Summer Guide: Discover Nature and Find Yourself

It's way too early on a Sunday morning. I'm lying in bed listening as the iPod magically shuffles to the Stones.

"You can't always get what you want / you can't always get what you want / But if you try sometimes / you just might find, you get what you need."

I've already been for a hike this sunny morning after a rain-drenched moon. I tried to focus on the beauty, but the smell of horseshit filled the air — the trail was ruined by the fresh, morning doo. I want to love horses as though I were a pre-menstrual girl, but I can't seem to. I find myself hating them as much as I hate The Jonas Brothers and their bogus promise rings.

You see, I've rented out my house and shed most of my belongings for the next six months in an effort to find myself, to get back to nature. Maybe that Thoreau guy had it right? For the first time in almost a decade, I'm filled with hope — or at least a vague feeling that I'm finally getting what I want.

I spend most of my time questioning whether I'm strong enough to be alone. Am I man enough to live day to day, with no money and no worries? Will I be able to poetically interpret my surroundings, or am I destined to be jaded, noticing only the shit that litters my trail instead of gazing openly at the ever-brightening horizon?

Thankfully, like the blooming desert and overflowing reservoirs, I too am flowing again, and this time it's not from coffee. I've found myself drawn to the rivers of the valley, the lumbering Lower Salt and the powerful Verde. I feel like a modern-day John the Baptist trying to cleanse my sins in the fresh cool desert waters.

Fleeing central Phoenix, I have found myself at Saguaro Lake Ranch at the very foot of Stewart Mountain Dam; the giant, gray, concrete structure, the stent placed in the artery to monitor the lifeblood of Phoenix. I have hunkered down at a rebel camp oasis next to the security-lined fence of the eerie Cylon fortress.

In contrast to the dead concrete and ominous warning signs are the audible sounds of life at Saguaro Lake Ranch: the loud preaching of water, the osprey cry that soars on morning thermals, the peccary that grunts below the strange, gesturing cacti.

In the 1500s, the conquistadors named the giant columnar cacti pitahaya. The species was eventually renamed Carnegiea giganteus after the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who donated millions to the preservation of desert lands. Thank the gods we call them saguaros and not their abomination of a scientific name. I'm fuming as I write this — man is always trying to conquer nature.

The saguaros are like tall sentinels in the distance. They speak to me, repeating a simple mantra: You are not alone. You are just a visitor here. It's not the monstrous concrete dam that frightens me. It's the silent giants that seem to keep watch on the land. The dam, although misplaced like a scar in this pristine environment, quickly vanishes; the man-made is dwarfed by the overwhelming presence of something sacred. The Bulldog Cliffs that surround this narrow valley frame one of the most idyllic river sanctuaries imaginable.

At one moment, you feel prehistoric, expecting a pterodactyl to soar through the sky with a piercing scream. Or a group of natives silently, lithely riding by in their loincloths toward a tipi that's sending smoke spiraling away to the hills, as dark-skinned children splash along the river's edge.

Thankfully, Saguaro Lake Ranch speaks as a testament to the good of mankind. Like the unassuming, mighty saguaro, the Durand family has stood guard over this spiritual place since 1948. The ranch itself is largely unchanged since 1930, and that is due in part to the tenacity of the Durands. I stumbled upon this haven while searching for a place where I could be intimate with the river. I was lucky that the ranch offered kayak rentals; I have kayaked the gorgeous and peaceful Lower Salt twice, and it's hard to believe this is the same river that drunken tubers yak into every summer.

I'd liken drinking shitty beer on this river to getting drunk in church, or having sex in your parents' bed — it just isn't right! Fortunately, the ranch believes in experiencing the river without the madness. It offers floats at 7, 8, and 9 a.m. each day, all summer long, so you can get on and off the river before the barely legal NASCAR-gone-wild crowd shows up to defecate on the chest of this virgin land.

Living beyond the human fringe in this solitude, I am constantly reminded that we are just visitors here. I believe that one day the dam won't matter, it won't hold, and at some point down the road, when we are all dead, the river will reclaim what was once hers. I'm just sad I won't be around to see it.