Waiting for Water

An essay from the November 2017 issue of Arizona Highways. | By Kelly Vaughn | Photograph by Mark Frank

Waiting for Water

I’ve always liked the way a story gets spun — the way people with a belly and a heart for words veer toward one topic or another or a whole handful of them in a single piece of writing.

For reasons beyond my understanding, I lean toward themes of water and fire. Elemental things that, like words, can bend and twist in any direction. Things that move and jump and curl and sleep.

Writers I admire go down roads of sadness and pain, or redemption and healing. The abstractions of human experience and emotion.

This story, though, is about finding water. It is for now, anyway.

I don’t like Sedona on principle — the crowds of tourists, the traffic, the idea of forced spirituality. In some ways, it feels like a curio shop set in scenic wonder. But the water near and there makes me fonder of the place than I care to admit.

It is the place I find when the desert dries my spirit.

One summer, I helped lead a group of hikers along the Bell Trail. It was my first time there — as it was for so many of us that day — and by the time we found a shady spot along Wet Beaver Creek, the sun had been stealing our energy for more than an hour. But there were birds near the water. Dragonflies. June burned like a rocket, but the trees were draped in spring green.

It was, if only briefly, our private paradise.

John Steinbeck wrote about water in East of Eden. About the wells that Sam Hamilton would dig. About how water could breathe life into a land and a man half-dead.

The Salinas Valley, California, was “beautiful and expansive, but dry,” Steinbeck wrote.  Its river “was only a part-time river. The summer sun drove it underground. It was not a fine river at all, but it was the only one we had and so we boasted about it — how dangerous it was in a wet winter and how dry it was in a dry summer.”

In Arizona, we relate to these things. I’ve seen desert seeps slick with water one day, only to watch them hide the next. Their appearance and disappearance is sometimes a trick of the imagination.

I have watched on the news when people have (tried to) cross a desert wash during the monsoon. That never ends well.

For the people who live here, the wet seasons breed bravado. The dry seasons breed a sense of boredom that builds to angst.

I’m writing portions of this essay in the back seat of a truck, having put down Eden because, in fits and starts, it makes me cry. Fat, watery tears. For the words and for their meaning.

We are traveling across Oregon and along the blue vein of the Columbia River, and I’m counting herons and ospreys the way children count out-of-state license plates. I have seen two bald eagles. The birds are a distraction from missing my desert home, so beautiful and expansive, but dry.

You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. 

It hasn’t rained in Oregon — except for a moment at the top of a mountain — since I’ve been here. Still, the temperate rainforests that we’ve explored have dripped with the mist and moisture you expect in a place like this. I have felt, at times, a compulsion to try to draw water from moss. When I tell people at work about it later, they will look at me as though I am not entirely me anymore.

Maybe it’s true.

In the back of the truck, I am wondering how quickly I can get to water again when I return to Arizona. The summer will be only halfway, and the storms of the monsoon have been few and far between. Sedona soon, I think.

There was a woman on the Bell Trail who wore jeans. It seemed a poor choice for the heat and the distance, but I don’t judge these things as much as I used to — people’s comforts and discomforts are their own.

She was overheated, I think, but brave. She was determined to finish that trail. We watched closely as she drank her water and kept walking.

Water in. Water around. Water behind us now.

Ultimately, everyone on the hike went home safely. I haven’t heard much from any of them in the years since, but I think there might have been some sort of unspoken magic about finding that water together. That strange, lovely parallel of heat and cool, dry and wet.

And I’ve returned to the Bell Trail so many times since then. When I’ve been hot. When I’ve been angry. When I’ve felt some sort of pull to go somewhere — but not too far — and be alone and fast on a trail that I now know like the shape of my own body.

And always for the water. To find it in small pockets. And big ones, too.

Photo: Water pools in a side canyon of Wet Beaver Creek, located southeast of Sedona. | Mark Frank