Secret Knowledge of Water


The moon was just rising as we selected a campsite on the floor of the Chihuahuan desert near Cooke's Peak, on the horizon at right. We were 50 miles north of the border with Mexico.

We started a campfire immediately as the temperature started to plummet into the low teens on one of the last evenings of December.

The next morning we took a stroll in the hills above our campsite. We headed into this draw to see if there were any signs of water.

We found bleached bones, and plenty of thorny mesquite and ocotillo shrubs. Then we dropped into a crease in the land, not yet warmed by the morning sun, and found isolated pools where running water had stripped off the topsoil, exposing bedrock.

The miracle of water in the desert.

Encouraged, the next day we decided to go looking for a cold water spring that was supposed to be in a drainage above Faywood Hot Springs. Running water appeared to be a rare event here. But the tops of tall cottonwood and willow trees, visible to us in the distance, offering the promise of water in this otherwise dry-as-a-bone stream bed, optimistically named "Cold Water Creek."

Speaking of bones, this fence appeared to be meant to discourage cows from trampling the springs.

There must have been a time when there was enough water flowing in the creek here to scour out these potholes in the creek bottom, and we found they held some water. The bedrock was a conglomerate of large stones in a variety of shapes and colors. They were embedded in a white rock formation, like giant raisins in a chalk-colored pudding.

It appeared to me to be the result of an ancient debris flow from a landscape of steep volcanic slopes upstream, where water mixed with rocks and ashy mud, creating a pudding-like slurry that was later buried under subsequent flows, hardening until it was uncovered by this stream.

Sure enough, under the only tall trees visible for miles around, was a spring. It's likely that ground waters here are forced to the surface here by a subterranean rock formation that crosses and blocks an aquifer running beneath the dry stream bed.

A Harris Hawk flew off as we approached this desert oasis. It had been perched on a willow branch, leaving telltale droppings on a film of ice. As we departed, we scared up two large javelinas (aka collared peccaries, similar to wild boars) that ran ahead of us on the desiccated plains of snakeweed and shrubby mesquite.

It's a good place to relax . . .

. . . on the willow leaves . . .

. . . and contemplate the life of the Apache chief who the Spanish called Mangas Coloradas (“Red Sleeves”). He was tortured and shot to death by U.S. troops at a military fort, eight miles northwest of this spot, where he was lured in 1862 on the pretext of peace talks.

Coloradas was one of the most important Native American leaders of the 19th century due to his fighting achievements against the Mexicans and Americans. He had been working closely with the Apache leader Geronimo. And who knows? Perhaps they both frequented this watering hole.

12/29-30/2020 with Rich Schrader

Props to Craig Childs whose book title The Secret Knowledge of Water I borrowed for this post.


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