When you grow up as a child of the dry, in Southern California where water has always been as valuable as melted silver in the canals and irrigation ditches called zanjas way back in the early 1800s, the river calls you. The Santa Ana River calls me every day. I can't ride my bike or walk beside it every day, but I do as often as I can, and my dog Fantasia loves the wildness of the river as if she were born to hunt there.
She usually hunts tennis balls. But when we walk down the Tequesquite Arroyo just past the end of my street, and she realizes where we're going, her head lifts and she tries to run at the end of the leash until my shoulder threatens to pop out of place. It's the smell of willows, cottonwoods, rabbits, and squirrels. Down past the Orange County line, the river is encased in concrete and riprap, like the Los Angeles River and so many others. But here, the Santa Ana is still wild, though diminished by upstream dams and water diversion projects, and though the water runs bank-to-bank only after the most ferocious winter rains, there is always a wide band of shallow water moving eternally toward Corona and all the way down to Newport, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean.
And that makes it like every grand river in the world, to me. There are the few beautiful European rivers I've seen -- The Thames in London, The Seine in Paris, The Tiber in Rome, the Limmat in Zurich, the Aare in Thun, Switzerland, where my mother was born. The Aare runs through ancient cities and villages, blue as Windex and swift and cold inside stone embankments decorated with planters of the reddest geraniums. Cafes hang over the water, and my daughters love that river.
The great rivers of America -- the Colorado and Snake Rivers, the Hudson by which trains follow fall foliage, the Mississippi where I was lucky enough this year to walk beside the riverbanks in St. Louis, then Memphis, and finally New Orleans and below, where the immense sweep of brown water makes any freeway look miniscule.
But my river is the Santa Ana. It is wild and unassuming, maybe, but the very indifference with which it passes through millions of people makes me love it every time I walk there. I keep writing about the land on either side of the banks, the old orange grove settlements and places like Agua Mansa, and Rubidoux, and Colton. As someone who lives three blocks from the hospital where I was born in Riverside, who grew up collecting acorns from the native oaks and grinding them into an inedible mash which I tried to make my brothers taste, touching the wild tobacco blossoms yellow and tubular as macaroni, I have always loved artists who make native landscapes their lifelong subjects. Marcel Pagnol wrote of his beloved hills outside Marseilles; Eudora Welty, writing in her bedroom, made vivid the landscape of small-town Mississippi; Ernest J. Gaines of southern Louisiana.
Sometimes I worry about my lifelong obsession with place, with the small and large histories and memories particular to this part of California, even this river. But last month, when Queen Elizabeth celebrated her 60 years on the throne, a procession of boats and barges accompanied her down the Thames, and I cheered for her river. I listened to Handel's "Water Music," composed for King George's journey on a barge up the River Thames in 1717.
And Fantasia, a flat-coated retriever, apparently a purebred dog picked up in Moreno Valley when she was only a year old before we adopted her seven years ago from the Riverside Humane Society, believes she is meant to be hunting ducks and fish in this river, as she was bred to do in some distant past, in Virginia, maybe, or in England.
But a few weeks ago, the coyotes almost got us, and the river taught me that it is wild still, wilder than we might like to believe. Last year's winter storms uprooted willows and tangled the wild grapevines into snarls along the cottonwoods and oaks. This spring, the arrowroot has grown back full and lush, the straight branches Native Americans used for arrows when they lived along the river. Fantasia strained at the leash, wanting to leave the asphalt bike path along the edge of the riverbed and plunge into the trail she remembered led to the water.
I wanted to see the river, too. We wound through the powdery white sand through the cottonwoods, past the tree where the hanger has been dangling from a branch for a year as a reminder of floods, through the yellow blooms of monkeyflower and the tiniest purple lupines just sprung from the glittery sand. We stood beside the water, watching a young egret watch us, and then he lifted abruptly into the air. I spoke on the phone to Doug, who remembered taking photos of us at this very spot, and then I heard the low confident laugh of a coyote.
To the left of me. West. Behind a bush. Then his compatriot answered, a different laugh, a coded chuckle. To the right of me. East. And one more checked in, burble of yeah, I'm right here. A little southeast. One more -- high-pitched three yips, just further in the circle.
The circle around my dog and me. It was not close to sunset. It was early. I hung up and breathed hard. I could smell them. Fantasia could smell them. But she thought they smelled, and sounded, incredibly attractive. Rather than tremble or pull me away, she sat down. Primly. Interested.
I said, "Fantasia, those are not sexy dogs. They are wild." I thought, "Do they want to kill us, or just toy with us?"
I started to run away from the river, dragging Fantasia at first since she was still intrigued, straight back down the path and they called to each other on all sides of us, as if we were passing a gauntlet of eyes. The sky was still very light, it wasn't even 7 p.m., and they were playing with us. The laughter and chorus of that many coyotes is one of the scariest things I've ever heard. I hear it all the time, from my bedroom window at midnight, and these are the same singers, but they sound much different moving alongside in the deadly quiet of the riverbed.
We ran until I was covered with sweat, and Fantasia had realized we weren't hunting, but being hunted, and when we got to the asphalt path, the sounds of their game faded back. We had not seen them. I kept running on the asphalt until two young guys on bikes came up behind us and said, "You ok?"
"Coyotes," I gasped, and they said they'd heard them, too. They walked with us until we reached the trailhead, and then kept riding. Fantasia's tongue hung out pink and long, her sides heaved, and she looked happier than I've ever seen her. I leaned against the last fencepost of the bike trail and looked back at the trees swaying in the breeze, the white fluff drifting off the cottonwoods, and heard a few more chuckles of coyote song in the distance where they might have found someone else to play, to remind them of the power of moving water that belongs to no one.
Susan Straight's new novel "Between Heaven and Here" will be published in September. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.
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