Our group regained a semblance of order several hundred yards further on; Heather retook the lead and Tom brought up the rear once again. We walked in single-file to avoid any accidents, as the trail became very narrow, with a precipitous drop on our left-hand side. From the general conversation it was clear that the snake episode had done little to foster a sense of unity among us, but had rather acted more like a wedge in the midst of our fledgling community. Several members whispered amongst themselves that they had some doubts about leader Tom’s authority; others were appalled by old-man Mitch’s heartless cruelty. Barbara’s teenage son however, for the first time all day, was animated as he recounted the viper’s death scene in all its gory detail to his reluctant sister, who covered both ears with her hands, and sang at the top of her lungs to drown out his oration.
By evening, as we set up camp and ate our dinner, it seemed that folks had come around to the recognition that we are all in this together—for the next two weeks anyway—so we should make the best of it, and try to get along. Expert Tom never brought up his mistake about Rattlesnake Ridge, so we let the incident go without further reflection. After a good meal followed up by smores, we retired to our tents under a moonless night, as the dysphonic cackle of coyotes rose in the distance.
The next morning Heather called us together to give us the upcoming itinerary, with an important caveat that we’d be leaving the river late in the day, and cutting across open territory for the next twenty-four hours or so; with little opportunity for fresh water; so, when we get down to the river—which we’d be doing soon, in a few hours—we all should be sure to fill our water bottles to the brim, and plan on conserving. By morning of the day after tomorrow, we’d be back to the river’s edge, with all the water we can drink. One final thing, the water in this area isn’t safe to drink without treatment—it is filled with bacteria—so everyone should use the water-filters that either she or Tom had brought along with them, when filling their water-bottles—unless they want a bad case of the runs; which she wouldn’t recommend…since there’s no laundry service out here, and she doubts anyone packed enough underwear with them. We all laughed.
The second day was hotter than the first. The cool air from the nighttime lingered briefly but soon burned off entirely, and by lunchtime we all were baking; and any exposed skin was beginning to turn as red as the surrounding rocks. Thankfully we had finally reached the river, and most of us took a dip to cool off. Heather and Tom pulled out their water-filters. Old-man Mitch, along with his newly formed cohort—Steve, another old-timer, and a couple in their fifties, Trina & Randy—sat together at the river’s edge watching the rest of us floating and splashing. They weren’t interested in getting wet, or disrobing, and were happy just watching for now. Beckett and Samantha, or Sam as she preferred to be called—the young, nervous couple from the back of the Subaru—were hovering not far from Heather in hopes of being first in line to use one of the water-filters. They looked a bit haggard from the heat, but the anxiety which showed in their eyes also enlivened them, giving them both the appearance of insomniacs.
As folks were drying off, a shriek and then an ensuing argument broke the relative quiet: Heather looked incredulously at Tom and asked him, “Why on earth would you just drop your pack there, on the other side of that rock, without looking first?! You dropped it right on the water-filter…you probably broke it!” To which Tom retorted, “Well, why the heck would you put the filter back there, hiding, where nobody can see it?!”
“To keep it safe, you moron!” She answered, rolling her eyes and throwing both arms up in the air, whipping her hands with a short flick and spreading her fingers for emphasis. She leaned over the rock and pushed the pack to the side, and pulled out the filter from underneath. Examining it closely, she shook her head quickly from side to side, as she tried to pull the handle up to release the plunger from the filter-body. She grimaced as she pulled harder on the handle, and the shaft came partly out before stopping again. She pushed and pulled several times, shaking it between attempts, before finally throwing it down, in disgust, against the rock—inadvertently, in her anger, making absolutely certain that it was broken. Tom, looked on coolly, with feigned nonchalance and drooping eyes, and asked her slowly, “Was that the best idea?” Beckett and Sam took several steps backward and looked at one another anxiously, and Beckett let out a nervous laugh. Heather closed her eyes and sighed deeply, letting her shoulders sag before answering, “No…no, that probably wasn’t.”
All eyes were on our guides and a hush had overtaken us, as we waited to see what would happen next. Tom stated the obvious, “Well, that filter is toast…but at least we still have mine.” He walked forward to his backpack and rummaged through it for a moment before pulling the other water-filter out. “Well folks!” He called out loudly, holding the filter up in the air and turning about in a circle. “We need to be very careful with this one, it’s all we’ve got!” Nobody laughed. But there were quite a few nervous glances between hikers, before Heather gave us an impromptu pep-talk:
“It’s okay, we’re going to be alright, better than alright…we’re gonna be great! These are the best filters on the market, and one can easily handle the demands of our entire group, and then some! It will only take a little longer with one, but we’ve got time, so let’s line up and get going! Sooner we get our bottles filled up the sooner we can get back on the trail!” No further mention was made about her unfortunate outburst, or Tom’s unfortunate carelessness. We all supposed it was just water under the bridge; if our leaders didn’t feel any further need to address it, then why should we?
As the members of our group were taking turns using the filter, old-man Mitch and his friends stayed seated were they were. Tom called out to them, saying they should bring their bottles over, to which Mitch answered that no, they were good, they didn’t need the filter, they were using Steve’s iodine tablets to disinfect their water.
“Woah! Wait a minute!” Heather exclaimed, and took a few steps towards the iodine contingent. “No! That’s not alright.” She emphasized the words as she looked around at the other members of our hiking community. “Folks, I want you all to know, iodine is not safe. That might have been something we used in the past, but you really should never resort to that means of disinfecting water anymore. Especially now that we have modern filtration which is far superior. At the very least, if you don’t have a filter, you should only use chlorine-dioxide tablets, they are safe, but never use iodine. It is extremely damaging to the thyroid.” She turned back towards Mitch & Steve, “I would really prefer it if you’d use the filter, I’m responsible for everyone here, and I just don’t want anyone to get hurt.” Steve looked as if he’d been caught with his hand in a cookie jar, but he quietly answered Heather, “I can understand that, I really do. But you know, I’ve been using iodine tablets to disinfect water since I was a kid, my dad always did it this way. And I’m fine, even after sixty years of it. Well, maybe I’m not fine, I’ll leave that up to others, but I feel fine!” Trina and Randy chuckled at this, and Trina added, “My grandfather used to take my brothers and I out on camping trips and he always used iodine too, and I turned out okay.”
Heather looked at Tom, and he shrugged. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and negotiated, “Since you’ve already used the tabs in your bottles, go ahead and use it this time, but after this let’s all just use the filter, okay? It is much safer. Science has come a long way since you were kids you know. And I mean no disrespect by that. We just should follow the best practices, so that everyone will be okay out here. You don’t want us to have to carry you out of here, do you? That wouldn’t be fair to anyone.”
Mitch nodded approval, and the others followed. “We can play along. We’ll be model citizens from now on! Water-filters it is!” Heather smiled, and the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief, somehow feeling that we had dodged a potentially lethal bullet, aimed at the heart of our community.
(To Be Continued)