When I was young and foolish and huffed up with hubris, I went down into the wilderness of Wet Beaver Creek with a heavy pack and sandals and an amiable ambition to amble.
I am older now — bruised, scratched up and possessed of an odd rash that makes sitting unpleasant — but flush with the knowledge of the ancients.
So I herewith offer you the wisdom of my bruises, earned during a great quest into the gurgling, slippery, slimy, deep-pooled heart of wildness.
Wet Beaver Creek starts in the forested Rim Country and descends 3,000 feet in 12 miles to its junction with the Verde River, in its lower reaches passing both Montezuma’s Castle and Montezuma’s Well. These stirring sandstone ruins are the most impressive remnants of the once thriving Sinagua civilization, which occupied the Verde Valley for perhaps 1,000 years before collapsing mysteriously in the 1400s.
My journey started innocently enough with a right-hand turn on the Sedona turnoff from I-17. Two miles down a good gravel road, I discovered the Bell Trail and the Forest Service’s Wet Beaver Creek campground.
I had come to explore a conjured dreamscape of red rock rapids, with long pools, reflected sky, flittering red and yellow birds, smoothed sandstone slots gushing water, hovering bass and luminous green leaves.
The creek runs through a 6,700-acre wilderness area from its point of origin in a series of springs at the 6,800 feet junction of Jack’s and Brady Canyon. Normally it burbles along at about 500 cubic feet per second, but can produce flash floods of 4,000 cubic feet per second.
Close by the Beaver Creek campground is the V Bar V pictoglyph site, a sheer wall of soft Supai sandstone adorned with about 1,100 haunting images of sheep, lizards, hunters, families, geometric designs and figures.
I could have stuck to the trail close by the creek, but decided instead to hike the creek, with a pair of water shoes and a nice new backpack, stuffed with assorted wilderness survival gear and beef jerky. Turns out, walking along a trail bears no resemblance at all to boulder-hopping up even a knee-and-waist-deep stream. The submerged rocks are all covered by an invisible layer a slippery moss, offering certain invaluable lessons in the school of hard knocks. I offer these life lessons to you now, because you seem like such nice people.
• All the underwater rocks want to get you. They have contests. They are not your friends.
• Damp rocks protruding above the water also want to get you — they’re just more sneaky.
• Many perfectly dry rocks will roll over if you jump on them. These are the ringleaders and will laugh even before you step on them.
• Bi-pedalism is a flawed design.
• Find a really good walking stick you can grip with both hands, an insight gained after 16 falls and the loss of my entire lifetime accumulation of dignity.
• The creek bed creates a vortex whereby one mile equals seven miles.
• Do not look at birds while boulder hopping. They are conspiring with the rocks and will twitter when you fall.
• In fact — do not look at anything but the next rock — this includes women in bikinis or the Mogollon Monster — who will both laugh at you.
• Boulders you could hop gracefully in the morning when you’re young and fresh will get you in the afternoon, when you’re old and the barbarians have sacked Rome.
• Seal your stuff in plastic bags. Everything will get wet anyway, but you will not feel like such an idiot.
• Did I mention the walking stick?
These lessons all came to me in the course of the first day’s seven-hour toil up the creek bottom — a distance I could have covered in two hours on the trail.
Still, the creek splashed merrily along over cobbles and boulders, gathering in deep pools carved in the intermittent layers of yielding sandstone. Small bass and trout hung suspended in those pools, mostly disdaining both my dry flies and bass lures. They did, however, go into a feeding frenzy for Pop-Tart crumbs.
Late in the afternoon, I reached the narrows above the Bell Trail Crossing. Here, I was befuddled to find happy hoards of swim-suited teenagers —mostly jumping off sandstone cliffs into the 20-foot-deep pools gouged out of the sandstone. I watched the sun-basted, bounding, cannon-balling kids, gingerly fingering my nicely developing crop of bruises. Whoever said old age and trickery will outflank youth and energy never hiked the creek bottom — never watched 18-year-olds diving from cliffs.
Shouldering my pack, I staggered onward into the true wilderness — the six- or eight-mile stretch above the Bell Trail Crossing. After a mile, I collapsed at a likely looking campsite — my solitude now absolute. The next morning, I happily left my pack in camp and headed on upstream, cured of any ambition to backpack atop laughing rocks of slime, but determined to get as far up the canyon as possible.
The hike revealed a succession of mysteries and wonders. Springs gushed and trickled, blackberries ripened, birds flitted, fish fled, cliffs loomed. Periodically, I’d find the husk of a crayfish on a rock in the middle of the stream, victims of a foraging Black Hawk, a threatened raptor entirely dependent on riparian areas.
I discovered a rock face covered with a living fur of daddy longlegs, gathered for some obscure daddy longleg ceremony — bouncing up and down as they crawled over one another until they found a flat space to hunker down, legs drawn up like bizarre sea creatures.
The pools grew more frequent, forcing me to repeatedly climb up and around. Finally, perhaps three miles above camp — I encountered a long, deep pool stretching from cliff to cliff.
A sensible person would have turned and limped back to camp. Instead, I stripped down to a swimsuit and sandals, hefted my handy, beaver-trimmed walking stick, hid my camera gear and swam out into the pool, which bent around the blind corner of sandstone cliffs.
I pushed on another two miles, feeling light-footed and unencumbered, dramatically increasing my speed by swimming every pool I encountered.
The creek threaded through sandstone slots, luring me on past where I should have stopped. Debris in nooks 30 feet overhead, offered mute evidence of devastating floods.
One slot where the stream had to squeeze through an 8-foot-wide gap was choked by a 35-foot-high wall of driftwood and logs. I climbed the cliff to the side and dove into the pool beyond the blockage, blindly assuming I could climb the logjam on the return trip.
I pushed on in a kind of ecstasy, until both my strength and the daylight faltered. The creek splashed and burbled on around the next corner, the next pool — flowing out of mystery.
Reluctantly, I turned and started picking and paddling my way downstream, the weight of the day’s effort immediately settling over me. Somehow, I climbed the logjam and jumped into the pool on the far side, depth charging the first big bass I’d seen in my long quest.
Then I floated through the sandstone maze. The cliff edges framed the dimming, cloud-scudded sky, the creek crooned in my ears and I drifted weightless through the heart of wilderness, my spirit brimming like water from a spring.
And here is what I learned — from the slotted dream of Wet Beaver Creek.
Pain you forget.
Unless, of course, you’re dumb enough to write about it.