I jump and look around. What was that? It was loud enough to echo off the cliffs adjacent to this ridiculous river with the disconcerting habit of disappearing underground and reappearing unexpectedly. All my experience has been that rivers start on – and stay on – the surface. But this river survives the heat at the surface of the Mojave Desert by ducking underground, or so I presume: There is much here that I do not understand.
On a 1990 business trip to Anaheim, I have arrived a few days ahead of the rest of the team. (As I remember, it was something about getting a super-cheap ticket if my return trip went over a Saturday. Do you remember those days?) With the weekend to kill, I pick up the team’s rental car and talk to folks in a local rock shop about where to find interesting mineral specimens. Or even just neat rocks: With nothing but my time invested, I’m not fussy about the outcome.
The clerk is sure about the best place for me to go: a water hole where the Mojave River sticks its head up, gopher-like, for a quick look around (“Yup, it’s still desert. Dive! Dive!”). He is less sure about my ability to survive the trip.
“Can you drive on dirt roads?” he asks condescendingly.
“I can drive on gravel roads,” I counter graciously.
We look at each other, stymied: Limited by our respective experience, neither of us actually knows whether dirt and gravel roads present similar driving challenges. He grudgingly gives me a standard State map of the major highways, and his own detailed driving directions from the exit off the main road to the rockhounding location.
As I gather up my papers and prepare to leave, he also gives me two safety tips. Appropriate enough for the desert, I guess, they’re both about water:
- I must carry enough, and drink enough, not to die from heat exhaustion.
- I must watch for any clouds that might mean rain in the far-off hills and deadly flash floods in the canyons surrounding the water hole.
Later that afternoon, as I head out of town in six bumper-to-bumper lanes at 75 miles an hour, I am both indignant and uneasy. Indignant that this clerk who does not even know me has such a poor idea of my capabilities. I expect people to get to know me before they doubt me. And uneasy that he rates the dangers of heat exhaustion and flash floods higher than the Los Angeles freeway I must traverse to get to the place where, by his estimation, I will put my life on the line. The bat-out-of-hell traffic between here and there has not merited even a passing reference, but I have a death grip on the steering wheel.
Overnighting in a forgettable chain motel somewhere along the freeway, I set out again in the morning. Finding my exit with no trouble, I traverse the dirt roads down to the water hole without incident. Hah! Take that, oh ye of low expectations.
As I wander around an area that is half oasis, half gravel pit, clutching my water bottle, I eye the canyons. A crumbly mix of rocks, sand, and soil, their forty-foot cliffs offer a poor climbing prospect even if I were equipped to climb. If roiling water were to come crashing along these narrow channels, it would be a Bad Thing. But it’s a blue-sky day of the sort that makes imminent death-by-drowning seem unlikely, even in the desert, so my focus shifts from surfeit to sufficiency: Have I brought enough water to avoid death-by-dehydration?
Or that is my focus, until I hear It.
I jump and look around as the echoes fade away. What the hell was that? And why didn’t the clerk mention the Thing that Goes Braack?
For the next hour, my rockhounding is interrupted periodically by the braack-and-jump minuet. Then, as a sure sign that I have been ingesting at least enough water, there comes that moment when I must find a suitably sheltered spot. Although I have not seen any actual viewers, I’m not comfortable peeing in full theoretical view.
As I crouch down in the cover provided by the abundant plant life rimming the water hole, I hear the noise again.
Definitely closer than before. I stop breathing.
“Braack!” And then, “Splish splash.”
All Mojave-River-like, I poke my head up, just in time to see a bullfrog jumping across a puddle at one end of the water hole.
I breathe again. And laugh. Talk about your limits of experience.
PS I’m off for a few weeks to places that might not offer me internet access. I’ll respond to any comments when I get back.