I fell in love with her at first sight on that very first day.
It was just past a bleak Christmas on my first day on a new job in Payson, after what felt like the collapse of my life.
I had no sooner settled into my office, then the snow started drifting down onto the parking lot — big, lazy flakes with all the time in the world. So I grabbed a camera and headed out of the town to which I was a stranger, hoping to find an overlook from which to shoot a snowscape.
Veering onto Flowing Springs Road, I parked and tromped through the gathering snow to an overlook. Below, the East Verde River wandered past the ridge, slipped under the highway bridge and eased on down through a subdivision.
She took my breath away in that first, heart-stopping moment.
I was stream-struck, my heart thudding, my breath coming in white puffs.
I stood in the snow a long while as the flakes gathered on my shoulders and melted into my hair. The fringe of sycamores, willows and cottonwoods that lined the banks of the river were gray as bristles of an abandoned brush. But I knew they only slumbered, for they had repaid their debt to the river by returning their leaves to the rich soil as a precaution against the long freeze of winter.
I was thrilled to see them standing sentinel over the stream.
Biologists have concluded that such cottonwood-willow habitats produce the greatest biomass and the greatest diversity of species of any system in North America, but dams, diversions and dropping water tables have destroyed or degraded 90 percent of the streamside cottonwood-willow galleries in Arizona.
There on that ridge in the snow with a hint of steam rising off the glistening surface of the East Verde River, my new life began. After a bruising tumble through the cataracts and boulder-choked canyons, I’d come down now to this wide, quiet space in the humming silence of the snow.
The river saved me by letting me love her, for love binds up every wound.
I resolved then to find a way to live within earshot of that river — and to find the blessings buried on the grassy bank to which the flood of my life had delivered me.
All my life, I had pushed and struggled and raised the bar of my expectations. I had lived in big, busy places amongst crowds of strangers in organizations where you hardly knew your coworkers and never quite trusted your boss. I had set my sights on rising endlessly to always bigger papers, bigger stories, more money. After a long sequence of building block jobs, I thought I’d found my dream role — editor of Arizona Highways, paid six figures to save the faltering magazine I’d loved most my life.
Alas, it didn’t work out. I tried until my heart broke, but I could never reconcile all the tradeoffs — nor win over the publisher. But publishers in the end always win those arguments and so I found myself unemployed at the onset of the recession, clinging to the splintered driftwood of my retirement savings in a bone-chilling rush of floodwater.
The Payson Roundup offered me sanctuary, introduced me to the river and then gave me the gift of the thing I had always sought, never knowing.
After a harrowing year of struggle and hope, I ended up standing on the front porch of the perfect house overlooking the East Verde River, heart struck by its murmur the first thing every morning and the last thing every night.
I love her — without judgment or expectation. I have cast my life upon her waters, for she is helplessly beautiful, utterly reliable, effortlessly graceful. I study her features, savor her moods, smile at her quirks.
The East Verde starts with springs gushing from the base of the Mogollon Rim, water that fell thousands of years ago and seeped through the 1,000 feet of limestone until it escaped again into the sunlight.
The river gathers up more recent rains as it tumbles through Rim Country, clear in the winter then silt-brown in the summer as it passes through burns and slides.
Human beings have sought its solace for at least 10,000 years, from the spear-wielding mammoth hunters who left their Clovis stone spearheads to the Mogollon people who farmed stream terraces and left a scattering of stone ruins before vanishing in the 1400s. Then came the Apache with a rich, deep-rooted and resourceful culture and finally the ranchers and the loggers and the retirees and the refugees like me.
The East Verde flows along Houston Mesa Road, crosses over into East Verde Estates, passes my front porch, then wanders off on its own, down past Doll Baby Ranch toward its distant junction with the Verde River.
The Verde system drains nearly 7,000 square miles and harbors an astonishing diversity of wildlife. One survey found the highest density of nesting birds ever recorded in North America along a cottonwood-graced stretch of the Verde River. The Verde once supported 16 different species of native fish, although only 10 remain. It also harbors many species of introduced fish and more than 200 different species of birds.
Some 90 percent of the critters in Arizona depend on such riparian areas for some crucial stage of their lives. The river has provided a place for several dwindling species to make their last stand, like the black hawks that pluck crayfish from the water and leave piles of cracked claws, Mexican garter snakes that undulate through the water chasing frogs and Verde trout that hunt insect nymphs that could each star in their own monster movie if they weren’t so small.
After a lifetime spent in California and the Sonoran Desert, I live now for the first time with seasons — exaggerated by the extravagance of trees out my front door.
The giant deep-barked cottonwoods dominate, along this, the sensuously white-boled sycamore. They create a whole world in layers for squirrels, possums, raccoons and birds by the thousands.
But more different trees crowd the river’s banks than almost any other stream in the West, as it drops through one life zone after another. I am still learning the trees like you memorize the years of your children’s births.
I wander along beneath Arizona walnuts and Arizona ashes and happily greet the lonely ponderosas towering above the pinons. I look for the Arizona cypress and the Arizona alders and always respect my box elders. I aspire to distinguish at a glance the white, Emory, Gambel and Palmer oaks, not to mention the one-seed, Utah and Alligator junipers and both the desert and Goodding willows. And when I have mastered all of those, I shall take care to learn the leaf shapes of the soapberry, mulberry, hackberry and chokecherry.
Three years into my relationship with the East Verde River, I still marvel at her moods. I am learning the angular austerity of winter, the green haze of the first leaves, the riotous green of August, the brilliance of fall, the ritual mourning of the fallen leaves, the exhilarating rush of summer floods, the cold, sullen fury of winter storms, the smell of damp earth and new grass and decaying leaves and approaching storms.
Now it seems my ambition has come down to this — to know this one stream, to give it as a gift to my grandchildren, to sit patiently on its banks — my mind perfectly open to its wisdom.
The Apache understood this. They said that “wisdom sits in places.” They said that every man must work all his life to have a “smooth mind.” They said that natural places could enlarge your soul and make you steady, wise, kind and strong. But you have to open yourself to that place by sitting and listening. A good Buddhist will tell you the same thing. And the Psalm I memorized in Sunday school that also prepared my heart for that wisdom said “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters.”
So I go down to the still waters now every morning with my sharp-nosed, gold-eyed dog to watch the magic of the first light.
I have seen soaring eagles and scarlet summer tanagers and hunting herons and startled elk and bristling javelina. I have swum with the otters — but that’s a whole other story.
The river, she pays me no mind — but does not mind me. I’m fine with that. I just want to watch her — how she moves, the rustle of her dress, the gleam of light in her hair, the sound of her sighs.
And I bless the near-drowning that brought me to this place — where I can learn everything that matters hidden in the sound of the river.