My legs felt rubbery, and they were harder to lift over the rocks and unevenness of the trail. I missed the swinging rhythm of early morning hiking that always accompanies the coolness of the air, the soft yellow sunlight as it peers through the trees, and dances on the shrubs along the trail. It had been over twelve hours since I last had quenched my thirst to satisfaction. Last night when we found that the indicated water source on our GPS at mile 1519 of the PCT before our evening camp was inaccessible due to a steep snow bank, we had one liter of water between the two of us, given to us by a generous hiker going in the opposite direction. One liter to cook dinner with, re-hydrate through the night and walk the 5 miles to the next water source the next morning. Too tired to hike any further from a long day climbing uphill we made camp and used water sparingly to prepare our food. It was unusually warm that night as we camped on the ridge with sweeping views of Mt Scott to the North-East, the Trinities to the South and a glimpse of Castle Crags to the East. I slept fitfully, waking up sweaty multiple times. Take only a small sip at a time, I told myself, you need to save the water for walking.
Morning came early, we skipped our usual cup of tea and started out at 6:20 AM, one cup of water sloshing in a too big water bottle. What is it like to be thirsty, and walk while carrying a backpack? The interesting thing was that I could forget hunger while I hiked; in fact hiking reduces my hunger until I stop and rest. Being active didn’t make me forget that I was thirsty; expansive views didn’t take my mind of the tangy dry sensation in my mouth; focusing on placing my feet didn’t take away the rubbery, weak feeling in my legs. Should I take a sip now, or wait another half mile? Could I trick my body in thinking a little water will go a long way? I took another sip, it didn’t change the dryness in my mouth, it didn’t expand my breath into that feeling of “enough-ness” I get when I drink a pint at the end of day near a water source. A cup of water is not enough for 5 miles of hiking.
I hiked on slower, thinking of water rations, how I drink a liter for every 4 miles I hike, thinking about people walking in the desert to find water, the quiet slow submission of the body to heat and exhaustion. We stopped and checked our mileage, 3 miles down, 2 more to go. I saw rocks on the trail, bushes that hamper my progress, I felt the weight of the pack as a slow-down. I saw them as things that keep me from getting to water. I walked, my mind gyrating negatively. Half a cup of water will do that to you.
Distances change when your perception changes. You will become delirious when you’re deprived of water for too long. My perception was still in the normal range, I was aware of what I was thinking, I was letting myself have an experience, an experience of thirst. At mile 1514 a bubbling spring cascading down the rocks in a moist glen was the end of my experiment, which was only a beginning into the realms of thirst. One cup of water in twelve hours will go a long way.
Long distance backpacking isn’t about accomplishing miles for me, it’s about encountering the edges of my comfort zone. It’s about learning what and who I am at the edge. I am a person thirsty for experience, experiences of life that connect me with others and the world. This one cup of water got me a little closer to humans pictured in the requests for donations for hungry desert dwellers in the Sudan. Once cup of water put me on my edge.