You don’t have to taste the water to know why this river is called Salt. You can feel the soft film of it on your skin. You can smell it in the soil as it beats against the shore. I always leave this place dirty, but never dissatisfied.
The lakes on the Salt River in Central Arizona are perfect recreational areas for desert dwellers. It might seem strange that such active water playgrounds can provide a person with peace, but I prefer the chatter of fishermen, the squeals of splashing children, and the roar of boats as they resonate off the red cliff walls. My typical haunt, a place encased in concrete and smog west of here, is plagued by the constant drone of cars and ringing cell phones. That’s where I must live, but this section of Tonto National Forest is my city, with elaborate high-rise towers and all. The tenants and office staff just happen to be wild horses and hawks. With such perfect company, I’m pulled out my routine coma. The river is my life support.
I invite you to also pay a visit to this earthly marvel; experience her in her entirety. Go ahead and kick up pebbles on her beaches and fish in her murky waters. Climb her ridges and float through her canyons. There’s nothing better than taking the time to get to know a piece of nature, even one manipulated by man. But, my cause is more than just to amuse you. I would like you to obtain a holistic view of this waterway. She’s a rare splendor in so many ways. When you have an opportunity, stroll downriver to her bottom half and take in the parts of her that are not so revered or peaceful. That first glance might be disheartening, especially after seeing her verdant head, modified by dams though it is. But there’s beauty in the drier parts too. Gravel mines, industrial stacks, and dumps tend to blind our eyes from what’s really at the bottom of the jagged groove that slices through the city.
There’s no denying the definite break in the Salt once she reaches the Valley of the Sun. Metro Phoenix partitions her off, leaving small sections like Tempe Town Lake and the Audubon Riparian Preserve somewhat intact. That old saying, “cutting off the arm to spite the head” rings true for this river. She’s missing limbs and can no longer run. But, I think, she still feels the need to do so. Whenever it rains, her phantom pieces twitch with vitality—birds, muskrats, frogs, and the cottonwoods above them—begging to be remembered. Life is definitely down there. My camera has found certain proof, over and over again, season after season. I cannot stop looking for it; she draws me back with a phantom current. I admit exuberantly that I love this river—every rock and reed, every empty space and full. Unable to pull my heart away, I’ve stood by her scorching bedside and reminded her and myself that life has the ability to move on despite obstacles.
In the dialogue on desert rivers in need, the Salt is frequently forgotten; though recently, the plight of the majestic Salt River Herd has given her more fame. Those wild horses belong to a diverse ecosystem that needs protecting, but this river is one of many that take a back seat to the Colorado, which is larger and serves more thirsty stakeholders. This is really no surprise. The Colorado is a grand lady. I’ve also been swept up in her allure and her troubles. However, there’s just something about the unassuming Salt—dotted with patches of rare, desert green and echoing with whinnies and hoof claps—that makes me return to her time and time again. Her canyons and banks may not be nationally iconic, but perhaps that’s what keeps her so inviting.
This river is more than just boating, fishing, swimming, and hiking space. She provides the most vital stuff that sustains us: water, energy, and, surprisingly, purpose. The Valley of the Sun owes its meteoric rise to the sacrifices of the river. Our downfall might be connected to her as well. One would be tempted to think that it’s impossible to bring her back to her former glories, but this defeatism is what perpetuates her suffering. No—we humans have a power greater than we realize. We can make choices with the common good in mind: man’s and nature’s. We can be conscious of our actions and the actions of others. We can take a moment to wonder if that egret in the mire below that gravel mine is just surviving or actually thriving. We can do a lot of things: good and bad. I choose to roam the river and tell her story. I choose to remember that my footprints aren’t the first and that they won’t be the last. I have faith that there will come a day when the salty waters can reclaim what was lost.
Be mindful. Phoenix is a restless city nestled in embers, but the Salt is also on life support, and she needs us to be there for her when she opens her eyes.