Few Drops of Water, Many Grains of Sand

View of Mohave desert

I hiked twenty miles with four liters of water, weighing 10.8 lb, in my backpack. The desert stared at me with its prickly smile, its flashy neon blooms, its fringy gray-green sage leaves rustling against aged, twisted woody stalks. Where was its water? How did these living things quench their thirst? Roots in sandy soil, porous, absorbing every drop of dew, spread out to hold on against drying winds searing over the landscape. I pulled my buff over my mouth to protect my cracked lips, tightened my hat deeper over my face.

The desert has always intimidated me. I come from temperate, cool climates. I don’t do “heat” well. I’m white, blond, thin skinned and succumb easily to heat exhaustion.

Temperatures were moderate when I hiked the desert. I hiked to learn, to observe, and embrace these ever increasing dry zones on our planet. If climate change is any indication of what’s to come, I may have to learn to live in the desert soon. The Armageddon of heat, drought and fire seems to be here on the west coast of America. 

Why deserts?

As I hiked, I pondered why we have deserts on this earth. An earth that can be lush, and green, with tall trees providing shade; where bubbling brooks lap at shores, and nurse the plant roots to make thickets along its banks. Where wide rivers flood the land and enrich the soil for next year’s growth. Why the deserts? 

The simple explanation is: water evaporates where the sun is closest to the earth. The water is stored in clouds high above the earth. Winds caused by pressure differentials move the clouds toward a less hot area, and rain falls, creating lush forests next to deserts. 

While I hiked 2400 hundred miles of the PCT between Mexico and Canada over the last eight years, I have seen what we’ve done to our forests. I’ve walked through old growth forest, clear-cut forest areas, mono-culture forests, diseased forests and burned forests. Just in the years I’ve walked, I’ve seen the loss of forest and I know, we don’t have time left. We need to turn the tide of loss of habitat now, or there will be more desert. 

Water is life

As I hiked this time, I pondered living in the desert. I saw the plots of land, given away for minor sums of money to those who can survive on the land for 5 years. I saw the abandoned shacks and mobile homes, rusted out, plastic window coverings flapping in the hot wind, as nearby tv-disks stared empty at the sky. Without water, people can’t make it. 

Stories of old tell how prophets come out of the desert. The shamans, the chosen ones, the future spiritual leaders roamed in these empty lands; they had “visions” and gained insight before returning to society to teach. I imagine hallucinations come easy under a scorching sun. You can lose your mind in the heat if you’re not careful. You must find water to survive. 

I left the world of comfort, food and plenty of water behind and entered the vast stretches of sage brush, chaparral, rock and sand to test my stamina and find empty mind as I walked the miles. Who wins in the desert? The tough ones or the lucky? 

Perry’s Nolina flower

Grains of sand

I was lucky. The weather was favorable. Trail angels brought me food and water; my body was strong enough to walk the sandy trail. I found relief in the shade during the hottest parts of the day; my empty mind experienced awe and wonder as surprise beautiful blooms broke the monotony of sand and sage. A full moon shone pink on the landscape. Even though I went for 5 days without water for washing, I was never thirsty. Water became my measurement for energy, not for cleanliness. Sand became the story of earth I want to save.

The average temperatures of the Northern hemisphere (Europe, North America, parts of Asia) have been much higher since 1950 than in any 50-year period in the last 500 years.

Indeed, almost all the zones surrounding current deserts are at risk. In the next decades these zones will become more and more arid, or worse, turn into deserts too.

Beaver tail cactus

Changing habits to save habitats

Back in the world of relative comfort and (still) plenty of water coming out of the tap, I pause when I wash, drink and water my garden. How much longer?

I want to use the insight I gained in the desert. Water shortages are a reality in many areas of the world. We can learn from others who have solved water shortages. Namibia’s capital turns wastewater into drinking water. Israel gets 55% of its domestic water from desalination plants. What will we do where I live? 

My hike in the desert reminded me and taught me again that we need to change our ways if we want this planet to be inhabitable for future generations. I must reduce my water usage and change my habits. It starts with turning off the tap as I wash my hands, mulching my garden, and taking fewer showers. I will revisit and review my assumptions about cleanliness, without giving up health practices. On the trail I was fine with 3 1/2 L of water a day and an occasional bath and clothes’ washing. Compare that with 80-100 gallons a day, the average person uses living indoors! We must reduce our energy consumption to reduce the rise in temperatures and stop the deserts from spreading. Governments will not reverse the heating of the planet, our individual behaviors will. Join me and walk more, use less water, eat locally and tell your neighbor.