West Fork is one of my favorite places in the whole world. A tributary of Oak Creek Canyon in the Verde Valley of Arizona, this clear stream runs through ponderosa pine and fir trees. Ferns and yellow columbines carpet the ground, and golden eagles nest in its boundary red cliffs.
And, for the inveterate mystery writer, it’s the perfect place for a murder to occur!
Join me in SILENCE IN WEST FORK as Pegasus Quincy works against time to solve a life-or-death murder case. The stakes are high. If she fails, her good friend Shepherd Malone’s daughter may go to prison for life, even if she is innocent.
As you drive through Oak Creek Canyon, you’ll see a sign for Ensinoso Park. There, if you stop your car and walk down the hill you’ll find this secret place.
I’ve visited when it is dressed in winter white and fall gold, but nothing is so startling as the passionate green of summer, when the creek borrows color from the moisture-loving sycamores, alders, and ashes that line the banks.
To me, water is the ultimate “yes” person. It says, whatever you want me to be, I’ll be. Hard, soft, liquid, mist. I’ll reflect back your blue skies, your gray storms, your green leaves. Yes! I’m here. Just ask.
Summer afternoon–summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language. ~Henry James~
Water is valued in Arizona, and especially in the Verde Valley because it is so precious and life giving. But it can come in floods and sheets of downpour that tax the ability of the red, sandy soil to absorb it.
On a walk in the aftermath of a particularly heavy rainstorm, the damp clung to my shoulders. Chain saws cut down swathes of broken limbs and the city street sweepers made the roads passable—at least until that afternoon when the storms were predicted to roll in again.
The neighbors were out kibitzing about the storm damage. “I like the rain, but not so much,” said one. Another groused, “You ought to see my backyard—it’s a mess!” “It just whooshed down, all at once!” said a third.
A friend of mine likes to do his own bit terraforming with this gift from nature. Each morning after a good storm he is out with his pickup truck “harvesting” the red dirt drying in rippled patches across the hillside roads. In this way he both keeps the roads passable for others and is gradually building up his hillside in terraced plots bathed in sunset colors of ochre and terra cotta.
I once knew a man who lived on the edge of Wet Beaver Creek near Rimrock. He came into a bit of money and decided to improve a property at the edge of the creek. For weeks the ‘dozers plowed and shifted and mounded the soil just so, building a fine peninsula in the creek for his house to rest upon.
It was lovely little cottage, really, with wonderful sweeping 360 degree views. But it was an unusually wet season that year, and each storm undercut the newly formed bank a little more. Finally one day the mother of all storms hit, with two inches of rain in less than an hour.
The last I saw of that house, it was sailing merrily down a flood-swollen torrent of red muddy water. He never did rebuild, and the last I heard, the land was up for auction to another unsuspecting tourist wanting a piece of red rock country.
Those same sunset colors of pink and red and orange give depth and movement to the rock formations in rainy weather. After a storm, the Bell Rock sandstone formation is transformed by the water. The rock turns ominously dark, soaking up the moisture. When the storm is over, the rock releases the moisture in a cascade of short-term waterfalls that reflect the turquoise blue of the rain-washed skies overhead.
The trees also look cleaner after a storm, more green. A texture of pine cones and gray-green juniper berries drop after the rains to form windrows on the road surface. They skitter under the tires of passing cars and make walking uncertain at best.
Rocks wash down on the road, softball-sized pieces of rock that roll across the roads in crests of storm-driven water.
The drive up Oak Creek, from Pump House Wash to the canyon rim can be particularly treacherous as boulders as big as washing machines are undercut by the rains, and drop suddenly down on the road. They create sudden roadblocks to unwary drivers, cracking windshields and crushing fenders.
In red rock country, weather warrants our close attention. It is a shift of energy, a reminder of our human helplessness in the face of chaos. We can try to stand up against it, but water has its own way.
My father was a rock hound, so I developed my love of geology early. He’d bring home a new find and hand it to me proudly.
“This is schist,” he’d announce. Or, “Take a look at this snowflake obsidian!” His excitement was infectious, and I got excited, too.
So when I moved to Sedona, I felt right at home. There are a lot of rocks in Sedona. Most of them are red. Most of them have names. And over the years, they have become old friends, familiar and beloved.
At the Grand Canyon, or Bryce, or Zion, the formations have majestic names like Bridge of Sighs or Bright Angel Trail, or El Tovar, but in this red rock country, the names are more humble: Coffeepot Rock, Submarine Rock, Rabbit Ears, Lizard Head, Teapot, and the best of all, Snoopy Rock.
Sedona has a population of only fifteen thousand people, but over three million people visit every year. Sometimes foreign tourists come in tours, not speaking a word of English, but with guidebooks in hand. They’ll collar bystanders on Main Street and point to the page.
“Snoopy Rock? Where Snoopy Rock?” they demand.
At dusk, sometimes the sun will break out under brooding purple clouds illuminating one red rock formation after another. Amazing, memorable, never the same. It’s a great traveling light show, roaring across the horizon.
From the viewpoint at Airport Mesa, there’s a grand panorama of red rocks. People will start gathering about sunset, just to participate, together, in the magnificent vista.
Some the rocks around Sedona are Hollywood famous: Cathedral Rock was in any number of Westerns. On Highway 179, Bell Rock greets visitors coming into red rock country, looking just like, you guessed it, a liberty bell.
My favorite rock, though, is Slide Rock. I met this great place long ago, when I attended high school in Flagstaff. Back then, our favorite ditch day spot was the apple-orchard picnic ground and slippery red sandstone at Slide Rock.
There, a 30-foot slide of snowmelt water tumbles through a narrow, moss-covered chute dumping sliders into a pool of frigid water. The wise locals wear old jeans, because the chute rips apart ordinary swimsuits with one slide.
Right now, in winter, the red rocks peek out under a dusting of snow. But in my dreams, red rock country is forever summer under a full moon. Then, the red rocks glow white in the warm summer nights. Eerie and unforgettable.
I often visit Oak Creek Canyon in the summer to dip my feet in the creek at Ensinoso Falls. Because Oak Creek is spring fed, its waters are always breath-stoppingly cold, a welcome refreshment on a summer’s day!
This year because of the Slide Fire, all of Oak Creek Canyon is closed to visitors, so I drove to the East Verde Valley to encounter Wet Beaver Creek instead.
When I arrived the park was deserted. The camp host was nowhere to be seen. Even his hammock was empty!
The camp cat gave me a sniff before she deserted me for better pickings elsewhere.
As I walked down to the Creek, I spotted first one abandoned sock:
Then two more, nestled like wooly caterpillars among the rocks:
The sound of water roaring, roaring, roaring, told me why no one was sun-bathing today:
The heavy monsoons upstream had caused high waters, swiftly running, muddy, churning. No swimming today in the floods:
The currents pushed against logs, turning them over in its eagerness to move forward, and the water knife-edged into white water:
Where the water eddied, it created not ponds for wading, but entire lakes:
In side pools, the shadows reflected in water holding its breath for a moment:
And in one special place the foam had created a pattern as clear as a thumb print:
If you visit a place with expectations, you may be disappointed.
If you visit with an open mind, the world can be full of surprises.
Charles Dickens in his novels of Victorian England used to speak of thick, foul miasma of air that stung the nose and burned the eyes.
We had that here yesterday as an inversion layer crowded the smoke to the earth, grounding the air support helicopters and spotter planes.
I attended a community meeting in Sedona that seemed to be a platform for showcasing the dozens of support agencies working to control the fire.
The nasty little secret they don’t tell you is that to ‘control the fire’ they actually burn more. I was surprised to hear that the fire which had consumed Oak Creek Canyon would now be deliberately increased to three times its original size by firefighting units to create a buffer of safety.
What they mean by this is that the priority is to save people and structures, period. The pristine slot canyon that was West Fork is no more. What wasn’t burned by the original flash fire is now being systematically bombed with napalm-like fire starters to burn out the little that is left.
On the canyon floor, fire rings has been set around all of the structures, to ‘pull down’ the fire from the slopes of the canyon to the floor to save the buildings. What this means is that there will be a narrow fringe of green around the buildings, surrounded by char.
Who would want to live in such a place? Who would want to visit it?
Perhaps my initial shock and disbelief has now turned to the anger stage of mourning. I hold two images in my mind: one of the canyon that I knew and loved in all its serene beauty, and the other, the blackened destruction created by the firefighters who actually at this stage are fire starters. It is difficult to find gratitude for that.
The road through the canyon will not be open for a number of weeks, if then.
I do not know when I will be able return, or even if I want to.
I’ve lived in Arizona for over 50 years, and for most of that time Oak Creek Canyon has been my haven.
I rode down the switchbacks in my girlfriend’s boyfriend’s ’57 Thunderbird, when it was brand new and we were, too. I had my Senior High ditch day at Slide Rock. I swam naked in the creek with one boyfriend and was proposed to by another, sunbathing on the red rocks near the creek.
Oak Creek fed my soul. When my first marriage was disintegrating I’d come down to the creek and stick my feet in the water and just cry until my toes were numb, and then dry my eyes and my feet and pick up the pieces of a challenging life.
This pristine beauty has been a sanctuary and an anchor for me, and I thought it would be always be there. Now it is not.
Larson Newspapers Slide Fire aerial
In just 24 hours, with 40 mile per hour winds and 10% humidity, the fire started north of Slide Rock and raced through the entire canyon. What had been a lush, green oasis in the desert, visited by something like 4 million people a year, is now a blackened crater.
I should be grateful. Thus far no structures have been damaged or people hurt. Part of the canyon, the lower part, they say is still at present intact, untouched by the fire.
Yet I mourn what has passed from my life and never will return.
I can never again experience the healing green, the murmur of the creek, the perspective from the top that said, “It will be OK. This, too, shall pass.”