A Flood of Tears
The Second Crossing at Water Wheel had always been a place of serenity and sweet memories until the perfect storm of events that befell a family, a community and an entire state that year.
Winter had yielded little snowfall and the spring rains didn’t grace us with their refreshment as we had all hoped. The stand of Ponderosa Pines, stippled thick among Juniper and Scrub Oak atop a bed of dry pine needles, stood vulnerable; waiting like a sitting duck for the dry lightening that always preceded the summer monsoon storms.
One could set their calendar to the sky — as predictable as holidays and get-togethers that arrive every year without fail, so too is the monstrous gathering of clouds in the eastern sky’s canvas resting atop the stretch of tall timber known as the Mogollon Rim.
It seems fitting that the dry lighting makes its appearance, annually, just prior to the 4th of July and its rockets-red-flares; fireworks, alight, in the humid, summer evening’s pitch of black.
Northerner’s hold their breath as the sky lights up full of the balled energy that’s been bound tight like a corset beneath a damsel’s ball-gown. Loosed, in a heavy exhale, it breathes fire-light across the sky from noon through the night as sleep is often jolted and broken by the thunderous claps of the monsoon dragon’s roar. Yet, rain remains weeks away as the wild grass and flora dries out, being bathed in the Sun until its spring green garb begins to parch and evolve into kindling for the flint struck among the billowing clouds stretching across the crystal blue sky.
The Northerner’s breathe a little easier when the forests are deemed closed to the Flatlander’s who seek the cooler air to escape the swelling temperatures of the desert, below. Some make their way with little regard to the season; chains dragging, cigarettes flicking, and campfires roaring often with no respect to the conditions of the fuel beneath their heavy footsteps. Even with the land closure, the question lingers: will it be lightning or an abandoned campfire that starts
the first wicked wild fire of the season?
The tinder laid quiet and in wait beneath the stifling, June Sun’s rays when one spark set it to roar and crackle with reckless abandon. The majestic towering soldiers guarding the hills and their lesser scrub subjects burned for days, unabated.
The cause would soon be determined, but at the time, it mattered not what brought the fire storm, but, when it would be suffocated; either by the pick axes and shovels of relentless hotshots trudging the craggy hillside, lighting backfires and digging trenches to gain an upper hand, or the release of pent up waters, held within the storehouses of the heavens that provided a welcome afternoon shade as they worked the fire line without ceasing. The pyric weather created by the fire would prove to be predictably-unpredictable, as always, and bring winds and funnel clouds of rage and fury making more difficult their work. These were the unwelcomed tents of shade for the hot and weary men and women of the fire line. Still, they prayed for rain. We all prayed for rain.
The flames came to an end, at last, after they met and merged with another fire and, together, they crept nearer and nearer to an old burn scar from years earlier. Mother Nature had cut off her nose to spite her face in this instance, and the lack of fuel would be the end of the beast that fed upon the beauty of the Rim that summer.
We all thanked God for the burn scar that assisted the hardworking fire crews and we countinued to pray for rain as we exhaled a sigh of relief. You could even say a sense of celebration was felt in the air, as poster-board signage decorated the roadways and storefronts as well as many car windows that were painted in white shoe polish with the heartfelt words, “Thank you, Firefighters!” Spirits sang and were flying high in the small community where another storm, unbeknownst to many, was brewing. Rain would soon come as the days passed and the dew point rose further, signaling the first of the Summer showers beginning, but, it would come at a cost and quickly turn joy into sorrow.
Flash floods, they call them, when the parched grounds drink not from the fountain of the creator, rather they spill it like a broken dam across the dry and cracked foundation of earth. A burn scar is the greatest offender of all; its damaged soil fails to absorb the waters of heaven and spills off in a deluge upon all that lay below, indiscremenantly, along with the rubble of the fire’s damage left behind.
I haven’t had the courage to return to the Second Crossing until today. My heart urged me to wait, but, my mind had to see it with its own eyes. I need to reconcile the heartache and pain that has blanketed such a place of tranquility and peace.
Stepping from the small paved parking area, I move, slowly, with cautious, forcible footsteps across the hallowed, tear-soaked soil. There’s a quiet stillness on the trail that is broken by the breeze that carries an eerie bristle against my skin. The hair on my arms stands to attention as the bare skin begins erupting in goosebumps. The wind carries with it the spirited echoes of weeping and whaling that walk as footsteps across my soul. Chilled grief swallows it like a flood. “Should I really be here”, I think to myself. Somehow I feel as though I am trespassing upon a place where I don’t belong; upon the grounds of ancestors whose memories fill the waters; whose bodies were overcome by these waters.
Although still several steps away, my eyes are pierced by the glint of the afternoon sunlight reflecting upon the metal cross hung from a familiar elder Sycamore tree. It’s blinding to my vision, yet, not enough so from taking in the image that I already know will remain with me forever — that will haunt me forever. Tied, there, with the silk flowers and memorial plaque, are the pairs of sooted children’s shoes; like baby shoes dangling from a proud father’s rear view mirror, only these would be the last that they would wear rather than their first. Hesitating, I reach my hand toward the plaque to touch their names, as if to feel the life they once embraced, but, I recoil from coming any nearer to their memories; to their beings marked by each character that forms their identities.
My feet feel heavy upon the muddied clay and my heart sinks further then they, as I begin recalling that dreadful fate they found there. There is no peace that washes over me, only the tears that begin cascading down my cheeks, joining with the streams of the many others that have fallen unto the place of their collective water burial.
The rain showers leading up to that afternoon were welcomed, even celebrated, and had led to the reopening of the forest. The moderate summer temperature had brought them out as a family to play in the small creek of Water Wheel Falls at the second creek crossing. Generations of them gathered upon the base of the ridge to escape the heat, enjoy the cool, refreshing mountain air and celebrate a birthday. They sat in their lawn chairs and upon picnic blankets, creek side, as the little ones splashed in the fresh, clear creek-water, less than a foot deep. Just as I had done only days earlier and for many years, as a Flatlander, with my family as I grew up.
The shade of the Mogollon Rim veiled the searing heat of the Sun from their bodies and their eyes from the storm clouds that were assembling as an army atop the crest. Clouds slowly made their way across the mountain range, but, their lack of classic grey thunderhead appearance caused the family no alarm. After all, there was no lightning, thunder, or rain falling as to deem an end to their party and joyful occasion.
This small canyon way that the Rim sheds its waters upon is gathered where radio and cell phone transmission is entirely absent. Although the trail is short, the winding road to the Second Crossing leaves modern communication behind. A rather small, snowmelt creek; a place to unplug and leave your cares behind while you delight in a sliver of sublime apart from life’s chaos. A place where one can go and get lost.
Drowning that day never crossed their minds. The entire family was taken by complete surprise and swept away without any warning. Ten souls, plucked and stolen by the water, with no regard by their enraged perpetrator.
These rolling waves that gathered and joined as the tumultuous force they were that day, took hostage the fallen timber and debris from across the scorched earth. They moved, together, in lockstep, as one like a sickle, carving out new pathways and tossing boulders like a child effortlessly throws a pebble into a puddle.
The swell gathered to pick up and turn the landscape like pages, rifled, in a book and it tossed aside the smaller sticks and debris for entire trees and mud that rose beyond six feet high in some places. The perfect storm; the effects of the earth’s
elements came upon them in a flash and swept every family member away. Their bodies forced under the tumult and tossed as rag dolls against the bedrock of the once calm, trickling path of the gentle creek.
Few from the family survived the torrent of waters that day and I wonder how the living souls that were rescued have managed to survive a tragedy such as this going forward.
The littered remains of the flood paint the image in my mind of the sheer determination of the waters to make their way to the lower ground beneath them. Along the once sandy shore is stacked a pile of rubble; branches and bodies of the charred forest family of trees piled higher than my view can see beyond. Along the bank of the creek, the thick mud and vines choke the trunks of the trees and reveal the width and height of the violence that battered its banks.
As I sit at the picnic table (moved by the storm as well) with a somber gaze toward the water wheel, I imagine the horror and the pain that remains among them like the visible signs still lingering here at the Second Crossing and I consider all that was lost.
For me, I’ve lost the peace that once fell upon me every time I visited here among the familiar scent of the Sycamore and the soothing waters flowing with ease to the second creek crossing. I’ve lost the innocence of playfully splashing in the small creek in summer, as clouds provide a cool canopy, in the comfort of a place where our initials are carved in the old oak tree lying in slumber on its side; where the initials of our identities were swallowed
with them in the raging river that summer.
Such a trivial loss that cannot compare to theirs. For them, they lost grandparents, parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, fathers, and mothers. For them, they lost several generations; entire families. The loss at Second Crossing consumed the entire state, northern and flat, as we shared the grief and sorrow; a flood of tears for a family taken, together, in such a horrifying way.
That which we rejoiced in and that which we prayed for was discovered; the end of the fire, the cessation of the drought, the last of the forest closure for the year and, perhaps, the resulting end of ten precious lives.
Today, having seen where the tragedy took place, I have yet to reconcile it all. I never will on this side of life and loss. Still, I pray, for it is in that humble reliance that I find peace, more than I ever could sense in the perceived answers to the prayers and more than I will ever feel again, here, at the Second Crossing.