It is Sunday morning in Yuma, Arizona and I feel like I am waking up from a long dream. The morning desert wind is dry and all the hues of red are forming into long bands across the sky above the low, dirty city. There is a Harley gathering in town this weekend and already many loud machines are piercing the quiet of the sunrise. The dream I had, it turns out, was real and a week long. I was on the river that makes this place able to be here. I followed that river, which is beyond essential for the entire population of the Southwest, from Blythe to Yuma and left it before its well-used waters cross the Mexican border.
I began working on the Lower Colorado a handful of years ago; the river has changed very little though the place has evolved in my mind. My first season I found the desert hot and oppressive, the locals were on edge, cranky and the whole experience (oftentimes we're guiding and naturalizing for hundreds of students from Los Angeles) could be overwhelming and numbingly tiring. But today, as I wake up from my week-long dream and begin to prepare for yet another I feel at home at a cheap motel in Yuma. The bikers staying next to us see us a locals, ol' Jim at Martinez Lake is like having a crazy grandpa you only see a couple times of year, and the desert dwellers of Walter's Camp welcomed us for Easter beers. We made a ham in a dutch oven, made mash potatoes and asparagus, and ate, as family, under the shade of a tamerisk tree.
I know the river now too: how to wake up and beat the windstorms (and associated dust and waves) that are common in the spring, how to dodge sandbars and get somewhere in the low water fall, how to apply sunscreen hourly to keep your skin from cracking until it bleeds, and how to talk to the locals about good 'ol things like catfish fishin' and assholes from the city. I've spent years now reading books about the Law of the River and the water rights that are always in litigation and limbo. Through study of the river's politics and ecology I have come to understand this region of America far better than I could ever imagined. Few know of the formerly vibrate delta that is now a barren wasteland where no Colorado River water meets the ocean – the water, of course, is in Phoenix, L.A., San Diego, or in the Imperial Valley coming out of a sprinkler head. This water, originating from the high the in mountains of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah has made its way into everything. You, yes you, wear it in your cotton clothes and eat in your strawberries and lettuce, for the Colorado River is far from just the lifeblood of the urban Southwest it is the financier of the some of the most productive crop land in the US and travels far and wide by way of our heavily industrialized food system.
Before I jump to the top of my soapbox I'll bring myself back to the dream I was having before waking up in Yuma this morning. I was floating, pre-dawn, on a wide glassy river lined with reeds. The sky was turning from starry to colorful and the birds were responding with song. Ahead of me were four groups of canoes, tied together and moving through the current without human direction, their human contents were asleep and oblivious to their naturally well-choosen path. I had had been awake since 4am and had stood at the back of a box truck under lantern light watching kids stumble to pack their things. We are all on the move now, and I could relax for the time being. I tucked my arms under my lifejacket to block the morning chill, leaned back against the cold aluminum of the boat, and let the river do the work.