This originally published October 14, 2015
This picture I took last week may look like nothing but chaos and you may be right. It was a flash flood in southern Utah and I was safely standing on a ledge above it. I was absorbed by the galling roar and the smell of the desert funneled by intense rainwater to a single point. Watching this with the naked eye is dizzying, though I could stay for hours and stare at physics folding on itself, fluid dynamics torn up by its roots. But it would not last for hours. Later that day, the flood would have dropped ten feet. The show would be all but over.
In the desert, however, the show never ends.
A couple weeks ago I was on NPR’s Morning Edition talking about the nature of flash floods after 16 people were killed in two different southern Utah flood events in one day. It’s hard to talk about something you love when it just ended lives. Many of the 16 were children.
Still, I can’t avert my gaze. I can’t help but inch my way closer. During this last wave of floods, I was out with a group of 7th and 8th graders from my children’s school backpacking in the wild, tangled canyons of southern Utah. Hearing of weather alerts and flash flood warnings, some parents were hesitant, to say the least, that we were going ahead. But we were on the other end of the spectrum from those who died. We were looking for floods, not trying to get away from them. We reveled in water, the girls in the group singing songs one morning about it, like prayers, like hymns, not like those who must have been lost in terror wondering what hit them.
There’s an art to floods. They leave behind sculpture galleries of boulders and fluted bedrock, woody debris woven like basketry around the battered trunks of trees. In this sandstone desert, have you ever walked through what is called a slot canyon? The bedrock walls are smooth and shaped like eggshells, two sides of the canyon close enough you can touch them at the same time. You are walking through a hydrology equation, the chaos of floods rendered in elegant form. This is what the bedlam of a flood creates. Within the madness is a delicate and irreducible order.
We were wet. Rain dripped through our hair. I led kids out to edges where we could see muddy, frothy cascades. Canyon floors swallowed their floods, musical slot canyons turned into monsters below us. Rocks snapped and pounded as kids shouted, “Holy shit!” Which in particular I like to hear.
One day, we gathered under an overhang as another storm cell dropped in on us. The desert canyon suddenly looked like Venezuela, waterfalls coming down everywhere. The shelter we’d chosen was also home to a row of pre-Columbian cliff dwellings. If they survived the last 800 years, we’d do well for the afternoon. We gathered like owls in the dry nook while sheets of water fell before us. Kids noticed right away some of the water coming down was muddy, some clear. They were becoming aware of how the land works, what rain ran clean off of stone and what came through earth, plucking out its parts. We were as safe as you could be, balcony seating for the event of the desert.
When the floods fly, you see the purpose of the landscape around you. The desert is a blueprint of moving water. We watched every wash and pouroff come to life. Dark streaks on the underside of boulders became channels. Geography revealed its purpose. It was all about water.
I know a woman who has, as a forensic scientist, dealt with the bodies of flood victims. She told me of the face of a six-year-old girl. Surgically removed from the girl’s head by a flood, there were no bones or teeth. It was only a face, limp as a rubber mask. The rest of the body had been unharmed, protected, she said. This seemed like something she had been waiting to tell somebody. In the wrong context, it may have seemed trivial or too grotesque for conversation, but when we talked about it, she was enchanted by what it proposed. Something was hidden in the water. The water meant whatever it had done. There was nothing personal to the victim, no vendetta. It was just that water was too powerful for life to withstand, and within that power was precision, as if choices were being made, she said. The final word of water had been revealed by its own fierceness.
Storms eventually roamed away, leaving us with clear skies. We carried our camp on our backs into winding canyons where the floods were reduced to red-brown threads of flowing water. The roar had been turned to mumbles and chatters of a stream, the talkative language of water dancing down the canyon. Debris gathered high overhead and the stone was smooth, polished by what had been a wild and terrible force only days before.
Death and beauty lie this close together.
You do have to be careful, even on these sunny days. A storm can hit many miles away and come on you like a freight train. But I knew these canyons and could read the lay of storm systems. I watched the skies, smelled the wind, listened for a chundering bellow coming from upstream. We were in the clear. The desert went back to being itself, still, hard and mostly waterless. But in the bottom ran a reminder. The voice of water sang and burbled. It told us why all of this was here.
Photos and video: Craig Childs