The elixir of life- searching for
water in a dry, dusty desert
By Randal B. Thatcher
My wife and I recently tagged along with an adventuresome relation, following him down a precipitous path into a primitive, otherworldly place, known as, Dark Canyon, within the Bears Ears Monument of Southern Utah.
We trust this guy—a seasoned hiker and experienced backpacker. So, when he said there’d be water down there in that desolation, we believed him.
Thus, down we went; deeper and deeper into that cavernous canyon, carrying the several liters of collective water we’d all brought along from our respective kitchen faucets.
Planning to be in that canyon for at least five days, we knew we had to find supplemental water along the trail. “No worries,” assured our de-facto guide, as he waved his satellite phone confidently in the air, pointing at the several blue dots on his topographical map, each indicating a likely water source.
On the evening of the first day, we camped near one of those promising blue dots, finding a suitable watering-hole nearby, and got to work filtering from this placid little pool, into our half-empty bottles. So far, so good.
Toward the end of day two, we strode, hot and dusty, into an incongruously verdant spot—a tiny oasis of green in an immensity of earth tones. Here we found enough water to not only fill our near-empty bottles, but to also fill our hats, for dousing our overheated bodies.
So wonderfully welcome and unexpected was this refreshing retreat that we were all reluctant to leave it. But, since the satellite map promised more water down the trail, we trudged on.
In the late afternoon of the day three—our water supply nearly depleted—we hiked into a designated blue-dot campsite, but found no water. We split up to undertake an anxious scour for a half-mile radius around the camp. No luck.
I began taking consciously smaller sips from my remaining half-liter of water, as we continued our search in the sweltering heat.
We finally gave up, opting to search out an alternative blue dot, though this would require a half-mile backtrack, and an arduous hike up a steep canyon trail.
Halfway up this trail, nagging thoughts began creeping into my mind… dark thoughts, that grew increasingly desperate. The canyon we were ascending was so dry and barren that the prospect of water in such a parched place seemed increasingly improbable.
I took out my water-bottle to stare ominously at the two remaining inches of clear liquid in the bottom. How long could such a tiny cupful sustain me in this heat? And how much water did my two companions have left?
I began to picture myself in one of those western movies, where the hero is literally dragging himself through the scorching sand of an endless desert, sun beating down without mercy, and no water anywhere in sight. Would he survive, our western hero? Would he find that saving spring, or pond, or even puddle, before it was too late?
Did I think wistfully about how cavalierly I’d pulled the handle on our faucet at home to conjure an instant and steady stream of clear water?
The lyrics to a song my Dad used to sing came ruefully into my head:
All day I’ve faced a barren waste;
Without the taste of water… Cool water.
And, just as spirits were beginning to flag, and hopes to sag, we beheld a sight that might’ve been a vision: a man in an olive-green shirt with official patches and a shiny gold badge… a forest ranger!
He smiled warmly, as he assured us the spring lay just up ahead.
Suddenly the pack felt much lighter, and the sun overhead a bit less scorching.
Another 500 yards up the trail, and there they were: cattails and bullrushes springing reassuringly up from an obvious water source!
We didn’t care in the least that this was the most stagnant and fetid water we’d come across. It was wet, and that’s all that mattered.
We squeezed this brownish, lifesaving liquid through our filter, gulping it down with grateful glee. I even poured a hatful of the scummy stuff over my head, shouting with equal parts joy and relief as I did so.
Three days later, back at home, I glanced at our silver kitchen faucet, lifting the handle gently to usher forth an instant stream of clean, clear water, as if by magic.
“It’s a miracle,” I thought. “And now I will never again take such a marvelous modern convenience for granted!”
Well, at least not until the next morning, when I casually flipped the handle on that same faucet to fill a glass, without even a second thought.
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