If I missed anything about my native Northeast during these years in the Southwest, it was a plunge into an abundance of fresh water. I’ve known great depths of fresh water in New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Ontario. However, my ideal will forever be a glacier-carved lake cradled in the Berkshire Hills of northwestern Connecticut, where I was fortunate to vacation as a child and adolescent. Here was my boyhood elixir, water rich with the flavor and aroma of granite, quartz, lilies, sunfish, mussels, white pine root, dragonflies, maple leaves, and, to a lesser extent, gasoline, suntan lotion, beer cans and bottles, and sunken wooden rowboats. But the sweetness prevailed.
It’s not that New Mexico lacked vast bodies of water. It is, after all, home to “lakes” and “reservoirs” named El Vado, Heron, Cochiti, Elephant Butte, Navajo, Bluewater, Conchas, Fenton, and Storrie, all impounded by concrete or earth. However, the opportunity to swim, bob, or splash in them had never presented itself.
New Mexico’s rivers were a different story. One June, upon exiting, perfumed with sage smoke and dripping, a sweat lodge in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, I plunged into the icy waters of the River of the Cows. In New Mexico’s Black Range, I camped beside and bathed in the headwaters of the Gila River. And, prior to moving to Anthony, I had dipped into the Rio Grande in such places as Albuquerque, Isleta Pueblo, and San Antonio.
Now, in Anthony, I had the Great River a mere five-minute drive from my house.
Our second June in Anthony witnessed eleven consecutive days of temperatures in the low one-hundreds coupled with the typical low humidity of early summer. Some of those days were windy, with the wind-driven heat fit to scorching the nostrils. The combination of heat, my pleasant memories of the Connecticut lake, and the possibility that Buddy might be seaworthy turned my thoughts to the nearby river. So the hound and I headed out.
In Doña Ana County, the Rio runs with few meanders, and its banks are grassy and virtually treeless. Absent here are the dense, peaceful, and shady bosques of cottonwoods, salt cedar, Russian olive, and willow that border the river in central New Mexico. Here the river is firmly in the clamp of southern New Mexico agribusiness, which effectively begins just south of the Caballo Reservoir dam in the town of Arrey, some 75 airline miles northwest of Anthony. From Arrey, through the Hatch and Mesilla valleys, and into west Texas, the river is bordered by and quenches the thirst of all manner of commercial crops: chile, onions, cotton, corn, pecans, alfalfa, lettuce, cabbage, and oats. An occasional dairy farm joins these enterprises. Tapped by myriad canals and ditches, its flow subject to the gates of New Mexico’s Caballo, Elephant Butte, and Cochiti dams, a stack of national and international agreements and regulations, and the whims of the weather, the Rio Grande through southern New Mexico looks and behaves like a dull canal, its northern curvaceousness, wildness, and relative sloppiness in times of heavy precipitation merely a memory. Yet it is still two banks and a bed that will not be erased no matter how it is directed. It still must flow above ground or below in whatever capacity from the mountains of southwest Colorado to the Boca Chica near Brownsville, Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico.
To my delight, the river was swollen and therefore moving at a brisk pace on that furiously hot afternoon as a dust storm with the odor of ripening onions raged.
I entered the river at a narrow cleft in the bank where the water, some three feet deep, gently eddied. The water was chillier than I’d anticipated, no doubt because it had recently been ice and snow in the Rockies and, subsequently, impounded in great, cold depths behind Cochiti and Elephant Butte dams. Yet I eagerly wandered into it, although only up to my neck: aware that a facility in upriver Las Cruces deposited that city’s treated waste into the river, I wasn’t about to get any water near any orifices above my shoulders.
The primal thrill of the deep and powerful flow was immediate; I hadn’t known such a sensation since I bobbed in the Colorado River outside of Moab, Utah, on a fiery July afternoon a decade earlier. Is there another feeling like it on the planet? Even if humanity had a considerable hand in the force of this flood, it was still transcendent: the collective plunge of thousands of western mountains and hills to the north; Earth’s very pulse; one component of that great, forever-turning “millwheel,” in Hal Borland’s word, that evaporates ocean water, delivers the moist vapors to the mountains, condenses the vapors into rain and snow, and channels the rain and snowmelt down canyons and valleys and back to the oceans, to start the remarkable process all over again.
Not wishing to be borne on the waters to Canutillo, Texas, just downriver, I resisted the current by dog-paddling, but also by planting my feet in the thoroughly sandy riverbed, which created an equally thrilling sensation. Standing in the river, resisting its current, I stabilized that sand immediately beneath my feet. The Great River (no doubt affronted) then ate furiously at the surrounding bed, and my feet and the rest of me thus “rose” on two little pedestals of sand. Then I got creative. In the shallower water, where the current was nearly as robust, I sat on the bed, drew my knees to my chest, and was soon “hoisted” on a sandy stool. However, not even this riverbed perch lasted long before the hunger of the current, so I continually planted myself in new places. And refreshed myself in the process. Pure, simple, childlike fun. Meanwhile, I tried to imagine how many mountains―literally, mountains―of water-driven sand had marched in this manner to the Gulf of Mexico over the eons.
As for Buddy, this was likely his first encounter with a broad, deep, moving body of water. Linda had suspected that he had some retriever in his pedigree, and he perhaps demonstrated this that afternoon. Watching me in the river, he initially stood on the edge of the bank and whimpered, anxious to join me yet not quite sure what to make of this strange liquid phenomenon. When he could apparently stand it no longer, he dropped clumsily down the bank and into the water, but then executed a strong, perfect paddle, making his way toward me, occasionally snapping at the bounty for a drink. (Okay, I had more faith in his constitution than mine.) Ably resisting the current, he swam to my side. I cradled him, expecting him to cease his movements; however, either out of a sheer desire to explore the river and his natal buoyancy or, more likely, obedience to his survival instinct, he continued to work his legs and paws, so I turned him loose.
I then stepped and bobbed quickly to the bank, where I grabbed a stick and threw it downriver. Buddy was on it, watching it as it wafted through the air, pursuing it after it hit the river’s surface. Finding it after some brief confusion, he snapped it in his jaws, coughed as he held onto it and paddled across the current, and scrambled up onto the bank, where he dropped it. Curtains of water descended from him briefly, and then water shot in all directions as a vigorous, uninterrupted shake began at his head and ears, traveled through his midsection, and ended at his shimmying butt and tail―a remarkably fluid mechanics seemingly unique to most canines that has since never ceased to amaze me. While he lingered on the bank watching me―he wasn’t stupid; he now knew the muscle of the river and wasn’t going to unnecessarily wear himself out―I grabbed another stick and delivered it over the water. This time he leapt dramatically from the bank, broke the variously glassy and finely-bubbling river surface with a crash, and retrieved it. Already I sensed he could handle any depth and flow of the Rio, at least as it traveled through our county.
In a queer land it was the queerest of afternoons: a hot eastbound river of wind and dust intersecting a flood of chilly water driving southward―the perfect representation of a naturally parched land refusing a drink: narrowly perverse but broadly understandable.
During the ride home through the yellow world I dried almost completely; Buddy took only slightly longer. At home, I showered quickly; after all, what could have been more cleansing than the river?
That night, pleasantly exhausted, I stripped, crawled between the sheets, and watched a distant lightning show through a north-facing window until sleep arrived. In the middle of the night, however, a strange sensation awakened me. I turned on the light―to find myself stretched out on a fine layer of cinnamon-colored river silt. Too tired to address it, I doused the light and left this thinnest of pedestals to the mercy of my river of dreams.