Sacred Water

categories: Cocktail Hour


I am feeling ragged, water-logged, and sunburned.  I have a new love for pillows, beds, and showers.

I spent the last week living on the water by day and sleeping in a tent by night, floating down the San Juan River in Southeast Utah, courtesy of a wonderful outfit called Wild Rivers.  One of the best things about the trip was the fact that many of my fellow rafters were Navahos, members of a group named Rethink Dine Power, who were reacquainting themselves with a river that their people once believed was sacred.  Another of the best things were the side canyons, rock staircases of sandstone, limestone and stunning beauty, that led up and out of the cliffs that we were paddling between. 

As magnificent as the cathedral-like side canyons were, I didn’t really see them as they are meant to be seen until the last night of the trip. That night, at around Seven O’clock, our dinner was interrupted by the loudest crack of thunder I’ve ever heard, a sound that echoed around the amphitheater of the canyon.  Suddenly rain was pouring. And just as suddenly spontaneous waterfalls were flowing from five hundred feet above us and we were all running around, yelling and pointing and ducking our heads under the flowing water, wildly happy to see the red rock come to wet life.  The next morning, when I should have been packing my tent, I walked far up the side canyon. It was not like my earlier walks.  As beautiful as they had been, something had been missing. Until then seeing the canyons had been like seeing a body without blood. Now the blood was back.  A rich red blood with a tint of tabasco sauce orange.      

            All week I had been climbing up strange stairways, terraces and falls.  But now I saw what had formed them.  And also what they were for.  Their purpose. They had been cathedrals, all right, but empty ones until the fact and sacrament of water was introduced.  I kept walking and walking, watching the dry landscape come to life. When I finally returned I ran into Michael, one of the more dedicated members of Rethink Dine Power, a young man committed to helping Navaho youth reconnect to their traditions, and he invited me to watch as he performed a ceremony, cutting some of the root of the Sacred Datura, the white flowering plant that only opens at night and was once used as a hallucinogen by the Anasazi.  He told me the meaning of the Navaho words that gave the canyon its name: Moon Water 

            I do not pretend to have some sacred connection to the San Juan River.  I’m a kid from Massachusetts who went to prep school. But it was a pleasure to watch people reconnect to a landscape they had once been part of.  And you didn’t have to be Navaho, only human, to understand that what we were being given was a gift. Water, the thing best known by its absence in this dry place, was suddenly abundant.  Blood again flowed through the canyon’s body.

  1. Rahul Dave writes:

    Wondeful! Beautiful flowing red! Where did you put in? (and out?)

  2. George de Gramont writes:

    It was wonderful to read your uplifting essay, a great counterpoint to the morning news. A special essay.

  3. john lane writes:

    Good done Dave. Glad you are back.

  4. Bill Dislin writes: