It’s not obvious at first and you may not see it until someone points it out to you, but the desert is as much a place of water as it is of sun-blasted rocks and sand. The canyons in northern Arizona prove that the desert flows with water, their copper-toned walls pressure-washed over eons into creases cradling the remnants of once-mighty rivers. Hidden in their crevices are stories that spring to life when the right person guides you to a watering hole.
Donovan Hanley is one of those guides. Standing at the bottom of Canyon de Chelly, which seems to sway in the afternoon light, he’s the living embodiment of fluid movement. His hair, kept long to honour his Navajo traditions and beliefs, flows like rain. “My grandmother tells me the rains stopped when we men started wearing our hair short. When you cut your hair, you cut the rain,” he says, referring to recent droughts that exacerbate the semi-arid climate. His waist-long braid, reflecting hope that things might change, falls like the desert varnish that spills from the top of the surrounding cliffs. Black-blue calligraphy painted by plants and rain, the varnish tells the story of time.
In Arizona — one of the driest states in the U.S. — time is water, and water is everything. Water is a force that has shaped monumental geological features and continues to nudge life out of scorched earth. Water has carved the protected canyons where Indigenous people have cultivated corn and beans for millennia. It determines the growth rate of the Ponderosa pine close to the state’s northern Canyonlands and the number of arms sprouting from saguaro cacti in the Sonoran Desert in the south. If you know how to find water in the desert, you might find tales hidden in the red rocks and golden earth that form the foundation of Arizona.
Hanley, wearing turquoise tribal jewellery and beaded moccasins, is a guide and the president of Detours Native America. The tour company is reclaiming ownership of the Native American narrative by bringing visitors closer to Indigenous culture and history. (In Arizona, Hanley says, the official terminology to describe an Indigenous person is American Indian, but Native American is widely used.) “Before, white people sold their version of our story, or tourists got it from museums run and curated by white people. We are sharing our story,” he says.
The story he’s sharing as he’s crouched in the Canyon de Chelly — Tseyi in Navajo — illustrates how the canyon was formed millions of years ago. He scrapes together a mound of sand and douses it with water, creating a channel through the centre. “The Anasazi people used caves and overhangs in this rockscape to build their dwellings,” he explains and walks over to the cordoned-off ruins made famous in photographs and on postcards. The architects’ disappearance is still shrouded in mystery, as is the meaning of many of the petroglyphs and pictographs drawn throughout the canyon by the Anasazi as well as the Hopi and Navajo. What’s no secret but has been kept under the radar by settler historians is that the Navajo also have a history here, at one point hiding from and sometimes being killed by the U.S. military during the Long Walk, a forced migration in 1863 from traditional lands to Oklahoma. “The Navajo were eventually allowed to return,” says Hanley of an 1868 ruling, “but life has never returned to what it was before European contact.”
As Hanley drives the dusty roads through the Navajo Nation, he deepens the cultural context. Chinle, the name of the town closest to Tseyi, means “flowing out,” referring to the water leaving the canyon. The town of Kayenta has a tax on junk food and puts a premium on sports, exemplified by a group of long-distance runners out training as Hanley drives through. The Navajo — or Diné in their own language — used to (and some still do) live in hexagonal or octagonal hogans, dwellings whose door traditionally faced the sunrise. “Humans are not made to be indoors, so the hogans were simple structures that encouraged people to spend most of their time outside,” he says.
The topic inevitably turns to water — a recurring theme when you live in the desert. Hanley reveals that even though the Navajo Nation is surrounded by four sacred rivers — the Colorado, the Little Colorado, the San Juan and the Rio Grande — water scarcity is worsening as water is diverted away from reservations and to cities. “The Colorado River,” he says, “is a trickle of its former self.”
Still, the Colorado River has sculpted one of the world’s most famous natural monuments, the Grand Canyon. Hanley stops at the South Rim. As he opens his arms toward the mile-deep abyss, it’s obvious why he never tires of the view. The Grand Canyon is impossible to fathom, its convoluted folds reaching deep into the distance, a seemingly infinite succession of breathtaking vistas. Chiselled by the sharp-blue flow that’s barely visible far below, the canyon comes to life when the sun is closest to the horizon. One of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon wouldn’t have been so grand if not for the water.
Follow the water in Arizona and you’ll see that it’s carried by gravitation, dropping from the high-altitude Colorado Plateau to the Mogollon Rim, a tree-studded ridge that creates a gigantic staircase between distinct geographic and geological zones. The downward trickle seeps through stands of fragrant Ponderosa pine, past the Snowbowl ski resort and across the Tonto National Forest until, eventually, it gets sucked up by saguaro cacti in the rolling desert that butts up against the Mexican border. Like northern Arizona, the central and southern regions are arid landscapes teeming with life. The Sonoran Desert — one of 25 deserts in the world — is home to 2,500 endemic plants, including the iconic saguaro. You can thank water for this abundance.
Ranger B, a.k.a. Brennan Basler, is a park ranger in Usery Mountain Regional Park, an hour’s drive east of Phoenix but a century from its urban sprawl. Ranger B brings his A-game when he educates visitors about this wilderness recreation area. “We’re in the most biodiverse desert in the world,” he says, enthusiastically introducing the shy javalina, a peccary native to the Americas and, despite its looks, unrelated to the European pig. Wild horses, bobcat, coyote, fox and bighorn sheep, along with 70 other mammals, also call Usery home. And when you hike the meandering Wind Cave Trail up to a rock overhang carved by the wind, you might spot one of the park’s 100 or so reptile species, divided equally among snakes and lizards, tanning in the mid-morning sun.
There’s a buzz around Ranger B. Standing on the shaded patio at the back of the park visitor centre, he’s surrounded by the fluttering wings of the birds and butterflies that thrive here though the only obvious water is a little creek that zigzags through the landscaping. Still, you’re looking at water all around — held in plants. The saguaro, the largest cactus in the U.S., can reach a height of 18 metres during its 200-year lifespan. It grows only in the Sonora. “It is perfectly adapted to this specific environment,” says Ranger B. This cactus serves as shelter for the Gila woodpecker, another perfectly adapted species. Pecking through the saguaro’s tough skin, it makes its nest inside, where the daytime temperature can be 50 degrees lower than out in the scorching heat.
Keeping cool in the desert comes down to having access to water. In southern Arizona, Indigenous people built canals to bring water from aquifers for drinking, cooking and irrigating their crops. In recent times, human ingenuity created the Stewart Mountain Dam — and with it, Saguaro Lake. Surrounded by the Gold Field Mountain Range (whose only golden treasure is its sunset shimmer), the lake is criss-crossed by kayaks, SUPs and boats, and there’s a beach for swimming, all of these cool pursuits only a two-minute drive from Saguaro Lake Ranch.
The guest ranch, which was built to house workers during the dam construction at the end of the 1920s, is a home-away-from-home, complete with horses for morning trail rides along the Salt River and Saguaro Lake. Big Ron, the ranch’s stable manager, and Caleb, the stable hand, lead trail rides across the river and into the surrounding hills. “If you’re lucky,” says Big Ron, turning around in his saddle, “you might catch a glimpse of the 500 or so head of wild horses that roam this area. They’ll come down here to drink early in the mornings.” Our ride wends through woodsy areas and open, sunny hills stippled with saguaro and fuzzy teddy-bear cholla cactus. We’re introduced to the palo verde, the state tree, whose green bark and branches perform photosynthesis. Together, the plants weave a tapestry that bleeds tones of green, copper and sage against the blue backdrop of sky and lake.
Your best bet to see wild horses is to get to the river before they do, setting out before the sun. The horses roam the shoreline of the Salt River, coming out of or disappearing into the tall grasses on the river banks, and sometimes congregating upstream from where their captive brethren are living. While you’re waiting, the tarantulas taking shelter among the river rocks might come out to check their intricate, lace-patterned webs. And then, when you least expect it, you’ll see a dark shape. It’s smaller than a horse, smaller even than a foal. Then another one, until you see a family of five. Seeing a group of javalinas is even luckier than spotting wild horses. They’re here for the water. And, after all, so are you.