“This Must Mean Something” or, How I met Craig Childs.

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park (photo courtesy Big Bend River Tours)

The first time I fell in love with a desert river was nearly 3 decades ago. I was 14. My parents, grandma, and I rafted the Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande, and I felt the most incredible yearning of my life… I wanted to keep going. I wanted to be enveloped in the canyon walls, feeling my body drawn deeper into the depths of the Earth by a river that flowed for thousands of miles from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. I didn’t realize how central to my life desert rivers would become.

Nineteen years later, I led a group of friends down Ruby Horsethief on the Colorado River, just east of the Utah border. I didn’t lead trips as a commercial outfitter until later, but this was a practice trip. Following the most epic thunderstorm I have ever experienced, (read about it here) one of my friends introduced me to “The Secret Knowledge of Water”, thinking that Craig’s book would touch me as deeply as the thunderstorm had.

She gave me the book after the trip, and I felt such a kinship with Craig… here was a man as enthralled with finding water in the desert as I was! I imagined exploring the desert with him, searching for water pockets and springs. I had never read a book that gave me such longing to find some of the places the author wrote about!

One place in particular captured my imagination… a huge swimming pool sized pocket nestled between fins of Navajo Sandstone, 700 feet up from the canyon floor.

I poured over Google Maps, trying to find the place. Craig purposefully changed the locations of these places, with the intention of keeping them from becoming overrun with people.

I found a place with fins of Navajo Sandstone, just northwest of the Colorado River in Arizona. It looked like it had potential, but I found no photographs or evidence other than a feeling, and a vision of finding the place. 

In November of 2016, I participated in a 4 day vision fast in Death Valley with The School of Lost Borders. As I sat alone in the silence of Death Valley, I set my intention to adjust my route home to Colorado, so I could drive past the place I found on the map.  This was the time!!! I dreamed of it while I slept out alone under the stars, and resolved to drive as far as I could on the 4×4 roads and explore the canyon I imagined held this water pocket that had become mythical in my imagination.

When we all returned to the circle after our solos, I announced my intentions.  I knew where I was headed, but I had no idea what I would find, or if there was any chance I would find the water pocket I was searching for.

“Why don’t you just ask him where it is?” my guide, Betsy Perluss, asked.

I had never thought of such a thing!

Betsy said that she was friends with him on Facebook, and suggested I just write and connect with him.

I did, but I didn’t ask where this pocket was. It was about the journey. I informed him of my intentions, of where I was going, and I told him how much of an impact his book had on me.

He responded with a short answer. “You’ll find water, I know that. Rock and sand, too, and a lot of sky, some ancient twisted junipers…all the right stuff.”

I set off on my journey. I found my way to the top of the canyon I imagined held the water pocket, my excitement growing…. Here was a place I had imagined, and I was finally on my way there! I found an overlook and I closed my eyes and breathed deep before opening the door to look down. Alas, this wasn’t the place. It was dry and there was no way down into the canyon. I sighed and reminded myself that I shouldn’t expect the destination to come so easily!

I tried driving on sandy roads to other places I found in the map, and managed to get myself hopelessly stuck in a place I had no business driving in my Subaru. As I waited for many hours for the tow truck to pull me out, I resolved to return someday with a rented vehicle appropriate for these deep sandy roads. I’ll be back!

Fast forward 2 years to 2018. Craig announced a writing workshop that he was leading on the San Juan River. I mustered the courage to write him again, this time asking if he would be open to facilitating a writing workshop on Labyrinth Canyon with me.

This led to a fantastic conversation where I learned that Craig has spent countless days on the Green River and he knew many of the river’s hidden places that I loved. (Here is a blog he wrote about a solo journey there) He told me that he would be hiking down Hey Joe Canyon to meet a school group that was floating Labyrinth Canyon.

Lucy's Warbler in the Tamarisk at Hey Joe Canyon

Lucy’s Warbler in the Tamarisk at Hey Joe Canyon

A month later, I co-led a bird language river trip with Kristi Dranginis of The Bird Mentor. We decided to camp at Hey Joe Canyon to watch warblers, kinglets, and gnatcatchers dart their way in and out of the tamarisk. I had never camped there before but we were so enthralled by the birds that we decided to stay there for a few days. 

We took a break from birdwatching and I laid down in my hammock to re-read The Secret Knowledge of Water for the second time.

I was startled to hear a man’s voice.

“Hello?” I popped up out of my hammock to investigate. 

There he was! “I know you! You’re Craig Childs!”

“And you’re Lauren!” 

I couldn’t believe it! He didn’t tell me when he would be hiking down the canyon.

“Well, this must mean something,” he said. 

I agreed!

After a brief conversation, he hiked upriver to meet the students, and I was left shaking my head, wandering back to the canyon floor to find his footprints just to be sure I hadn’t imagined the encounter!

When I got back home, I was excited to see that Craig was scheduled to speak at the Boulder Bookstore that week, reading from his new book, “Atlas of a Lost World”.

When I  walked into the bookstore, I  saw a friend who took his family on a canoe journey with me 2 years prior. I went back to say hello, and learned that Craig was going to stay with him that night! Another connection. By this time, my heart was pounding. 

Desert Bighorn Sheep across from Two-mile Canyon

Desert Bighorn Sheep encounter across from Two-Mile Canyon, September 2019

Things like this happen to me. I pay attention to coincidences and follow them, always intrigued to see where the path leads. When I trust the Path, I have the most incredible encounters, and the next steps on the journey become clear.

I was not surprised when he contacted me to schedule the Desert Writing Workshop. This was supposed to happen. All of this!

I can hardly believe that I get to partner with Craig Childs, my favorite author whose books never cease to capture my heart, on May 5-14, 2020! But, then, I can absolutely believe it. I trust The Path.

Narrows in Three Canyon

Narrows in Three Canyon

This is why I love the river and the metaphor of descending into Labyrinth Canyon on a transformational journey, be it Women’s River Rites, yoga, meditation, or a desert writing workshop with one of the best nature writers alive today.  We are not the same people we were once we reach mineral bottom. It isn’t just a metaphor. This river changes people. And now it’s changed my life once again. 

As this journey with Craig Childs will change all of us. I know some places that he hasn’t seen yet, and he knows many places I haven’t explored yet. We will all explore, journal, and get to see this river through each other’s eyes. Maybe we will begin the books that we have always wanted to write, or, at the very least, we will get to know Labyrinth Canyon even more deeply through Craig’s guidance and inspiration. I, for one, am am planning on all of this and more!

2020 is going to be a year to remember!!! Sunrise over the Green River