I stared upward at the giant metal blades of a windmill, trying to will them to move in the light afternoon breeze. I needed to know if it worked. It looked old, but well maintained. The machinery underneath the blades connected to a long pump, worn from recent use. Lime green algae covered a nearby tank of water, a dead rat floated stiff and upside down.
I’d walked nearly thirty miles to get there, the water bottles in my pack emptying, gulps at first, then rationed sips after the last windmill was nothing more than a rusted skeleton. It had been dry for years. I carried nothing but empty bottles for the last two hours. My lips were dry and cracking, dust sticking to my teeth, my tongue swollen. I could feel my body giving way, like an un-oiled machine seizing up.
It’s very simple in the desert. Water runs your life because without it you die. Wells become your obsession. You hang dreams on old windmills rising on the horizon, a solar panel, a simple pump, an electric line dropping into a fuse box. They are the modern oasis.
Scattered across the land to sustain thin herds of cattle, you can feel your hopes rise as you approach, the image of a cool glass of water growing in your mind until it crowds out all other thoughts and becomes your sole desire in life.A lever and an old rope, a switch that must be pulled, a faucet to turn, every well has a secret, some puzzle to figure out. You try to hold back your hopes as you work to understand the logic of the machinery, figure out how to turn it on, where the water comes from, how it’s sucked out of the earth, where the pump gets its power, but it’s hard to think with your tongue sticking to the roof of your mouth.
How much water do I have? How much can I carry? Where is the next source? Is it reliable? What condition is it in? How far? What time of day? How hot is it? If it’s not there, is there another source? How sure is it? How much further? These are the thoughts of a sun-drenched-thirsty mind.
The worse it is, the more the equilibrium of what looks like a good source shifts. You aren’t asking bottle or tap. You don’t care if it’s warm or cold. It’s more like, is there cow shit or a dead animal floating around in it? What color is the algae, neon yellow or just green? At some point, you’d drink almost anything.
A metal pipe hung a few inches above the orange-green algae in the windmill’s tank. It ran back to the pump and down into the ground. Now I just needed the blades to turn, but they stood there in the wind, refusing to move no matter how hard I stared.
I unlatched a long rope that led up to the windmill’s tail, a giant piece of metal with “The Chicago Aeromotor Co.” painted on the side. I pulled the rope, felt it give slightly, and pulled again. The tail swung, creaking into place behind the blades, catching the wind like a giant sail and rotating the windmill’s blades to face it.
The blades shuddered for a moment, the scream of metal twisting against ungreased metal filled the air as they began to turn. The rusty joints came to life and the blades picked up speed. The pump rose and fell. I stood silent, listening, waiting, trying not to believe until it was certain, until I heard that rush of water, the sound of life flowing up from below.
It came, spurting out of the ground as the windmill cranked above and I gulped it down, my stomach swelling like an overfilled balloon. A few minutes later, I choked down more, again and again, trying to dull the memories of the last dust filled miles, the empty bottles in my pack, the unyielding desire for anything liquid. A half hour passed like this before I filled my water bottles for the last time, piled them in my pack, and lashed the mill’s tail into place.
The next well was a half day away to the north, if it existed at all.