Last week I found myself stuck on a mountainside in the wild with less than a pint of water between Pann and I. I had just gone to bed next to my old friend, comatose in his sleeping bag:
There’s a scene in a movie I recall in which a group of miners run out of water. They wind up in a battle to the death when some learn of the hoarding of one of them that reduces the amount of water available to all.
I’d never been really thirsty before in the absence of the ability to take a drink, and that scene came vividly to my mind innumerable times that night.
I know how they felt. It’s a bit of a stretch, for we weren’t lost or anything, and I would certainly be able to reach water in the morning, whether he could or not, but I couldn’t help thinking that it was a very good thing for Pann that we’re such good friends. Hoarding a little water, or consuming more than was absolutely necessary while he slept, seemed like very appealing options to me.
Real thirst is ugly. The break-down of civilized regard for one another is only a small step away.
I slept very fitfully, hardly being able to fall asleep because of my body”s scream for hydration. My mouth was always dry, hardly producing enough moisture to keep my lips from cracking into open sores. I twice wet my lips from the canteen despite myself.
At the first sign of light I roused Pann and we discussed our options. He wanted to try to walk out, even though he wasn’t feeling much better. We ate the grapefruit like an orange, being sure not to lose any of its moisture, and set off in the predawn light. I wanted to get as much distance under our belts as possible before it got warm. It was about 5:00 a.m.
On the final stretch to the top a very odd event took place. I’ve often thought about how a slightly different outcome could have changed the rest of this story drastically, perhaps for both of us.
Pann was moving very slowly, for his condition hadn’t actually improved much in spite of over 18 hours of sleep. I was stopping ever ten or fifteen yards waiting for him to catch up. The sun still hadn’t risen on the eastward slopes across the way from us, but it was pretty good lighting and the slope had almost leveled out as we approached the top of the ridge.
Suddenly something came crashing out of the brush on my left, coming directly at me.
“Jesus,” I thought, “a cougar or maybe a bear.” The bear idea immediately seemed highly unlikely, for they virtually never attack humans here in the Sierras.
A cougar then.
I spun toward the sound and leveled the only weapon I had, my shepherd’s stick I always walked with-a prized possession I’d gotten in Hawes, England, on the same trip that had changed my life back in 1986. If I could deflect the animal’s charge by a good swift punch with the stick, I might stand some kind of chance.
What came rushing at me, though, wasn’t a cougar, but a three or four point buck. Bounding at full throttle, it was on a direct collision course with me.
“Hey!” I shouted.
Hearing and seeing me just before its last bounce in my direction, the deer veered slightly to my right and barely missed me. I could have easily reached out and touched it as it passed by.
I looked at Pann, some ten yards behind me, both our faces slack and mouths wide open. “What the fuck?” I said aloud. Pann just looked at me, agog.
Then there was the sound of something else running my direction in the brush. Apparently in hot pursuit of the deer, a coyote burst into view. It spotted me immediately and, with a look reeking of surprise and utter disgust, it drew up abruptly, then swerved off into the undergrowth.
Everyhing immediately all made perfect sense. The coyote was engaged in hunting with his pack. They are famous for running prey in circles, each taking turns chasing a quicker, and/or larger, quarry into the area occupied by its colleague, who then picks up the chase, running the victim in a large circle until it is too exhausted to fend off the final attack. The surprise clearly reflected the coyote’s reaction to a human being there at all; the disgust being how totally I had screwed things up for him and his friends.
How very different things would have gone for Pann and I if that deer hadn’t missed me. I’d have at least been somewhat injured, and everything would have been different.
As it was, Pann became my hero that day. He set the pace, and it was incredibly slow. I never saw him take a step greater than the length of his foot, and each clearly was a maximal effort. But he must have taken a million of them.
Incredible stamina, given his condition. Incredible resolve.
(To be continued)