Grants to Cuba – What would you do if you had no water? How far would you go?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

After one last continental breakfast at the Red Lion, Hugo picked me up one last time to drop me off up the road at the Mount Taylor trailhead. My shoes performed well on the road yesterday so I knew they would be good to go on trail.  Usually road walking is when you will learn about whether your shoes will give you blisters or not.  I was confident that these wouldn’t let me down.

It started out being a sunny day down at the base of the mountain but I knew the weather report and it was calling for rain showers down in town and I knew that meant a possibility of snow on Taylor as it sits at 11,305 feet.  The official trail does not go over the summit and I had some serious miles to make up to make it into Cuba and to catch up to the rest of the other Warrior Hikers as they were probably a day and a half ahead of me, so with the prospect of snow and needing to make up miles I decided to bypass the summit.  The trail skirts the summit but the alternate adds elevation and extra miles so I stuck to the official trail. 

The Mumms have been caching water for the thru-hikers at an access road that is 13 miles north from where I started this morning and as there was barely any water sources to be found on this stretch it is a vital cache for all hikers to utilize.  I had lunch at this cache site and cooked a good meal to give me plenty of energy for the rest of the miles that I had in front of me.  I was attempting to knock out at least 22-25 miles to close the gap. It flurried on me many times this day and when you mix the cold wind with my sweat drenched shirt it made for a very cold hiking day.  The goal was to get up and over Taylor and down the other side to reduce the elevation at which I was going to camp at so that it wouldn’t be too terribly cold. Waking up in the morning when it is sub-freezing or in single digits makes it considerably more difficult to get going in the morning.

I made it just shy of 23 miles which was supposedly just before the second water cache that the Mumms told me about.  I found a nice open spot to throw down my sleeping bag as I am still cowboy camping as often as possible. Still not carrying my tent, only a rain fly for if and when it decides to precipitate. I made sure to find a spot that the sun would shine on immediately first thing in the morning to prompt my early rise to hiking glory.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Woke up with the sun beating upon my down sleeping bag, drying the condensation covered foot box and hood areas, just as planned.  My water bottles were both frozen and it was still chilly even with the sun out.  I accidentally slept in a little more than usual as it was 8am but the timing was perfect as there were some Elk grazing in the woods in view of where I was laying.  What a way to wake up.  I laid there and slowly cooked up some coffee and ate a few bars for breakfast.  Broke camp by 830am and was on the move en route to the next water cache…or so I thought. 

I camped about a mile or so just shy of where Hugo explained to me the cache was.  I was relying on this water to be there as I passed an incredible spring the night before and didn’t take a drop from it.  When I walked up to the area that the water was supposed to be, it was nowhere to be found.  Not good.  I only had about a liter on me and had over 10 miles to go to the next “possible” water source. The map showed that that source was a “tank”. This word means a cow pond that is rarely if not NEVER appetizing. Usually filled with cow shit and algae. Most hikers can make a liter last 10 miles no problem but I sweat more than your average hiker and require double that and prefer to drink even more. 

No sense in wasting time worrying about things when my new mission is to make it safely to the next water source without depleting what I have on me, which I KNOW is going to be tough as I descend in elevation back into desert like conditions in the heat of the day.  It’s definitely getting hotter and the sun is beating down with little to no escape from its rays as shade becomes scarce again the further away I get from Taylor and the forest that blankets it.

Finally I come upon the “tank”.  I had high hopes for it yet knew not to get to overly excited and prepared myself for the worst.  It was a big brown pool that was surrounded by cow hoof prints and shit.  I made the decision to take my lunch here and filter a liter of water because it was another 13 miles to the next water source which was a dangerous distance for me to be going 23 miles on only one liter. I sat down and took my pack off and looked for the best way to walk up to the water’s edge.  It was all boggy and super muddy around the edge so I tried building a stone bridge through the mud to get there without losing a shoe in the deep mud.  While I was constructing it I looked to the other side of the pond and noticed that somebody had already had the bright idea and hopped on over to use the pre-existing stone walkway.  I walked over it and up to the water’s edge and knelt down with my water bottle to fill it up.  It was in this single moment that I realized I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wasn’t on the brink of dehydration yet and this was a desperate man’s water source.  It REAKED of cow shit and was lined with a sludge and a green slime.  I wasn’t on this water’s level, yet. 

Returned to my pack and sat there disappointed. I wanted to cook and drink my fill, we call this “cameling up”. I also wanted to “tank up” too which means I fill all my water bottles and bladder. No such luck. I tried to eat as much energy as I could here as I knew I would need every ounce of it in my body for the long trek to the next possible water source which was a spring.  This spring could be dried up or flowing, there was no telling.  The idea of making a liter last 23 miles sounded horrible but the prospect of getting to this spring and discovering that it is dried up was rattling me even more. 

Time to push the fight north towards the spring.  I picked up the pace a little bit as I was feeling the need to make it before dark.  The miles seemed to take forever and I couldn’t help but begin to feel the reality of no water crashing down on me. The further and faster I went the drier my mouth got, I would take quick and short sips from my hose’s mouth piece.  The more the day wore on the lighter my pack got which meant the emptier my water bladder was getting.  With each sip I anticipated it being dry.  Finally about 4 miles from the spring, I tried to take a pull off my hose and all of sudden, nothing.  I hate walking up to water sources dry. I always like to keep a half liter in my pack in case the water source is dry.  Shit out of luck this time.  Luckily by this time the intensity of the sun had waned as it receded lower and lower into the evening sky.  By the time I had reached the place where I thought the spring would be I was sapped of energy and was pretty damn ready for a substantial amount of water consumption. But where the spring was supposed to be was merely a trail head to where the spring was, a half mile off trail.  At this point I didn’t care how far off trail it was, I was going to it no matter what.  I had to. I had no other choice. Luckily I had noticed footprints of other hikers who were a day or two ahead of me going in this direction as well, so at the very least I knew I wasn’t alone in my need for water. I followed the trail down into a canyon and my though was that the spring was in the canyon but when I got there I knew this was impossible as the whole canyon was dry, bone dry. Now the panic meter started.  I began frantically looking up and down the canyon for ANY possible surface water of any kind at all.  It was during this frantic search that I noticed that the trail actually continued on up the other side and out of the canyon. What a freaking relief that this dried up canyon wasn’t the location of the spring.  I trudged up the other side of the canyon and continued on to the next canyon, a much more substantial geographic feature. I descended into the depths of it as the sun begun to set over the cliff walls on the other side. This thing had better have water. As I get lower I see two large concrete water tanks, one appears to be completely bone dry but the other I can make out a reflective surface in it.  No matter what, that water was going to be mine, whether it was clean and clear, or infested with algae and dead or living organisms.  When I arrived I was BEYOND relieved that there was fresh flowing spring water coming out of a pipe from the ground and into the tank. I literally thanked God out loud multiple times. I don’t think I was in jeopardy of being dangerously dehydrated but had it been the heat of the day it may have been a different story. 

I sat down and kicked my shoes and socks off as they were filled with sweat and dirt.  I cooked two meals because it was needed. I drank 3 liters of water and drank one of them filled with an electrolyte mixture to replenish my body as it was also needed.  I cameled up and I tanked up and rested well, I still had a few miles to go after the sunset to keep pace with my bigger mile days.  Strapped my headlamp on and rucked up to travel another 4 miles. The moon began shining bright but it wasn’t bright enough to shine through the dense forest I was now in.  I found another good open spot that had plenty of standoff from the trees facing east to catch the sun in the morning. I was exhausted and knew I had another rough day ahead of me as I was approaching a dried up river canyon the next day, water was probably going to be even more scarce. 

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Woke up surrounded by cow shit under the burned out pine that I slept under, another cowboy camp.  It’s funny to me that I don’t think I truly cowboy camped one single time on the Appalachian Trail last year. I think the only time I never slept in a tent was anytime I slept in a shelter, and I can count those times on one hand. What a different trail this is.

The sun was inviting as I woke up early and hit it first thing in the morning. I had 2 liters on me and that felt like enough to get me going for a while. I didn’t feel any effects of any dehydration from the night before but then again it was still early and I hadn’t really started exerting myself yet.  It wasn’t until after several miles that I realized I was walking on top of a mesa and it wasn’t long until I realized that I would be descending a couple thousand feet down off of it into the extreme desert region of the dried up river canyon.  According to my maps and GPS I would be coming across a spring or well-fed cow trough and while I wasn’t desperate for water right then I knew I would probably be making a stop there. 

As I reached the mesa cliff wall, the land opened up and the vastness of what I was about to be walking into was revealed to me. You couldn’t even comprehend the views and how big the expanses were. The river canyon floor was pure white and it had steep cliff walls. Above that were more mesas all around and then there was Cabezon Peak, an ancient volcano core or plug. “This volcanic neck is formed of basalt and is part of the Mount Taylor volcanic field. A volcanic neck or plug is formed when magma from an existing volcano solidifies in the pipe or neck and the surrounding sediment is eroded away. Cabezon means “big head” in Spanish. One Navajo myth holds that it is the head of a giant killed by gods.” This information is according to Wikipedia.  The peak is located two miles south of the ghost town of Cabezon.

Once I descended down to the canyon floor (but not the riverbed), I reached the spring “Ojo Frio”. Intent was to cook here and drink my fill and tank up.  Unfortunately this water wasn’t as pristine as what I would expect from a spring and there was no pipe with fresh water flowing out.  There looked to be a possible alternate source below ground in a concrete like structure but upon further inspection I t was completely dry.  I figured I would fill one of my 1.5L bottles with this water in the event that I would need water later on.  This turned out to be a very, very costly and poor decision. You’d think I would have learned my lesson after yesterday’s H20 fiasco. I like to learn the hard way….and I was about to.

So I carried on with the plan of the day not knowing what lie ahead. I dropped into the even deeper river canyon as the temps increased and the wind died down. I felt hydrated enough and felt good to be honest.  Took a while to dip in and out of the river bed and by the time I found myself on the other side I was in great need for a shade tree and found a nice one to break under. It was about 330pm at this point and I stripped all my clothes off and hung them up to dry in the slight breeze that was present. I turned my phone on in hopes of getting a signal to jam some tunes on Pandora while I take my break.  I was in luck, 4G LTE service came through loud and clear.  After I drank a little and ate some snacks, I happened to get a phone call, and strangely enough it was coming from Hikeaholic!! What could he want? I picked up and was shocked to be hearing from him as most hikers don’t have their phones on, let alone have service!  Here we are, both with phones on and both with service.  His reason for calling was about water.  They were hard up for it.  He and Scarecrow were about 5 or 6 miles north of me on the trail at what was supposed to be a reliable water source.  The well was bone dry and they were in trouble. They told me to find any way to get water before I get to where they were and to fill the hell up.  Too late, there was no water between where I was and where they were. They only possibility was the ghost town of Cabezon 8 miles off trail that POTENTIALLY had a windmill or two, but there was no guarantee of it.  They told me they were gonna make for the same town. I thanked them for the heads up and I began to peer over my maps to figure out my new course of action and new route.  This would definitely tack on at least an extra half day or full day to my schedule before reaching the town of Cuba, which was the next resupply town and the location of our next Warrior Hike event.

So I’m getting ready and getting dressed into my disgusting (but dry) clothes when I hear my phone ring again! Its Hikeaholic’s number again but when I picked up it was Scarecrow’s voice.  He informed me that there was no need to travel the alternate route to water because he pulled some MacGyver shit. Apparently, at the bottom of the dry metal tank was a pipe with a grate over top of it where the well water would fill up the tank from the bottom.  He had the bright idea to use his Katadyn pump water filter’s long hose and feed it through the hole in the grate in hopes that there was water below where they could see.  Success, they each were able to fill up 3 liters and decided to wait for me there so I could do the same when I got there so that I didn’t have to venture 16 total miles off trail on a wild water goose chase. What an upstanding couple of guys to decide not only to call me and let me know of the water conditions ahead of me, but to actually WAIT THERE for me so that I could use his water pump to extract the water from the pipe. My particular water filter only works if there is running water of a pool of water that I can access. We determined that I could make it to where they are in about 2-2.5 hours and that I could make it there by 6 or 630pm.  I jocked up and started hoofing it, I was in good spirits and feeling rejuvenated after the break. I even began jogging after a few miles I felt so good. 

I got to where they were before our scheduled time and I almost ran past where they were, I had my music blasting as I was in the zone running and heard the feint yells of them to barely stop me in time.  I run up to where they were about 100 yards off trail all excited that I made it and that the plan was actually about to work.  So I get there and Scarecrow and Hikaholic and I begin exchanging the obligatory trail stories from the past few days but we quickly get down to business. WATER. Pump that shit baby. Scarecrow whips out his filter and feeds the hose down through the whole in the pipe and I line the other end up with my empty bottle. I was sitting with about a liter and a half in my bladder but I needed more, lots more.  The next water source wasn’t for another 20 miles. So while he’s pumping we are all waiting for the water to come out the other end into my bottle. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.  Apparently they each pumped out 3 liters (6 total) and the shit was bone freaking dry now.  Perfect. I keep my cool but Scarecrow feels like the consummate jerk for telling me I was good for water there and that they both waited the entire time for me to get there.  I tell him not to worry and that I appreciated the gesture. There was no way he or they could have known that it would be dry after they filled their water containers.  Is what it is, luck of the draw. 

So 1.5 liters for dinner, breakfast, and the entire day the next day. Not looking good. And I checked the weather for tomorrow and it was supposed to be the hottest day we’ve had in a while.  Even THEY were worried about the water situation for tomorrow and they had double what I had.  We decided to hike until dark which was about an hour away. We wove our way in and out of intricate rock wall formations and up the other side of the canyon onto a mesa that had nearly a 360 degree view of the region. We watched an epic sunset from the cliff where we set up camp and we knew we’d have an epic view of the sunrise tomorrow morning.  But tomorrow was about to be a different story.

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Friday, May 16, 2014

We decided last night that we would wake up at first light and hit it hard and try and cover the distance to the Jones Canyon Spring. About 18 miles from where we were camped.  I was able to get some information from a few hikers that were ahead of us and they told us that Jones Canyon Spring was good for water and that it was a good thing we didn’t try and head to Cabezon as all the windmills over there were locked up by the ranchers and there were no viable water sources that way. Thank God I didn’t attempt that. The situation I was in currently was bad enough, add an extra 16 miles of walking and we may be talking about me being in the hospital for sure….although the day was young still, very young.  I was on the move by 6:15am, by far my earliest morning but the situation demanded it.

We started cranking out the miles at a high rate of speed as the morning was cool and breezy.  We started passing abandoned windmills with my hopes being crushed every time I walked up to one and realized that there was no hope for water. I would have DEFINITELY filtered that scummy cow slop water from a couple days ago at this point. I was beginning to feel dehydrated and the heat of the sun hadn’t even begun to cook my brain yet.  Windmill after windmill passed by and nothing.  I came to the realization that my 1.5 liters had to last me until Jones Canyon. Everything was barren desert mesa and up and down and in and out of canyons all day. Rugged and strenuous, energy-sapping hiking. I started to get a bad feeling as 11am began to approach. We made it to the top of one of the ridges while I was ahead of the other two and I ducked under a Juniper while my brain began to boil.  They all followed and we took naps with our shoes off to regain some energy as we knew there would be no more dodging the blistering heat of the day.  We would now have to suffer through the sun until we reached the water source, our distant oasis. After about 30 mins we jocked up and continued on. I began to slow my pace as the lack of water began to take its toll on my energy level. The further we went the harder walking became. I probably had ¾ of a liter at this point and was beginning to feel the pain of having to ration it.  I also had a few sips in one of my bottles that I was using as my emergency water and would only use it if things became dire.  I decided it would be best if I mixed in some electrolyte powder for that reserve water.

We had about 10 miles to go when all of a sudden a wave of pain hit me, I couldn’t describe it to you but I just know it literally rocked my soul. I had to stop, breathing hurt, every step was excruciatingly difficult. I knew I was feeling the beginning symptoms of being a heat casualty and severe dehydration.  Scarecrow passed me and I did my best to act like I was just talking a breather and I said while he passed “It’s fucking hot! I’ll catch up after a bit”. I know he assumed I would be okay, because I was always okay.  But at this point I wasn’t so sure. I laid there for and just tried to catch my breath and get my sweating under control. At least I WAS sweating but that really didn’t provide me with any sort of comfort at all.  I figured I should try and eat some calories. I tried to scarf down a Clifbar but as I was chewing it I just couldn’t seem to swallow it. I just kept chewing and chewing and my body wouldn’t let me consume it.  The reality was I would need to swallow this thing like to big horse pills. In addition I knew that I was sapped of my electrolytes and figured I would use that electrolyte water to do this with while still trying to save as much of it as possible. I barely did it without puking them up and it was one of the most disgusting feelings ever. I don’t think I’ll ever look at a Cliffbar the same way ever again. Kind of like that first time you throw up from alcohol and you never look at that brand of liquor or beer the same way again, kind of like that. 

I had to use my hiking poles to help push me up and didn’t successfully pull it off the first time. I fell back.  Red flags should have been going up left and right but all I could think about was getting to water. I really should have just sat there and stayed out of the sun for the next 4-5 hours until it started to cool off but I wasn’t thinking rationally.  I wanted water, I needed it. I mustered up the strength to push myself up one last time and began the push forward. Every step felt like it would surely be my last bout of strength, and if I had to walk up an incline it felt like I was in super slow-mo.  I was winded after every single step. The sun hurt, it felt deadly, it really FELT dangerous to my life.  I’ve only ever felt this way one other time and that was after a 12 hour foot patrol in Iraq during 130 degree summer temperatures.  This was a different ballgame; I was all alone with my only hope for water was to continue pressing forward.  Scarecrow and Hikeaholic were well ahead of me and I had service enough to shoot them a text stating my current situation and to not turn back for me and that I would eventually make the water source but it would take a while.

I somehow found myself within 4 miles of the spring according to my GPS and normally 4 miles would be the home stretch but it literally felt like about a billion miles.  I could hardly walk a straight line and I was staggering from shade tree to shade tree.  Progress was about as slow as you could imagine.  It felt like every minute was an eternity.  This is when shit got real.  I actually felt the need to pee and that’s when it hit me…LIQUID. I didn’t even waste a moment thinking about it and whipped out one of my empty bottles which both were at this point as well as my water bladder.  I peed into the bottle and screwed my filter onto the top of it.  Here we go, I was about to do what you always hear about in this situation. You can drink your own urine in desperate situations, and that’s what I found myself in. I figured a little bit of liquid would help me push the few remaining miles and I thought maybe the filter would help.  It was the most miniscule amount of pee and it was almost the color of mountain dew, but worse.  Bottoms up without hesitation.  As soon as the first drops went down my throat I realized how incredibly toxic my urine was at this point, it was absolutely disgusting. I spit the rest out. No thanks.  Foul.  It basically “sobered me up”.  I realized if I was desperate enough to drink my own piss than I damn well better freaking make that water in one piece and on my own power.

I got up with newfound determination and newfound motivation. It didn’t hurt that the clouds that were somehow dodging blocking the sun all day began to find their way in front of its rays for me. The breeze picked up too.  I sincerely don’t think I would have made it if not for that breeze and those clouds.  I was counting down the tenths of a mile with my GPS to that water source like my life depended on it….and that’s quite literal.  Once I reached one mile out I began to feel like all was going to work out.  Half mile. Quarter of a mile. Tenth of a mile. I reached the canyon wall and knew the source was below me. I screamed down for Scarecrow and Hikaholic with a boisterous “WOOOOHOOOOOOOOO” and I heard Scarecrow reply “JAAAAABBAAAAA”. I had made it.

When I got down to the water I threw my pack down and grabbed my bottles and dunked them in. Apparently the water was contaminated according to a sign but I didn’t give a flying shit.  Screwed my filter on to the bottle and laid on my back in the sand against the bank and sucked on that bottle like a baby.  I drank three straight liters before I even contemplated doing anything else. Gasping sighs of relief in between gulps.  I informed my comrades of my dire situation and what it led me to do out there. We all had a laugh. When I arrived there I wasn’t sure I would be able to leave that canyon but after cooking two dinners and eventually consuming 7 liters of water total I decided I was going to push another 8 miles to the road that leads you into Cuba and I would hitch in from there, I required pampering at this point. I wanted access to Gatorade, water, beer, restaurant food, a pillow and a warm shower.  Scarecrow decided to join me as there was a motel in Cuba with Warrior Hikes name on it and I offered him a spot on the floor as it was free. So we pushed the rest of the way there and somehow I didn’t feel so shitty anymore.  The prospect of town always rejuvenates.  We made it in time to grab some Big Macs from the McDonalds in town; this was only my second time having fast food during this whole calendar year.  What a freaking day.  I drank my own piss. 

3 thoughts on “Grants to Cuba – What would you do if you had no water? How far would you go?

  1. I am glad to hear it worked out and that you are okay 🙂 even knowing you wrote and posted it, I was on the edge wondering if you were okay lol. A little Man vs Wild tale for sure 🙂 *hugs and prayers *

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