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Descending Bruja Canyon

by April Cotte

When it rains in the Chihuahuan desert, the water slides over the dry land seeking paths. The paths it finds, "arroyos," are wide and welcoming, carved by waters before. Arroyos lead down to bigger arroyos, to rivers and the sea. Sand and smoothed rock line the bottom. Plants and rocks filter the debris (sticks, rocks and plants) from the water. As the water descends the mesa, the arroyo constricts. The wideness of traveling on the sandy surface is over. To go down, which is the natural course of water, the water has to go through rock.

Water pours out of the canyon mouths down to the lower level of the mesa. Five canyons pour into the biggest arroyo along its curvy path to the canyon we call Bruja. Bruja Canyon, the witch, bewitching...What is not pure water is constricted by tunnels of rock. There are many paths; each with its own obstacles.

To descend Bruja Canyon, one must first journey through the desert. Much of what you know and have been taught has no meaning here. What is important here is respect — for the sun, water, plants, animals and air. Your life depends on it. Pack light. Bring nothing but the essentials, for you will carry all that you bring.

It is first light when you begin to hike. That is the rule of the sun. You carry a gallon of water for one day. Your destination is a pool of water in Raña Canyon, Tinaja Raña. As you begin walking, you can see where you will ascend the mesa, a saddle with a gradual upward slope.

It is the hot part of the day when you finally reach Rana where there is water. You climb down into her shady hold and check for water before you eat lunch and doze off for a good long nap. Only when the sun is low in the sky do you emerge with extra water for the night and head away from the sun towards Bruja. The whole rocky desert world is on fire with the sunset. Blooming cactus glow pink, yellow, green and purple.

You choose a flat spot to camp, encircled by a prickly pear, lechuguilla, creosote and century plant. The cool night air awakens your appetite. After you eat, you lie down and watch the stars come out one at a time. Now you can see the near-full moon beyond the rise. It is night in the desert. You can rest well because you are healthy, safe, hydrated, sunburn free, warm for the night and where you should be. But can you sleep? The silence and hugeness of this place surrounds you. All is seen. You lie naked next to the earth. There is no place to hide here. You are seen physically, emotionally, spiritually, in every way. Are you ready to be seen?

Seeing you, the desert also holds you. Her dark spaciousness embraces you in a loving fold. Let the scaries and any regrets flow away. Do what this land constantly does: cleansing, re-shaping and renewing. Allow yourself to be loved and held. Then you will find home in this vast, silent place. A wind rustles through the creosote. The smoky scent cheers you on. An ocotillo creaks its welcome. You are home in the Chiuauan desert.

You wake with first light and can hear the coyotes howling in the distance, running to a rest spot after an active night. Again today you will walk to water: a big pool at the top of Bruja. You will not sleep there in the cave of the ancient ones, colored with their pictographs. You must leave the water clear so the animals can approach it at night. You will sleep in an already-used area to keep the human impact contained.

The hotness of the day draws you into the shady top of a canyon where you eat and sleep. Later you awaken energized, peaceful. Shadows on the canyon tell you that the sun is low in the sky. You climb out of the canyon and walk along its rim to the edge of the mesa. From here you can see Bruja and her wide arroyo, into which four of the five canyons (including the one you slept in) pour. You imagine the water flowing across the mesa into her gentle folds. From here you greet Bruja. She calls you.

That night you dream of the ancient ones who slept here and drew pictographs in the cave 10,000 years ago. A howling wind wakens you in the night, swirling dust from Bruja's wash into the sky. It is cold and you naturally cover your head and bundle up to keep warm. Fortunately, you do not see clouds in the sky beyond Bruja's watershed. If rain were possible, you could not descend Bruja today. Hours later you wake when the warm sun reaches over the land formations around you. You lie and soak in the warmth for a while after that cold night. There is shade in the canyon, so you do not need to race the sun today.

Bruja. You begin by comfortably walking down her wash so wide and full of plants. When you reach the boulders at the start of the canyon, you ground and ask permission to enter and descend. You feel her permission. You honor the ancient ones whose cave you pass, then stop to find a path down the boulders. It is a steep climb down, so you face the rock, finding places first for your feet, then for your hands. This is a humble position, you think: an appropriate way to enter such a canyon. Now you are surrounded by rock walls, with the blue sky above you, as you will be the rest of the day. The main course of the water is right; you can tell by debris and pebbles stacked on big rocks. But to the left is a shaded area which could mean a tinaja (a shallow pool of water that survives the dry months). A tinaja it is. You bless Bruja's waters and drip some on your forehead before filling one of your bottles. You will wait to take more water from a tinaja in the center of the canyon which the animals can't reach.

Now to the canyon.... a plant grabs your shirt and pants and you find yourself tangled in its thorns. With patience, because that is what this requires, you disconnect yourself one thorn at a time. That was an "un momento" plant. "Un momento señora, ¿Porque te andas con tanto prisa?" "One moment, Mz. Why are you walking with so much haste?" You walk a little more slowly now.

You come to a cliff. To your left and down four feet is a gradual rock chute filled with cool water. It rounds the corner and becomes a steep smooth slide. In front of you is a smooth gradual cliff with the slide as its left side.

Down below is a deep pool of water. You climb above this spot to scope it out. It seems there is no way around. To get down to the pool, you'll have to climb down the cliff next to it. It looks like there are some undercut ledges on the bottom.

You have come prepared with helmet, harness, rope, caribiner, rappel device, extra webbing, rappel rings, knife, lighter...You attach a rope through your pack straps and lower it into the water. Kerplunk! And down you climb. It is intimidating to step onto the ledge at the bottom and give up your good handhold, but the ledge works. You are able to control your climb the rest of the way into the pool. The cold water comes up to your waist. Ahh, the adventure continues. You push your pack to the edge of the pool, up onto dry rock and then climb out yourself looking at where you came from. You have committed. It would be nearly impossible to turn back now.

The sun is shining on the canyon wall above the pool. You look to your left to discover what lays ahead next. It is another chute, slanted down only slightly. And at least twenty feet below, a deep, dark pool of water. Behind you and above you there is flat smooth wall with no cracks, holes or boulders; no places to anchor for a rappel. This is the pool one has to jump into. Others have tested it to make sure it was safe to jump. The distance down is perhaps thirty feet, but it looks even further. Ack. You move out to the edge to check. It is a nice spot to jump from, though a little off center with the rock hanging diagonally over the chute. You will have to jump out at an angle.

You undress. You are naked before her. You prepare to drop your pack into the pool, which means full commitment. You breathe in, feeling the circle of stone around you. You heave the pack over the lip and watch it fall into the pool, sending waves of water which create darkened images on the walls. You stretch your arms and move your body to the lip. The pack drifts to the edge, so it is safe to jump.

Now you sit on the lip ready to jump. Breathe.... jump...But you are stuck to the rock. Something has filled you, like a liquid pouring through your body to every edge, every pore. It is fear. Deep, heavy fear. Fear of jumping, of hitting the wall hanging diagonally above, of landing on the side where it is shallow, of falling though air, of cold water, of tangling with your pack, of forgetting something. Fear that you don't know enough, that you shouldn't be here, that this is the wrong pool. fear of doing this alone, of risks, of death, of life... It is a fear full of every fear you have experienced in the past two days, the past month, the past year, in your life.

You are crying on the lip of this canyon, afraid to enter the watery, rounded chamber of conception. You are scared and so alone, crying. You have moved back into the chute where rock walls encircle your body. You will never jump. You are stuck here in the canyon. Sadness overwhelms you. All the sadness you have ever felt pours in.

As your crying sounds diminish, you notice the silence around you. You are witnessed by the silence of Bruja canyon. It is a silence so loving and old. A silence big enough for all. A silence that witnesses so deeply it turns your multiple sounds of confusions and fears into one song. Your song is so deeply held and allowed to be that it blends into the witness, the stillness, silence and love.

Having been present to your fears, vulnerability, tenderness and tears, you are fully present in this place. Present in this canyon and feeling her comfort all around, it feels only natural to jump into the pool. You envision yourself jumping with the perfect angle, landing calmly in the deepest center, swimming comfortably in the cold water and climbing calmly out over the lip on the other side. Without a thought, you move back to your spot on the lip. You thank the rock around you and leap off into Bruja's deep womb.

"Whooo-Eeeh!" A sound comes out

of you as you land in the cold water. You thrash for a moment with the shock of the cold then gracefully swim to your pack, pushing it up and out of the water before you. Sitting on the dry rock edge of the pool, soaking in the sun and looking up to where you jumped, you know now there is no going back. The waters have broken. The labor has begun. The pool from down here looks womblike with white and gray mother stone making a dome above, broken only by the slide and lip from which you just jumped.

Leaving the pool, you find a sunny spot to dry out, warm up and have some lunch. When you wake from a brief siesta, you follow the canyon around a slight bend and before you there is nowhere else to go. A big boulder sits wedged between the canyon wall with a barely climbable slide and then a big drop into the next pool. Here you must use a rope and your mind to be safe.

You find a hole in the rock that you can tie webbing on as an anchor. The rope you will hang from will go through a rappel ring on that webbing. The webbing and rappel ring ensure that you can pull the rope down. You run the webbing through the hole, slip a rappel ring on and tie a perfect water knot. This will serve you well for your rappel, but you will have to leave it tied here to the rock. You contemplate the impact you create by leaving this webbing and rappel ring in the canyon.

Though the Chihuahuan desert has held you well in her beautiful essence on this journey, she is old and tired. She has been abused and poisoned by the colonists, and her people are impoverished by restrictions to their traditional ways of life. Where the Rio Grande once refused to play the role of border between her people and shifted her banks in the annual floods, she was bound in concrete and forced to comply. The earth and air are also colonized here. In Sierra Blanca, manipulation by an East Coast corporation and local politicians results in 500 tons of New York City's sewage arriving weekly by train. The corporation claims that the poop and toxins from the New Yorker's toilets will fertilize this forlorn dessert land. You have seen the native plant life in this desert surviving well without New York City's excrement. In Sierra Blanca's fragile, arid ecosystem which takes thousands of years to incorporate new materials, the only fertilization we have seen to date is the fertilization of diseases and illnesses the people are contracting from the airborne pathogens which arrived along with New York City's waste.

You check the system once more; the knot on the webbing, the rope through the rappel ring, your harness, the caribiner. All is secure. You are ready to go. The first part of the descent is easy. Facing upstream, you climb over a boulder, then walk along the vagina-like slide to the lip. The lip marks where the gradual slide ends and the canyon becomes steep for a long stretch. Rock bulges out so you still can't see where you will land. Back to the edge you begin to let out the rope. It is time. You lean back out over the edge, over nothing for 40 feet. You breathe deep.

You descend by walking your feet down smooth rock, one before the other. Now you can see that at the bottom there is a pool. Your feet submerge first, your legs, your belly, "Water, please cleanse me of whatever else remains before my rebirth," your chest. You gasp at the coldness of this water and wonder how much deeper it goes. Your pack pulls you downward, the rappel device is sticky and holds you up. You work with both hands to glide the rope. You are shoulder deep in water, neck deep and you can still barely touch the bottom with your toes. Finally you are able to slip the pack off into the water and tread water to unclip the rope. Pulling the rope down while treading in the freezing water takes some time and focus. You swim away as it falls and then swim back to retrieve it. Now you can swim to the edge.

Out of the water there is just a small space for moving. A hallway of rock to another small chamber. Before you a huge boulder is wedged in the main passageway. You can only imagine what it was like when water moved that rock here. There are small holes under the boulder with long drops to the rock below. Where do you go now? There, off to the right is another opening; a hole in the ground just the width of a body. The birth canal. You pull the rope from the water and wrap it around a pinch for a controlled lowering of your pack. You then coil the rope and drop it. You must trust the birth canal as every being must at its time of birth.

A tear falls from your eye as you think about leaving her soft rocky hold. Out into what? You hesitate but wind pours through, ruffling the ocotillo above with a creak. You must focus. The wind whispers, "What are you birthing into?" The earthen birth canal will squeeze any last remnants of the old from your body. What new life awaits you?

Your feet must go into the hole first. They land on nothing. You must trust the birth canal. You slide through to your waist raising your hands above your head to fit. She squeezes you. Still, your feet hang as you start to slide. You squeeze through past your waist and hips. You must tilt your body here to fit, so snug is the hole around your middle. Positioning is everything. Still you are hanging, sliding through now at your chest with your hands in the air, trusting that you will be held. Uncertainty, trust. Your armpits and neck slide through. You take one last look at the womb-like pool you just came from. Goodbye, thank you. Bless you, beautiful canyon.

Your head slides through into the darkness. And finally, your feet touch something. They stand on solid rock. You slide until firmly grounded on your feet as your arms come through. Now, standing in the cave you can see a long tunnel to the light. You crawl at an angle, popping out of the opening onto your feet. You retrieve your pack and climb down the rock.

The grayness that concerned you before was just nightfall so you don't need to rush. You will camp on Bruja's shoulder with the full moon and hike out in the morning. Tonight you still have a lot of boulders to climb over to leave Bruja's arroyo. But before you go, take a moment to lie down in the circular pile of earth, plants and rocks where the waters leave the constriction of the canyon to pour out into the arroyo. Take a moment to soak in this new feeling of opening, abundance and birth. Breathe deep. You have descended Bruja Canyon.

April Cotte has been bringing groups on outdoor journeys in California, Aztlan and New England for the past nine years, and has been blessed to descend Bruja Canyon many times.