There was a reason that it was called Hell’s Half Acre. It was mid-August, and the heat shimmering off the desert floor looked like the waves on the ocean a thousand miles to the west. The only water I could find was beaded on my forehead or soaked into the red bandana around my neck.
I knew there were parts of western Wyoming that probably still had some snow, way up high in the Tetons or huddled beneath a dirt bank on the north face of a canyon. Little good it did me there. I was here to test myself, walking away from the drilling rig on my week off, going walkabout in my own mind, going stupid in the eyes of my co-workers. The rig’s tool pusher had tried to voice his concerns, but I pulled rank on him and headed out anyway. I had my hat, my vest, and a head full of too much knowledge. I wanted to get rid of that part of me that wasn’t true. This was the only way I could think of that could fit in seven days.
That heat shimmer on the horizon wasn’t a mirage of some far off water body. I was facing east, and there was no water in that direction for a couple of hundred miles. I wasn’t planning on going that far, though, so it was find it or die. I was right at the beginning of day two, and had survived so far on stored fat and confident stupidity. I did know that I had to start looking in earnest pretty soon, or the rig crew would be short-handed.
The land around me wasn’t totally barren. There was scrub a-plenty, and the occasional gray tree forcing it’s way up from some rock ledge. I could have tried following the cracks down into the ground, but the tree roots were skinnier than I was, and the rock just about as hard. I took heart in the fact of my sweat. The drop on the end of my nose told me that I was still hydrated, and I had some bit of time ahead. It was the pallid dry skin that I was afraid of, and I thought that I could probably make it to day four before I had to contend with thoughts of heat stroke and vultures.
I moved forward in a steady walk, heading away from, not toward anything. My outward destination was just day 3.5, when I would decide to turn around and head back, hoping for a glow in the sky on the far horizon that was the 90 foot tall rig that I was calling home these days. I slumped my way down a shallow gully and pushed my way back up the far side. There was dry grass, but I just bent over and steadied myself with my hands on the hot dry sand.
Coming up the far side of the gully, I came face to face with the open mouth of a fat gray rattle snake, and I pulled away in shock. The snake had been sunning itself, and pulled itself back into a coil, alarmed at finding such a big fool rising in front of him. I turned aside quickly, and the springing snake thudded to the ground before me. My boot stomped forward, and I had dinner, and just a bit more fluid to go into my poor parched soul. My only regret was having to sit in front of a fire to cook it. I suspected that any gain I would make in fluid intake would be baked right back out in sweat. I ate that snake, from right behind the head to just before the rattle. Waste not, want not. The rattle went in my pocket.
On day 3.5, I was looping back to the rig and came upon a low, fat cactus that seemed way out of place. I sat down before it contemplating its existence, and my own. I figured the cactus was here first, so I moved over a few feet and began to dig down through the hardpan with my sheath knife and hands. Plunge the knife in the ground, twist it around to break up the crust, and scoop the sand out of the hole. Repeat as needed. The hole got to be about two feet deep, and the edge was getting perilously close to the cactus when the bottom started to get damp. I was tired, dusty and thirsty, but the feel of cool sand on my hands brought a stupid smile to my face. I slid a handful back across the back of my neck for relief from the sun. It stung, then cooled me and spurred me on. Another foot down and digging away from my savior cactus, and there was a tiny trickle of water in the hole. I pulled another handful out, and bent down to wet my bandana in the clear pool that formed. I sat there for an hour, happy as a kid in a mud puddle, sucking on my bandana and glad to be alive. I knew then that I would be back at work next Sunday. I pulled my knife out of the sheath and bored a hole through the snake rattle. I threaded a string through it, and tied it around my neck as a totem.
Good luck charm? No, just thanks for the journey.