Dirty Water and Magic in the Desert
I open my eyes to darkness enveloping my surroundings like inky satin. The shadow of a dream tickles my consciousness, in a vulnerable place behind my eyes, but already it is fleeting as I rise to the surface of cognizance. I am left with a feeling of melancholy and the intense knowledge that I have forgotten something important. The sound of muffled voices float down to me, where I am cowboy camped under the stars. I roll over and disengage from my nighttime form of a sleeping bag wrapped hiker-burrito, my air pad crinkling obnoxiously beneath me. Attracted by the noise, the invasive beam of a headlamp swings in my direction, destroying my night vision with a firework display of colorful spots.
“I’m not a bear,” I croak, my voice still in its morning phase where it doesn’t remember how to form words yet.
“Is that you, Matador?” an anonymous voice behind the headlamp calls back.
“I think so,” I answer, wiping gritty crust from the corners of my eyes.
“Do you know where the water spigot is?”
“Two hundred more feet up trail, on the right hand side.”
“Thanks,” the voice says and I listen to the shuffle of footsteps fade into the dark. I realize that I never asked who the mystery voice belonged to.
Five minutes later I run through my mental checklist, assessing that all my gear is where it belongs in its dedicated place inside my backpack. My habit of sleeping tent-less makes my morning routine as efficient as an army drill; wake up, empty bladder, assemble pack, eat cold oatmeal, hike. I am a well-oiled machine, greased with instant ramen noodles and granola bars. The structure is comforting and the simplicity of life is addicting. I am good at this. This way of existence is satisfying. I say goodbye to my temporary bedroom, a palace of pine needles, as I hike out into the steadily rising dawn.
Water Is Life
I peer into the concrete cistern, evaluating its murky contents. It is halfway filled with a brownish-yellow liquid, which at one point may have been water. Drowned beetles in various forms of decomposition float intimidatingly on top of the brackish fluid. A large-lettered sign affixed to cistern warns, “Non-Potable water, for horses only.” I submerge my water bottle, attempting to avoid as many bug carcasses as possible. The bottle fills to capacity and I screw on my filtration device, sending out good intentions to the universe that I don’t catch a case of Giardia drinking from this cesspool. In the desert, my standards for water are severely lowered. Out here, I take what I can get. This will be my last on-trail access to water for 25 miles. Every time I come across a new water source I make sure to gift it the gratitude it deserves. I realize more deeply every day how privileged I am to have clean water at the turn of a knob in my daily life. I recognize how often I take this life-sustaining liquid for granted. How lucky I am to never have to choose the fear of going thirsty over the possibility of sickness from the water I ingest.
Three hours pass and I am once again grateful for my water, regardless of its yellowish tinge. A bead of sweat pools precariously in the soft indentation above my upper lip. I lick it off with a parched tongue before it can plummet to the sandy ground. I taste the salty brine of it in the arid cavern of my mouth. The sun beats down incessantly, other caches of sweat linger in the small of my back and beneath the band of my bra. A trickle runs down my temple, across my dirt-smeared cheek and is absorbed by the cheetah-print bandana knotted around my neck. The sand is blinding in the afternoon sun. I stare at my shoes through the protection of tinted glasses and focus on the task of putting one foot in front of the other. My feet are getting heavier as the sun rises higher up in the cloudless sky. The only foliage brave enough to fight for survival in this area are cacti and low-growth, scraggly bushes. There is no respite from the heat. There is no shade.
I trudge along the trail as it crests a rocky ridge of glittering shards of mica. I am a quickly melting candle and my energy level emulates my state. I would pit myself against a rattlesnake without a second thought in exchange for 15 minutes of shaded relief. As I round a bend I notice a dusty, forest service road in the distance. A quarter mile down the road I see a four-poster, white tent and next to it a parked Jeep. Could it be trail magic? Out here in the middle of nowhere? Dare I let my mind travel that path? Too late, I realize my brain has already begun to fantasize about glacier-cold Gatorade and food that doesn’t require rehydration. I try to reign in my imagination, so as not to be disappointed if it turns out to be car campers or a hunting group. The attempt is futile; the cravings have already affixed themselves like parasites into my mind. A burst of energy I didn’t know I possessed transforms my robotic footsteps into a swift power walk.
In 15 minutes my feet connect with the road and I search for the usual indicators that trail magic is near. I don’t see any signs proclaiming “trail magic this way” and I sigh in dejection. I guess it is car campers after all. I berate my imagination for setting me up for disappointment. Then, I take a consolatory swig of warm water from my quickly depleting rations and walk across the road to where the trail continues on the other side.
Several tenths of a mile later and my hope is rekindled, as I discover a small laminated sign claiming “water this way.” I follow a trail of identical signs up a narrow side path, my breath held in excitement. I am giddy as I push through the shrubs, enjoying the treasure hunt feel of the moment. Emerging at the top, I am reconnected with the dirt road and greeted by the tent I saw from above. Colorful tapestries are draped from the sides; the festive patterns explode against the monochromatic background of the desert.
“Hello friend. Welcome,” says a long-haired man from beneath the glorious shade. “Come join us.” He smiles broadly, displaying a perfect wall of pearl-white teeth. Two other people are seated on camping chairs underneath the structure, along with two fold-out tables scattered with Costco-sized bags of snacks. My eyes scan the tables in silent reverence; carrots and hummus, Doritos, candy, tangerines, Gatorade, a cornucopia of plenty. After selecting an unnaturally colored, sugar-bomb bottle of blue Gatorade, I drop my heavy pack and claim an empty seat. Unable to transmit my immense gratitude with my sun-blazed brain, I smile and lean back in my chair. We have a saying out here that the trail provides. It knows us intimately, using that knowledge wisely to teach us lessons and guide us. It tends to give us things when we need them the most and expect them the least.
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