Six months ago, when we applied for our backpacking permit, I believed our course would be defined by the sun, the heat, the too-intense light of mid-day. I believed we would plan our peregrination by the rising and setting of the sun, by the availability of shade, by the easterly reaching of shadows.
I imagined my son and I would be held, as though by the persistence of gravity, by the abundance of heat and light, that this excess would overwhelm our plans to venture too far into the day, into the direct sunlight.
But excess does not guide us here. Excess does not lead us to discipline and strictness; we have wandered from the shade, have stood in the direct sun, have walked across bedrock whose temperature reached 130° Fahrenheit. We are able to bear this surplus of radiation.
I wondered if hunger would drive our itinerary, if our own bellies would guide us from place to place, from breakfast to lunch to dinner. But the heat has taken our appetites, and we are dangerously sated by too much sun. We force ourselves to nibble on bits of crackers or salami or to consume a handful of trail mix. Our hunger is no longer for food.
Water, then, I also knew would guide us. If no other element, water at least would command our path, determine our choices across this desiccated gash in the earth. But there is sufficient water here: springs, rivulets, streams and a great cool river at the bottom of the canyon. We can carry enough water on our backs from source to source, and water is not so much a concern as it is a fixture of our quotidian routine. We are careful, yes. But water is common even here in this empty quarter of the American desert.
One early morning, while we make our way across nine miles of waterless trail, we carry four gallons of water between us. We find water at the end of our trail as well. Two days later we return across the same nine miles and arrive at a cantina at the bottom of the canyon. There is water, yes, and ice-cold lemonade. In the evening, we eat dinner at a long table, family style, with strangers that become friends by the end of the evening. On walking back to our tent, my son says to me, “there was a good feeling, a happy feeling at dinner.” I agree. We are fortunate to be among such kind and happy people, to be among people at all.
So, finally, it is not food or shade or water we seek. These are abundant. We search for what is scarce here. We are gregarious creatures; we look for friends along the trail and in camp. In this austere country, we scan the ridges for our own kind, other vagabonds that may share a story or a smile.
We are guided by our association with people. I suspect, now, we could live for weeks without food and many days without water, and we could wander through the harsh sunlight, so long as we had friends. Even the Desert Solitaire did not speak so much of rocks and snakes, of scorpions and burning sun; he spoke of people, some lucid, some dazed. What was he, if not a product of his appetite for communion?
In the terseness of this desert, we are sustained by our relationship to people. Discovering people in this vacant land nourishes a hope for kindness, for generosity; here we detect a signal that we care for each other. We discover, in people, that what binds us together is stronger than the cool water, that we are more valuable to each other than water in the desert.