Powerful thirst

The occasional "splish" of liquid in my backpack was all the motivation I needed. Out on one of my vintage getaways (well-meaning excursions that evolve into desperately epic journeys), I had run almost completely dry.

Years ago, I wandered deep into the narrows of Long Canyon by myself. On some kind of sadistic vision quest, I walked off the edge of the map nearly 50 miles west of Blanding. When the water dried up, I would guess I was dozens of miles from the highway. In typical fashion, I'd set out with a couple quarts of tap water and my filter, trusting that late spring would bring at least some standing water and that I would be able to coax it through the charcoal purifier. After two days of total solitude wandering through a narrow canyon that twisted through a sandstone block, I found no boon. The potholes that were still hiding in that tight, dry space were black with rot, and looking into their darkness, "Sweetwater," my purifier's name, seemed laughable.

After nearly two days in the canyon, I had no choice, and coaxed on by a "splish-splash" sound from my pack, I pointed it for the truck. It wasn't long before I started having visions of a convenience store's giant refrigerated section. I started imagining jumbo Slurpees and ice-filled vats with multi-colored bottles. And of course, I had help from my "splish."

Passing a pothole that I'd actually tried to filter a day earlier, I desperately opened my pack, unearthed my final water bottle and savored the remaining two sips, holding them in my mouth as long as possible before sending them down. Tepid water colored by the flavor of plastic never tasted so good, but it was over. The water was gone.

But when I reshouldered my pack and started hammering again, I was stunned to hear the splish again. "Another water bottle!" I exclaimed aloud, and I quickly dropped the pack and searched for the source of the sound. Imaging the sweetness of another sip, I fumbled with the zipper and produced none other than a fuel bottle half full of white gas. Needless to say, my little helper was gone after that moment, and my progress out of the canyon slowed to a grind. And during the next 24 hours it took me to get from holding that bottle of gas to the convenience store bonanza, my mind wandered a little bit.

Fairly quickly, Samuel Coleridge's "Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink" started repeating at various volumes in my mind. And that damned gas bottle became an albatross of sorts. Now, I couldn't escape its putrid sound. I tried hiding in the bottom of the pack but to no avail. I even considered violating every backcountry maxim and dumping the toxic liquid in the canyon. Stuck with it and Coleridge, I staggered toward the car.

The following morning I recalled another time when thirst had nearly bested me. Trapped on miles of fenceline in an arid corner of western Colorado, I'd spaced out my water jug. After eight hours without a drop, I was desperate and dropped my hammer and coffee can full of fencing staples and started wandering. Eventually, I lucked upon an irrigation ditch. My arms sunk up to my elbows in mud, I happily lapped from its stagnant flow. Unfortunately, there was no ditch in this canyon, only sand, stone, wind and sun.

Later that day, my thirsty mind would wander to a long-forgotten lecture by my high school chemistry teacher Mr. Martin. Gray moustache twitching, he sipped black coffee from an Aladdin thermos top in his left hand. In his right hand, Mr. Martin held three wooden balls before the blank-eyed teen-agers. After another sip he pronounced, "We have two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule here."

He continued, "Now if I connect them, they form a Mickey Mouse shaped molecule." Students' eyes brightened slightly, the room drew a collective breath, and Mr. Martin took another sip of coffee. Still, everyone slumped back in their seats, Disney dancing in their heads, as he continued, "Together they form a water molecule, and the bond is created by opposing forces."

And then the clincher hit that sleeping classroom. "Water is the source of all life."

I realized that fact poignantly as I crawled out of Long Canyon that day and fired up the car, pointed it to convenience world and paid three bucks for a large plastic container that was "bottled at the source."

I've also realized that fact over the course of the past month. Crawling out of last summer's drought, it is more than relief to see the river coursing with water, to feel the touch of light rain during a usually dry month and to look out over a valley that is alive with greenness for the first time in nearly a year.

This third planet in the solar system is blessed with water and hence is the only one that can sustain life as we know it. And Durango has been blessed by water this spring and is once again alive. At no time was that more evident than last weekend, when I pulled my boat out of two years of retirement and rode the flow of water downstream. For a couple hours, "splish" was the only thing sounding in my ears.

Will Sands




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