily as on the trails along the banks. It’s a river of memory then, the path made by a river that once was deep enough to measure