A Palace of Liquid Crystal

One winter day I hiked to the top of the San Rafael Reef from the mouth of Black Dragon Wash. It was raining and the cloud-base was low – about halfway down the reef. I climbed into falling snow as I approached the top. Nothing to see up there but clouds and snow, so I started down. It snowed on me for a while but then the sun started to come out. It was early afternoon and the sun hung low in the winter sky. Still, it burned off most of the clouds. Sunshine shown directly onto the south-facing San Rafael Reef. The snow began to melt and the stage was set for one of the most magnificent displays of beauty I’ve ever experienced. It was a liquid thing. And a light thing. A water thing. A sunshine thing and a reflected sunshine thing. And it was a Navajo Sandstone thing. It was a magnificent thing….

The Navajo Sandstone is undulating sand dunes, petrified during the Early Jurassic. The reef itself was uplifted in Tertiary times — tilted almost onto its edge in some spots. What was once an expansive landscape of sand dunes now forms steep, circuitous channels. And water, when fleetingly present, makes the most of these channeled restraints. Water streams into large bowls, flushing as far up the opposite sides as gravity will allow. Then it may swirl back down and funnel into narrow chutes, or disappear in sweeping fashion underneath huge, sandstone slabs. It channels into confluences with neighboring waters as the Navajo Sandstone directs the merging of water.

Today there was an added feature. Sunlight. Sunlit rain and snowmelt, within the boundaries of my own little San Rafael watershed. Sunlight. Infusing a crescendo of crystal into fluid water – a Tilt-o’-Whirl symphony, orchestrated by the Navajo Sandstone. Water, alive in its own right but on this day, starkly brilliant – brilliantly alive with sunlight; majestically crystalized but alive. Fluid. Crystal in motion, snaking and sweeping. Channeling and conjoining. Sparkling, Splashing, Spouting. Flashing with light, capturing my gaze here and there. Catching my gaze everywhere.

Water – imbedded as though with Sparklers on the Fourth-of July – snaking its way and cascading down the reef in endless ropes of light.

Water. Gathering. Streamlets into streams – spilling into rivulets. Sparkling sluices and raceways of dancing liquid light, channeling into bigger basins, bigger channels, and bigger plunges.

Water and Light. Light and Water. One and the same. Water gathering and funneling – finally free-falling into the lowermost slot canyons – raging. Raging. The petite, sunlit, fluid ballets; gently fashioned on the higher slopes, now furiously free-falling into confined slots – Unstoppable. Unstoppable surges of water eroding the twisting convolutions ever deeper into striated, cross-membered Navajo Sandstone walls.

Flash-floods. Bursting through everything in their way. Pitching, rolling, and thrashing. Dismembering. Drowning the life out of all life in their way. The floods flush out onto the open desert. Their deadly power dissipates almost at once – no longer ill-tempered and accelerated. No longer irritated by their constraints. They roam the flat desert in gullies, calming themselves as they seek the relaxed, even-tempered San Rafael River. Or they spread their wings and quench the desert’s thirst – permeating its soils. Standing water evaporates. And surrenders its moisture to the skies.


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