Water, Water... Nowhere
Thirsty for knowledge about desert survival (and the alternative)?
Drink your fill here.
by Jay W. Sharp
In this story, you will find nothing about the magnificence of our Southwestern desert sunsets. Nothing about the splendor of our mountain ranges. Nothing about the extravagance of spring wildflower blooms. Nothing about the uncanny adaptability of desert basin wildlife and plants; the unfolding story of the prehistoric peoples and their long-abandoned communities; the fascination of frontier tales; the grand adventures of the Argonauts; the intriguing explanations for ancient geologic formations and exotic rocks; the spirituality of primal alcoves in rock walls and secluded overlooks on mountain slopes; the unforgettable vistas of the Grand Canyon or the Canyonlands or Monument Valley or Big Bend.
Rather, you will find some grim details about the risks you can run if you take leave of cities and pavement and venture into the desert wilderness without full preparation for contingencies. You will learn something of what can happen in a desert basin where — by definition — no more than a few inches of rain fall in a typical year; where dependable natural water holes and streams lie far apart; where summer daytime air temperatures can soar to well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the soil temperatures to well over 150 degrees; and where small-leaf, spiny, low-growing and widely scattered plants offer scant shade or comfort.
"It is not a place to fall down, exhausted," as Tim Cahill put it in National Geographic Adventure. "People on the ground are literally roasted alive."
The Cost of Misfortune or Carelessness
Those who came to the Southwest in pursuit of conquest, treasure, minerals, trade, land, furs or just sheer adventure sometimes learned of something far more valuable — specifically, water.
Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, chronicler of Spanish colonizer Juan de Oñate's Southwest expedition in 1598, spoke, in his epic poem, of the hardships of travel across the Chihuahuan Desert. In "Historia de la Nueva México," written in 1610, he wrote:
"Four complete days did pass away
In which we drank no drop of water there,
And now the horses, being blind,
Did give themselves most cruel blows
And bumps against the unseen trees,
And we, as tired as they,
Exhaling living fire and spitting forth
Saliva more viscous than pitch,
Our hope given up, entirely lost,
Were almost all wishing for death…"
Mountain man James Ohio Pattie, with a party of mountain men trapping beaver on the Gila and Colorado Rivers in 1828, gave an account of a grueling march across the north central Baja (recounted in History of San Diego by Richard F. Pourade):
"What with the fierce sun and the scorching sand, and our extreme fatigue, the air seemed soon to have extracted every particle of moisture from our bodies. In this condition we marched on until nearly the middle of the day, without descrying any indication of water in any quarter…
"We attempted to chew tobacco. It would raise no moisture. We took our bullets in our mouths, and moved them round to create a moisture, to relieve our parched throats. We had traveled but a little farther before our tongues had become so dry and swollen, that we could scarcely speak so as to be understood…
"Two of our companions here gave out, and lay down under the shade of a bush. Their tongues were so swollen, and their eyes so sunk in their heads, that they were a spectacle to behold. We were scarcely able, from the condition of our own mouth, to bid them an articulate farewell. We never expected to see them again…"
The Human Body and Water
Within your body, water — which accounts for well over half your total weight — plays an essential role in sustaining life. It facilitates the physiological and chemical processes essential to life. It serves as a transportation medium, carrying dissolved nutrients, hormones, oxygen, carbon dioxide and wastes to their respective destinations within your circulatory systems. It helps regulate your temperature, primarily through perspiration.
You ingest water, of course, in the liquids you drink and the foods you eat. Normally, you lose water by sweating, respiration or waste elimination. If ill or stressed, you may lose considerable water by vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to a dangerous level of dehydration.
In the first stages of dehydration, an individual may not experience any significant symptoms, but as it continues, he will feel thirst set in and his mouth go dry. If it intensifies, he will feel his thirst increase, his saliva thicken, his face flush, his skin wrinkle, his head ache, his arms and legs cramp, his strength dwindle and his temperament sour. If his dehydration becomes severe, his tongue swells. His eyes grow sunken and tearless, possibly cracking and bleeding. His stomach bloats. His hands and feet grow cool and moist. Major muscles contract severely and painfully. Blood pressure falls. Urination ceases. His pulse rate becomes feeble and rapid. Consciousness fades. He may experience convulsions and heart failure. Without prompt and careful rehydration, he faces death.
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