45. Cow Pie Water

April 29, 2023 - Roger W. Lowther

Welcome to the Art Life Faith Podcast, live from Tokyo. This is the show where we talk about art, what it has to do with your life, and what it has to do with the Christian faith. And I'm your host, Roger Lowther.

This episode, I'd like to take a break from our regularly scheduled program to tell you a strange story from my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail with my wife, Abi. It comes from my book that I don't think I've ever mentioned on this podcast. Actually, it was the first book I tried to self-publish, and strangely, it's been my most popular book so far. With over 100 reviews on Amazon, a lot of people are reading this book who I've never met. I've also given it the strangest title of any book I've written, called Cow Pie Water. What do you think? Does this title engage you? Does it make you want to read it and open its pages? Probably not, right? Cow Pie Water. Anyway, this book's a collection of trail journals my wife, Abi, and I wrote as we hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, 2,659 miles through the mountains of California, Oregon, and Washington.

During the hike, we wanted people to be able to fall along with us, so we tried to write down some things that happened along the way. There was not a lot of downtime. Mostly we were just hiking, eating, sleeping . . . hiking and eating some more, trying to average 26 miles a day. But one of us ended up writing while the other was cooking. Then when we went into town, we sent the papers to a friend who put the journals up on a website. At one point, that website disappeared, but I still wanted people to be able to read these journals, so I made this book.

Anyway, the following recounts the story from which I named the book. It's a meditation on thirst and how God provides for us through it.

“They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat down on them. He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water.” (Isaiah 49:10)

All 40 plastic gallon jugs were completely empty. I lifted each just to be sure. Sweat evaporated from my face so quickly that all I felt were deep layers of salt crusted on my skin. Hot wind blew in my face as if from a hairdryer. Knee-high bushes and cacti did little to provide shade.

Abi and I were hiking across the Mojave Desert, a 37-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail, famous for its high temperatures and lack of water. Several hikers in the previous town assured us we could depend on this water cache provided by trail angels. But they were wrong. We didn't carry enough water not because we were foolish, but because we physically couldn't. The weight of the water alone would have been more than both of our backpacks combined, and we had no practical way of carrying it. I mean, would you carry shopping bags full of water 37 miles through the desert?

Trying not to get discouraged, we kept going, hoping for another water cache not far down the trail. There was one after an hour. Empty. Every single bottle lay on its side, shaking in the wind, held together by a rope that snaked through the handles.

More than a little concerned, we picked up our pace, and pretty soon we passed yet another empty water cash. And then another. And then another. And then we stopped, and I put my backpack down. In this dry heat, we were never going to make it. We were still so weak from dehydration just the week before when we found a dead horse in our only water supply for that day.

“Well, this isn't good,” I said, trying to be funny at the magnitude of the understatement. But Abi didn't laugh.

We looked to the horizon in all directions. Not a single building or paved road in sight. Sand, sand, and more sand. Apparently, the name Mojave means “beside the water,” a combination of the Native American word aha meaning water and macave meaning along or beside. This desert definitely needed a new name.

I pulled out my map and found what was labeled as an unreliable water source about a 30-minute hike off the trail. I really didn't want to add a whole extra hour of hiking, especially not knowing if there was anything there at all. But what choice did I have? I left my backpack with Abi and went in search of it, filter and water bottles in hand.

Why are we so dependent on water? Why are our bodies so weak without it? We usually think of ourselves as stronger, yet I know from this experience and others like it that just a few hours in the sun without water is very debilitating. A few days, and you're dead. Nothing is more essential to life than water. I have a whole new perspective of stories about thirst in the Bible. When we don't have water, we don't just feel thirsty, we feel forsaken. We feel alone. We feel like no one cares.

“The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.” (Isaiah 41:17–18)

In our current situation, this was the ultimate picture of hope, a perfect picture of heaven. Deserts turned into pools of water. Parched ground turned into springs. We can have this water because Jesus cried on the cross, “I thirst” (John 19:28). We can have this water because Jesus was forsaken (Matthew 27:46). One day, we will never know thirst again.

After walking for what seemed like forever, I heard the faint mooing of cows and saw trees that were actually taller than I was, and my hopes began to rise. Where there're cows and trees, there is water. But then I saw the cows, and my heart sank. They stood there right in the middle of the water source, really nothing more than a mud puddle filled with cow pies.

Cautiously, I inched forward, trying not to spook the cows or ruin my sneakers in the filth, and stuck my hands into the muck. I really don't want to give you this visual image, but it was like, actually it was exactly like, sticking my hands into a stopped-up toilet. I put the intake tube of the filter into the muck and started to pump, clogging it almost immediately. It took all my strength just to keep pumping. Then I stopped to stare suspiciously at this yellow water accumulating in my bottle.

“I can't believe I'm doing this,” I said to the cows staring at me. They probably thought the same thing. “Thanks a lot.” And then I took a sip. I'd like to tell you that it really wasn't that bad, but it was. It was warm and metallic and . . . a little hard to describe, so maybe I'll just leave the rest up to your imagination. But I can say this. On the trail, I often drank from muddy puddles, but this was different. There was definitely more than just spring water in that bottle.

Trying not to think about it too much, I drank some more. In my distant memory, in a faraway magical land, I had running water at the turn of a faucet. Now, it was hard to imagine that such places ever existed. All I had was cow pie water.

I pumped and pumped and drank as much as I could, bringing back full bottles to Abi. As I described the source of the water to her, she opened the lid to sniff the warm yellow liquid.

“You really drank this?” she asked.

“It won't kill you,” I said, and then added, “probably.”

“It smells,” she whined, and then drank, downing half a liter before passing it back to me.

We continued our hike with renewed resolve. We hiked all through that night and long into the next day, dehydrated and weak, desperately in search of water.

This is Roger Lowther, and you've been listening to the Art Life Faith podcast. Check out my website, www.rogerwlowther.com, for a transcription of this episode. As we say in Japan, “Ja, mata ne. See you next time.”


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