This the story of how my friend showered in a public water spigot, I almost died of thirst, and together we saved an innocent hiker from almost certain death. It sounds dramatic, but I swear it’s true.
Alright, let’s set the scene. This was the day my friend Caterpillar and I passed the halfway point on the Appalachian Trail. We were reasonably pretty hyped, and maybe that’s why we crushed ten miles in the morning.
At noon we got to a quaint country hostel, which had our packages. We climbed the steps to the porch, approached the front door, and knocked.
No one answered.
At that point I realized they were closed, and also that there was literally no where else to get food for many miles. Somewhat dismayed, we walked a few yards to a nearby store (Also closed, although when open it’s the home of the ice cream challenge), and collapsed in the shade of their front porch to decide what to do. Our guidebook said the hostel would open that evening, and we realized we had no choice but to stay put until then.
So we did. We lazed around on the store’s front porch, took turns sleeping, read stories to each other, and did a bit of impromptu laundry in the water spigot. Later, Caterpillar decided to take a shower in the spigot too, scandalizing me, but getting away with it.
When the hostel opened we popped in, grabbed our food, and got back on the trail. But it was late.
And that’s the crucial thing to note for this story: we were hiking at a time when almost everyone else was already in camp for the night. No one else was on trail.
We got in about two more miles when we had to stop short to avoid tumbling over a middle aged man, collapsed in the middle of the trail.
Caterpillar said, surprised, “Are you okay?”
He gasped back, “No.” And then, with the desperation only dying men have, he croaked, “Water.”
My first instinct was to give him water. My second was worry that his body would reject it if I did, and he would be in worse shape than we found him. I grabbed my water bottle, measured out a bit of water, and gave it to him. He wanted more. I waited as long he would let me, then gave him more. And a bit more- a third of our water stores.
“Here,” said Caterpillar, “We can give you a liter of water to use, if you’ll let us pour it into your bottle.”
“No, no,” he said, “I can’t let you do that. I’ll be fine.”
Caterpillar and I exchanged skeptical looks. “Come on,” I said, “How about you pack up and we’ll send you off with enough water for the night.”
I don’t think he had the energy to argue with me. He started packing, and told us the story in jumbled snippets. It had been a hot day, as we were well aware. He had been sucking down water faster than he thought, and when he ran out it took him by surprise. So much so that he found himself, very suddenly, two miles from water and already half dehydrated.
Things went downhill from there. He tried to walk back towards water, but collapsed. He tried to call for help, and had no cell service. He tried to set up his hammock, and couldn’t concentrate. At last, he sat down in the trail, got out a pillow, and determined to wait out the night, in the hopes someone would come by him early the next morning.
Frankly, I’m not sure he would have made it that long.
By the time we knew all of this twenty minutes had elapsed and he still hadn’t packed up. I watched him blunder with this piece of gear and that, hands shaking, while he talked to us, rambling and slightly incoherent.
I began to realize that we weren’t going to make any more miles that evening. I also realized that there was no water to be had here. Not for two miles. That was a problem, especially since we couldn’t leave him and he couldn’t walk… not unless we split up.
I turned to Caterpillar and she turned to me.
“Do you want to go…?” she asked.
“Yeah, unless you want to,” I answered.
There was an awkward pause. “I’ll do it,” she said, “give me all the empty water bottles.”
We emptied her pack onto the ground, filled it with every vessel capable of containing liquids that we could find, and watched her disappear down the trail. She would walk the two miles to the water, fill all the bottles, and walk the two miles back. Meanwhile, the man and I had about a quarter of a liter of water each. Put another way, we both had about a glass of water to last us until Caterpillar came back.
“What’s your name, by the way?” I asked him as I began to gather all of Caterpillar’s things, now strewn across the ground.
He grinned at me, the first smile I’d really seen out of him. “My trail name is Indiana Jones. I got it a long time ago, hiking with my Dad.”
I grinned back at him “Well pleased to meet you, Indiana Jones. I’m Old Soul.”
It took me a long time to find a campsite that Indiana Jones could walk to. Even longer to gather up all of Caterpillar’s stuff, all of my stuff, and all of his stuff, and carry it to the campsite. When, in turn, I escorted Indiana Jones to the campsite, he was so wobbly that I was terrified he would fall and crack his head on one of the rocks, leaving me to helplessly watch him bleed out.
But we both made it to the campsite. Once there, he began begging for water. I think he was still more dehydrated than I realized, because even though he began by politely refusing my water, within ten minutes he had downed every drop we had. I was alone with an incapacitated companion I could not leave, two miles from the nearest drop of drinkable water, with no way to contact absolutely anyone.
Let us be perfectly clear: if Caterpillar didn’t come back with water then my life, and Indiana Jones’, would be in serious peril.
So I did the only sensible thing I could do, and peed into a zip-lock bag. You know, just in case.
There were then a few chores to be seen to, when I wasn’t contemplating my precarious grasp on life. I set up the tents, ran back to the trail and left a note for Caterpillar so she would know where to find us, then walked back through the dark to Indiana Jones. He was busy trying to hang his hammock, despite the fact that he could barely stand.
I offered to let him sleep in my tent by himself, while I shared with Caterpillar. He wouldn’t hear of it. I offered to set up the hammock for him. Out of the question.
So I was obliged to sit on the ground, staring off into the night, and listen to him struggle for two hours to set up his hammock, all while trying not to think what would happen if Caterpillar never made it back.
No one is ever scared of running out of water until it’s too late, but as the hours ticked by I acquainted myself thoroughly with that fear.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending.
At ten o’clock at night I saw a headlamp in the distance, jumped up, and saw Caterpillar speeding along towards me, backpack laden with life-giving, beautiful, essential, water.
And the instant I saw her, I dissolved into a mess.
We distributed the water between the three of us and I, sniffling with relief, poured out my zip-lock bag of urine. We still didn’t dare to go to bed until Indiana Jones finished setting up his hammock (it took at least another half hour, and he still wouldn’t accept help), simply out of fear he would have some sort of attack, which was not unlikely, given what he told us of his medical history.
But he did, at long last, finish his hammock and go to bed. I was still more than a bit hysterical on the inside but finally I could crawl into my tent, snuggle into my sleeping bag, and zip up the door, shutting out the whole world.
We parted ways with Indiana Jones the next morning. He seemed embarrassed, and before we separated he gave us $20 each. As far as I know, he made it safely to civilization. As for us, we were a bit short on water that morning, but made it to the next stream and refilled with no problems.
So what did I get from the experience? Well, if I’m honest, a genuine terror of dehydration and visceral understanding of the frailty of human beings, but also a confidence in my emergency-situation skills.
If I had a choice, I would have preferred to never go through the experience. But now it’s happened I’m grateful for the lessons it taught me, and I have a much greater respect for people who face survival situations on a regular basis. I don’t know how they do it, but I know now that it certainly can’t be easy.
That’s all for this week.