Monday, July 16, 2007

Desert Thirst

I had a writer here for a few days. His name is Roland Pelletier, and he is writing a book that takes place in Guaymas in the 1850’s and wanted someone to take him around the city and into the desert. It seemed an easy assignment.

I took him for a hike in the desert. Ordinarily we don’t hike in the desert at this time of year; it was 107F or 42C today (the day I am writing this), at noon. But this was when he came, so off we went. It was a typical summer day; a cloudless sky of rich blue, like looking up at the Caribbean. We walked over some rolling hills and open country at first. The desert is very dry; months without rain have taken every leaf from the shrubs and trees, leaving a brown and grey landscape. The only green is the odd organpipe cactus, scattered along the hillsides, and the dense thornscrub in the deeper washes, where water is available year-round. Two deer bounded into a draw as we crossed over a hill. I wondered what they found to eat. We crossed a wash and strolled over the open ground beyond. Then we descended back into the wash, at first struggling through the dense bush. Eventually the wash narrowed into a boulder-strewn canyon, with palm trees that rustle in the breeze like flowing water, high walls of worn tuff, riddled with caves. After reaching a blind end at a 20 ft waterfall (dry of course), we decided to back out a bit and then climb the side, to get around the barrier. That’s when the trouble started.

The rock here is rotten, soft and easily broken; a perfect handhold may crumble with a light tug. We ascended the near-vertical sides without incident, but there was no going back the way we came up. The rest was a safer slope, but much of it was loose scree and treacherous enough with good hikers underfoot. And my friend Roland was wearing boots with smooth soles. At least they were rubber, not leather, so they held well onto hard rock. But it was treacherous going. We got to the top, and the other side was a long, vertical drop. We tried to find another way into the canyon we left, but it ended in the same, vertical formations. So the only way was to move laterally, and get ahead of the dry waterfall. This choice was the safer one, but we were already almost out of water. And to carry on meant heading a long, roundabout route through desert wash and dense thornscrub bush.

So we headed on. The sun was hot, the air hot, heavy, and still. Walking under the sun was like carrying a hot stone on your back and shoulders. My water was long gone, (I had only brought 3 litres for the two of us, planning on an hour or two on easy ground), and the thirst was intense. Saliva becomes thick, like glue, or a MacDonald’s shake, and the eyes become dry and uncomfortable. On we trudged, over boulders, through brush, out into the open where the mountains dip down to make a notch. Through this notch we descended into another wash, thick with scratchy, thorny and prickly brush. By this time we walked in silence, automatically moving forward, pushing through thickets, crunching over loose gravel, moving onward, forward, towards water, life and relief from the awful thirst. By the time we reached the last section of our hike, a dirt road over even ground, Roland turned to me and said “My hands are swollen.” I looked at mine and realized the same thing was happening to me. He also asked me if I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. Fortunately I couldn’t, and we knew we would be okay soon, so we became more relaxed, and began to talk again.

Roland wanted an experience of the desert and he got one. It is important to realize that the desert is not malevolently waiting for you to make a mistake so it can punish you. It is merciless, not because it is evil, but because it is indifferent. Man does not struggle against nature; he struggles against his own fragility, his own limitations, with nature not as his opponent, but as an impartial and disinterested judge. To survive here, you need to know what you need and how to get it. And if you don’t have what you need to survive here, you had better stay on the cilivised side of the edge.

People rarely die way out in the wilderness, far from help, out of communication range. The only people who get that far are those who know what they are doing. People more often die on the edges, near to civilization. Unprepared, unequipped, and caught off guard, they wander lost, or simply get themselves stuck somewhere and perish before they can get back out. We won that particular race, but it could have gone the other way if we were forced, say, to spend the night, or if an accident or injury befell one of us and slowed us down too much. And remember, long before you die from environmental exposure, your judgment becomes impaired, and you make foolish decisions which make your situation worse. So to survive you need enough to keep from getting that far, to the point of no return.


  1. Anonymous5:16 p.m.

    Hey Jack!
    We love reading the latest and greatest of what life and nature brings you. We're just sitting on our deck, watching the beautiful sun set over the lake at the cottage in Haliburton. The main activity here is to spot where the loon has gone. He's hard to find now that his feathers have alrady turned dark for the winter. This morning, we saw a magnificant gigantic pilaeted woodpecker. I have one thing in common with you, beside holding a Canadian passport. I did bring, not one, but two (2!) bot flies as a souvenir from Glover's Reef. How was your northern pilgrimage this summer? How are the camps in Belize holding up with all the recent hurricane activities :-( ? Hope all is well, looking forward to your next post. Would love to see more pics of the desert.

    Lucie and Alex (Glover's Reef Dec 2006)

  2. Anonymous9:56 p.m.

    Hi Jack!
    Haven't visited your page for a while, wow the new Manatee looks sleek! Really enjoyed your desert story as well, not sure I'll come hiking with you though! Think I'll stay on the water. We sailed our White Bear in Jervis Inlet and to Jedediah Island this summer, low key relaxing adventure. I look forward to reading more about the next manatee in progress. Best wishes, Paxie and Marc