Among the lessons of in life in the desert is a deeper appreciation for all things associated with water. Living in the desert usually means that water is scarce, and if not scarce then often violent, as cloudbursts send torrents of rushing water down slopes and through formerly dry arroyos. In the Pueblo tradition of the Tewa peoples, these concepts combine in the form of Avanyu, the plumbed serpent who is the guardian of water and the herald of storms. Avanyu’s image is found among the petroglyphs left behind by the region’s pre-Columbian residents, and it appears as an element used in their descendants’ decorative arts. Few New Mexicans would fail to recognize and understand its symbolism. I grew up as the child of an outdoorsman who loved hunting and fishing, which means that I had opportunities to visit the better-watered places of New Mexico on a regular basis. With all this in mind, here are a few of my favorite places and memories as influenced by Avanyu and the waters of the region.
San Gregorio Lake
Among the first places to leap from my memory is San Gregorio Lake, a small manmade reservoir surrounded by woodlands and high meadows in the San Pedro Wilderness of the state’s northern mountains. My father took me there for the fishing, but what I remember are the sparkling waters, the beaver island in the midst of the waters, and the eagles that flew overhead. I also remember the magical mile-long walk through quaking aspen to reach the lake. The violent face of this paradise included the nearby arroyos that quickly filled with water during rainstorms and the currents in the vicinity of the dam. I have been back once as an adult, and San Gregorio Lake is one of those places that seems untouched by time—even the beavers are still in residence.
My father also liked to fish the swift-running Jemez River and its tributaries in the mountain country northwest of Albuquerque. On weekends and holidays, we would pile into the car and drive to Jemez Pueblo. After paying a fee at the tribal offices, we made our way into mountains with their surreal southwestern landscapes—red and yellow ochre pigments giving the mesa and cliffs a special glow, especially at sunset. The narrow, shallow river made (and still makes) small waterfalls and rapids that were perfect for rainbow trout. Daddy waded the river while I explored the rocks and wildflowers—always aware that rattlesnakes love this country. I would sit with my father for lake fishing, either on the shore or in a boat, but I had no patience for fishing with a fly (nor did he have the patience to teach me). As elsewhere, we always kept a weather eye out. The steep banks of this mountain river meant that the water rose quickly during a rainstorm. We might carry on with caution during a shower, but not in a heavy downfall. Like San Gregorio Lake, the Jemez is still wild and remote, much as it was in my youth. A recent return found the river and the mountains much as I remembered them, and an occasional fisherman practicing his art allowed me to visual Daddy doing the same.
Battleship Rock is also located in the Jemez country, but it lies within the Santa Fe National Forest rather than on Pueblo lands. The formation is a large red volcanic butte rising up from a small valley carved by the confluence of the San Antonio River and the East Fork of the Jemez. My father brought us here for camping and, of course, fishing the streams. This is a lush place for New Mexico, the lushness made possible by the abundance of water from the two streams. It is a place shaded by ponderosa pine and aspen, a cool respite from the desert. The larger area is also known for warm natural springs and even a ‘hidden’ waterfall. Here a child had no trouble letting her imagination run wild, and when the fishermen took their quest further upstream, she could splash and wade to her heart’s content. It was a place of trails, picnic tables, and primitive camping. Today camping is not permitted, but everything else is largely as was half a century ago—except that the trails and the picnic tables are in better condition. In this place, Avanyu seems more a guardian of peace than a herald of storms.
During my childhood the Rio Grande, which flows through Albuquerque, was often so dry that we at times walked its full width without getting our feet wet. Scavenging the riverbed for treasures—some made by man, others by Nature—was a popular pastime. Most of the water we found flowed in narrow trickles and settled into dirty puddles. We knew the dangers the rivers posed. The sandy riverbed was not always as innocuous as it looked, and nowhere was the threat of flash floods more perilous. Fifty years later, the health of the river is better. Water once again flows freely along its familiar channel, and the Rio Grande Nature Center helps to protect both the river and a strip of the bosque (a riparian woodland)--and with them a return of wildlife, including beaver. All this is within the city boundaries, and I must say that exploring the riverbank and wandering through the bosque beats those scavenger hunts in the dried up riverbed of my childhood. The good old days weren’t always all that good.
El Morro National Monument
My memory of El Morro is first and foremost of the pool at the base of a large sandstone formation—a watering hole that has provided refuge and renewal for centuries. This landmark is surrounded by the badlands south of Grants. "Badlands" is a word that should be taken literally, a region characterized by a black basalt terrain formed by volcanic forces. El Morro’s importance to generations of wanderers is documented by the messages carved into Inscription Rock—petroglyphs by paleo-Indians and the signatures of conquistadors and cowboys, among others, who stopped here to refresh themselves and their beasts before facing the next stage of their journey. My father brought me here as we traveled through the badlands over paved roads and carrying containers filled with clean water on the seat behind us. For us as for our predecessors, clean water in such a harsh environment was not something to be taken for granted.
I have more youthful memories of the desert and its various oases, but this should do as an introduction. Today’s wanderers carry water in plastic bottles and camel packs, and they remind each other to remain dehydrated. Regardless of the pervasiveness of civilization, the desert remains dangerous and unpredictable. And from time to time it warns those who live there that their greatest resource can also be their most dangerous enemy. Avanyu serves as a reminder, either way.