My ankles had disappeared.
We had traversed a willow thicket on a sand bench above Muddy Creek. I had walked at the very edge of the bench in the gap between the willows and the drop to the creek. Others in the group had wandered through the thicket, pushing willows away from their shoulders and eyes.
The bench ended at a bend in the creek, leaving us on the flat, sand and cobble margin of the creek. Canyon wall stood at the bend, cutting off passage on our side of the creek, and Scott, the leader of our group, said, “This is where you’ll decide whether you want to get your shoes wet.”
The water in the creek was only a few inches deep. Although hardly formidable, no one likes to think about hiking for the rest of the day with wet feet. Some in our group sat on the sand to remove their boots. I looked at the array of stones that stood above the water in the creek and planned a route. The creek here was about 20 feet across, and there were well positioned stones covering about 14 of those feet. I stepped the stones across the stream, keeping water from my feet. I placed my right foot on the last stone, while my left foot stood a stone about two feet back. I pushed my right foot against its stone—where I would need firm footing to propel myself from it to the edge of the creek. The stone wobbled. Worse even than the wobble, the soles of my hiking shoes had a mud cake. Without the mud on my shoes, I’d brave the wobble and probably splash my left foot in the shallow edge of the creek just inches shy of the water’s margin. With mud on my shoe, I’d likely slip on the right foot stone when I pushed-off and end up with both feet in the creek while splashing water all over myself. Rather than make the attempt, I reversed myself, stepping from stone to stone back to the beach where the others still talked and some were removing their shoes.
Where the canyon wall met the bend in the creek, the water channel was narrower. I saw my route over a shiny mud margin to a cobble field, where the surfaces of the stones stood slightly above the water. The cobbles didn’t cover the entire span of the creek, but I could walk the cobbles, getting only a little splash of water along the bottoms of my shoes, and then easily take the remaining span of creek in one long step.
That’s exactly what I did. Or meant to do. And attempted. The mud at the margin of the creek was slippery near the canyon wall. My balance wobbled. The mud stuck and came up with my steps, slowing my motion and shortening my steps. My first step to the cobble bed came up short as I slipped, and my left foot went in to water. Then my right foot went into water and my arms came up for balance. That’s when I sank, and woman behind me yelled. She warned others not to follow me as I struggled and sank quickly.
When steady, I pulled one foot from the reddish gray matrix and stepped for the middle of the creek. With one foot planted in water, I then pulled the other foot from the sandy mud. I was pleased that both feet came out easily and with the shoes still on my feet. My feet then were not only wet but also muddy. I swished one and then the other in the water to clear as much of the mud as possible. I stepped across the creek to the bank and walked to the grassy bench above the channel. My feet squished and water bubbled from the mesh of my uppers. I had at least solved the dilemma of how to make the many additional crossings of the creek that lay ahead—I would simply wade through the water.
This water was milky. I expect light colored turbidity early in the season when the flow is higher and faster. It seemed unusual in the fall, especially in a season and earlier summer that had received little rain. The water also smelled. It was a metallic smell—the odor of heavy metals. Selenium surely. Maybe arsenic and mercury. Perhaps uranium. This was not a creek to drink. Not far up river, near the start of our hike, was the site of an old mine—a major mine—and we could see the fans of stone debris from the mines on the cliffs. Was that disruption, the loosening of stone, the long-term dishevelment of the soil crusts and disturbance of the creek banks a source of the water’s milk and its strong scent? I waded across the creek again.
Muddy Creek has an honest name. Mud margins alternated with cobbles. The mud varied from flat and shiny to complex sculpted or incised forms. Water run-off through mud made a complex topography of miniature hills and valleys. Yellow sunlight reflected from the curves of the little mud hills. The mud was mostly reddish brown, although the hilltops, drier than the mud vales, were gray or even bluish in shadows when I squatted beside them. Where it met canyon wall, the mud was rippled from waves of water reflected back from the stone. Where it dried, the mud cracked. I find a shallow pool of gray mud that has cracked like a tree to have a main trunk and a canopy of branches.
We walked perhaps a mile or two with others of the group, and then we had lunch on a grassy bench. After the good conversations of lunch, the others turned back, and we continued down the canyon. We walked over the bench, down to the beach, and along the creek until the way was blocked by canyon wall at a bend in the channel. There we crossed the creek by wading through the water. On the far side, we climbed from channel to bench and walked on. This was repeated over and over. Bench to beach, cross creek, and climb to the next bench. Walking Muddy Creek had a rhythm.
As we walked toward the southeast, the canyon deepened. The high walls left only a narrow band of sky. These walls were sheered to flat facets and shined from years of weathering. Where they caught sun, they were warmly yellow. Many facets had a dark patina of desert varnish and looked like leather patches amid more freshly exposed red stone. There were panels of striped varnish—bands of siennas, umbers, and pinks—that made a painterly scene. Sections of wall appeared to consist of laid bricks—orderly rectangles stacked one above the other in rows with a mortared dip between them. My favorite sections of wall—these curved like a torso from ribs to back that rises over buttocks—held water pockets—fields of rounded holes in the flesh colored stone. We walked until the canyon walls shortened and began, it seemed, to transition to hills—still reddish orange sandstone, but the walls became round-topped mounds, each somewhat separate, at least in their upper half, from each other.
When we turned back to return to camp, I began to walk up the creek. Although shallow—hardly covering my ankles—I was surprised at the drag of the flowing water against my steps. My muscles pulled against the water. Walking upstream in the creek was not the best route for our return. I took one more step and went from shoe-top water to shin-deep water, but worse than the water depth, I sank again in the sandy mud—quick mud. I sank fast nearly to my knees. Both legs were mired. The water lapped my thighs. As I tried to lift one leg and then the other I could feel the mud hold my shoes. When I tried to lift my left leg, my right one sank. A classic quick sand situation—sink quick to an awkward depth and then every movement takes you deeper. I rocked my right foot, trying to loosen the mud hold, trying to keep my shoe on my foot. It would be a long, long walk back to our campsite without my shoes. I spread my toes to hold the shoe and rocked my right foot, and then I pulled slowly. My right leg came out of the mud, and I stretched to plant it out of the mud without knowing where I might find solid footing. Water splashed, and I wrenched but remained standing. I began to repeat the process of rocking my left foot, toes splayed to hold my shoe, but with my legs now spread, my entire body rocked. Back and forth, holding balance as I could. Then I lifted, slowly and steadily, my left leg and it rose out of the mud. I stepped for cobbles in shallow water. My legs and shoes were coated in gray, gritty mud. I swept water in my hands to clean my legs and swished my shoes in the creek. When I tried to walk, I found ridges of mud pushed against the bottoms of my feet in my shoes. I took off my shoes to wash out the mud, but the grit merely shifted its shape, flowing along the inner cushion of my shoe, and as the water drained the mud held, leaving patches of grit on my soles.