by Carolyn Handler Miller

Arroyo. The word doesn’t exactly conjure up magic. In the Southwest, where arroyos exist in some abundance, they are usually just scruffy riverbeds without water. Sometimes these dry channels are brightened by a few brave weeds, but more often they are littered with garbage – everything from plastic water bottles to old car parts and rusty shopping carts. Arroyos also tend to be the kind of place where dead bodies are found. Murdered dead bodies.

So I wasn’t at all impressed when the condo sales agent I was trailing around pointed enthusiastically out a window and said: “And right over there is the arroyo!” She obviously thought this was a worthwhile selling point. “There’s a trail along it that goes for miles,” she went on. “Nice for walks!”

But I was far more interested in things like closet space and the size of the rooms. My husband and I needed a part-time residence in Santa Fe for our work, and I was concerned the condo would be too tiny for us.

As it turned out, we bought it anyway, though the arroyo certainly didn’t factor into our decision.  But after some weeks there, I started to feel itchy to get outdoors and remembered the sales agent’s words: “Nice for walks!”

Gaining access to the arroyo wasn’t all that obvious, however. A tall fence ran the entire length of the condo property and I couldn’t find an opening. It took a call to the condo manager to learn the secret: an inconspicuous gate tucked away near some dumpsters.

I finally located the gate but stood there, hesitating. Was this really a good idea? My husband was away on business so I was on my own. What if the gate locked behind me and I couldn’t get out? What if I tripped and broke an ankle? What if rapists lurked down there, just waiting for a lone woman to stroll by?

“Oh, grow up!” I told myself sternly. I opened the gate and stepped in. The experience was startling and totally unexpected. It was like passing through an enchanted portal into an alternate universe. On the side I’d just left: asphalt, condo buildings, cars, dumpsters. On this side: the natural world, meandering trails, trees, wildflowers, puffy clouds, and in the distance, ribbons of mountains. The arroyo itself was far below, barely visible through the trees.

I was a little in shock, a pleasant shock to be sure, and a bit tentative about my new surroundings. Dirt trails branched out in several directions, some which seemed to lead down to the arroyo, some going in other directions. Which to take? Where did they all lead? The one I chose that first day – selected because it appeared to go in the appropriate direction – also looked the most worn, which I took as a promising sign. The steep dirt trail wound through junipers and pinons, and I cautiously picked my way down. Happily, it delivered me right to the edge of the arroyo.

The arroyo’s channel was wide here, alternately rocky and sandy, though I could see where it narrowed in the distance. And, aside from one old tire, I was glad to see it was virtually trash free. On the other side of the arroyo, running parallel to it, was a smoothly paved path. I decided to save the path for another day, though – this was basically an ice-breaking trip.

On future trips, I began to explore the many paths and trails around the arroyo and have discovered that each has its own unique rewards. For example, if now know that if I take Choice A, the paved path to the left, it will lead me past a little farm with goats and beehives. Choice B to the right, also paved, is much steeper but offers the best views and often includes friendly encounters with other walkers. 

My favorite route of all, particularly when I crave solitude, is walking right in the arroyo itself, going east. The channel here is deep, hugged by tall red cliffs, and the area around it is much more rugged than where the paved paths go. Walking here offers a real taste of wildness. Often, startled jackrabbits will bound out of my way, clearly unused to human intruders.

Over time, I’ve learned that the arroyo is not static but always changing. During the heavy monsoon rains in the summertime, it can revert to being a real river again, filling with rushing water that’s strong enough to shove an automobile down its channel. After such storms I’ll find that many of the arroyo’s once familiar banks and curves have been eradicated, replaced by entirely new ones.

As with the arroyo itself, the appearance of the surrounding landscape can also change, especially during the progression of seasons: dusted with snow in the winter, sprinkled with dainty wildflowers in the spring, turning muted in tones of soft greens and browns in the summer, and then springing into bold color in the early autumn with yellow sunflowers and purple asters.

Even during the times I don’t venture down to the arroyo, it will sometimes send me a little of its wildness. At night it may come as sound, with the blood curdling cries of the coyotes. Or it may come as a powerful wind that bangs against our blinds. And twice in late autumn it has come in the form of little emissaries that nestle in corners of our condo breezeway – tiny bats looking for a place to hibernate over the winter.

My arroyo: it is not just a dried out old riverbed.


Carolyn Handler Miller (www.carolynmiller.com) is a writer who works across a variety of media. Originally beginning her career as a newspaper reporter and magazine journalist, Carolyn's work spans writing for TV, feature films, books and new media. She is one of the pioneering writers in the field of interactive narrative, where she has contributed to over four-dozen projects as a writer, writer-story designer, and consultant. She is the author of “Digital Storytelling: A Creator's Guide to Interactive Entertainment” (Focal Press), now in its second edition.  

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