Day 5: Holes and Hydrography

4/22

Who digs all these holes? This desert is just full of them. Large, small, cobwebbed, fresh, multileveled. I guess any creature seeking shade with the capacity to dig is going to excavate out here in this shade-less, sun-blasted, wind-blasted land.

The Bootheel is so dry compared to other deserts I’ve hiked through- Utah and Arizona have the tinajas, the natural tanks and cisterns in the sandstone, secret springs, and the hidden seeps that only appear after the sun goes down and the cottonwoods stop soaking them up for the night. Even the Mojave didn’t seem this dry; although it too had little to no surface water, the plants life was comparatively lush, and at least one could imagine water there.

Not here. It’s hard to imagine water at all here, even where the eroded washes belie a record of its passing. The hardpan and creosote flats are unmarred by hardly a dimple of topography, and the shallow gullies between them have an air of abandonment. There is an occasional crack in the earth that must be from water past, but I cannot fathom how they formed.

The only water out here is for cows, tanks and troughs filled by wells run with solar panels or windmills, off the grid in the middle of nowhere. Most of tanks are last-resort, better-than-dying options, a roulette if they will be filled with clear water or algae or scum or dead bugs or live bugs or dead something else or any combination of the above. Occasionally you hit the jackpot and you find a faucet from an enclosed water silo, upstream in the system from the trough, or a faucet on the direct line from the well itself.

I am so grateful to not be a cow in the desert. Whenever we see them, I waffle between disgust at the way they ruin the land and pity. Between the heat, the thirst, the food, and the wind, I can only imagine it is miserable. One of the worst reincarnations I can think of. Maybe not; maybe I’m misjudging, maybe many of them are happy….but I don’t think so.

For awhile I feel a prickle of wishing to be walking up on the mountains we are passing, rather than down here in the dry flats. In my mind I imagined this trail traced more of the exact the Divide itself. For most of New Mexico I haven’t even been sure where exactly the Divide is- not that there is much water to separate anyway. As I walk, I think, and I reason that this trail is more than just about The Divide, as a single line; it’s about hydrography, and from that perspective it makes complete sense to walk down here in the desolation, to understand in a visceral way what it means to be where there is no water.

Our afternoon/lunch break is at the best spot yet- an off trail solar powered well with a faucet, and junipers shading exposed bedrock slabs down in the creek bed. We drink water, eat lunch, drink lemonade, wash our socks, wash our feet and legs, drink electrolytes. We floss, finger comb our hair, solar charge our phones. I work on my feet: my heels have become painful, but I can’t pinpoint a spot causing issues. I plaster them with tape and hope for the best.

We hike over and across a very volcanic tableau- black rock, cactus, almost precisely how I pictured New Mexico looking, and continue through a series of awesome rocky draws dotted with live oaks.

The wind has built again today, as it does every day, and my feet are about to go on pain strike. Prana finds a horseshoe in a small steep wash that blocks the wind from all directions, and when I pull off my shoes there is a big bubble on each heel…where a blister has formed below each massive callous. Oh my god, I think to myself, how could I forget that? I’ve learned I should sand off my callouses before a big hike, but I guess I’m relearning it now. While Prana cooks I lever with a needle to try and release the pressure; at last I make it through. I thread both heels with our repair thread, since the dental floss I typically use is MIA, and grind my teeth through the physical awfulness until the stinging stops.

Our last water is a shitty cow tank, literally, surrounded by very agitated cows. It has a faucet, but when we fill the first bladder the water is full of unidentifiable floaties. Time to break out the filter- let’s hear it for technology.

A spectacular sunset spreads across the sky, backlighting an intriguing line of mountains. What are they? Are they in New Mexico or Arizona? Even though we have maps for days with us, we don’t have anything that covers a large scale area. I’ll have to get out the atlases back home in the autumn.

We find a rocky cradle in a wash to call camp and snuggle down as the sky flames out.

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