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True Stories by Steve Keely
HOW DRY I AM
9 August Ď05
I thought it smart to explore a pedestrian route out of Sand Valley given the summer flashfloods that are tossing roads and miring vehicles left and right. Yesterday at the swimming hole, the Quick family related how they sat on their pickup roof for hours as a three-foot wall of water struck. This morning theyíll drive a sub-truck to town to get the Chevy clean and running. I pop the idea to them of being dropped in the distant town to hike home.
It will not drop below 95 F as I hit a mid-morning stride in a cooling wind. I carry two gallons of water, a loaf of raison bread, compass and penlight. The route covers sandy tracks, animal trails and bushwhacking through the flats and hills of the California Sonora.
ĎThe desert is an ocean with its life underground and the perfect disguise above,í the band America sang. I see few lizards, scant birds and a pink dragonfly, but mostly rocks, cactus and things to ponder. All else aestivates in summer. It wasnít dry as a bone a week ago when the biggest cloudburst of the decade bashed this region. Water enough Ė if captured - to irrigate the land for a year flash flooded the washes for five hours and sank into the sands. Now itís dry again with wider and deeper cuts where the foliage shows a rare forest green.
An inveterate quantifier, I measure the two gallons by the mile so that from sunrise to sunset I drink the last drop while cresting the mountain ring around Sand Valley. Theoretically, itís all downhill from here. Stars twinkle one-by-one into view as unseen things skitter the ground. Hours later, the moon displays a desert floor crisscrossed by unfamiliar new washes rich with rodents.
In truth, Iím addled.
Tramping for hours on hopes and hunches, I get scared. My tongue clogs the oral cavity like a horsetail and Iíd drink urine if there was some. The moon disappears, the big dipper falls behind a mountain, and the compass case cracks during a fumble and spills liquid. Itís as unreliable as my skull. Landmarks catch the eye that I know by heart but donít stick on the brain. The hike becomes surreal.
The night grows fascinating. A sidewinder says hello at my feet on raised Ďblack pavementí whereas usually they course the washes where I shine the penlight. Up and down these washes I climb for hours before lying back to figure how to breathe around the swollen tongue. I discover that moisture can be captured via a temperature gradient between the oral surfaces and ambient air. In fifteen minutes, thereís enough saliva to swallow for the first time in miles. I doze with a promise.
If I survive Iíll not gauge but drink ad libitum the rest of my days.
A kit fox sniffs my knee shortly and awakens me. Inspired, I resume the crazy zigzag about the 100-square mile basin. Tired after hours, I stretch out again. A deer gazes down and rouses me with a snort. Encouraged, I wander the dark until water must be found.
I climb the nearest and rockiest slope to a narrowing wash and up that for two hours to a tiny mirror of stars in the rock Ė a pothole! Animal tracks circle ten stagnant gallons from which I draw one to a jug. I gulp a pint and descend the hills for twenty minutes without ill effect before allowing a second pint. The oath to drink freely waits till sunrise.
Sand Valley at first light takes on clarity. The sun, peaks, and tall trees point the direction. I pour the remaining water on my head pollywogs and all, and vow never to hike to town to escape the Valley. Iím home on strong legs after the 24-hour match.
Today the Quicks rattle proudly by in the old Chevy as I sip ice tea and Sand Valley bakes without protest.
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