Back in college I used to do a lot of backpacking with one of my friends. One time he and I were headed out to backpack in the Chiricahua Mountains and as we were pulling our packs out of the car I noticed that he had a milk jug full of water in the back seat. When I asked him what it was for, he told me it was so we’d have something to drink on the way home.
But it’s in a milk jug, I said.
It’s okay, he replied. I cleaned it really well.
I just smiled and shook my head. Trust me, you aren’t going to want to drink that.
He argued with me, but I knew I was right. How did I know this? Because I’d long ago made a similar mistake…
Arizona, as you may have heard, is pretty dry, and Date Creek Ranch is no exception. There’s the creek itself, which has water in it part of the year, and a couple of springs. Other than that, if you run out of water, your only choices are dirt tanks (remember what those are?) or cow troughs, neither of which are all that appealing.
Okay, when I said that neither of those choices were all that appealing, I might have given you the wrong impression. You might be thinking that drinking out of a dirt tank or a cow trough is merely a mild inconvenience like, say, having your water without ice cubes in it.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Cow troughs are the better of the two options. Sure, they’re full, and I mean full, of moss, and there’s always a pretty large variety of insect life swimming merrily around in the depths. (How in the world does a water bug cross miles of blistering desert to take up residence in a trough? And within days of the water appearing?) But at least the water in a cow trough is generally reasonably transparent. You can see what you’re drinking.
Not so with the dirt tanks, the water in which is a dark, uniform brown year-round. Oh, and smelly too. The smell might be from the thick, squelching mud. But it’s probably from the dead birds and rodents and such that can always be found floating on its murky expanse. It may also come from the cow pies and the urine though, since cows have no qualms about crapping and pissing in the tank while they’re drinking.
Right now you’re probably thinking There is no way I would drink out of one of those.
But that’s only because you’ve never truly been thirsty, because if you have, you’ll drink whatever you can get in your mouth. When you’re thirsty enough—and keep in mind that it’s easy to die in the Arizona desert in a single day without water—any water is heavenly.
One summer Scott and I got sent up to Simmons Tank to build a fence across the middle of it. Nothing fancy, just a five-strand, barbed-wire fence. Even though we were probably about 13 and nine at the time, we were old hands at that sort of work. We figured it would be easy. I mean, the mud in those dirt tanks is unbelievable. You can easily sink up to your knee in some places. We thought we’d bang that fence out in a few hours.
To drive in the metal T-posts we were using this tool that’s basically a big, metal pipe with one end closed off. You put it over the post and then lift it up and bang it down until the post goes in. It’s really pretty effective.
Except it wasn’t working at all in that tank. Normally, in the desert when you drive a post in a ways and it stops, it means you hit a rock. So you pull it out and move it a few inches, until you find a spot you can get through. But there were no rocks in the bottom of that tank. It turned out that underneath that layer of nice, soft mud was solid clay with approximately the density of hardened concrete. So moving the post a few inches helped not at all.
Very quickly an easy job turned very hard. It was taking the two of us about an hour to drive in each post and we’d need at least a half dozen to get across the tank, not to mention the time it would take to stretch the wires and so on.
Our water was gone by late morning. Going back to the house for more wasn’t a good option, on account of a certain shouting father you may have heard me mention before. We eyed that water in the tank like condemned men eye the gallows the night before their hanging. And the water in that tank was bad, real bad, even by dirt tank standards. The summer rains hadn’t come yet and the water level was low (which was why Dad was having us do the job then) which meant that the filth was extra concentrated. I distinctly remember a long-dead raven floating around us while we worked.
In the end we just gave up. I bet I drank two gallons of that stuff, and I drank it greedily. Don’t ask me why neither of us got dysentery. None of us kids ever did. Probably we built up some kind of immunity.
The moral of this story, then, was to carry plenty of water at all times. At all times. I cannot stress this enough. Our vehicles were all old and cranky, only a wheeze and a gasp away from breaking down. You might think you were just going to take a quick run down across the highway to open a gate, but that old Dodge you were driving might have very different ideas. Ideas that involved a nice, five-mile walk in the blazing sun back to the house after it crapped out on you just for the hell of it. (Decent footwear was also a good idea. Flip-flops don’t do well over long distances.)
It wasn’t that hard to carry plenty of water in the truck, but on horseback it was a different matter. Canteens were in short supply and some of them leaked. It was never fun to open your saddlebag and pull out your last canteen of water only to find a fast-draining puddle. We needed other solutions.
There’s a saying that necessity is the mother of invention. And I guess that’s true, but I’d add to it that thirstiness adds a couple orders of magnitude to that necessity.
One time Kim and I had the bright idea of repurposing an old laundry detergent bottle. (I believe it was Wisk detergent.) It was large, maybe three quarters of a gallon and, being plastic, was light. (Keep in mind that this was in the days before plastic bottles became ubiquitous. And there was really no such thing as bottled water.) It also had a handle so we could tie it to the saddle. It seemed like the perfect solution.
We cleaned that bottle a dozen times. We were very careful. We got it to the point where we were sure it was clean. We filled it with water and tasted it and everything. How smart we were!
The next time the two of us had to go riding, we filled that sucker up and tied it to Kim’s saddle and off we went, secure in the knowledge that we wouldn’t be drinking water out of no damned dirt tank.
The day grew warm. Then hot. We finished the water in our canteens, perhaps even a little carelessly. Why not? We had lots.
Midday rolled around and one of us took a big drink off that jug…
And almost threw up.
It tasted just exactly like watery laundry detergent.
Well, maybe once the plastic in that jug heated up in the sun it expanded just a little. That in turn opened up tiny pores on the surface, tiny pores where traces of detergent were waiting their big chance to escape.
I’m telling you, that was a long day. We were pretty parched when we got back home.
And at the end of the backpacking trip, when my friend and I got to the car all thirsty? I generously handed the milk jug to him to allow him the first drink.
Yep, we drove back to Tucson thirsty that day.