Some days I dream about the river.

Last week I got to wade in it, and man was that cool water refreshing. A group of us piled into a car and cruised north. The playlist was hot, the water was cold. We had PBJ wraps, chocolate, trail mix, carrot sticks, celery and sour cream and onion potato chips to munch on—far more snacks than the five of us really needed.

Our first stop was a gas station in Española where we went to the bathroom, got gas and made sure the person with car sickness would be in the front seat for the remainder of our winding journey.

Our next stop was the river just south of Taos. Four of us weren’t entirely sure which river we were stopped at, but our local guide/current Burqueño/person who drove us there informed us that it was THE river, the Rio Grande, that we were floating in.

The river was hopping. We made friends with an old dog who was enjoying a morning in the water with its owner. It kept returning to our picnic blanket to beg for potato chips.

Three of us waded into the COLD (and I mean cold) water and people watched. There were rafters and fishers, sunbathers, kayakers and swimmers.

There was, what to me is, the classic New Mexico river visitor: a small group drinking beer and swimming. They had some fishing rods leaned against their lawn chairs and a paddleboard they occasionally used. There were the families on large group rafts, all in big hats and sunglasses, shorts, waterproof shoes of some variety on their feet. You know they remembered to put on sunscreen.

There was the gray-haired couple who unloaded their kayaks with so much efficiency, it was clear they’d been to this stretch of water thousands of times. They arrived after a larger, younger crowd, but managed to make it in the river and on their way before the large group even got all of their kayaks inflated.

Then there were the folks with the inflatable kayaks—young and all dressed very cute with sunhats and baseball caps.

Everyone in the vicinity was captivated when we caught sight of a large lizard chilling in the water by the boat ramp. Not a gigantic komodo dragon sized lizard, but this wasn’t your average whiptail. The small children fell silent. The swimmers chatted among themselves. It reminded me of those cafeteria scenes in high school coming of age movies when everyone catches sight of the new kid and stops to stare.

In this case, the new kid was a chilled out lizard.

My little group puzzled over how and why this lizard came to be on the river bank. While it looked very content on the edge of the water, it did not look like it belonged. Turns out, the group of kayakers brought the bearded dragon with them. I’m not sure why a bearded dragon was part of their river trip, but I was tickled that all 20 or so of us hanging out by the water were so quickly and thoroughly entranced by a lizard.

The river is central to life in New Mexico.

Obviously, water is essential for life. We need water to shower, to fix that morning cup of coffee, to stay hydrated. Water plays a crucial role in all kinds of industries, from farming to computer chip manufacture. But it’s also so enriching to spend time in the water and by the water. Growing up in southern New Mexico, I have a much more limited experience with the Rio Grande than my friend from Taos, because for much of the year, there isn’t a river in Las Cruces—just a dry river bed.

In the summer months when the water began to flow, my family used to participate in the annual Raft the Rio. Everyone built a raft of recycled materials to race (lazily) down a three mile stretch of the Rio Grande.

Whether you’re from the north or south end of the state, there’s something about being surrounded by desert that makes floating down the river all that much more enchanting.

Cathy Cook, El Defensor Chieftain