The two rubber mats looked like the kind you’d see behind a semi-truck’s tires. The well they covered was nothing more than a sunken metal cylinder, an old culvert perhaps, turned on its side and dug into the ground with a pipe feeding in from the bottom. Rusted and old and probably empty. I pushed the matts aside and stared down.
A thin slick of mud stared up at me and laughed.
I felt my throat dry out looking at it. I checked the map and saw a stock pond three miles away.
“Maybe there,” I thought.
After that, it would be another six to Walnut Canyon, more reliable, but nothing’s certain.
I still had half a liter of water in my pack. I drank a few sips to push back my nerves and slipped the rest away, saving it for the thirst I knew would come pounding into my mind.
It’s more mental than physical, at least at first. The idea of not having water drills into your head. It’s not something you think about in a world of bathrooms and water fountains, where fresh water is as simple as twisting a knob.
When there’s nothing but half a liter left, when you don’t know where the next pool is, when you’re staring a slick of wet mud six feet down, your mind takes over. Fear seeps into every thought. It makes you thirsty before your lips are dry, before you saliva thickens, before you stop sweating as the sun beats down.
“It will be there,” I tell myself.
The stock pond has water, muddy and algae-green. I lift my bottle up and stare at the little creatures swimming around behind the plastic.
“Six miles to Walnut Canyon,” I think.
You don’t pass up water in the desert.
The trail climbs up and over a set of saddles. It becomes faint, barely a trace through the maze of thorns, a thin idea connected by rock cairns. My mind sets itself on that last clean water, those few ounces splashing back and forth in my bottle. It churns into every thought. I want it. I need it.
I drink it.
Then it’s gone.
I stare at the empty bottle, at the cake-layered cliffs perched on slopes of saguaros, at the sun beating down overhead.
I walk on.
A giant spike of rock, Battle Axe Butte, pushes up in the distance. There’s water there, in the canyon on the far side. I lick at my lips, their dry skin sticks to my tongue.
The green stock tank water drips out of my filter and looks beautiful. I forget the color. I forget the creatures that floated on the other side of the filter.
“It’s enough,” I tell myself. “It’s enough.”
The Battle Axe grows until it towers over me. I drop to its base then begin the long, slow trudge up and around its right flank. I feel weak and dried out, like my body is held together with ungreased gears.
The sun is almost to the horizon, low and covered in clouds, when I cross a saddle and stare into Walnut Canyon. A thin, shimmering ribbon of water snakes through the bottom.
I laugh with joy.
The sky laughs too, but at its own joke, as raindrops fall from the sky.