For the 63rd consecutive year, the Hassayampa River White Water Rafting Regatta has been postponed.
The Wickenburg Port Authority, which sponsors the annual postponement, said it could not find enough rafters who were willing to bring their own rapids.
Just as well. If the Hassayampa had water in it, it would ruin a good gag that has been around for at least 140 years. As president emeritus of The National Liars’ Trust, I’m going to devote what’s left of my life to keeping that story alive.
Here’s how it was told many years ago by Orrick Jackson:
You’ve heard about the wondrous stream
They call the Hassayamp
They say it turns a truthful guy
Into a lying scamp.
And if you quaff its waters once,
It’s sure to prove your bane.
You’ll ne’er forsake the blasted stream
Or tell the truth again.
I don’t know who Orrick Jackson was. I don’t know much more about Andrew Downing, a once-prominent Arizona versifier who wrote a longer poem about the Hassayampa.
However, I am expert on dry rivers. I should say rivers that are usually dry. There are rare times when intense rain upstream will turn any streambed into a roaring torrent of muddy water, too thick to swim, too swift to plow.
The Hassayampa has roared three times in thefive years I’ve lived in Wickenburg. And I remember a night in 1980 when Phoenix was cut off from the world by floods in the Salt, Agua Fria, Hassayampa, and New River, which had just opened.
Arizona has wet rivers, pretty ones, but eventually all of them encounter a dam, or vanish into the sand, or fall victim to drought.
The Santa Cruz River starts out wet in Arizona, crosses into Mexico and smuggles itself back into the U.S. It is a torrent of aridity flooding past downtown Tucson, and by the time it joins the Gila south of Phoenix, it has been demoted to Santa Cruz Wash.
The lower Gila, which appears on maps as a major tributary to the Colorado, has been dry since 1929, when Coolidge Dam was completed southeast of Globe.
There wasn’t much water in it before the dam was built, but in wet years, pioneers navigated it on rafts. When the Mormon Batallion trooped along the Gila east of Yuma Crossing in 1846, Lieutenant George Stoneman sought to make points by turning a wagon bed into a boat. Stoneman’s craft was swamped, soaking his commanding officer’s personal belongings.
In some areas, it’s hard to identify the bed of the Gila today unless you’re on a highway bridge that has a sign, “Gila River.” Crossing the river on Interstate 10, many a newcomer has asked, “They call this a river?”
Other tributaries to the Gila include theSalt, the Agua Fria and the Hassayampa, all of which are dry by the time they get there.
The Hassayampa starts out as a wet creek on Mount Union, south of Prescott. The last time I was at Walnut Grove, about 30 miles upstream from Wickenburg, there was a tiny stream of water, about enough to float a rumor.
In the vicinity of the old Walnut Grove school, the water vanished. Legend says the river flows underground, only occasionally coming to the surface. You have to take it on faith, like electricity.
Emerging springs feed a short stretch of river through the Nature Conservancy’s Hassayampa River Preserve, just downstream from Wickenburg. (The preserve will close for the summer June 14 because of fire danger, and not a moment too soon.)
For most of its length, the Hassayampa is drier than a bag of feathers.
Prospectors roamed the length of the Hassyampa early in the 1860s, finding a good deal of gold within a few miles of the river.
Inevitably, they bragged about more gold than they brought to the bank. I believe that it is from that tendency to expand the truth that the fable was born: drink from the Hassayampa, and you’ll never tell the truth again.
“Hassayamper” became a synonym for liar, and a nickname for Arizonans. Phoenix residents who were wealthy enough to spend their summers on the West Coast formed a Hassayampa Club in Newport Beach, and called themselves Hassayampers.
Poet Andrew Downing told it this way in a poem included in his 1897 book, Trumpeters and Other Poems.
There’s a legend, centuries old,
By the early Spaniards told,
Of a sparkling stream that lies
Under Arizona’s skies.
Hassayampa is its name,
And the title to its fame
Is a wondrous quality
Known today from sea to sea.
Those who drink its waters bright,
Red man, white man, boor or knight,
Girls or women, boys or men
Never tell the truth again.
Though the story sounds, ‘twould seem,
Like an opium-eater’s dream,
I am soberly inclined
In it much of truth to find.
By its premise I account
For a very large amount
Of the lying that is done
Every day beneath the sun.
When the banners and the band
Lead the speaker to the stand
Politician bland and sleek
He proceeds his piece to speak,
And the while we cheer or chafe,
Shows us, if we would be safe,
He must be our guiding lamp
He is full of Hassayamp!
When a vaunting veteran tells
How a hundred battle-hells
Saw the deeds he’s noted for
How his valor closed the war,
We are silent, yet we think
He has quaffed the fateful drink.
Naught can his delusion cure
He’s a Hassayamper sure!
When a woman seems to gauge
With such candid skill her age
That the net result appears
Short about a dozen years,
I suspect that now and then–
Just the same as do the men–
She, unthinking, lets her lip
Take a Hassayampa dip.