At the end of May 2013, I took the opportunity to drive an hour and a half from Boyce Thompson Arboretum to the trailhead of Aravaipa Canyon. For those of you unfamiliar with Aravaipa, it is a ten-mile-long canyon with an ever-flowing stream and lush green vegetation squeezed gently between imposing stone walls which are, in turn, outlined sharply by normally blue skies. In short, it’s paradise.
Hiking Aravaipa means that you are often wading ankle-deep in a creek. You splash upstream passing cottonwoods and sycamores, horsetail and cattail, listening to birds chattering away in the underbrush. Damsel flies hover silently along the water’s edge. Minnows swim quickly out of your path. And in the steeply rising hills you see saguaros standing precariously on crumbling rock. The experience is made even more exemplary by the fact that the Bureau of Land Management allows only 50 people a day into the canyon. (Yes, you must make reservations.) What that means to me is that I can go skinny-dipping at almost any point along the way with little fear of terrifying complete strangers.
I backpacked about two miles upstream past a side canyon called Hell’s Half Acre, finally deciding to set up camp just west of another side canyon called Virgus. (There are several side canyons that feed into Aravaipa. One is called Booger Canyon and I can only imagine how it got its name.) There was a waist-deep swimming hole below the place where I staked the tent and a large mesquite tree where I could sit protected from the sun as I prepared meals. “So idyllic,” said I, “but I should have brought wine.”
Of course I soaked for a while in the creek, marveling over the surface tension of water as it passed in glassy sheets over my hands. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon snooping around natural alcoves, looking for snakes and insects and trying not to be bitten or stung by same. Besides a Sonoran whipsnake and a carpenter bee, I didn’t see much. Datura flowers still looked fresh in the tree-shade even though it was getting late in the day.
Dinner consisted of pasta marinara with a freshly diced bell pepper. For dessert there was a woefully melted chocolate bar. When the dishes were properly washed and stowed away I decided to lay on a large flat boulder by the creek and watch the sky. By this time the canyon was entirely shaded except high above where the cliffs were warmly lit by the setting sun.
Two ravens flying hundreds of feet above, closely followed one another dipping and soaring on thermals, rarely flapping their wings. They flew small circles along the face of a tall precipice, seeming to stitch sky and stone together with their graceful acrobatics. Soon they were spinning in tighter circles and, from where I lay, it looked as though their wings touched several times. It appeared to be a most intimate dance. After the ravens glided over the horizon and out of my life, I saw the ghostly white form of a jet passing to the north. About a minute after I saw it, I heard the delayed soft roar of its engines. “Where ya going?” I wondered.
The sun no longer illuminated the highlands and all that was left of the day was a slowly deepening sky. I could see the dark forms of insects flying just a few feet overhead. I also noted birds darting into the surrounding bushes to pass the night. And then the bats came out to chase the flying insects. As Marston Bates would’ve pointed out, every organism has its niche.
One star and then another materialized in the gloaming and I was soon keenly aware of my insignificance in time and space. I tried to comfort myself by remembering that we’re made of stellar dust, at least according to Joni Mitchell and most astrophysicists.
As it grew darker I stood up and took a quick look around. Across the creek, standing on a house-sized boulder, was a great blue heron. He stood like a statue, one reptilian eye coldly looking down on me. I could make out the black plume on his head and neck. I studied him. He studied me. And, as if in slow motion, he turned his head away, lifted his wings, and launched quietly off into the night, headed for some nearby cottonwood trees. I walked up to my tent and readied myself for dreaming.