Sep

13

 Most people do not know, until I sat on one yesterday, what a sandberg is. It is a giant splinter of sand that, like an iceberg, breaks off from the greater whole to rise alone across a sea of sand.

I was car camping at Drop Two along the Coachella Canal ten miles south of Slab City when the first drop of rain at sunrise caused me to roll over in disbelief. For the first time in a month of consecutive 120F+ days, the Sonora desert was in for a storm. I rolled into a sleeper's 'burrito' sandwiched within layers of the blankets and tarp on the outside, and went back to sleep. When I awoke an hour later and looked out the end, the burrito was surrounded by puddles of water.

I dashed for the car, and read Studs Terkel's Coming of Age for another thirty minutes, until the rain abated.

In fact, the sun was shining.

But a hundred yards from the car, the Drop Two was running with a river of water. A Drop along a canal is where it passes underground for about thirty yards for an arroyo (normally dry riverbed) to cross perpendicularly to allow the passage of animals, vehicles and the biannual flash floods. Today the river was three feet deep, fifteen yards wide, and flowing 8mph above and at a right-angle to the canal.

It was foaming with tannic suds as thick as a six-inch sponge, splashing and tossed into the air. The foam is the result of organic material in the water, including their oils, that in the desert is stock full of the suds producing tannin. As the plants decompose along the flow, the oil rises to the top, where the turbulence and wave action whips it like a blender. I scooped a mouthful, and it tasted like Arizona tea.

With tea, the sun rising, and a hydraulic phenomenon unfolding before me like morning National Geographic, I sat on the bank and watched the river flow. Across it, great columns of sand weighing tons and measuring about 20 feet wide and two-stories tall broke and crashed into the river, throwing foam on a slight breeze over my head. Again and again, the great sandbergs crashed.

I was so absorbed in the spectacle, and thinking the flow from the eastern Chocolate Mountains was slackening, I didn't notice, instead, that the water was arising until it touched my scrotum. Still, I sat unperturbed as it rose to the ankles where I sat.

Suddenly, a loud crash behind, and I jumped up to see my hat floating downstream behind me! The land had been undercut behind me, and was now a drop-off of about three feet where the water was flowing rapidly. Nature has no remorse, or rules. I was trapped on a sandberg anchored to the desert floor only by the tendrils of a young Ironwood. The island was about 30' long and 10' wide, with the water rising by the minute!

But the tide fell as quickly as it had risen, with the bank of water from the Chocolates expired. In thirty minutes, the stream behind me shrank to wading height, and I escaped off the sandberg toward the safety of the car. I spend the rest of the day hiking up the main arroyo to the mountains where, by the time I reached the source two hours later, it was drying, and then I walked the very wash back to my car, to safety after being trapped on a sandberg.


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