Like every morning, I shuffled in my slippers out to the driveway to retrieve the paper. As soon as I snapped off the rubber band and wrapped it around my wrist, I saw the front page. I knew instantly that the local media would call me as they have almost yearly for over two decades. The front-page headline read, “Teenager Falls to his Death at Tanque Verde Falls”. My stomach turned as I shook my head with silent rage and sadness. Once again, I was flooded with disbelief. The 37th person had died. Aside from a boy who is now an adult in a wheelchair, I hear that I am the only one who has survived falling over Tanque Verde Falls.
Monsoon season in August of 1967 brought late afternoon thunderstorms that rolled into the valley like clockwork, pouring rain onto the parched desert floor. Two hours later, the rain vanished as quickly as it had come. The sun re-appeared with no evidence of rain except for the washes that quickly filled up to their banks, channeling tree stumps and an assortment of flotsam and jetsam. By evening, the instant rivers ran dry short of the mud in the riverbeds, which began to crack. Inside our slump block home, the swamp cooler hummed uselessly since there was a swell of humidity in the air. I wasn’t fond of Tucson then and definitely not accustomed to turquoise gravel front lawns and no water to speak of, unless it shimmered in a swimming pool or shot out of a garden hose. What was this hellhole my Dad had brought us to? What was the Air Force thinking; transferring our family from military bases in England, with four seasons, glorious rain, flowers and trees, lakes and rivers? Tucson felt like a bone-dry place with trees that didn’t count for much. Touching cactus for the first time quickly taught me to never touch it again. I considered posting warning signs on each type of cactus that surrounded our new house. They would read, “Go away!” The desert was definitely no place for me. Cactus jumped, pricked and stung and in my opinion were rather ugly.
One Friday, just a month before my senior year of high school, I was once again on restriction. I don’t remember the reason for being grounded, but I’m sure I deserved it. To add misery to the already hot, muggy day, I was told to spend the afternoon ironing while my parents drove to see my brother at Boy Scout camp, an hour’s drive northwest and out to the town of Oracle. I was obediently ironing some of my mom’s polyester blouses when the phone rang. It was Kirstie. She invited me to join “the gang” for some fun at Redington Pass. “Put on some shorts and join us,” my fairly new friend said. Friends always felt fairly new living the military life. We didn’t live in any one place long enough to call any friend much more than that.
It was a chance to “fly the coop,” since my parents weren’t due home till evening. I figured I could take my Dad’s Rambler, meet up with my schoolmates and be home in time to iron a few more garments. I slipped into my favorite Levi cut-offs and my brand new burgundy summer top I had just bought the day before. I was most proud to own it since it took many babysitting jobs for me to afford it.
I jumped into my Dad’s car and headed for the far east side of town to meet up in a parking lot. I had no idea where we were headed to from there, which was reason enough to take the risk of disobeying. An adventure was always worth the potential punishment from my parents. I had never driven far beyond Old Spanish Trail Road, a short distance north of our house, and hadn’t really mastered the art of driving yet.
After we met up at the parking lot, I was told to follow the green lead car. I turned off the radio, which blared one top 40’s hit after another, both my hands gripping the wheel as the road eventually turned from asphalt to dirt. Both excited and clueless, I had no idea where our caravan was headed. I just followed as we drove into the foothills of the Rincon Mountains. Suddenly the cars in front of me started pulling over and parking in ditches of desert rock. I stopped too and jumped out to join them. Like a trail of ants, we hiked our way into a canyon, along narrow paths. It hadn’t occurred to me to wear practical shoes. I was the only person walking in Zories, aka “flip flops”. A strong waft of creosote was still lingering from the rain. As we trekked over rocks, dirt and cactus that were too close for comfort, I heard a soft rushing sound. Water? Real live running water? I was the only one of the bunch who’d never been to Redington. I picked up my pace, and flip-flopped my way down a hill since I couldn’t get to the water fast enough. I tripped and slid and didn’t care.
Once I was at the water, I tossed my Zories and plopped myself down in clear, fresh cool water. I felt immediately refreshed. Above, the brilliant blue sky was loaded up with pure white cumulus clouds building a bed of pillows. It was the prettiest sight I’d seen since moving to Tucson. I sighed, reclining into the cool stream. I was the only one in the water. I remember wondering why my friends chose to sit on the rocks at the edge of the stream while I was luxuriating in cool bliss. I splashed from pond to pond, giggled and splashed some more. I felt similar to being in a candy store with dollars in my pocket. Time had stopped. I was busy being happily wet. I didn’t notice that the stream was gathering force. It was fun at first, like a free ride at a carnival. The current starting pushing me forward and down the canyon. I thought this was part of the thrill until I couldn’t get a grip on the rocks to slow myself down. The wet granite lining the stream felt like slippery glass. Suddenly, the water had pushed me further downstream, out of sight from my friends. I kept trying to grab for a rock, any rock, to stop me. My ride was becoming intense. The current continued to push me down several tiers of the canyon stream, around one last corner, with my butt bumping over river rock. I looked up and saw two of my friends high up on a cliff looking at me with disbelief. Suddenly, I was airborne. I was falling, my feet dangling in thin air. That was the last thing I remembered; my feet shooting forward as if I’d been launched out of a tube in a water park.
*End of Part One*