After spending the last week living on the water by day and in a tent by night, I am feeling ragged, water-logged, and sunburned. I also have a new love for pillows, beds, and showers.
I've been floating down the San Juan River in southeastern Utah, courtesy of a wonderful outfit called Wild Rivers. One of the best things about the trip was the fact that many of my fellow rafters were Navajos. These members of a native youth group named Rethink Diné Power were reacquainting themselves with a river that their people once believed was sacred. The other best things on the trip were the side canyons and rock staircases of sandstone and limestone that led up and out of the cliffs that we were paddling between. It was stunningly beautiful.
But as magnificent as the cathedral-like side canyons were, I didn’t really see them in their most glorious state until the last night of the trip. At around seven o’clock in the evening, our dinner was interrupted by the loudest crack of thunder I’ve ever heard, a sound that echoed around the amphitheater of the canyon. Suddenly, rain was pouring, and just as suddenly, spontaneous waterfalls were flowing from 500 feet above us. We were all running around, yelling and pointing and ducking our heads under the flowing water, wildly happy to see the red rock come to wet life. The next morning, when I should have been packing my tent, I walked far up the side canyon. It was not like my earlier walks. As beautiful as they had been, something had been missing. Until that walk, seeing the canyons had been like seeing a body without blood. Now, the blood was back. A rich red, blood with a tint of Tabasco sauce orange.
All week I had been climbing up strange stairways, terraces, and falls, but now I saw what had formed them. I also saw what they were for. Their purpose. They had been cathedrals, all right, but empty ones until the fact and sacrament of water were introduced. I kept walking and walking, watching the dry landscape come to life. When I finally returned I ran into Michael, one of the more dedicated members of Rethink Diné Power and a young man committed to helping Navajo youth reconnect to their traditions. He invited me to watch as he performed a ceremony, cutting some of the root of the Sacred Datura, a white flowering plant that only opens at night and was once used as a hallucinogen by the Anasazi. He told me the meaning of the Navajo words that gave the Oljato Canyon its name: Moon Water.
I do not pretend to have some sacred connection to the San Juan River. I’m a kid from Massachusetts who went to prep school. But it was a pleasure to watch people reconnect to a landscape they had once been part of. And you didn’t have to be Navajo, only human, to understand that what the rains brought was a gift. Water, the thing best known by its absence in this dry place, was suddenly abundant. Blood again flowed through the canyon’s body.
Read more posts from David Gessner's Western road trip.