The afternoon heat intensified, with the rays of the sun pummeling our bodies and eroding our resolve, and sapping our energy, so that each additional step, taking us moment-by-moment deeper into that desert wilderness, also seemed to stultify our minds, rendering us all temporarily dim-witted. Heather worked hard from the front of the line to keep us all engaged with our surroundings, calling our attention to particular details of interest: the adaptive strategies of the desert milkweed, the wide and strange markings found on the wide variety of lizards indigenous to the desert here, and the amazing sense of smell which leads turkey vultures, like the ones up ahead, to dead animals. About a half hour later we passed by the carcass of a dead mammal—probably a coyote, though maybe a fox, Heather said—with several vultures gathered around, sharing the meal.
As the afternoon wore on, the sun began its descent, which brought relief from the focused intensity of its light, but the air remained infernal. We entered a labyrinthine landscape of narrow gorges, with trails leading helter-skelter in all directions. Heather stopped to examine her trail-map more closely. As Barbara looked on from several paces away—taking small comfort in the thin shade of a scrappy looking little desert tree, which to my eye appeared already dead—she commented to her new friend, Thadia, and to the Subaru kids how lucky we all are to have someone like Heather to lead the way. She’d hate to be out here all alone without someone like Heather to follow, she’d be sure to end up like that coyote we passed earlier. After a few moments Heather took a look around, seemingly perplexed, but recognizing that all eyes were upon her, she smiled confidently and raised her head defiantly, to set our minds at ease. Barbara and Thadia smiled at one another and watched Heather expectantly. I found it all unsettling however; the look of bewilderment in her eyes, coupled with the determined set of her jaw, together left me feeling apprehensive. Was it decisive confusion that I saw on her face; or was it confused certainty? Either way, it didn’t feel comforting. For the first time Heather looked to me like the type of leader that could confidently make a colossal blunder. Glancing at the others in our group, I caught the eye of one or two who seemed to express my same concern, but most everyone else didn’t seem perturbed one bit, and they were ready to follow wherever Heather might lead us.
After one or two more quick glances at her map, Heather resolutely pointed the way up one of the trails leading off to our right, and then strode off in that direction. “Come along! Compadres! We’re almost there, just an hour more and we’ll make camp for the night. There’s a beautiful little grove of Emory Oak trees that we can camp under, you’ll love it!”
“Sounds delightful!” exclaimed Thadia. “I’m all in!” added Barbara. And the rest of us fell in line, and we snaked our way up the trail, reinvigorated by hopes of a nice evening under the trees.
But two hours later, we still hadn’t arrived at the promised oak grove, and we were getting impatient. Our feet were hot and tired and our legs ached. What’s worse, several of us began complaining of upset stomachs and intestinal pain. Heather and Tom encouraged us to keep going—the oak grove was a little farther than they had remembered it—but we’d be there soon and then we could rest, have a nice meal, and get some sleep. But even after another half-hour of hiking—there were no oak trees in sight; and when Barbara’s daughter doubled over and threw up on her shoes, Heather decided it would be better to stop where we were for the night, and abandon the oak grove. We pitched our tents in a cluster, surrounded by several Saguaro Cactus and numerous little scrubby shrubs, which Tom identified as Foothill Palo Verde.
Heather spent a lot of time with Barbara’s daughter, Maggie, getting her first to lie down and put her feet up, and then to drink more water. But slowly—just sips—because she most likely was suffering from a bit of heat-stroke and probably dehydration. Barbara, very concerned, watched on gratefully from just behind Heather’s shoulder, as Heather tended to her sick daughter—placing a cool towel on her forehead and also behind her neck. After dinner, several more in our group complained of nausea, which alarmed Tom. He wondered aloud if we all had eaten something that had gone bad, but nobody could think what it might be, since we had only eaten trail-mix, power bars, and dried meat, none of which really seemed likely to have caused our symptoms. He concluded, as Heather had, that it must be slight dehydration and some heat-stroke; with the course of treatment being more water—taken slowly—and rest. We all tried to sleep that night, with varying degrees of success. I, for one, didn’t have a great night, but counted myself fortunate because I neither had to get up to puke, nor to relieve my bowels repeatedly, like some of the others did.
By morning, the mysterious malady had affected almost everyone, though some had begun to recover, while others looked to be getting worse. Conspicuously, a small contingent were unaffected—Steve, old-man Mitch, Trina and Randy all were as healthy as ever. Again, nobody else seemed interested in this fact, though it piqued my curiosity and led me to theorize upon the potential benefits of the much-maligned iodine tablet as an effective water treatment. And this caused me to question the preferred, modern and superior water-filter which Heather had advocated. But not wanting to cause any friction I kept my thoughts to myself. However, I did quietly ask Tom if I could take a look at the filter, just out of curiosity, wondering how the remarkable thing worked. He handed it to me cautiously, reminding me to be very careful with it, and then he returned to his horizontal position, moaning a little as he lay there. Upon close inspection, it did appear that the filter casing had been damaged, with the screw-on cover slightly pulled-apart on one side. With a little effort I was able to unscrew the top and take a look at the insides. “Tom.” I whispered. “I’m no expert about these things, but this doesn’t look right to me. Here, inside this filter—take a look.” I said, and reached out to hand the opened filter back to him. He wasn’t pleased that I had disturbed him, and was upset that I had taken the top of the filter off, but when he peered inside, he gave a low whistle and shook his head. “Not good. This thing is definitely busted. See that tear in that membrane, water is going straight through it without getting filtered. This thing is toast!” He said out loud, and then more quietly, as he covered it under his sleeping bag, and looked around to make sure nobody had heard him. He called Heather over and showed her the filter. After her initial alarm, and after the two of them realized the source of our collective illness, she knew what had to be done. We needed good water after all.
Heather walked over to talk privately with Steve and old-man Mitch. I saw her gesturing and then Steve reached into his bag and procured two large bottles while nodding to Heather. Next, she turned to face the group of tents and called out for everyone to gather around. Once we had dragged ourselves from our bags and were all within earshot she began: “Okay everyone, it seems we have some problems with our water. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but we need to refrain from using the filter. Now, don’t worry. It’s going to be just fine. It’s okay. Steve has iodine tablets and we’re going to treat everyone’s water using that. It’s going to be just fine. We’re going to get through this!”
“But wait,” Samantha spoke up. “You said iodine is dangerous and we shouldn’t use it.”
“Iodine is completely safe,” Heather reassured everyone. “No, you must have misunderstood me. It is safe when taken for short periods of time, and in limited quantities. There is nothing at all to fear about using iodine to disinfect our water.” After some confusion and perplexed looks on the part of many of us, we gathered up our water-bottles and let Steve drop the tablets in, one by one, as prescribed.
“Thank goodness Heather and Tom figured that out!” Commented Barbara. Thadia nodded her head in agreement.
“I guess we were a little confused about using iodine, but I’m glad she clarified that, and told us we can use it. That will really help out now.” Thadia added, with obvious relief spreading across her face.
(to be continued)