College students Matt Vale and Riley Engemoen are traveling throughout Texas this summer, visiting Conservancy preserves and documenting their adventures through Matt's pen and Riley's video camera.
By Matt Vale
I love the Davis Mountains, but they sure are dry, and we are thirsty souls in a thirsty desert; Riley, Gus and I leave the mountains for the Nature Conservancy’s remote Dolan Falls Preserve on the Devils River. We pick up another friend, Henry, on the way. We turn from a small highway down a carless dirt road, nothing but a bighorn sheep outrunning the car, and miles of dry, rough mesa country—intimations of severe, heat-stricken settlers and mules dragging wagons.
And for any creature traveling the mesas, the Devils River is a miracle of water—it’s the cleanest river in Texas, and the Conservancy is instrumental in keeping it that way. Several threatened and endangered species depend on its pristine water: the Devils River minnow, Conchos pupfish, Rio Grande darter, Proserpine shiner, Black-capped vireo, Texas snowbell plant, and a tiny salamander species so rare that it’s unnamed. The Devils gets most of its water from the preserve’s numerous springs; the Conservancy’s spring-fed Dolan Creek contributes 75-80% of the river’s flow into Lake Amistad, a critical reservoir for Rio Grande valley communities. The Conservancy and conservation easement partners protect 18,500 acres of the Devils’ watershed. That healthy, vegetated land allows rainfall to fully soak into the ground and replenish the springs. And because its watershed is virtually undeveloped, runoff into the Devils is without human pollutants. We drank all of our water straight from the river and springs. The Devils is a delicacy; probably one of the last safe-to-drink rivers in the country. Edward Abbey: “When a man must be afraid to drink freely from his country’s rivers and streams, that country is no longer fit to live in.” Such are the basic non-utilities of the free-ranging spirit.
We finally reach the Conservancy and climb down to Dolan Falls under a nearly full moon. We jump in exuberantly, reverently. It’s strangely calming throwing yourself from the ledge and into the churning, unfamiliar river—you feel the forceful current wrap you up, the water battle-charging down the falls above, the vaguely threatening (fascinating) magnetism of an unknowable, and at the moment, effectively bottomless depth below. So I dive a few body lengths into the black-dark water, partly to scare myself, partly because the cool, gaping, river water infinity tugs at unidentifiable heartstrings and impulses—to get lost waaaaaaaaaay down there. You plunge into the river and it responds with equal force of personality.
Riley and I climb onto the limestone shelf surrounding the falls and sleep. The rock’s so sculpted, so human-shaped that it feels like it’s gripping you; your body naturally pours itself into the contours. I wake up in the night from a dream about rocks and crashing water, suddenly aware again of the roaring falls, the sensation of warm limestone and blue-grey air.
First light wakes me up. It’s strange, even dream-like, to awake already in the presence of such beautiful falls. I just roll off of my sleeping pad (I brought it down in the night), step off the ledge into the river, dive and gulp mouthfuls of clear-green water. It’s almost like you were never asleep, like your soul might’ve been swimming under the waterfall while your body was lying down.
Daylight and goggles demystify the river. The pool is twenty or thirty feet deep, with enormous boulders, shadowy-smooth limestone walls, tunnels passing under and behind waterfall chutes. The water is unbelievably clear for a river, its purity and lushness immediately obvious—giant, two-foot long catfish and bass, gar, and multiple other fish species practically flock around you. (I stuck my head deep into a tunnel under the smaller waterfall, straight into the ten-inch wide, gray-grizzled face of an ancient catfish, a twenty-nine-pounder, so we hear—“Riley! I found the River God!”). The abundance of aquatic life borders on ridiculous: once I jumped from the rocks and half-landed on some turtles.
We wade up Dolan Creek to a small cave, past smooth limestone pools of clear water and inky black catfish, schools of carp darting around our feet, mossy trickles of springwater pouring into the creek from the cliffs’ base. Later, we hike into a steep, cowboys-and-Indians-looking canyon, to an overhung cliff with 3-8,000 year-old rock art. I stare at the broad-shouldered, long-bodied figures, their arms enigmatically aloft—one like an anthropomorphized water beetle, another like a spearpoint-shaped womb with an antlered head. And a wriggling, pulsating, yellow paramecium shape, an otherworldly déjà vu—“where have I seen this strange thing before?” We fall asleep on the rock floor. Two canyon wrens echo in the silent canyon, their sunlight-sharp calls creaking like childhood backyard gates.
I wake up; for a minute I’ve almost forgotten home, the river, modernity—there’s just this noiseless canyon, the cliff paramecium’s vague squiggling metaphor. The rock shelter is ruggedly comfortable, good for living under, but it’s so hot and dry up here, almost metaphysically hot and dry……we’re estranged from our lifeblood—the river! We trek back in a dusty, cactus-pricked heat-malaise and collapse, leap, hurl ourselves back into the Devils, gulping down freshwater, drinking through every pore. Desert life changes color. Goodness, catharsis, the baptismal rite; soothing coarse obscurity—
“Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”
Matt Vale is an English & Religious Studies major at Rice University.