By: Gary Paul Nabhan
In celebration of Chef Greg and Jennifer LaPrad’s Overland Trout restaurant, Sonoita, Arizona
Can the freshwater fish of desert streams and dry overland channels embody the flavor of the desert itself, or is that very notion a contradiction of terms? The answer, I suppose, depends upon how you define terroir, that multi-faceted French term which has become international shorthand for “the taste of place.” If your definition of terroir only describes the influence of soil chemistry and climate on the flavor of the flesh of a fruit or an animal, then one might be grasping for straws. I’d be hard-pressed to decide whether rainbow trout taken in cold mountain streams high in the Rockies have the particular tastes of granite, gneiss and schist compared to trout caught along the Mogollon Rim of Arizona and New Mexico, where limestones and sandstones flavor the waters. But if your concept of terroir is broader than that—if it captures the essence of a place in all its physical, ecological, cultural and mythical dimensions— then I’m sure I could convince you that one particular kind of trout has the very taste of the desert itself embedded in its flesh.
The trout that I refer to is the legendary Overland Trout, one that few fly-fishermen have taken time to pursue, given that its habitat is quite remote from most trout streams. Many anglers are altogether unaware of its existence, while certain experts have declared it to be rare or endangered in the border region that I call home. They assume that all trout must live at least part of their lives in cold mountain streams, and worry that with global warming, no trout could ever survive and spawn in the warmer waters of desert streams. Of course, some trout-like species such as the speckled trout love the brackish waters of shallow and backwater lagoons along the Texas and Tamaulipas coasts, but they are really weakfish in a biological sense. What I am speaking of is a trout that can be fly-fished in the intermittent, overland and ephemeral watercourses of the Desert Southwest, one so well-adapted to arid conditions that if you take just one bite of it, you will know that you have the desert itself in your mouth.
I myself was skeptical of the existence of desert-dwelling Overland Trout with a distinctive flavor earlier in my life, but that skepticism was the result of some narrow-minded ideology and not grounded in direct experience, either in the field or the kitchen. Fortunately, my horizons were widened and my ideological prejudices were shattered by a friend who became a desert legend in his own right.
His name was Geoffrey, and to protect the innocent who sometimes sheltered him when he came across the U.S./Mexico border by illegal means, I will say nothing else of his full name, and use pseudonyms for theirs. He was a true desert rat, who took from the dry ground both his sustenance and his inspiration; his life and death had a profound influence on me as well as many others. He was also desert hermit of sorts, but only to the extent that it gave him more time to frolic and feast with a variety of species, not just our own. That penchant for communing with the other-than-human world was his gift, but as we shall soon see, it ultimately led to his undoing. I have always wondered whether that undoing was directly related to his passion for the flavor of sand trout, and so I have assembled these recollections as a means to discern whether sand trout—and indirectly, my own encouragement of Geoffrey’s pursuit of them— ultimately led to his demise.
Once, when I was walking down a dusty road not all that far from the Mexican border, I heard a whooshing that prompted me to look out over the dry rocky stream bed running parallel to that road. I instantly wondered whether it was alerting me to some illegal activities of narcos up ahead of me, or to some inane counter-activity of the U.S, Border Patrol. It was neither. I looked up just in time to glimpse a fly-fishing line looping through the air like the ripples of an eddy pooled up at a river bend.
When I heard this whooshing and saw that looping, I was foraging my way down Harshaw Creek Road, not far from my current home in Patagonia, Arizona. I was there looking for tender, mitten-shaped leaves that I wished to harvest off the vines of the native Arizona grapes climbing up the boulders above the creek. My imagination had been stuffed into those grape leaves for the last hour or so, until a chance sighting of some out-of-place fly fisherman had broken me out of my meditation. I had been contemplating a culinary riddle: why did Lebanese warak inab taste so differently than Greek dolmathes, even when their leaves were off the same vine?
And so, the whooshing and looping of a fishing line had startled me out of my soliloquy, making me wonder what the hell was some one was doing trying to fly-fish along a boulder-strewn arroyo during the hottest, driest month of the year…
It appeared that he (or she) was shadow-casting just beyond where the old creek-side road went up a slight incline. A more complete view of the angler was cut off by the angle of the road bed. When I had climbed to the top of the incline and peered down over the creek bank, I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing aloud: it was my old friend Geoffrey, fly-fishing there out of water, out of season, out of habitat, and perhaps out of his mind.
I knew that Geoffrey had become more and more of a hermit over the previous few years, so I was surprised to see him at all. I was even more surprised to see that he was donning a floppy-rimmed, waterproof hat with a dozen or so flies tucked under its hat band. He was wearing spanking new, shiny black waders. Hermits, as you may have already know, are not typically into high fashion, so when Geoffrey occasionally made a public appearance, he was usually bedecked in a crumpled straw sombrero, sun-bleached khaki shorts, and a sweat-stained tee-shirt. Geoffrey’s own tee-shirts blasted out messages like “Sonoran Desert, Love It or Leave It Alone, “ or Pay Your Rent—Work for the Earth.” Because his communication style was set in those days prior to internet home pages and facebook threads, these tee-shirts were sort of Geoffrey’ calling cards—blatant in-your-face challenges to all to proclaim what you love.
In short, Geoffrey had never taken much to mincing words, whether they were plastered on a tee-shirt, or proclaimed through his thick mustache in his quaint but crisp British accent.
“Good morning, Geoffrey….” I tried to catch my breath after having climbed uphill for a ways. “Nice… nice to see you down there…. ‘Been a while…. Did you come this way to see the Goshawk clan?”
Geoffrey looked up to see just who was speaking that he knew of his bond with the Jed and Polly Goshawk. The Goshawk family lived, foraged and watched wildlife downstream of us, where Harshaw Creek comes together with Sonoita Creek on the edge of Patagonia. The Goshawks generously put Geoffrey up whenever he appeared at their door, after he had slid under the border fence on his return from the wilds of Sonora, Mexico.
Geoffrey was generally no lover of civilization, but he did express a certain affection both for the Goshawk family and the place they lived, for the small town of Patagonia triggered in him memories of villages he knew during his boyhood in the British Isles. At last he spoke to me:
“Top of the morning to you, my fellow Desert Rat. Yes I did, I did come to see the Goshawks, as I call that lovely tribe. But my attention this morning has been captured by fish, not hawks. Have I ever recited for you this fine aphorism from my countryman, Isaac Walton? He once penned this compelling question: ‘O sir, doubt not that Angling is an art; is it not an art to deceive a trout with an artificial fly?”
“So what’re you trying to fly-fish down there?”
“I’m streaming with a little dry fly, a Muddler Minnow on one of my larger hooks. I tied this fly myself, with a quill from a wild turkey and some hair from a desert mule deer.”
“No, I mean what are you practicing to catch?”
“I’m not practicing, mate. I have heard the call of the Overland Trout, and I am pursuit. This is the real deal….”
“Geoffrey,” I interrupted him, “You don’t think you’re actually fly-fishing for trout down there, do you? For one thing, there’s no water in Harshaw Creek today, or for that matter…there hasn’t been any for several months due to the blasted drought!”
“Ah, be patient, my friend. We’re within a month of the onset of the summer rains, when Madrecita Tierra will have her sun-tanned bottom moistened once again so that the Overland Trout can emerge from the sediments like the Phoenix bird from the ashes…”
“Exactly. What do you biologists call it? Salmo siliconi? You know, they are a bit shorter and chunkier than those Apache Trout that live up above the Mogollon Rim….They are apparently missing a few vertebrae compared to the rest of the Salmo clan, although I’ve never actually counted and compared… But the curious thing is how they perfectly camouflage themselves. Yes, it is as if they altogether disappear into the desert sands, so that they can’t be seen again until after the next rains. How would you classify that magical sleight-of-fin? Biological mimicry or geological mimicry? They match the substrates we find here with a smattering of yellow, silver and grey flecks on their dorsal, pink and silver dots on their flanks, darker mottling on their ventral, as well as scalloped fins tinged with brownish-greens that look for everything like desiccated leaves…”
“You know,” Geoffrey continued, “if you start frequenting their habitats this early in the summer— before the monsoons really crank up— you can sometimes coax a few of them out of the sand. But it takes a particular patience, an utter calm …. As a matter of fact, Isaac Walton himself describes this mindset as he found it among the best of fisherman…Contrary to popular opinion, Walton was not your run-of-the-mill sportsman… he was something of a natural philosopher as well. In The Compleat Angler—published in 1653— I’m sorry, chap, you may already know this, but Walton was close to verging into the mystic. Listen to him wax: ‘You will find angling to be like the virtue of humanity, which has a calmness of spirit and a world of blessing attending upon it.’ Quite good, don’t you think?”
I said nothing for a while, but simply watched Geoffrey perform one of the many arts he had mastered— the art of casting. After tossing a few twelve to fifteen foot shadow casts with the Muddler Minnow tied to the end of a small tippet, he pointed his index finger and fly rod toward a sandy depression in the dry creek bed some thirty feet before him, and delicately cast the fly into the heart of it. If there had been any water in the basin, he would have skimmed the fly across the surface of that pool with hardly a splash.
As if that were not enough of a show, he slowly brought his rod to an upright position, gave it a quick, forceful stroke, and then drove the rod tip down in a way that created a large arching loop in the line in front of him. That masterful flick of the wrist generated something like a roll cast—the kind you might need to perform when facing a tight bend in a river where a brushy bank constrains a forward cast—but he directed it into an adjacent basin of to the side that had no brush around it, and needless to say, no water in it either. Then he pulled his line up again, jerking his rod back, as if he were drying out the fly. It was an elegant set of casts, a sort of minimalist pantomime as if he were some intergalactic fly-fisherman who had landed on a planet devoid of water. It spoke to Geoffrey’s affection for the improbable. Nevertheless, it prompted to me challenge him:
“Geoffrey…please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there’s been even a square foot of surface water along this entire stretch of Harshaw Creek for several weeks running. Now, I may be sounding a bit too dogmatic about this, I know, but nine times out of ten, it seems, that where there’s no water, there’s no fish.”
I could see the ends of his smile slowly rising past the edges of his mustache before he spoke: “Multum in parvo: Much in little. I avoid excess, savor the value in less. Ah, don’t you feel the blessedness of the very scarcity of moisture present here, mate? It’s not absent, it’s just lurking beneath the outward appearance of things, and so of course are the fish! They’re lingering down there in the underground of our imaginations, waiting for us to become alert to their presence. That, in essence, is the whole bloody reason that I’m chosen to live in the desert: to become more alert to the world’s most subtly-hidden natural treasures.”
Who could argue with that lofty goal?
“Well, yes, of course, I’m sure with you on that, Geoffrey…. I mean, I entirely agree with your world view, but look, can’t you at least admit that it is rather tough to fly fish on an ephemeral stream that only has water coursing across its channels maybe four to eight times a year…”
Geoffrey looked me straight in the eye.
“You know, my friend, it may be tough, but when I finally catch what I’m trying to catch, and pan-fry it up for you, I believe you’ll admit that the flesh of the Overland Trout is the very essence of the desert itself… it will melt in your mouth, make you close your eyes, and see visions like those seen by the Desert Prophets of Biblical Times…’
Just then, I glimpsed a Belted kingfisher darting over Geoffrey’s head and up the creek, and I stood there amazed. Belted kingfishers need water nearly as much as fish do, and yet…. one had just flown up Flux Canyon as if it knew this dry creek bed intimately. I turned toward Geoffrey, to see if he had seen it as well. He had indeed:
“Martín pescador! My water-loving friend! Ah, he’s indicating to us that you may be missing something.”
Geoffrey reeled it his line, and stood his fly rod up next to his thigh. “You must learn to tune into the underground channels and overland vapor trails. The river running beneath us, above us, through us. This aquifer is like an old radio: If you slowly, delicately, carefully turn the dial until you’re tuned in as precisely as you can be, some beautiful music may emerge…”
“Well that’s fine and dandy, but come on now,” I moaned, “Does all that much water music ever emerge from a dry ephemeral stream compared to the Dixieland Jazz that emanates from a perennial river?”
Geoffrey picked up his fly rod and pointed the tippet toward me, not in a menacing way, but in the manner that a math professor at Oxford might tap his pointer on the blackboard to underscore a particular equation written there in chalk.
”Do I detect a tinge of hypocrisy from the Arab-American ethno-botanist in my presence who recently wandered along the ephemeral streams of the Sonoran Desert in order to learn the ancient art of floodwater farming there? Weren’t you the Young Turk who went into the desert hinterlands with the old ak-chin farmers and to see how they harvested the rainwater in the aftermath of sudden thunderstorms? Wasn’t it rather improbable that they could irrigate their desert-adapted crops with nothing more than storm runoff? Didn’t you come back from the wilderness to proclaim to society-at-large that it had neglected this time-tried tradition of water conservation? So if you can farm ephemeral streams, why can’t I fish them?”
I sighed… I knew when I was beaten in this debate by an argument far more persuasive than my own. I cocked my head back, glancing up above the sycamore and cottonwood canopies that arched above Geoffrey and me. I searched the sky for nimbo-cumulus that might hold the promise of rain.
Geoffrey knew that he had won me over, so he charitably offered me an insight into why he was so passionate about this issue.
“You know, I grew up water, a lot of water, with Atlantic cod, John Dory, torsk or some other fish on the table every night. As a lad, I took fish and water for granted, they were so ubiquitous. Now here in the Sonoran, I’ve found that have to go out and search long and hard for them, but when I finally find them, it’s all that more satisfying. I must to pray for them, coax them, and cajole them into appearing!”
Geoffrey’s stories were beginning to cast a spell over me, even though I was struggling to remain a skeptic. Nevertheless, I listened intently.
“One of my early inspirations was the poetry of William Wordsworth. It came straight out of the moors around Ullswater and Coniston Water, in that dreadfully wet reach of the Lake District where one might suffer one hundred thirty inches of rain in an ordinary year. My God, over at Sprinkling Tarn, not all that far away, they regularly record two hundred inches per year! Nonetheless, when I first began to trek the Lake District with a couple volumes of Wordsworth stuffed into my croaker sack, I naively assumed that I would saunter around in ecstasy for days on end, literally walking in William’s own footprints.”
“But in all that rain and cold, I found that I was absolutely miserable. In truth be told, there were no footprints to set my boots in, one after the other, and certainly none of Wordsworth’s remained. My feet just slipped from puddle to puddle, soaking wet and nasty cold. Good grief, no wonder Arctic char is the most common fish in the Lake District! There’s just too much water back there… It’s a land of mud-ridden moors and grey skies. It’s a place inundated by excesses, but there’s never enough sun, nor dryness, nor vistas open for the way of seeing to which I’m naturally inclined….”
“So that’s why I fled here to the Sonoran in 1962; if you think about it, this place has just the right amount of moisture for a philosopher of nature…. That is, not enough to obscure your view of the land. Hell, we have 280 cloudless days and just 13 inches of rainfall up there at my little cabin off Cave Creek, no far from Carefree; that’s a dam sight better than the mere 40 days free of fog and the 200 inches of freezing drizzle that plagues Sprinkling Tarn. I‘ll take sand trout over Arctic char any day!”
A stretch of silence between us, for as I absorbed his mud-strewn story, I could at last imagine why Geoffrey lived so full of joy here in the Sonoran; he had been miserable as a young man back in the land of sleet and fog.
In Geoffrey’s pause, I heard the cascading call of a Canyon wren, a descending series of chu-wees, punctuated by a buzzy zee-zee.
Geoffrey heard it as well, scratched his head, and began talking to himself. “I can’t remember if the Sonoran peasantry calls our friend the wren chivirín barranqueño, or saltaladera risquera. The latter name sounds more like formal Spanish… I must be remembering it from some damn bilingual bird guide….”
That prompted me to break my silence:
“So Geoffrey, if you love dryness, if you truly love dryness,” I challenged, “why don’t you meet me next winter for a clambake of sorts? It’ll be out where the Pinacate lava flows across the border along the Camino del Diablo… You know, south end of Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge… And we’ll be the clams. The washes along the Camino may not have sand trout around much anymore, since parts of that stretch in the Cabeza Prieta has recently gone some 26 months without any measurable precip… That’s hardly even enough to stir the dust in the bottom of the rain gauge! Just alert me a few days ahead of time, then show up at Organ Pipe Cactus headquarters the night before you want to trek, and we can use my Jeep to get out there. I’ll bring all the food, and do all the cooking. How ‘bout that?”
Geoffrey looked pleased. “I’d be honored to take you up on your offer sometime soon. But I doubt your assumption about drought killing off the sand trout could be correct….” He smoothed out the tail of his mustache with his thumb and index finger, and then smiled. “Just in case you’re wrong, I’ll throw my fly rod and a box full of dry flies into my rucksack for the hell of it. Make sure you bring some corn meal and oil to batter them, and maybe some toasted almonds. We’ll have us a true desert feast!”
The following winter, I sent Geoffrey a couple postcards inviting him to come down to Organ Pipe Cactus land in order to join me for a few days in the desert. I was surprised when no postcard arrived in response to mine, for Geoffrey loved to write them to all of his friends. Because he possessed no telephone, I called a few of our mutual friends in Cave Creek, hoping that they could stop by his place to pass my message onto Geoffrey. But after they went by, they reported that it had been empty; in fact, no one had seen Geoffrey for weeks. Perhaps, one friend offered, he was out on one of his solo treks. Another had heard that Geoffrey had been considering the purchase of a run-down adobe cabin in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, and thought that he might be down there. In any case, winter and spring passed before I heard from him again.
Then one hot, humid day in early July, as I walked by the Park Service switchboard in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Visitor’s Center, I got reprimanded by the administrative assistant, a true prune-of-a-lady named Pearl:
“Young man, I don’t recall your name, I just know that for some reason beyond me, the superintendent has permitted you to do a bit of research here in the middle of the summer and that you know all of the lady rangers. Well, what you’re not permitted to do is to receive personal calls through this switchboard, but one such dispatch has just come in, and it was from some foreigner. I’ll give you the message from him this time, but understand you may not call him back from a Park Service telephone. That would be in violation of several federal laws and agency regulations. Besides, this foreigner who called you is obviously not a researcher, he’s just a tourer-ist, so he could be charged with the waste of finite federal resources if he persists in calling the park research lab through the switchboard.”
I snatched the message from her hand; it was from Geoffrey: “I hope you don’t mind I didn’t arrive during the winter. I wanted to wait and see your desert comes into its own in all its mid-summer glory. Will arrive today by noon, have five days for trekking. Cabeza Prieta side would be better than the Pinacate side of the border. I don’t remember which you wanted me to visit, but don’t have my passport with me. See you at Visitor’s Center. Yours, Geoffrey, Esquire.”
“He’s a naturalized citizen of this desert, ma’am, he’s no tourerist. And he speaks more proper English than you and me combined!”
“Well, make sure he pays his entry fee. He can’t just get in here free because he’s a friend of some contract researcher!”
“Thank you ma’am, for your unredeeming kindness.”
I left the V.C. for the fee booth on the entry road, one that you arrive at a hundred yards before you reach the parking lots. A friend named Marguerite, a terrific Seasonal Interpreter, was sitting-in for one of the fee collectors there while he was getting his walkie-talkie fixed at the maintenance shop.
“Hey, Marguerite, if you spot a blonde Brit with a thick mustache coming in, please send him over my way at the Research Lab before he goes into the V.C. Pearl is fixin’ to box his ears and mine for what she claims are illegal telephone calls.”
“Got it, brother.” Marguerite winked. “I’ll wave him through. I know what you’re up against—-she’s such a Rules Geek, that Pearl….”
Geoffrey knocked at the Research Lab door maybe an hour and a half later, I suppose; I’m not so sure of how much time had lapsed since his call, because I had been immersing myself in the herbarium, attempting to learn the names of some rare desert wildflowers while forgetting about Pearl. But just as soon as he saw him through the screen door, Geoffrey looked perplexed and rather worried.
“I thought you said it hardly ever rains out here… Well, look at all those purple thunderheads coming this way. To get out to Cabeza Prieta, do we have to cross many washes? Crap, I hope you have four-wheel drive and tread on your tires, because it’s going to rain like hell. Let me remind you that if we get stuck in a running wash, I can’t swim and I even get giddy wading… I don’t know if it will happen along our route, but you can be damn-sure that someone nearby will be getting a gully-washer any minute now…”
Just as I stepped forward to unlock the screen door, I saw lightning crack over the Sierra de los Ajos, and felt a breeze rise up, cooling down the mid-day temperatures. The breeze brought with it a bittersweet smell, as if the volatile oils in all the desert’s herbs were being shaken loose into the air. The breeze intensified into a gust, a drizzle into a torrent. Before Geoffrey and I had walked over to where I kept my gear at one of the ranger’s residences, a downright downpour had begun. We raced for shelter, but were drenched by the time we entered the kitchen.
Lightning sparked and sizzled all around us, thunder boomed like a bull moose, and the rain itself was thunderous. We simply stood inside the kitchen, door open, blasted by a cool mist, and gawked for more than an hour. Nearly two inches of rain had burst out of the desert sky, drenching everything below it.
Geoffrey seemed ambivalent about this turn of events, awed by the force of the downpour, but uncomfortable with it at the very same time. I sensed that he was somewhat disheartened by the fact that so much rain had caught up with him, it might force us to postpone our desert trek. Fortunately, when the telephone began to ring, I was the one closest to it. I picked it the receiver and tried to focus on a woman’s voice that could hardly be heard above the storm. Geoffrey looked at me oddly as I tied to respond to the caller.
“Hello. Yes, Pearl. Yes, that Englishman arrived…No, I don’t know if he paid his fee, I assume so, why….Yes, he’s here with me. What do you mean he can’t leave the Park? What do you mean I can’t either? WHAT? NO ONE CAN? … Water running over the highway? The highway’s closed? Maybe four or five hours….WHAT? We can’t even cross back out to the V.C? Holy cow…Okay, okay. Thanks, I guess. Yes, yes. Goodbye.”
Geoffrey had come over close to me, eager to hear the details he hadn’t been able to pick up while I had been on the phone:
“Not good. “ I sighed, “ especially since you’ve come all this way. It looks like we won’t be able to get out to Cabeza Prieta today at all… Nearly every arroyo between here and Growler Wash over by Ajo is running hard—could be that way as far Gila Bend… So even when the storm blows over here, we might not be able to get out there…, We may have to content ourselves with a bit of hiking around here?”
Before he could answer me, we heard a cacophonous din coming from the north. At first I could not make out what it might be—flashflood, flock of sheep, Border Blaster radio station gone haywire? I couldn’t tell…
“What do you think that might be, Geoffrey? Animal, vegetable or geological?”
“It’s definitely the utterance of an animal ….at first, it reminded me of bullfrogs honking their klaxon-horns from some wetland full of reeds. But it’s a bit more reminiscent of all of those Colorado River toads that swarm into the swimming pools behind the most pretentious of mansions in Paradise Valley, Scottsdale, Cave Creek and Carefree…The toads congregate there after the first provocative rain of the summer, and then they hold a wild orgy, leaving ribbons of eggs strewn all over the sides of the pools. Some of the Scottsdale housewives there are so distraught by the notion of toads screwing and buggering in their backyards that they won’t even step foot into their own pools or Jacuzzis for several weeks… They pay Mexican landscapers to come and rid their properties of smell and the slime of those mating toads! But these must be an altogether different kind of toad, a whole Biblical-sized batch of them…”
“Well, their sound is familiar, but it’s not in the bass and baritone range like Colorado River toads. These sound almost like bleating lambs… Geoffrey, your sand trout don’t make any vocalizations, do they?”
“No, not until you try to drown them in an almondine sauce, then they get upset and start to cry…” he chuckled. “But couldn’t this be one of the smaller kinds of toads?”
“That’s it! SPADEFOOTS!” I screamed with a sudden flash of recognition. They had the smell of roasted peanuts, a fragrance I had experienced once before in the aftermath of a desert flashflood. Years later, when I ate peanut-crusted frog legs in a fancy Creole restaurant in New Orleans, I wondered if someone had slipped a spadefoot into the frying pan, the combined smells of toasted nuts and amphibian legs was so familiar…
Just then, it seemed from the clamor that a flotilla of spadefoots was rafting by us, less than a hundred yards away in the closest wash; they were likely being carried along by the frontal wave of a flashflood. I gestured to Geoffrey to follow me, and we scampered across the slickened desert floor until we could see where the floodwaters were careening down the wash. Dozens of toads were bobbing up and down in the chocolate-brown waters of the flash flood. Upstream, hundreds more sounded like they would be heading our way.
“Geoffrey,” I yelled, “Let’s hop in, float along with them, and see where they’re going. The orgy is obviously somewhere down stream…”
“This is amazing, but no…. I don’t think I can do it. Remember, I’m hydrologically challenged. Actually, I’m water-aversive…Let me make myself clear: I can’t swim. Just a few months ago when I was out solo, a flashflood came crashing down the arroyo in which I was backpacking, and I had to break into a trot to get away from it. And that near-escape literally gave me the trots…. Some trauma must have happened to me early on, while I was slogging around in amniotic fluid within the placenta. I’m sure whatever happened to me in the womb would make Sigmund Freud wet his pants in delight …”
“Oh, come on, Geoffrey. I’m not asking you to swim like you’re Tarzan, I’m just asking you to bob along like you’re another toad. Geoffrey, this is a chance of a lifetime…”
“I know it’s a chance of a lifetime, but if they were in anything besides water….”
“Then let’s just call it chocolate pudding or sedimentary slurry … It can’t be more than four feet deep, judging from how high up on the banks its reaching. It might not even come up to our ribs….”
“But what if more of the flashflood comes roaring down the wash, and it gets deeper? Look, I’m just not that confident around running water….In fact, the entire thought of it might make me go hysterical…”
“Look, Geoffrey, we may only have a few minutes…Let’s just agree between the two of us that that liquid flowing down the wash is sediment, not water, and those critters aren’t spadefoot toads but some fish…. As a desert angler, you are honor-bound to check them out….How about if I pull out a couple life jackets and boogie boards from the beach-camping gear I’ve stashed in the garage? I already have them ready-to-go, since Marguerite and I were heading off to Sandy Beach near Rocky Point next week…”
Geoffrey took another look at all the toads floated by, and gulped. I could see his hands quiver ever so slightly.
Suddenly, he grinned, then flashed me a thumbs up. No matter how much he was wary of water, he just couldn’t pass up this opportunity.
Within four minutes time, we were stripped down to tee-shirts, shorts, Teva sandals, and life jackets. Both of us stood on the muddy banks of the wash, extended the boogie boards out before us, and jumped in. We were immediately plastered with a fine sheen or red-brown mud, like scoops of ice cream dipped into butterscotch syrup. But the water was hardly three and a half feet deep—five at most over the depressions—and we gracefully bobbed along just like the thousands of toads all around us. Geoffrey stretched his neck to keep his chin well about the waves, perhaps with more energy than he really needed to exert. But within a few yards—we were only moving a hundred yards or so every minute—- I could so him relax, and more than that, float into a sort of inter-specific trance.
The toads were bobbing, bleating and gasping for breaths all around us, an entire watershed’s spadefoot population going into some collective heat simultaneously. They would bob into one another, and one would reach its forearms around the belly of the other before it, latch its nuptial pads onto the corrugated skin along its partner’s ribs, and hold on for dear life, careening around the bends in the wash, swirling in the whirlpools and eddies, glancing off of logs and rocks, mating as they went. We were floating along in the midst of a bleating flock of toads that might stretch for a quarter mile in either direction. I finally fathomed what the term “surround sound” might mean, for we had inadvertently plopped ourselves down in the middle of a gleeful chorus a thousand times larger than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
After a half hour of floating along in the thick, turbulent stream, dangling our feet into the viscous bed load of the floodwaters, touching bottom every now and then to check the depths, our movement slowed, and the waters spread and became more shallow. We had reached a borrow-pit where the Park Service maintenance crew occasionally excavated sand to repair its roads. It wasn’t very deep, and some spots along its bottom were so porous that the slackened waters were draining down into the porous sands below. Where the flood-washed sediments were less porous, water pooled and would persist for weeks. There, thousands upon thousands of the spadefoot toads were congregating, as if it were the festival grounds for an imminent orgy. An amphibian Woodstock, so to speak, with the mud and grime already provided to the tens of thousands who spontaneously congregated for the concert.
The noise was deafening, but at the same time, utterly enchanting. I glanced over at Geoffrey, who was loosening his hold on the boogie board now that the waters had leveled off below our waists, and we were standing on a solid bottom. His eyes were half-closed, his hair matted with floating debris, his face and neck and arms were streaked with mud, but he was clearly in some state of ecstasy. He did not utter a word to me; he just grinned and nodded. He realized that against his worst fears, he had entered the raging flood and come out safe upon the other side.
I belatedly realized that it had stopped raining. Since we had been immersed to our chests, occasionally to our necks, and the mesquite canopies arching above our heads had occasionally shed a scatter of droplets onto our backs, I had not really noticed that the storm had already passed us by. It might still be raining downstream from us, but the last of the waters was now slowly flowing down around our knees.
We simply stood there amidst the toads, listening to their mating calls and watching them settle into a few more persistent muddy pools. But we are also surrounded by all matter of debris— tree branches, cactus skeletons, plastic water jugs, Styrofoam coolers, and drifts of skuzzy froth that laid themselves down on the edge of the pools like shaving cream squirted from an aerosol can onto the stubble of an old man’s chin. I also began to notice where the ribbons of eggs spewed out by female spadefoots, and where the males were close at hand, inseminating them.
Geoffrey tapped me on the shoulder. “I’m giddy,” he muttered. “I have to go and sit down. These Overland Trout are overwhelming….”
“OVERLAND trout? Did you say Overland Trout, Geoffrey? Spadefoot toads, remember? Geoffrey, are you alright?”
“I don’t know if I can answer you right now, my friend. I mean, they may be one and the same, I don’t know. When I realized that spadefoots have all the desert-adapted features of the long-sought-after Overland Trout, I felt as if I were hit by some of that lightning we saw earlier. Revelation! Somehow I’ve survived that cerebral lightning strike, and yet, I heel as if I’ve been re-wired. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to respond to the desert in the same way again. I’ve been baptized in the underground river; I’ve been touched by the sacred aquifer! I’ve swum alongside its mythic beast. I feel that it let us glimpse its power, if only for a few fleeting moments!”
Geoffrey walked away, crossed the wash, and lay down upon his boogie board on the arroyo bank just above me. I watched as he took his life jacket off and propped his head upon it. He was panting, his chest heaving. He looked exhausted for a moment, and then I saw his breathing quiet. I went back to watching the toads congregate in the muddy pools, sometimes ten or twelve clasping onto one another, congealing into a living chain somehow reminiscent of the pleats of a squeezebox accordion. They bleated out a rhythm that reminded me of a Tex-Mex polka.
When I climbed up onto the same arroyo bank that Geoffrey had ascended, I saw that he was sleeping like a baby, curled up around the lifejacket, his thumbs and fingers clasping the sides of its cushions as if he too were a toad in amplexus. I leaned up against the trunk of a nearby mesquite, closed my eyes, and listened to the spadefoot symphony for another hour before I saw Geoffrey rise from his dreams.
I never saw Geoffrey again after that weekend. He climbed into his tent immediately after dinner and did not emerge until well after ten the next morning; I had not previously imagined that he could even sleep that long. After a cup of Mormon tea, he admitted that he was far too fatigued from our float in the flashflood to want to stay around Organ Pipe for another night. When we stopped by the Visitor’s Center for me to pick up some mail that same morning—on what fortuitously happened to be Pearl’s day off, Geoffrey somehow arranged a ride northward with a tourist he met there. Because he already had his rucksack and tent bag mounted on his back, he took off a few minutes later without offering much of a goodbye. After he had disappeared, I resolved myself to thinking that he was still too stunned to say much about it, but that he had somehow overcome his lifelong aquaphobia.
For many months after our gathering at the river, I would still receive an occasional post card from him, penned with Indian Ink in his unmistakably elegant script— but they never made explicit mention of the Revelation of the Sacred Aquifer nor the Orgy of the Spadefoot Toads. Nevertheless, Geoffrey’s missives hinted that he had undergone some kind of change far more profound than his sudden acceptance of a brief dip in an ephemeral stream. His point of reference, readings and allusions had dramatically shifted. He briefly mentioned that he had been reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift of the Sea, Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water, and the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, William’s sister. Gone were the references to William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, Everett Reuss, Ed Abbey, and Colin Fletcher; it was as if he had learned all he could from them. At first I wondered whether he had given up male philosophers for spiritually-oriented women writers, but it was not that simple. He once noted in passing that he had been daily studying Luna Leopold’s technical treatise on the physics of river meanders, and Thomas Merton’s Rain and the Rhinoceros, as if some obvious connection between these two authors that should have already been apparent to me.
It appeared as though putting aside his former dread of water was part of Geoffrey’s larger psychic shift. He noted on one card that he had not only bought his own life-jacket, but had also purchased that run-down adobe home in the Rio Bavispe watershed that edged the Sierra Madre. There, he explained, he was clearing the stream of some introduced crawfish that had been endangering native fish; he would trap them, clean them and eat their tails in a sort of desert bouillabaisse. On other days, he would read until a cloudburst occurred, then put on his life-jacket, grab the walking stick that he called Horace the Shepherd’s Crook, and leap into the river as it flowed past his cabin. A few miles down, he would hop out, and saunter back home. On another postcard, he noted with glee that he had found a hot spring not far from his hovel, one where he could soak his bones in a shallow pool of odorous mineral water, sun-bathe for a while, then after another soak, bush-whack it bare-bottomed back home without running into any prudish paisanos.
“Come on down to Sonora and visit me,” he urged. “I’ll fix you am Overland Trout filet marinated in bootleg mescal. Mexican limes and chile Serrano powder, to be grilled over mesquite coals. If you like it, I’ll even let you publish my recipe….”
Before I could get away to visit Geoffrey in the Sierra Madre, I learned that he had dislocated his shoulder while attempting to ride out another flashflood. Unlike our lazy little float down a shallow arroyo in Organ Pipe, he had leaped into the Rio Bavispe near the village of Bavispe in what must have been a twenty- to fifty-year flood. Before he knew it, he had been transported far too swiftly down to a place that the few American visitors who know the Bavispe well call the Narrows. It lies just south of where the river curves like a big U and descends down through a series of limestone chutes that together create a half-mile of cascading pools.
While Geoffrey didn’t exactly plunge over any waterfalls, he was propelled over a couple of bedrock pour-offs that dropped him six to eight feet into bedrock-lined basins or narrow tinajas. When he slipped off one pour-off and hit his shoulder against a limestone boulder, he didn’t immediately realize he had even injured himself. It took him sliding through four more chutes before he landed in a pool broad and shallow enough to hoist himself up above the water level. It was only as he put all his weight on his arms that the pain of his shoulder injury spiked, and that he conceded that he was in trouble. Geoffrey took off his life jacket, and then used its straps to immobilize his left arm against his torso. Wincing with pain, he got up off the limestone bench, and walked four miles overland toward the nearest rancheria to find help.
When I heard this news from our mutual friends, I wrote three different notes to Geoffrey before I decided which one to send. The first expressed my sadness that he had injured himself, and acknowledged the guilt I felt for having gotten him rafting with flashfloods in the first place.
I tore that first one up; I sounded too much like a guilt-wracked whiner. Of course, I didn’t (nor couldn’t) force Geoffrey to do anything, and was never around again after the first time that he surfed on the wake of a desert downpour.
The second message I drafted simply asked him to be exceedingly careful, to always wear the lifejacket, always carry along Horace or some other cane, and to never go it alone. But since dozens of folks for years had told Geoffrey that he should never, ever hike alone for weeks on end, I could imagine him dismissing my message the moment that he scanned its contents.
The third postcard—the one I sent—-simply said, “Better a dislocated shoulder than a dislocated society. Multum in parvo. Take it slow—the desert isn’t going anywhere. Un abrazo, El Bio-loco, Overland Trout Unlimited. Let our dry wash be the river on which you fish for wisdom…”
I have never actually learned whether Geoffrey received and read my postcard before he died. All I know is that the next trek out along a creek, he did take someone along with him. By most accounts, in the last few months of his life, Geoffrey seemed to be calmer, far more social, and less angry at the human-dominated domains of this world. He had stopped referring to our species as Homo rapiens—as if we were inherently destructive—-and instead called us los niños perdidos de la Madrecita Tierra, as if we were simply lost, immature souls, but nevertheless good-natured at heart. In conversations with old friends, he expressed more explicit affection for the woman he referred to in his chivalrous manner as Ladylove, (she too will remain anonymous here); and he seemed less prone to wander away from her for long periods of time. Of course, his shoulder was still recuperating, and he was somewhat more vulnerable and dependent on the people around him than ever before. It seemed that he received their care with gratitude, rather than expressing much exasperation at being tied-down and unable to go on another solo trek until after his shoulder fully healed.
When he finally did go out into the wild, he chose to head into the hinterlands of the Cave Creek watershed not far from his home in the desert of central Arizona. He had planned only a modest creek walk with one of his favorite local hiking companions, and did not discuss the possibility of riding any flood that might happen to come along. Nevertheless, he took not only his trusty sidekick, Horace the Shepherd’s Crook, but his fly rod as well. What he didn’t happen to carry that day was his life jacket.
While they were some ways beyond civilization’s reach, it began to rain. And rain. And rain. The creek bed began to fill, the banks became muddy. And yet, the two hikers had to ford it several times as the water level began to rise, for the canyon they were in did not have a continuous trail on just one side of its watercourse. As the creek meandered, it bumped up against canyon walls, forcing hikers to wade across its shallows, or hop from boulder to boulder in attempt to make a dry crossing. But the day Geoffrey and his friend came upon the stretch known as the Devil’s Hole, there was no possibility of making a dry crossing. They would have to enter the swirling waters, find solid footing, and hope for the best.
From what I can reconstruct— since Geoffrey’s companion still has difficulty talking much about the tragedy—- the waters had already risen far too high for their liking. But Geoffrey, in a state of relative calm, entered a sizeable pool that had a rather strong current running through it. He used Horace his staff to poke along for solid footing, and somehow made it to the other side.
Actually getting up the muddy creek bank proved more difficult especially with his injured shoulder. He started to slip and fall as he climbed up the bank, but used his staff as a perch to keep from sliding all the way back into the raging waters. He must have then grabbed hold on some branches above the bank, for he pulled himself up and over the lip of the bank, but left a muddy mess in his wake. The bank had begun to erode, and Geoffrey’s route had become both slippery and instable.
His companion followed Geoffrey’s path across the pool, but had been left with the nearly-impossible task of climbing up the half-collapsed bank. Geoffrey called from above the bank, leaning out over it, holding Horace the Shepherd’s Crook out toward his companion.
The rest happened far too quickly to accurately reconstruct. Geoffrey’s friend started up the eroding bank, but slipped, pulling on the staff with the hope that Geoffrey was firmly anchored. But he was not; his shoes were caked and slick with mud, he was out of breath, and his shoulder yielded under pressure.
Geoffrey went flying head first into the pool, and was swept downstream to its lower reaches, which were far deeper than the route they had traversed. Still weighted down by his rucksack, he took in so much water that he sunk within seconds. Without his life jacket, Geoffrey could not swim. Neither could he stand in such a strong current. Horace the staff had broke loose of his grasp, and floated away before him. So did his fly rod, let loose from his rucksack in the tumble. His friend had fallen to the base of the bank, half buried in mud, unable to help. Geoffrey had drifted beyond reach.
He may have come up once, maybe twice, gasping, crying out “Overlaaaand!” but then he was gone, taken into the underground river, his crisp British accent never heard again in the Sonoran Desert lands he had adopted as his home.
I never had a chance to record Geoffrey’s own recipe for cooking up Overland Trout, but apparently it had spread by word of mouth from one friend to another across the desert soon around the time he died. I neglected to ask his closest friends for it after Geoffrey’s burial in the desert, for we were still grieving. Later on, I assumed that most everyone had forgotten it.
Then one summer when the first of the summer rains began to swell the intermittent streams around Patagonia, and make the ephemeral watercourses snaking out of Tucson into bonafide rivers, I received a call from my old friend, Big Jim Griffith.
“Howdy Jim. Any rain over your way yet? We just had a gullywasher here in Patagonia.”
“I don’t think we got all that much out here by the Mission. But it was still enough to bring up the Overland Trout.”
“Overland Trout? Dad-gum-it, I should be looking for them over here as well. Tell me, Jim, have you ever come across a good recipe for sand trout?” I was hoping that Geoffrey’s recipe might have somehow made it him and his wife Loma.
“Sure, I think I have one here in the kitchen in that little file box where Loma keeps all the recipes written on colored index cards…. Let me see…. Here it is…. It’s filed with several others under the category, Recipes for Summer Parties and Wakes, next to one for tripas de leche. Can’t tell who it originally came from, but looks good…“
This gave me hope that Geoffrey’s recipe for sand trout might have survived. “That’s great news, Jim. So what’s the recipe?”
“Okay, let me put on my glasses. It says you should filet five or six sand trout, then marinade them in a shallow bowl as per the following instructions: pour into the bowl five parts mescal, three parts Mexican lime juice, and three parts Serrano chile powder. Put in the sand trout filets, marinade them for forty minutes…. and then throw the fish to the dogs and drink the marinade!”
“Thanks, Jim. I’ll let you know if I get to try it. And I’ll let you know how the dogs like it.”
“Good enough, Gary. Glad to know I could be of some help.”
Thanks to Jim, I knew that I still had some work to do if I were to ever resolve whether the desert’s terroir was reflected in its most famous fish. I hung up the phone, slipped on my Teves, went out to the garage and grabbed my fly-fishing rod and my tackle box. I kissed the wife goodbye, and set out up the now-muddy road heading along Harshaw Creek. I didn’t know what kinds of fish I would find there that summer day, but nevertheless hoped I could encounter at least one kind that tasted like the desert itself. And I hiked until I got to the very bend in the arroyo where Geoffrey had first kindled such hope in me.
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