Given last year´s last record summer daily highs of 120F or greater in the shade that dropped chickens, dogs, the great-great blind grandson of Secretariat, and killed 20% of the humans in Sand Valley, Ca., I made two little moves. Neighbor Fred had fallen out of bed with heatstroke and died of a heart attack in what California paramedics call a ´trailer wedge´ between the bed and close wall, Big Jon evaporated one day into the desert and is rumored to have buried his head unsuccessfully in the sand, and the good Reverend two months after passing to his hereafter frankly drew our noses at four miles distant. So first, I dug a cool ten-foot burrow lined with blankets and a solar panel atop to communicate with the outside world. And second, the following hot August since experiments must be conducted under the most realistic conditions I explore a pedestrian route out of Sand Valley to the nearest whistle stop Palo Verde.
I take off in reverse from Palo Verde one bright morn at 80F with a gallon jug of water in each hand, loaf of raisin bread, compass and penlight. The 30 miles overland route as the vulture flies covers animal trails, sand tracks, arroyos, and bushwhacking the Sonora. A bird mile is 1.5 walking miles in the desert. The water is rationed to the last drop on the ring of hills beneath a pink sunset where I cannot spot the trailer. I take an educated bearing toward the ring center and start downhill. Stars twinkle one-by-one into being and creatures emerge from hole homes to scamper the boulevard arroyos. My rule is that under a full moon you may see western diamondbacks and sidewinders, under a half-moon you miss the sidewinders, and under tonight´s new moon they see you first.
The night grows fascinating. A sidewinder rattles ´Hello´ on raised ‘black pavement’ above the washes where I shine the penlight only. Up and down the washes I climb for hours wishing to urinate to wet a dry tongue that threatens to clog my airway and suffocate. A stone sucked for an hour depletes the last saliva and the mouth dries like a mouse curled up and died. I collapse in oxygen debt with a wrist pulse race to 100 and little twitches take the limbs, before it occurs to me to distill water in the mouth from the air. The ambient air of about 110F is higher with more moisture than the oral cavity at 98.6F, so via a temperature gradient of fitted breathing, every fifteen minutes or so a dollop of thick saliva grows to swallow once, get up and walk for fifteen minutes, and repeat the routine. I don’t want to sleep for fear of a desert crib death.
The moon arcs and drops below the horizon, and it´s starlight reckoning until the North Star falls behind a mountain, and then the penlight batteries fail. The fear of rattlesnakes overcomes a death sleep, so I recline in a wash under an Ironwood and after distilling a swallow of saliva let myself doze. A kit fox sniffs my boot and alerts me, won´t leave for five minutes. Later a four-point buck snorts and stares down into my surprised eyes, pawing the sand. Inspired, I rise on hind legs and wander the dark in a cramped, heated shuffle for water before sunrise or I may die.\
One hope centers in a rock cistern of a Louis L´Amour short story ´The Strong Shall Live´. Following an hour march up a rocky slope kit fox, deer, coyote and bird tracks circle a pothole of water from last week´s storm. I slurp a pint on all fours, pollywogs and all, and in thirty minutes feel stronger. I fill a gallon jug and descend drinking a pint every fifteen minutes until the jug empties at sunrise that reveals a familiar outcrop to point the way home. The best adventures often come from bad decisions, and the quicker we can laugh off our own folly the better we will be to face the next.