The Temple of Water

A Mojave Desert Adventure


You can never carry enough water.

You’re going to need more than a gallon a day and each gallon weighs eight pounds. Three nights: thirty-two pounds of water. At least.

I’ve been backpacking the Mojave my whole life and I know this, but every time I head out, I’m still surprised at how much water we need. And maybe it’s because bushwhacking is such exhausting work, but water disappears even faster when you’re off-trail. Even in February— when we last trekked the Preserve up and over Granite Peak— when temperatures dwindle from the summer’s devastating heat and you’re likely to think your personal reservoir will go further, even then, you still can’t carry enough water.

It was the third night in our four-day trip when the real immediacy of our water shortage hit home. We were leading a crew of six, including a couple of New Yorkers who had never backpacked before. For the newbies, the moment they realized we were running low and still twenty miles away from the road, was a moment of profound sublimation. As city folks, they had never experienced that moment when water was simply not to be had.

There we were, eight tired bodies, ready for what we thought would be the triumphant climax to the trip; people who had spent the past three days testing their physical constitution, now asked to test the reliance of their mental one with a pretty scary question: how do we deal with being out of water?

We knew there had to be water all around us— for hours we had been crashing along a dry streambed, thick with plants. The sandy bottom floor was dark and damp with seep as we dug down into it. Just nothing liquid.

Now I’ve been hiking with Juniper Ridge for over ten years now, and Hall Newbegin— the guy who started Juniper Ridge— and I had been in worse scrapes than this. We’re comfortable in wilderness. We know that solutions to every type of problem present themselves there, but we also know what all veteran packers know: oftentimes backpacking is more about mental training than physical. The worst danger is psychological— letting the fear in and being overcome with emotion brought on by exhaustion. Twenty miles to water might sound like a lot, but it really isn’t.

But if you think it is, it’s forever.

I get easily distracted by beauty. It’s like someone constantly tapping me on the shoulder trying to tell me something. Hall and Jeff on the other hand— Jeff was the other co-leader on the trip— tend to barrel forward through any obstacle. So over the years a pattern has developed: those two lead the charge, I anchor the back. And nothing was different this time. Hall and Jeff had decided that the best strategy was to get out of the canyon as fast as possible and reach the road, that we could get to water by dawn.

I wasn’t as convinced and wanted to stick around in case, as can happen, a deliberative pace is rewarded. So while Hall and Jeff ran ahead with the New Yorkers, I stayed behind with Colin and Molly. It was early evening and the deep red light was cutting across the dark marble canyon under a vivid turquoise sky. The three of us were just discussing our “It’s so beautiful here that if we die, so be it,” plan, when it hit me: a marble canyon.

Marble! The walls were granite and the canyon floor beneath us was sand. We needed to get higher, to see if any of the stone basins held water. As we climbed, the canyon snaked and cornered and I kept my eyes on the confluences, where the side canyons entered the larger main vein. And just before sunset, when the light was at its most opalescent and we were at our most tried, I found it: a trickle, tracing a thin line down the rock face.

I put my lips to the stone, like a kiss, and drank. I’ve never tasted anything so good. Colin saw a kind of natural staircase in the rock wall and we scrambled a short ascent to the source. Shallow ponds connected by a strong vein of flowing water extended up to a blue stone gully that seemed to us, a temple to some desert goddess at whose feet we all suddenly worshipped. It was a place so stunning, so nourishing, that we were all a bit overcome by emotion.

We followed the spring up to sacred, deep pools, where we filled our gallons with water from the seep and washed the dust from our faces. Resting a while, I penned the poem “Mojavia Diosa.” How could I not? We felt like we had been saved by the desert herself, that she had not only accepted, but welcomed us.

It turned out Hall, Jeff, and the others had decided to wait and see if we had found anything. We crossed paths with them an hour later and the party reunited in a chorus of whoops and hollers like a pack of drunk coyotes. That night, well watered, under a blanket of blinking, sapphire stars, we slept and dreamed of the beer waiting for us at the end of the trail.