River Town

  • Photo illustration by Shaun C. Gibson. BigStock, Istock images
 

I came to Flagstaff, Ariz., 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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • FRESHWATER SCIENTIST
    The Freshwater Scientist provides technical and scientific support and leadership as a subject matter resource (SMR) for conservation initiatives in surface and groundwater hydrology including...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
  • THE LAND DESK: A PUBLIC LANDS NEWSLETTER
    Western lands and communities--in context--delivered to your inbox 3x/week. From award-winning journalist and HCN contributor Jonathan P. Thompson. $6/month; $60/year.