A foolhardy hike during a flash flood could have killed me. Instead it awakened awe — and a taste for danger
We’ve all seen those billboards scattered along Vegas freeways depicting minivans half-submerged in flooded streets, with license plates bearing grim messages like FLOTNBY, IBSINKN and 2DP2DRV. The message is clear: Summer monsoons bring dangerous flash floods — and flash floods are death. Like any good citizen, I’d always glanced at the billboards, and then promptly ignored them and their doomsday messages.
It wasn’t long, though, before I became fascinated with flash floods. It started one overheated spring day, when this wiry old desert rat I knew told me a fantastic account of a visit he’d paid to Red Rock during a summer monsoon many years back. Not only did the cliffs darken, stained with the precious wet, he told me — with not a small amount of enthusiasm — but as the waters drained from the skies, rather than sink into the soil, floods gathered in every watercourse and hurried down every drainage, culminating in hundreds of waterfalls pouring over the steep walls. It was breathtaking, he said, and I believed him.
My face must have lit up. My crinkled old friend warned me sternly to stay in the car, or better yet the house, when dark skies released their anger into the canyons. Danger, he cautioned, is not for doughy men like me.
I would remember his story, and his warning, but promised myself I’d take a drive out to Red Rock one stormy day to witness for myself all the glory he described. Spring begat summer, and I made time to monitor the weather forecast, waiting for an opportunity to put to task my drive to be stupid.
An August morning, a day dawned dark. The forecast called for something like 100 percent chance of rain. I tossed some trail mix and a cheap windbreaker into my backpack, made a gallon of Tang, got in my car and rushed on over to the Red Rock fee booth. I flashed my pass to the ranger-guy, who seemed a bit surprised that I wanted to enter the gloom and mounting drizzle, and buzzed around the loop, pulling off in a parking lot near the mouth of a particularly deep and long box canyon. The flood, I was sure, would really be spectacular from here.
Although I sat in my car in the downpour for the better part of an hour, not much of anything was happening. Yeah, the cliffs were getting darker as they soaked, the clouds were impressively moody, but the raging torrent that old geezer promised was flowing in the direction of bullshit.
I quickly grew bored. I grabbed my pack, tightened my shoelaces, locked the car, and bolted down the trail toward the canyon. If this flood was ever going to happen, I reasoned, what better way to experience it than from deep within the canyon?
What followed was one of the most awe-inspiring and disorienting experiences of my life. I’d say it was horrifying, but I wouldn’t lie to you — I was too ignorant to notice until later the danger and too reckless to recognize what should have been fear. If you’ve never been in one of Red Rock’s deeper canyons, imagine miles of bungalow-sized boulders occupying every inch of a two-lane, meandering highway stuffed between vertical sandstone cliffs hundreds of feet high. There’s one way in and one way out — through the mouth of the canyon.
In that steady but slight drizzle, I hiked and scrambled ever upward into the canyon, noticing early how slippery the rock had become, and learning how the lichen became like grease on a terrazzo floor. It was when I eventually climbed up into the lower reaches of a high, sculpted bowl surrounded by rocky slabs that the skies finally unleashed. The slabs coaxed the thickening waters down, streaming cascades toward the anxious, cluttered boulders below. I began to feel a little lonesome, and then I heard a human murmur.
Two men about my age, looking dazed and a bit scared, huddled shivering beneath a small tree. I had no idea what their mission was, but in some unspoken agreement, we ineptly decided to clamber higher, to escape the increasing flow of water funneling down the bowl and into the constricting canyon below, and perhaps climb to the perceived safety of one of the small peaks high above.
It was perhaps 20 minutes later, around noon, when we reached terrain too steep to climb, where stunned cacti shuddering under the force of gushing rain clung to slick, deep red slabs of solid earth. We could go no further. But could we return?
Back down the bowl, the terrain seemed foreign. The waters had gathered so thin yet so wide that the entire bowl appeared to move. Confused and uncertain, I haltingly led us back, creeping down slabs that now seemed glassy and hostile, that dodgy lichen suddenly seeming to cover every square inch. Where the bowl fanned out and the slabs once again gave way to massive boulders, a maelstrom of white water churned. Tumbling waters thrashed the sides of the canyon, fighting each other to be first down the narrowing channel. There was nowhere else to go: The stuff in the center was chaos of a type and strength beyond our comprehension, and the stuff on the other side too steep to escape. What laid in between on a sliver of tentative earth was us.
By now, the skies were pouring. With only light jackets, we were cold. We picked our way carefully toward a nearby overhung boulder, out of the path of the angry water. But what promised sanctuary proved chilly, and we wasted no time in abandoning the site for fear of hypothermia.
We crept down the watercourse, staying clear of the massive torrent, yet never courageous enough to stray into that steep stuff adjacent. So we rode that middle ground, there between likely death and certain death, where we could cling to bushes and small trees, twist through tangles, and climb, terrified, down the smaller waterfalls that occupied the relatively safe corners of the obstacle course we’d led ourselves into. Negotiating even the smallest obstacle now took on epic proportions, requiring strategy, talent (of which we had none) and nerve. Our survival instinct seemed ludicrous. We were flotsam in a carnival of force, but we continued on.
Reflecting back now, I wish I could recall the remainder of our journey to freedom. I know that in that primitive, thoughtless state what mattered only was survival — without will or whim, muscles and skeleton got the job done.
I glanced at my watch. It was 8 p.m. We’d turned around at the top of the bowl at noon. A timeless experience had engulfed eight hours of our lives. We were delighted to have survived — and even emboldened to tempt fate another day.
All these years later, when I see those summer billboards, driving home a point while somehow missing the point, I sometimes catch myself thinking: If only we didn’t exist in a society of half-truths, if only we saw danger for what it is in myriad — an opportunity to see beyond the mirage, to feel beneath the surface of the ignorant daily grind, and to realize, intuitively, that water sets the baseline for everything on the planet, without malice or love, care or concern, and in spite of our efforts to overcome it. Beautiful, really. Dangerous, perhaps deadly, but beautiful.
Courtney Purcell is the author of Rambles & Scrambles: A Peakbagging Guide to the Desert Southwest.