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Into the Canyon  Pastel on paper  Akiko Hirano

Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

The first rumble sounds so faint she thinks she is dreaming. Ensconced comfortably in her tiny tent deep in a canyon, she pulls her sleeping bag snug around her face and falls back asleep. 

Two days earlier, Kuro-e was standing at the mouth of this canyon under a deep blue sky. She loved this time of the year, the oppressive summer heat had just dissipated, the morning was crisp but not very cold. In front of her, the rim gathered around and plunged down like a giant funnel, corkscrewing down to disappear into the red rock bowel of the canyon. Layers upon layers of slickrock worn smooth by water seemed paradoxical in this land of little rain. The forecast called for a slight chance of scattered thunderstorms. She looked at the sky, not a cloud in sight. She considered leaving the tent behind and taking an extra quart of water, but decided it was too much a hassle to walk back to her car. Hoisting the heavy pack onto her back, she stepped off the rim into the funnel.

Kaboom! Kuro-e is jolted awake by the deafening thunder and its blinding flash. She bolts up, fumbling for her headlamp. Within seconds, raindrops start thudding the tent. The backpack, she needs to take the backpack inside. She wriggles out of her sleeping bag, pulls on her boots, crawls outside, half-hops to retrieve her backpack hanging on a juniper and dives back into her tent. Kaboom-boon! More blinding flashes. The wind and rain are getting wild, bucketful pouring down, the tent shaking. The thudding becomes a continuous angry roar. She battens down the rainfly, mops up the puddles on the tent floor, changes into dry thermal underwear and sits with the sleeping bag wrapped around her, her headlamp swinging wildly, dangling from the tent canopy. Muddy water swirls around outside, everything inside feels damp. She looks at her watch, it is 3am.

Daybreak, the rain has stopped, the sky still overcast. The air has turned much colder. Kuro-e pulls on a jacket and walks to the pool where she collected water the day before. It has turned into a muddy mess. With the little water she still has, she makes instant coffee and oatmeal for breakfast, then packs her belongings and the soggy tent, and starts the long hike out of the canyon.

Treading up the canyon, Kuro-e finds a landscape transfigured by the rain. Water trickles down from every crack and gully. Occasional rumbles sound too far away to raise concerns. The sandy wash below her boots is moist but not too muddy. All the colors are intensified; red rocks take on shades of reddish brown and burgundy, junipers deep green, beavertail cacti almost translucent like jade. Low clouds give way to patches of blue sky, water beads hanging from pinion needles sparkle in the morning sun like jewels. Desert daisies rinsed clean of dust spruces up the earth-tone gardens. Kuro-e is exhilarated, feeling like she is seeing this beautiful canyon for the very first time, misery of the night forgotten. She walks along unhurriedly, humming softly to herself, "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer ..."


Photo  Tim Wong

That is when she hears the sound, like distant surfs rushing towards a beach, only raspier. The sound bounces around the canyon walls, hard to tell where it is coming from. She stands still to listen. It is getting louder, cracks of branches snapping. The moment she realizes what it is and starts to run, a torrent of rust-orange flood water shoots over the lip of the dryfall ahead like a breaking wave hurtling towards her. She dashes to her right and scrambles up the side, her trekking poles clanging across the rocks, rampaging water grabbing at her heels like wild animals. She throws her body onto a slanting rock shelf just before a wall of mud and water tears through the wash, dragging along tree branches and bowling-ball boulders in a foamy riot. This is madness. Within minutes, the shallow bowl beneath her turns into a frothy pool of swirling debris. It quickly fills to the brim and spills over down the canyon. Shaken and breathless, Kuro-e clings to the rock shelf, her exit out of the canyon blocked. There is nothing she can do but to wait for the flood to subside.

By noon, all that remains of the flood are the shallow pools and mud and sand on the slickrock. The canyon looks calm and serene as if nothing has ever happened; but Kuro-e knows better. She has glimpsed its secret. Those smooth sensuous curves of the canyon walls tell of violent forces of nature that obliterate and renew, fickle temperament that can give life and takes it back in an instant. How ironic, how much like life itself! She picks up her backpack and continues up the canyon, rock-hopping over puddles stained red as blood.


Flash flood   Pastel on paper  Akiko Hirano

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