Thirst in the Desert

IT is not a pleasant thing, thirst. It is not soft or savory, but harsh and hideous ; something never to be forgotten, though seldom to be mentioned, and then lightly and reservedly, with the severer features tempered or veiled. Yet it is a phase of life — and death — which those who would know the hard course of human pioneering must needs picture. It has been limned by Lundgren and penned by Owen Wister, skillful painters both, yet both so fortunate as to have painted partly — though not wholly — at secondhand.

There is a suffering miscalled thirst which sometimes adds to the pangs of hunger in humid lands ; there is a thirst of the sea, aggravated by the salt spray on lip and nostril though the pores are bathed in moist air, which is hardly less horrible than hunger ; and there is the dryness of the desert, the gradual desiccation of mucus and skin and flesh, which inflicts a torture that hunger only palliates, and this alone is worthy to be called thirst. In Death Valley, in farther Papagueria (the desert borderland of Arizona and Sonora), and elsewhere in arid America, the region in which routes are laid by “ waters,” and in which the “ last water ” and “ next water ” are ever present and dominant ideas, the earth is soilless sand so hot as to scorch thin-shod feet, and dry as fired pottery. Daily for months the air is 120° F. or more in the shade, and dry, — so dry that a basin of water evaporates in an hour, so dry that no drop of sweat is shed by hard-pushed horse or toiling pedestrian. The only plants able to survive the heat and drought are water-storing monstrosities, living reservoirs like cacti and agaves ; the animals are peculiar in structure and physiological process; even the Indians gathered in the moister spots have a shrunken and withered mien, half mummied before death as they are wholly after. Here thirst abides ; and here tombless skeletons whitening in the sun, and staring skulls sowing teeth and shreds of shriveled meninges as they bowl before the sand-storm, give ghastly evidence of its insatiate passion.

Even in the desert there are stages of thirst. In the earlier stages the tissues simply dry and shrink like lifeless wood ; in the later stages, seldom seen and scarce ever survived, vitality plays a rare rôle, and the external tissues become inflamed and suffused, and finally disorganized, while yet the internal organs continue to work, although with little aim and less reason. The stages of thirst arise and pass at a rate varying with the condition of the sufferer as much as with the heat and dryness of the air. In the open-pored tenderfoot or housling they may run their course between sun and sun of a single day, while in the long-inured and leatherskinned vaquero the agony may stretch over several days, mitigated nightly by the extreme chilling yet imperceptible moistening of the air; for where thirst holds sway the diurnal range of the mercury is fifty or sixty, or even eighty degrees.

Perhaps doctors may disagree as to the number of stages, yet patients will detail symptoms in their own way; and to one who has run the gauntlet two thirds through, exchanged confidences with two or three equally fortunate victims, and gleaned external observations on unsuccessful runners, five stages seem clear and definite, though the first is but a preface to the four gloomy chapters that follow. The order is fixed, though the features of the stages vary, particularly when delirium disturbs the due course of events and hastens the end.

At first the mouth feels dry and hot, and a tension in the throat leads to an involuntary swallowing motion, and ducks the chin when the motion occurs ; the voice is commonly husky, the nape or occiput may pain steadily or throbbingly, and there is a diffused sense of uneasiness, or even of irritation, leading to querulous chatter and petulant activity. The sensations and outward symptoms suggest slight fever, and the temperature usually rises perceptibly.

The condition is alleviated by the farmer-boy’s device of carrying a pebble or twig in the mouth to excite the flow of saliva; it is relieved by a pint of liquid. The sensations are yet partly subjective ; if the water is muddy or ill smelling, half a pint will do ; and if a hair or helpless bug is water-logged in the cup, still less will suffice for the stomach, though the feverish irritation may increase apace.

This is the clamorous stage, or the stage of complaining ; it is experienced many times over by all men of arid regions, and is of little note save as the beginning of a series.

In the second stage of dryness, which might be called the first stage of thirst, the fever rises ; the scant saliva and mucus spume sluggishly on lip and tongue and catch in the teeth, clogging utterance, and catching the tongue against the roof of the mouth; a lump is felt in the throat, as if suspended by tense cords running from the Adam’s apple toward the ears, and the hand instinctively seeks to loosen these aggravating bands, but succeeds only in opening the collar and exposing more skin to evaporation ; the head throbs fiercely, and with each throe the nape travails and the pains shoot down the spine. Meantime the ears ring and sometimes change tone suddenly, as when a down-grade train dashes into a tunnel ; the vision is capricious, conjuring verdant foliage near by and delectable lakes in the distance, though it is half blind to the trail. The sense of uneasiness grows into strong irritation, with a sort of mechanical mixture of lethargy and ill-aimed activity ; there is hot, perhaps half consciously impotent wrath against the idiot of a cook who provided the too small water-barrel, the condemned broncho that bucked off and “busted” the best canteen, the spring that failed, the Satanic sun that burns the shoulders through the shirt and bakes the soles through the shoes; perhaps there is keen, crazing remorse for the sufferer’s own neglect, if he is honest enough to confess himself to himself as the original sinner. Alone, he is sullenly silent, but given to breaking out sporadically in viciously impassioned invective or more continuous monologue, according to his habit of mind ; with others, he commonly strains tongue and throat to talk in a husky or queerly cracked voice, — to talk and talk and talk, without prevision of the next sentence or memory of the last ; and all the talk is of water in some of its inexpressibly captivating aspects. A group of ranchmen, tricked by an earthquakedried spring, creaked and croaked of rivers that they had forded in ’49, of the verdure of the blue-grass region in which one of them was born, of a great freshet in the Hassayampa which drowned the family of a friend and irrigated the valley from mountain to mesa, of the acreinches of water required to irrigate a field seeded to alfalfa, of the lay of the land with respect to flowing wells, of the coyote’s cunning in “ sensing” water five feet down in the sand, of the fine watermelons grown on Hank Wilson’s ranch in Salado valley. NOW and then articulation ceased, and lips and tongue moved on in silent mockery of speech for a sentence or two before the sound was missed, when, with a painful effort, the organs were whipped and spurred into action, and the talk rambled on and on, — all talking slowly, seriously, with appropriate look and gesture, not one consciously hearing a word.

When I was deceived into dependence upon the brine of a barranca on Encinas desert, thirst came, though in softer guise ; and some of the party babbled continuously of portable apparatus for well-boring, of keeping kine by means of the bisnaga — a savagely spined cactus yielding poisonless water — and reveling in milk, of the memory of certain mint juleps in famous metropolitan hostelries on the other border of the continent, of the best form of canteen (which should hold at least two gallons, — three gallons would be better). They were bright men, clear and straight and forcible thinkers when fully sane ; yet they knew not that their brilliant ideas and grandiloquent phrases were but the ebullition of incipient delirium, and they seriously contracted for five gallons of ice-cream, to be consumed by three persons, on arriving at Hermosillo, and this merely as a dessert.

In this stage of thirst, the face is pinched and care-marked; the eyes are bloodshot and may be tearful; the movements are hasty, the utterances capricious ; the sufferer is a walking fever patient without ward or nurse.

The condition is hardly alleviated by any device that does not yield actual liquid; it is relieved by half a gallon or a gallon of water taken at a draught or two, though the skin cries out for twice as much more applied externally — and the stray hair or drowned insect in the cup is carefully lifted out and shaken dry above the water, lest a drop be lost. It is in this stage that the wanderer eagerly seeks the bisnaga, cuts away the spiny covering with a machete, or hunting-knife, and sucks or swallows the cool pulp, and nibbles the deliciously refreshing lemon-acid fruit. The Mexican nomads have learned by experience to prevent the dry-mouthed patient from drinking deeply at once, lest death follow ; but their experience is mainly with a microbe-laden fluid which is only slower poison in small doses.

This is the cotton-mouth stage of thirst; hundreds have passed through it, and scores have hit on the same expressive designation for it.

The third stage is an intensification of the second. The mouth-spume changes to a tough, collodion-like coating, which compresses and retracts the lips in a sardonic smile, changing to a canine grin; the gums shrink and tear away from the teeth, starting zones of blood to thicken in irregular crusts; the tongue, exposed to the air by the retraction of lips and gums, is invested with saliva collodion, and stiffens into a heavy sticklike something that swings and clicks foreignly against the teeth with the movement of riding or walking, and speech ends, though inarticulate bellowing, as of battling bull or stricken horse, may issue from the throat. There are other pains, innumerable, excruciating. The head is as if hooped with iron, and when the sufferer spasmodically casts off his hat, and snatches at hair and scalp, he is surprised to find no relief ; the nape and half the spine are like a swollen tumor when pressed hard, with the surgeon’s lancet pushing through it; with each heart-beat a throb of torment darts from the head to the extremities with a sudden thunder and blackness apparently so real and vast that it is a constant amazement to see the mountains still standing in mocking fixity and the sun still gibbering gleefully. Tears flow until they are exhausted ; then the eyelids stiffen as the snarled lips have done, and the eyeballs gradually set themselves in a winkless stare. Between the slow earthquake throbs of the heart there are kaleidoscopic gleams before the eyes, and crackling and tearing noises in the ears, perhaps with singing sounds simulating bursts of music, — all manifestations of incipient disorganization in the sensitive tissues. Then it becomes hard, very hard, to keep the mind on the trail; to remember that the thorn-decked cactus is not a sweating water-cooler, that the shimmering sand-flat is not a breeze-rippled pond, that the musical twanging of the tympanum is not a signal for rest. Withal a numbness creeps over the face, then over the hands, and under the clothing, imparting a dry, strange, rattling, husklike sensation, as if one did not quite belong to one’s skin; and as the numbness advances, ideas become more and more shadowy and incongruous.

An eminent naturalist caught on the threshold of this stage was impressed by the laborious beating of his heart, and he gained a sense of the gradual thickening of his blood as the water which forms nearly ninety per cent of the body slowly evaporated. He was unable to see, or saw in mirage-like distortion when they were pointed out to him, the familiar birds and mammals of which he was in search. A prospector, later in this stage, tore away his sleeve when the puzzling numbness was first felt; afterwards, seeing dimly a luscious-looking arm near by, he seized it and mumbled it with his mouth, and greedily sought to suck the blood. He had a vague sense of protest by the owner of the arm, who seemed a long way off; and he was astounded, two days later, to find that the wounds were inflicted upon himself. Deceived by a leaky canteen on the plateau of the Book Cliffs of Utah, I held myself in the real world by constant effort, aided by a mirror, an inch across, whereby forgotten members of my body could be connected with the distorted face in which my motionless eyes were set; yet I was rent with regret (keen, quivering, crazy remorse) at the memory of wantonly wasting — actually throwing away on the ground — certain cups of water in my boyhood; and I gloried in the sudden discovery of a new standard of value destined to revolutionize the commerce of the world, the beneficent unit being the rational and ever ready drop of water. I collected half a dozen doubleeagles from each of four pockets, tossed them in my hand, scorned their heavy clumsiness and paltry worthlessness in comparison with my precious unit, and barely missed (through a chance gleam of worldly wisdom) casting them away on the equally worthless sand. In this stage of thirst fierce fever burns in the veins, but the deliberate doctor is not there to measure it.

The condition is seldom alleviated save through delirium, rarely relieved save by water, — water in gallons, applied inside and out ; any water will serve, however many the hairs and drowned insects, however muddy or foul ; but it is well to guard the thirsty man, lest he saturate the desiccated tissues so suddenly and so unequally as to initiate disorganization and death.

This is the stage of the shriveled tongue. It comes within the experience of many pioneers and within the memory of some, though only the vigorous in body and the well balanced in mind are sane enough to remember the details of the experience.

With the fourth stage of the drying up of the tissues the dilatory process changes to a more rapid action, and a new phase of thirst begins. The collodion-like coating of the lips cracks open and curls up, as freshet-laid mud curls when the sun shines after the storm, and the clefts push into the membrane and flesh beneath, so that thickened blood and serum exude. This ooze evaporates as fast as it is formed, and the residuum dries on the deadened surface to extend and to hasten the cracking. Each cleft is a wound which excites inflammation, and the fissuring and fevering proceed cumulatively, until the lips are reverted, swollen, shapeless masses of raw and festering flesh. The gums and tongue soon become similarly affected, and the oasis in the desert appears in delirium when the exuding liquid trickles in mouth and throat. The shrunken tongue swells quickly, pressing against the teeth, then forcing the jaws asunder and squeezing out beyond them, a reeking fungus, on which flies — coming unexpectedly, no one knows whence — love to gather and dig busily with a harsh, grating sound, while an occasional wasp plunks down with a dizzying shock to seize or scatter them ; and stray drops of blood escape the flies, and dribble down the chin and neck with a searing sensation penetrating the numbness ; for the withered skin is ready to chap and exude fresh ooze, which ever extends the extravasation. Then the eyelids crack, and the eyeballs are suffused and fissured well up to the cornea and weep tears of blood ; and as the gory drops trickle down, the shrunken cheeks are welted with raw flesh. The sluggishly exuding ooze seems infectious; wherever it touches there is a remote, unreal prickling, and lo, the skin is chapped, and dark red blood dappled with serum wells slowly forth. The agony at the nape continues, the burden of the heart-throb increases, but as the skin opens the pain passes away; the fingers wander mechanically over the tumid tongue and lips, producing no sensation save an illlocated stress, when they, too, begin to chap and swell and change to useless swinging weights, suggesting huge Spanish stirrups with over-heavy tapaderos. The throat is as if plugged with a hot and heavy mass, which gradually checks the involuntary swallowing motion, causing at last a horrible drowning sensation, followed by a dreamy gratification that the trouble is over. The lightning in the eyes glances, and the thunder in the ears rolls, and the brow-bands tighten. The thoughts are only vague flashes of intelligence, though a threadlike clue may be kept in sight by constant attention, — the trail, the trail, the elusive, writhing, twisting trail that ever seeks to escape and needs the closest watching; all else is gone until water is “ sensed ” in some way which only dumb brutes know.

In this stage there is no alleviation save by the mercy of madness, no relief except judiciously administered water, which brings hurt oftener than healing. Rice remembered hearing his horse (which, startled by a rattlesnake, had escaped him twenty hours before, but which he had trailed in half-blind desperation) battering at the cover of a locked watering-trough with fierce pawing like that of a dog digging to a fresh scent. The vaqueros, awakened by the horse, found the man wallowing, half drowned, in the trough. He always ascribed the bursting of his lips and tongue to his earlier efforts to get moisture by chewing stray blades of grass, and he never consciously recognized the normal symptoms of the fourth stage. When my deer-path trail on the Utah plateau turned out of the gorge over a slope too steep for the fixed eyes to trace, I followed the ravine, to stumble into a chance water-pocket, with a submerged ledge, on which I soaked an hour before a drop of water could be swallowed ; then, despite a half-inch cream of flies and wasps, squirming and buzzing above and macerated into slime below, I tasted ambrosia ! A poor devil on the Mojave desert reached a neglected water-hole early in this stage. Creeping over débris in the twilight, he paid no attention to turgid toads, sodden snakes, and the seething scum of drowned insects, until a soggy, noisome mass turned under his weight, and a half-fleshed skeleton, still clad in flannel shirt and chaparejos, leered in his face with vacant sockets and fallen jaw. He fled, only to turn back later, as his trail showed, seeking the same water-hole. During his days of delirium in the hands of rescuers he raved unremitting repentance of his folly in passing by the “ last water.”

This is the stage of blood-sweat. It is not in the books, but it is burned into some brains.

As the second stage of thirst intensifies into the third, so the fourth grows into the fifth and last. The external symptoms are little changed ; the internal or subjective symptoms are known only by extension of the knowledge of the earlier stages, and by the movements inscribed in the trail of the victim ; for in the desert perception is sharpened, and scarcely visible features in the track of man or beast open a faithful panorama to the trained vision of the trailer, whether white or red. The benumbing and chapping and suffusion of the periphery and extremities continue; in this way the blood and serum and other liquids of the body are conveyed to the surface and cast out on the thirsty air, and thus the desiccation of the organism is hastened. Perhaps the tumid tongue and livid lips dry again as the final spurts from the capillaries are evaporated. Thirsty insects gather to feast on the increasing waste; the unclean blow-fly hastes to plant its foul seed in eyes and ears and nostrils, and the hungry vulture soars low. The wanderer, striving to loosen the tormenting browbands, tears his scalp with his nails and scatters stray locks of hair over the sand ; the forbidding cholla, which is the spiniest of the cruelly spined cacti, is vaguely seen as a great carafe surrounded by crystal goblets, and the flesh-piercing joints are greedily grasped and pressed against the face, where they cling like beggar-ticks to woolen garments, with the spines penetrating cheeks and perhaps tapping arteries; the shadow of shrub or rock is a Tantalus’ pool, in which the senseless automaton digs desperately amid the gravel until his nails are torn off. Then the face is forced into the cavity, driving the thorns further into the flesh, breaking the teeth and bruising the bones, until the halfstark and already festering carcass arises to wander toward fresh torment.

In this stage there is no alleviation, no relief, until the too persistent heart or lungs show mercy, or kindly coyotes close in to the final feast. A child in a single garment wandered out on Mojave desert and was lost before the distracted mother thought of trailers ; his tracks for thirty hours were traced, and showed that the infant had aged to the acuteness of maturity in husbanding strength and noting signs of water, and had then slowly descended into the darkness and automatic death of the fifth stage of thirst, and had dug the shadow-cooled sands with tender baby fingers, and then courted and kissed the siren cactus, even unto the final embrace in which he was held by a hundred thorns too strong for his feeble strength to break.

This is the stage of living death. In it men die from without inward, as the aged tree dies that casts top and branches while yet the bole bears verdure.

And of these stages is the thirst of the desert.

W. J. McGee.