July 07, 2007
It is best to go barefoot if you can tolerate the temperature of the sand. Boots are nothing but sweat boxes dragged up with every step. Early on we learned about bare feet. It was when two of us first started into the dunes on a long trek. We began on a new moon night, hardly a shred of light touching the ground. It was like swimming, falling into sandtraps, tumbling down unseen faces, our boots nothing but rudders. This is where we learned to ditch the boots. You feel your way along, testing the sand, learning its many varieties with bare soles. The wind has left secret paths to follow.
It is also best not to wear pants, but instead a sheet of fabric, a sarong, that can serve many purposes. Wearing pants on the first trek, I found out quickly that I had to slash holes in my pockets with a knife. Otherwise, I was carrying lead weights, my pockets filled to overflowing with the constant glaze of blowing sand. We had sand packed into our ears, sand in our mouths, sand in our lungs. Our scalps became helmets of sand. We ate sand, slept in it, let it cover us, turning our bodies into the shape of wind.
In the extreme heat of mid-day, we had to bury ourselves. There was no other way to get out from beneath the sun. The dunes offered no shade, so we went down every day, and left only our faces and hat brims exposed, eyes peering for hours across a liquid horizon devoid of water.
That was in the beginning. Eventually, after years of walking the dunes, we learned the tricks of sand, how to move, how to sleep, how to wait out the sun.
I am losing water. I can feel it wet against my back, dripping down my spine. Sweat creeps into straps cinched across my chest. It dries as fast as it appears, evaporating into a white rime of salt. Four cups every half hour. One or two gallons a day.
What time is it? I peer up at the sun, and its light shatters into blinding colors through my sunglasses. A little before noon. It's too hot to be out walking this time of the day.
There are two of us this time. We have entered one of the central dune complexes in the Desierto. It is like walking across a hurricane sea, huge waves crashing against each other but on a timescale we cannot perceive. The sun burns through my hat, lifting water out of me. My path begins losing integrity and I misjudge steps, slip off crests, plant my palms in scalding sand.
In direct sunlight, sand feels to be around 130° F on bare feet. I'd been trying to stay on the north flanks of the dunes, it is more around 100°. In the past few days we had been able to find niggling bits of shade at this time of day. Yesterday we crowded into the sparse, singular shadow of a Mormon tea bush, a space the size of a welcome mat. Our heads touching, we moved our bodies around it for much of the day like chasing a sun dial. But the dunes are deepening and there is no longer anything to hide behind. Nothing but sheer, buff-colored sand extends around me, dunes swimming like eels.
I'm not going to die here. I know that at least. On my back I am carrying several days of water, so if any dying is going to happen I've got time to think about it.
But it can happen curiously fast out here. Two people whom I did not know came to these dunes only weeks before us. They are the only other people I have heard of in the area, though I imagine there are more hidden in the folds, footprints easily lost in sand. I heard these two were mountaineers, travelers experienced with extreme environments. Only one of them survived. Speaking with government officials who recovered the remaining body I heard that his full pack was found discarded. It was heavily loaded with enough water to keep him alive for several more days. He must have shrugged his way out of it, delirious in the heat and dazzling sun. Then they found his shirt, then his boots and socks, then his pants, then his hat. This line of human detritus led for miles like an arrow straight to his naked, swollen body face-up.
As the story was told to me, he and his partner had become separated. It is easy to do out here. You take a divergent dune crest, not three feet away from your companion, and you are instantly divided, then subdivided again and again as dunes split from each other. Within half an hour you are entire dunes away. Together they might have both made it. Separated, one of them simply went mad, while the other barely made it to a town southeast of the dunes.
I look up. My mind's been wandering, thinking about the dead man, how his eyes must have watched night and day pass until he did not know if he was yet a ghost.
Where is my companion? A while back I had glimpsed him in the distance, crossing a dune crest, dipping into a trough, his figure becoming more obscured by blowing sand the farther away he got. Now I don't know where he is.
Words form in my head, like a note handed to me. The note says: you should stop and drink.
Stop where? There is no shade. No one place is better than another, ravishing monotony spreading in all directions. Besides, my partner will get ahead of me and we'll never find each other.
I keep walking and the next note arrives: If you don't stop, you will die.
Hogwash, I say. I am talking out loud.
I'm doing fine, I say.
Next note: This is how you die in the desert, ambling like a fool beneath the sun, squandering water right out of your flesh.
Of course I have to stop and write that down. It seems somehow poetic. My journal is already in my hand, hanging between my fingers, and I open it to write under the heading "Conversations with Dunes." Wind blows across paper and for a moment I can barely see the words through the sand. I look up from this glaze a there is my companion, a statuesque man named Devin peering off a distant dune, apparently looking to see what happened to me. He's about the size of an ant, but he is the only thing to look at, a dash of color breaking the skyline. I wave both my arms and shout, "We're getting too far apart!"
He can't hear me, but he waves back. He must be half a mile away. My eyes are telescoping to see him, focusing across the distance to where I detect Devin's mouth moving, lips shouting the same thing back at me. We begin walking toward each, immediately vanishing from view as we drop behind dunes. It's going to take a while to reach each other. I check the sun again. Has it moved? I can't tell.
My pace is marked by the metronomic hush of water against my back. It sounds like a sea shore, each bladder of water moving forward and back. I should drink some of it, but there is to be no waste, no miscalculation.
If I dumped my water on the ground and headed off in a flight of dementia, I would live four days if I did everything else right. Maybe more, maybe less. Several years back a pair of college students from Boston embarked upon an overnight walk in New Mexico and got lost. On the second day they ran out of water and panicked, heads filled Hollywood fear. The two men were in their early twenties, and though they were physically fit, they quickly degraded, attempting to survive by licking rocks and eating cactus. They knew little about outdoor navigation, and even less about deserts. Unaware that they were half an hour's walk from their car, they made a suicide pact on day three. One young man plunged the blade of a pocket knife into the other's chest. It took two stabs to kill him. The weeping, driveling survivor then buried his companion under rocks, some weighing 70 pounds, implying he had a fair amount of strength remaining. Then he cut his forearms with the same knife, hoping to hit an artery, a vein, anything that would kill him. He was still alive, still working on his suicide when searchers found him hours later.
Other people make miracles of themselves and last for a week or even more. An Italian marathon runner survived for nine days in the north Sahara after he became lost during a 150-mile trans-desert race. A sandstorm had disoriented him. When the dust settled he had no idea where he was, and over the following days he walked 140 miles off course to where no rescuers could possibly find him. Convinced he was going to die of thirst, he slit his wrists, but his blood congealed too quickly and he did not die. On the ninth day he stumbled into a camp of nomads who revived him with shade and precious stores of water.
The moral of these stories: slash your wrists when you think you are about to die of thirst. It might be just the spark you need to survive.
Devin and I find each other after a while. Not even a smile or a nod. Devin looks in the direction we'd been walking.
"We can make it to the sea," is the first thing he says.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"It can't be more than 40 miles."
"I need to drink some water first," I say.
He is staring at a thin silver sheet on the horizon. It looks like water, but it's a mirage. Then I squint. Is it a mirage? Maybe it's really water. The Sea of Cortés is out there, somewhere. I wonder how far away 40 miles is.
My feet are burning, both the tops and the bottoms. I shovel them under the sand to get them out of the sun.
I mutter, "There's no shade anywhere."
Devin turns from the mirage and looks at me. He studies my posture and says, "You're right, we should drink."
I drop my journal from my hand, and it plants on its side in the sand, a flag marking the end of my walk. My hands touch buckles and the pack slides off of me, landing hard. Wind curls around it, ghosts of sand.
"It's way too late in the day to be moving like this," I complain. "We should have stopped a while ago."
Devin looks back at the sea and I follow his gaze. He is right. The sea, or whatever it is, looks very near, as if you could strip your clothes and start running for it. But 40 miles is a long way to run. It could take days, weeks in this kind of environment.
My water is hot, but clear, and I feel my tongue softening as I drink. A whole quart goes down easily. This is not the way it happens in movies with trembling hands, water dribbling across the lips of a crazy man, drops and drachms running down his dusty chest. No, you do not waste a single diamond of water in the desert. I cap the bottle, snug it back into my gear.
"I've got to get out of the sun," I say, and I walk away, leaving my pack and my journal in the sand. I stumble over an edge and slide down a north-facing slope where the sand is not so hot. There I begin to dig, pushing my body beneath the surface. Sand fills in around me like water. Devin comes down the slope, does the same. It takes a while, but soon I am mostly covered and out of the sun. Because this is a north-facing exposure, the sun hits the sand at an angle and the heat does not sink so deeply. I squirm and shovel myself down until only my toes, knees, and face are exposed, hat brim casting a ring of shade over my eyes. Then I stop moving. Devin is under, too. It is all we can do.
For five hours we do not move but to blow sand out of our mouths. A flying insect lands to survey my lips, the corners of my eyes. It finds no moisture and skates away, propelled by the wind.
Behind sunglasses my eyes are fixed on nothing, and at times I am dreaming, but awake. I do not know if my eyes are opened or closed. Dunes roll away forever.
This is why the two mountaineers before us failed, why one of them died here. They did not obey the desert. They did not dig for shade. This is why Devin and I will not perish out here, willing to still our hearts beneath heavy shields of sand.
Before the sun sets, we both burst upward, giants unpinning ourselves. Sand pours from us and explodes into the wind. I climb the copper-colored dune to the feathered mound that is my pack. Hand shovels down where I grab my buried journal and pull it back into daylight. It is full of sand fine as salt grains, the binding packed, pages thickened. There is nothing else I can write. I will come back from this desert and shake out my journal, emptying sand onto a table. It is the only story that needs telling.