Swimming in a Flash Flood

This story begins several years ago with a flash flood in the desert of northwest New Mexico. It was a large summer flood from over the horizon, the sky hot and blue. Dark chocolate water overtopped crumbling banks of sand and mud, filling a broad and formerly steep-walled wash. It wasn’t a tumultuous deathtrap like you might get in a narrower canyon, but this was a more gentle piece of geography, no major boulders or cascades in the way.

It was a hot day and the water was cool, verging on cold. Middle of summer, middle of the day, two of us were out hiking in the desert and came upon this event in progress. We stashed our clothes at an old, dead cottonwood and slithered naked into that flood like fish.

The water was chilling, right out of the clouds from a thunderstorm that must have been sitting 50 miles to the east. Feet-first like luge-runners, we sluiced through a wide, but deeply incised arroyo, and jumped out after a couple hundred yards to run back naked through the desert to do it again. We did this over and over. We felt like maniacs, like gods.

That first day, the flood was smaller. Second day, it had grown substantially, carrying uprooted cottonwood trees and at least one abandoned car tire that rose and fell as it passed like a slowly drowning ogre.

Our ride was quiet but for the hiss of sand and the occasional rumble as water thundered through trees.

For this day’s swim, we planned a small, ad hoc expedition, naked again, clothes and a little gear stuffed into a brief-case-sized ammo box that we jumped in with. No longer satisfied with the little run of yesterday, we had agreed on running a five-mile course to an 11th Century ruin at the mouth of Chaco Canyon. For flotation, my friend used the ammo box and, for at least one mile, a big cottonwood limb he’d grabbed onto. I used a capped orange juice bottle and a lidless metal Coleman ice chest shot up with bullet holes, both of which I snagged out of a swirling debris field.

Mostly, our ride was quiet but for the hiss of sand around us, and only the occasional rumble as water thundered through streamers of cottonwood trees and busted-up debris, where we either swam around or climbed over, me dragging that ice chest behind me and flopping in on the other side.

Passing near a trail with ruins up against cliff walls, we kept quiet, only our heads visible, hoping a ranger wouldn’t see us and arrest us.

We got to the site we’d been aiming for and had a fine day of it. A more detailed, though slightly altered version of that day made it into a book I wrote, House of Rain.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago, southeast Utah, driving switchbacks out of Cedar Mesa into the high, piney country of Elk Ridge. A VW Syncro was parked at the top, its solitary California driver standing outside peering at the vista where you could see clearly to Monument Valley in Arizona, Shiprock over in New Mexico, and the white caps of the San Juans in Colorado.

The guy asked if we thought he could get his car down the switchbacks we’d just come up. That led to the kicking of mud flaps, tapping on bumpers, and a bit of conversation. It turned out he had read the book that included the flash flood.

It didn’t take long before he mentioned the flood, which I’d used as an opener in the first chapter. He explained that he and some friends had been talking and figured there had to have been literary license. He asked if any of that really happened.

adventure journal swimming in a flashflood
Raquel Baranow/Flickr

Hell yes, it happened. On a hot day like that, walking in the desert with a big wash running cold and marginally safe right next to you, who wouldn’t?

So yes, the story was true, not literary license as he and his friends had thought. Did I write it exactly the way it happened, though? No.

In the book, I made the flood experience happen all in one day. I told the Syncro man that I took out our slithering bodies and bare feet, no mud-dried calves flashing through the greasewood as we ran back up naked to jump in again. In essence, I left the story half-told. In a book ostensibly about pre-Columbian archaeology in the Southwest, there just was not enough room. And, too, the full truth was ineffably stupid. People are killed by flash floods, even ones in open arroyos. People get caught and pinned underwater in the branches of trees washing down, hit unseen obstacles, get impaled.

If readers think the story is literary license, my conscience will rest easier, less the chance of someone leaping in behind me.

Craig Childs is the author of numerous books, a National Public Radio commentator, and frequent contributor to Adventure Journal. You can read more of his work at his website, houseofrain.com. Top photo by Randy Lisciarelli/Unsplash

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