The River Town In The Desert

I came to Flagstaff, AZ, to run her river. The river. Flagstaff is a river town, although you'd never know it at first glance. The closest stream that flows year-round is Oak Creek, 30 miles to the south near Sedona. As the crow flies, Flagstaff is 75 miles and 5,000 vertical feet from the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. And yet that river helped carve this town as surely as if it flowed through downtown.

When I came here in 1987, I told my parents that I wanted to study geology in a place where the rocks had no clothes. I wanted to get a job at the Museum of Northern Arizona and finish my master's degree. And, I added—mumbling the words under my breath like an afterthought—I thought it might be fun to run the river in the summers. My parents knew what I was up to, but they were savvy enough to keep quiet and watch as I drove my U-Haul from the redwoods and beaches of Santa Cruz, Calif., to the ponderosas and peaks of Flagstaff.

I was 24, and I had discovered river running a couple of years before, as a passenger on a six-day motor trip through the Grand Canyon. We never saw Flagstaff on that trip, but the river seeped into me during those six days, trickling through the cells and membranes of my body until it became a part of me, like the plasma in my blood.

I got the museum job, finished the degree, and promptly proceeded to arrange my entire life around the river. That's easy to do in this town, where a sizeable population is either engaged in river running, is hoping to engage in river running, or was once engaged in river running. The river binds this community together like the threads of a quilt.

At first, the "river community" in Flagstaff simply meant the boatmen. We'd see each other on the street and the conversation would inevitably turn to a past trip, an upcoming trip, any trip. Such conversations have a certain hieroglyphic quality to them. "You know the marker rock for Horn at Pipe? That thing was way out of the water! Right to left for sure." "We watched some privates drop their J-rig right into the Ledge in Lava." "I almost missed the Duck Pond at Hance and thought I was heading for the Land of the Giants." We'd stand around on street corners, at parties, in line at the coffee shop and at the post office, the air peppered with stories and the unspoken images that only an intimate knowledge of a place allows.

I always thought that my community was out on the river; we just happened to meet on the streets in town for stories and coffee between trips. But then, very slowly, I began to realize that the community has broadened and deepened for me. It was like a river slowing and spreading, taking the time to explore its surroundings from the perspective of maturity, rather than slicing swiftly through the landscape, intent upon getting someplace else.

My river community now includes the guys at the post office who hold my mail whenever I'm gone, without my asking. It's the downtown merchants who have become friends over the years, like Will at the jewelry store and Phyllis at Winter Sun, who always ask when my next trip is going to be. It's the folks at the gear shops, who give me the river guides' discount without needing to ask for my guide card. It's the fellow who sold me my truck, who did a motor trip back in the '70s and still talks about it every time I come in for service, saying, "I gotta get back on that river!" And it's my friend Audria, a massage therapist who understands my rhomboids—and the river.

There are the employees at the local restaurants who calmly re-arrange the tables for our rowdy, post-trip dinners, and patiently wait while we block the door for 45 minutes after dinner in a tearful embolism of good-byes. It's my friends Kelly and Julie who say, "We miss you when you're gone!" but who understand why I go, and lovingly welcome me back when I come home. And it's all the children of river runners past and present, who are born into this tight-knit community of de facto aunts, uncles and godparents, and who are now, or soon will be, holding a pair of oars or the tiller of a motor on their own river journeys.

It's been more than two decades since I arrived here and planted my résumé, ready to make this my base camp between trips. I'm still gone more than I'm home; I tell people that I have the nicest three-bedroom, two-bath storage locker in town. But home now means more to me than just the walls of my house. The river still flows through my veins, but this town now cradles my heart.

Christa Sadler is a geologist, writer and river runner who still is almost never home in Flagstaff.

This essay first appeared in High Country News.