It’s an outrageously fun sport, an adult jungle gym in the interior of what can feel like giant curvaceous seashells. Slots can be hundreds of feet high and narrower than a foot wide, not ideal for claustrophobics. “Sweeping in and out of each other, the rock walls look more like fabric than stone,” wrote author Craig Childs in The Desert Cries.
Safety is an important issue in canyoneering, and the desert has a serious side even if you have come to play. “There are two easy ways to die in the desert, thirst and drowning, ” wrote Childs in The Secret Knowledge of Water.
Author of 11 books, visiting professor at University of Montana and NPR contributor, Childs will present this Tuesday’s Pinhead Town Talk, Flood Club: Chasing Down the Uncanny Dynamics of Flash Floods, 6-7:15 p.m. at the Telluride Conference Center in Mountain Village. Admission is free and there will be a cash bar. This science series is co-produced by Pinhead Institute and the Telluride Science Research Center and sponsored by the Town of Mountain Village Homeowners Association. Donations are welcomed.
Following the talk at the Conference Center will be a book signing with Childs, organized by Between the Covers.
Having spent 120 days straight in the Grand Canyon and months on foot in his native Sonoran Desert, Childs encourages Telluride locals to learn about the desert. “Even if you're mountain bound,” he said in a phone interview, “it's good to know the depth of the larger landscape, especially when the desert is within fifty miles of Telluride. The desert has its own quality of austerity and light that does not exist in the mountains. It speaks its own language, which to me is one of water.”
No one writes more eloquently about the beauty and ferocity of deserts than Childs. The desert speaks to him in its own language, which he then channels into exquisite prose the rest of us can hear. His quietude as a naturalist and his discerning scientific approach are colored by his deep spiritual connection to the earth, giving his writing a quality that has earned him The Spirit of the West Award, an honor he shares with Wallace Stegner and Terry Tempest Williams among others. Childs is also a charming presenter.
“A hit-by-a-bus kind of floods are rare in the desert,” said Childs in a recent interview. Desert flash floods are also fickle, fleeting and hard to find, thus tough to research. He spent two years hunting them down. Ironically, floods are the last things a fun-seeking canyoneer wants to encounter. Escape routes can be elusive and warnings signs devastatingly short. But Childs visits the desert for other reasons, chasing floods not unlike tornado researchers who throw themselves in the paths of twisters to measure their speed and air pressure. His purpose is to find “the profound order in mad water” – mad as in “angry” and “insane.”
“For years I have been trying to map floods, trying to predict the impact of different storms in different regions,” he wrote. “Flood deaths are too common in the Southwest’s deserts. Usually, the people killed are caught by surprise, having no idea that the desert could do such a thing. Boy Scouts have rappelled into canyons, dripping blindly and directly into seething floodwaters. Vehicles have been struck head-on, windshields bursting on impact.”
Trained in desert ecology and earning a masters degree at Prescott College in his home state of Arizona, Childs “hunted the academic libraries and the wilderness canyons, seeking patterns and reasons.”
While watching and studying a flash flood in Arizona, he wrote, “The flood is unstoppable, but not careless. It makes courtly moves, whirlpools starting up, then quickly washing out when they are no longer needed. It displays discernment and intelligence, but not like our own. It is a difference kind of animal, one that plays by an imperishable set of rules.”
Childs has written for the LA Times, New York Times, Outside, Audubon, Sierra, and High Country News. His books have been listed as top books of the year by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He has been the recipient of the Colorado Book Award twice. He now resides in Colorado with his wife and two young sons.
For more information on the Pinhead Town Talks call TSRC Executive Director Nana Naisbitt at 708-0004.