Let me embrace you
From your place of emergence
Welcome Home, Daughter
Place of Emergence
We unwrapped our tamales as the evening glow glistened across the rippling waters of the Rio, waiting for our 250-gallon tanks to fill up from a nearby spring. Prior to hauling water from down in the gorge, we had filled up our 500-gallon capacity at the wastewater treatment and reclamation center, conveniently located on the south side of Taos, only a few short minutes’ drive from our land. Despite assurances that the water was clean enough to pump through city distribution lines for tap water (don’t worry, the town would never approve such atrocities) we felt better about filling up from a spring that fed the Rio, also a few short minutes’ drive from our land. The film of algae that bloomed on the surface of the tanks after filling from the treatment plant reassured us of switching our sources.
Both the spring and the wastewater plant feed the same Rio, the life giver in our region: To Ba’aadi, “Female River” in Navajo, Posoge, “Big River,” in Tewa, the Rio Grande, “Great River” as known in our state, and the Rio Bravo, “Furious River” as known in our state’s namesake; I have my own name, as will anyone who cultivates their relationship with our Rio. She is all these things—female, big, great, and furious. As the giver and nurturer of life in the desert, the Rio is a mother. All life on this planet emerged from the water—water knows us. Anyone who has been held by the gentle waters of the river knows this. And anyone who has been royally spanked by the ferocious waters of the river knows her fury. You’ve got to be furious if you’re going to tear through, carve, and polish the cooled bloodstone of an ancient volcanic rift: the ripped skin of Mother Earth from a stratospheric volcanic eruption millions of years ago. As we ate our tamales, we were far removed from that ferocity along the shoreline of red willow and cottonwood trees—the Orilla Verde. Here our Great Big Furious Female Rio takes a deep inhale as the steep twenty-five foot per mile drop levels out to a mere eight feet per mile. This means calm waters and a perfect spot for a bath.
Even in the summer, a plunge into the Rio’s waters will quicken your breath and leave your skin tingling. We made it through October and the first few dustings of snow across the mesa before calling it quits. Why go through the trouble of hauling five hundred precious gallons of water just to run it across skin that will see the same filth upon the dawn of the next day? We were building our own house, entirely, just the two of us. That summer we had found our land, gone through the painstaking process of permitting for a homeowner build, took a journeyman’s test to prove my worth as an amateur electrician, and broke ground. There’s one main concern out here on the Taos mesa when it comes to this seemingly romantic process: water. Are you going to haul water, catch water, share water, or drill for water? The thinking of most people never extends beyond opening the tap and leaving it running while they do the dishes, flushing the toilet after every pee, running laundry, or, God forbid, using thirty gallons of water to fill up a bathtub. On average, one person in this country uses about one hundred gallons of water per day. At that rate, we’d be hauling our tanks every three days. We lived in a camper while we built our house, which had a 30-gallon capacity. We’d make it last about a week. This routine cultivated both an awareness of our water consumption and a budding relationship with the river and the springs that feed her. And yet, despite the nourishment of our chore, we budgeted for a well to be drilled on our land as part of a share with a soon-to-be neighbor. The goal was to tap into an underground river, that ultimately merges with our Great Ferocious Female River.
There’s one man you call in Taos to help you find the exact spot that will yield the life-giving force of water, even if that water is hundreds of feet below layers of clay and basalt that have been deposited over eons. That man has since returned to the place from which we all emerge, as we were the last well that Joe Graves dowsed for in the town of Taos. Did you know that a willow branch will yield to the unbending will of water, doubling over from desire when the temptation of a single sip is present? As Joe Graves walked our land, his willow branch spoke; she calls to me and greets me, my life-giver, you will find her right here. “I’d estimate you’ll hit water between three and four hundred feet.” We hit water at three hundred and sixty feet.
Joe Graves was also famous for his Staurolite stone collection, which he generously expounded upon those lucky enough to visit with him. We put one of these precious stones upon the very spot where we would drill the well, as Joe blessed the area and called up the water spirits for their gifts. When we returned to the spot to say our own prayers, really a plea for the grace of the Earth to forgive our drilling and bestow us with the gift of water, the mineral stone was gone. As a woman who lives with a man and must find everything for him, I can tell you it was gone. Yet, as we poured a drop of water as a blessing, the stone emerged before us. A reminder of the mystery held in the sacred dance of life. More reminders come when you ask them to. The celebration of a yellow warbler bathing in the new spring as the drill rig hit the water, or the sprouting of a double rainbow as we lowered our well-pump from a twenty-one-foot tripod that we built so we could do the drop ourselves and save thousands of dollars.
I finished insulating the house in late August, the night of the full moon: the Sturgeon Moon. A prehistoric fish, still alive today, predates the events that spurred the rifting of our landscape. In celebration, we decided to float the Rio under the illumination of this ancient fish moon, letting ourselves ease into the leisure of being carried down the gentle waters on our floating couches known as packrafts. My body struggled to relax, as the itchiness from the fiberglass insulation refused to subside. Despite the cool desert air of the night, I couldn’t bear any layers beyond my swimsuit. Or maybe that was a premonition. My consciousness drifted between dreaming and waking as I watched the shadows creep down the canyon rim from the sun’s reflecting rays bouncing off the full moon. The line between unconscious and conscious dissipate as you make irrational connections between experiences and ideas that could never approach articulation. In the darkness, the ripples of the water carry ancient symbols that dance before you, teasing your mind to try and decipher the messages that man has tinkered with since we emerged on two legs, crawling out from the primordial soup of the mother waters. Shadows dance and time dilates as you enter the place where nighthawks morph into elemental spirits and the river speaks to you. Come daughter, feel my embrace as I carry you. Oh shit! The exclamation is me, as I roll my boat over a submerged rock. That’s what happens when you become so blissfully unaware of any obstacle downstream that brings you crashing back down to this plane of reality.
I tumbled under, feeling the cool embrace of the Rio. Water, the mother, primordial soup. As comforting an embrace as the womb, and as dark and torrential as a mother’s rage. Maybe a little more frigid than the womb. I swiftly recovered back into my tiny vessel while the men around me laughed. I sighed, feeling as if my body temperature would drop too low for comfort. Instead, I noticed…nothing. The itchiness from three days of fiberglass installation was gone. Even though I had diligently showered, nothing had relieved the discomfort until now. More reminders of the mystery. We are all born of water from the womb; water knows us. How well do we know water? As she carried me downstream, she merged with the cliff and sky. I tried to stay more alert as I spiraled down the river in a true sensation of floating.
Evening floats on the river are a ritual in the summer, ending with a picnic and a bath under the canopy of a cottonwood tree. One evening, a lone stranger on a cataraft floated up to our picnic. “You arrived just in time for dinner!” And thus began our first Rio relationship. We invite him to dinner, and he invites us to float the Box with him the next day. The Taos Box: “A remote chasm of rugged basalt cliffs plunging 800 feet down to the Rio Grande.” One of the nation’s first wild and scenic rivers with over fifty rapids. A mother’s fury. The river rages through this remote chasm, roiling around and over boulders the size of a bus, screaming through sharp S turns, and dropping furiously in a cascading series of rock gardens. The basalt boulder fields are polished, surrendering to the unbending will of the Great Female River. I channel the joy of that yellow warbler, celebrating in each splash. It had been an excellent winter, the snowpack lingering in the high alpine environment into late spring until runoff season began as the sun extended his walk across the sky. We had gotten our first “rope drop” run at Taos Ski Valley that winter—when you’re at the top of a run as ski patrol opens the run. The dream of untracked powder for two thousand vertical feet. You get to ride the type of line you see in ski movies. And now we race down the cascading torrent of those same, now melted, ice crystals.
Once you’ve ridden that line and raced down the torrent, your life is over. At first, I thought when it’s not boating season, it’s ski season and vice-versa. It turns out that boating season never ends. Sunny days in January send enough snowmelt downstream to run the Rio. Or, you have a packraft and can run the river at extremely low water flows. Nowadays that’s become more common. Last season the high water was about 1400 CFS (cubic feet per second). When we ran the Taos Box those summers ago, it was 3,700 and still rising. Despite boating in winter, the coldest I’ve been on the river was in July. A fourth of July hailstorm broke upon us on a run through the upper gorge. Pellets dropped from the sky so fiercely that we donned our helmets. Our laughter filled the walls where the canyon wrens went silent in their hiding. Two men wearily boated past us, angry for losing their GoPro when they flipped in a rapid upstream. No, we hadn’t come across it. The mother says, why don’t you relax and stay a while? The sun will soon break through the storm in perfect rays. You might experience something more than your little camera could capture. That night we had camped on a beach shared with a family of bighorn sheep. The babies played and baaed as the towering cliffs grew golden and the sheen spread across the stripe of the river. Otters slipped in and out of the glowing waters across from us. At night the world goes quiet while the squeaking echolocation of bats and the soft flutter of wings merge with the voice of the river. Sometimes her voice surges, sometimes her voice descends into laughter, and sometimes her voice seems to blend with a crowd. Listen, sleep, and dream, she says. It is easy to sleep under a river of stars. It is easy to dream when that river is mirrored below you in the reflection of those stars across calm waters.
My favorite spot on the river is along the Racecourse section. The stretch below Orilla Verde where the river ramps up to a gradient drop of twenty-seven feet per mile and the rapids are nearly continuous. I’ve seen otters celebrate joyfulness in eddies in the middle of these rapids and watched ducks float down a rapid only to fly back up and send it again. If only I could fly my way out of a rapid. Sometimes the furious river spanks you, and when you flip over it’s not the womblike feeling of having your itchy skin miraculously healed. Some of the oldest rock in the country strikes across the river between the most exciting rapids on the Racecourse, creating a series of micro-eddies perfect for a micro-raft. In this endless loop among sparkling pink granite, one can find respite from the adrenalin-pumping miles of hot whitewater action. Or find the heart racing in anticipation of what’s ahead. Or just to enjoy the view and good company. Below the final big drop of the Racecourse, a little hut has been built for bystanders to watch and photograph the carnage. It’s a great spot on a hot summer day when the river is surging and the willows waver in their lushness. An audience can gather to watch humans and gear disappear, only to emerge again below, carried gracefully by a swirling eddy. The Rio’s pulse is magnetic, calling to the water that courses through our bodies to return home and merge with the mother. Even those who refuse her call might find themselves pulling over on the highway to watch the action, making their way down for a better view, and even finding their shoes and socks on the shore while they feel the current swirl around their ankles.
Beneath my skin there are rivers. The mosquitos draw up my life-giving blood as I draw up the Earth’s from my well. Life on this planet is not related by blood, but by the water that we all have. As I lay down in my place of emergence in all seasons of the year, I can feel these rivers beneath my skin quicken in awakening. There is a primordial feeling of returning home. My good friend said that he was reluctant to get a boat because once he began a relationship with the Rio, he would never be able to leave this place. He’s right. Welcome home, she says, welcome to your place of emergence.
A gentle caress
Or a vociferous roar?
Captivate my whole
About the Author:
Justine Carryer is a certified Math and Physics teacher who repeatedly quits her job to take children out in the real classroom: Classroom Earth. She is the founder and Executive Director of Surya Zoba Studies non-profit and co-founder and Director of Curriculum for Glen Canyon Outdoor Academy. She celebrates all things creative and outdoor-based that bring the joy of childlike wonder and discovery into life.