© Paul Markow
Grit, Hope and Collaboration
A few months ago, I flew the length of the Verde in a Beechcraft Bonanza A36 six-seat single-engine prop plane. My brother, Adam, was the pilot, and I could tell he was impressed by the landscape below. So were my other two brothers. None of them, however, were looking down in the same way that I was. What looked like a small stream to them had me staring as if I’d spotted Bigfoot or a colony of marching penguins. The Verde River caught my eye and wouldn’t let go.
I’ve hiked, kayaked and explored several stretches of the Verde over the years, and I’ve glimpsed it many times from the 12-inch window of a 737. I’ve even seen parts of it from other small planes and helicopters. But this was the first time I’d flown its entire length — almost 200 miles — at an elevation low enough to fully appreciate its nature. On the surface, there are more impressive rivers in the world, including the one up north that carved the Grand Canyon, but there aren’t many that are more vital to their surroundings.
“[It] has long been a ‘working river,’ Terry Greene Sterling writes in The Verde, “watering the crops of prehistoric people, providing sustenance to later generations of Native Americans, as well as miners, farmers, ranchers, recreationists and thirsty city dwellers.” But now, the Verde’s in trouble.
Population growth, long-term drought, unresolved water rights ... there’s a long list of culprits that are threatening the river’s fragile existence, to a point where parts of it could dry up in the next two decades. It’s a familiar storyline, but as Terry points out, this isn’t a story about despair. “It’s a story about grit, hope and collaboration spurred by a new sense of urgency.”
At last count, at least 30 publicly and privately funded groups were working to sustain the river, including The Nature Conservancy and the town of Clarkdale. It’s an effort you’d expect from TNC, but Clarkdale’s role is counterintuitive: The town hopes to keep the river flowing by becoming an ecotourism destination.
“There’s a rapidly growing understanding that if we don’t draw economic argument to what we’re trying to do, it will have very little impact,” Mayor Doug Von Gausig says.
That’s why, in the coming months, the town will dedicate 4.5 miles of the river as part of a project called Verde River @ Clarkdale. The hope is that the park will attract ecotourists who will explore the river, spend their money in Clarkdale and gain awareness of the Verde’s plight. It’s a small step, and the river’s advocates know they’re fighting long odds, but that’s not stopping them. There’s a similar vibe down in Patagonia, where a handful of farmers are thinking about the future, too.
The name of their organization is Native Seeds/SEARCH, and their goal, Kathy Montgomery writes, is “to preserve heirloom seeds of crops adapted to the arid conditions of the Southwest, along with the cultural knowledge about how to grow and use them.” Ultimately, they want to get the seeds into the hands of people who want to plant them. The program started 30 years ago, and it’s been so successful that the farm is moving beyond its primary function of seed preservation to experimenting with holistic agricultural practices that use less water. In It’s a Dirty Job, but Somebody Has to Do It, Kathy tells the story of the farmers, and what they’re doing to survive in the Sonoran Desert. It’s a story Peter Bigfoot will appreciate.
You probably don’t know Bigfoot. His 15 minutes of fame came in 1976 when a newspaper reported on his 15-day trek through the desert, from New River to Four Peaks. As Kelly Vaughn Kramer writes in Bigfoot Lives in the Superstitions, the long walk was newsworthy because he did it in July, with “only a pack, a homemade tent and enough empty containers to carry water — if he found any.”
“One of the things I’ve always wanted to be,” Bigfoot says, “is adept enough in the wilderness where I can cross a vast expanse of land and carry practically nothing. I wanted to have nature provide everything I need and learn the skills necessary to do that sort of thing.”
Today, almost 40 years after his remarkable journey, Bigfoot has gone well beyond adept, and he’s teaching others what he’s learned at his Reevis Mountain School of Self-Reliance. His home is a fascinating place that’s located at the end of a long, primitive road in the Tonto National Forest. In her profile, Kelly will take you there. It’s a beautifully written piece, and it’s the easiest way to get a glimpse into the world of Bigfoot. That is, unless your brother has a Beechcraft Bonanza.
COMING IN APRIL ...