29. Cow Pie Water

April 27, 2021Roger W. Lowther

Exactly 19 years ago, my wife and I started our hike on the entire Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), 2,659 miles from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada. It took almost six months!

My oldest son is about to go to college, and so he, his brother, and I will be hiking part of the Appalachian Trail this summer for a few weeks to celebrate as our family begins a furlough in the U.S. Planning for that trip brought back many memories from the PCT. The strongest is the time we became so dehydrated that we were sick for weeks afterward. I tell this story in my book Cow Pie Water, which you can find on Amazon. In fact, the whole book is named after this story. The rest of the book is a compilation of all our trail journals from that trip.

All forty were completely empty. I lifted each plastic gallon jug just to be sure. Hikers in the previous town promised a huge cache of water here. Whatever drops had been left quickly evaporated as the sun mercilessly beat down. The hot dry wind blew in my face, bushes and cacti too short to provide any useful kind of shade at all.

Abi and I were in the Mojave Desert, infamous for its killer heat and lack of water. Trail angels routinely leave an abundance of water for thirsty hikers. We didn’t carry enough water, because we simply couldn’t. It was too heavy to carry so much so far.

Trying not to get discouraged, we kept hiking hoping there would be another water cache not too far down the trail. After about an hour, we spotted it. But as we got closer, we could see some bottles laying on their side and others moving in the wind. These too were empty. To keep the containers from blowing away, a rope snaked through every handle and around a bush.

We picked up our pace, becoming concerned.

Pretty soon, we passed another empty water cache, and then another! And then we stopped. We were still weak from serious dehydration just a few days before, when we found a dead horse in the middle of a small murky pond, the only water source in a whole day of hiking. Then too we were forced to move on empty-handed.

I put my backpack down and checked the data book. The next water source was another unbelievable 37 miles away! In this over 100 degree heat, we were never going to make it. My face and body crusted with salt from sweat that never had a chance to run down my skin. The ground was nothing but sand, cacti, and bushes. Nothing can live without water. There were no buildings or paved roads as far as the eye could see in all directions.

“Well, this isn’t good,” I said, trying to make Abi laugh with the magnitude of the understatement. But she did not laugh.

I pulled out my map and found what was labeled an “unreliable water source” about a 30-minute hike off the trail. I hated to add the extra hour and fatigue of hiking there and back, but what choice did I have? I left my backpack with Abi in the inadequate shade of a two-foot-high cactus and went in search of it, filter and water bottles in hand.

Why are we so needy for water? You would think humans could last longer without it. Just a few hours in the sun, and we can barely function at all. A few more, and we’re as good as dead. Nothing is more essential to life than water.

All the stories of thirst in the Bible suddenly became very real to me. The Israelites were thirsty crossing the desert. The deer in the Psalms panted for streams of water. Jesus said, “Give me a drink” (John 4:7) to the woman at the Samaritan well, and “I thirst” (John 19:28) on the cross.

After about 30 minutes of walking, I heard the faint mooing of cattle, and my hopes began to rise. Where there are cows, there is water! But as soon as I saw them, my heart sank. The cows stood right in the middle of the only sign of water, nothing more than a muddy patch of ground. And the area was full of cow pies. Why did the cows have to choose this spot, the only water supply for miles around, to make their toilet?

Cautiously, I inched forward, not wanting to spook the cows or ruin my sneakers in the filth. I stuck my hand into the muck and scooped out a little hole. It felt exactly like you would imagine it, sticking my hand into a stopped-up toilet.

I inserted the intake tube of the filter into the muck and pumped, clogging it almost instantaneously, and it took all my strength just to keep going. I looked suspiciously at the water accumulating in the bottle. Nothing was floating in it, but it had a very distinct yellow tint.

Hesitantly, I took a small sip. It was warm and tasted . . . I’m not sure how to describe it . . . strange. Metallic. On the trail, I often filtered and drank from muddy puddles, but this was different. There was definitely more than spring water in that gulp! But I drank some more.

I kept pumping and pumping with all of my energy, doing my best to get a full liter before taking it back to Abi. In a far away land in my distant memory, I always had running water at the turn of a faucet. It was hard now to imagine that such a place ever existed. Out here, we drink cow pie water.

Abi’s eyes got big when I described the source of the water. She opened the lid and sniffed the warm yellow liquid.

“You really drank this?” she asked.

“It won’t kill you,” I said. “Probably.”

“It smells,” she said, then drank. “Ugh, it’s like drinking directly from the backside of a cow.” She downed half the liter and passed it back to me. We were thankful to have anything at all.

Looking at the map again, we saw that if we hiked all night we could reach a fresh spring by the next morning. Finishing it off, we began to walk again, dehydrated and weak, desperately in search of water.

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