High & Dry in the Arizona Desert

We'd been walking all day with nothing to eat, in the same clothes we'd been wearing since the day before. The sun was almost gone: two hands of light left, three at the most. We were hot, tired, and extremely thirsty. Morale was dropping fast. Eleven of us had set off into the desert the day before, carrying two quarts of water each and not much else. We'd spent the night shivering under a juniper tree and woken up before dawn – those of us who'd slept at all. Twelve hours of hiking later, we were no closer to our destination than when we'd started – that destination being water, anywhere we could find it.

It was day two of the Desert Drifter – a weeklong survival course in the high desert of northwest Arizona. Under the watchful eye of our wilderness survival guide, Cody Lundin, we would spend the next six days living off the land, and learning how not to lose our shit in the process. Besides a Ziploc of trail mix, the only food we had was what the desert would provide. Assuming she provided anything at all.

Right now our best hope for water was Poplar Tank, an old watering hole carved into the landscape by some Depression-era cowboys looking to hydrate their stock. We had a map, and Poplar Tank was on it, but we weren't sure where we were, and the map was probably 40 years old. It looked like there was a corral nearby, and maybe a barn. But when we got there, the corral was on the wrong side of the trail and the pile of rotting boards didn't look like any barn we'd ever seen. We kept walking.

After about a half hour, Aaron – a mild-mannered toy distributor from Atlanta who was currently leading our single-file line – thought maybe we should check the map again. Was it possible we'd missed the watering hole? As the rest of us huddled around, trying to follow the faded contour lines, Cody shook his head, exasperated. "You saw the corral," he said, "and you didn't stop. You saw the old barn; you didn't stop. You saw the electric-green vegetation; you didn't stop. Strike one, strike two, strike three: You're dead."

Chastened, we made a U-turn and trudged back to the tank. It was the fifth such tank we'd checked that day, and it was as empty as the others. In the shade of a salt cedar tree, we reviewed our options: Sleep there and look for water in the morning; try to find the next closest tank, a mile and a half away over rocky ground; or aim for a different tank, three miles away over flat terrain. After we'd spent 12 hours baking in the summer sun, three miles seemed pretty far away, but nobody wanted another night without water. We pressed on.

As we plodded across the darkening land, we saw a desert hare hop by and fresh cow tracks – promising signs that water was near. Then we spotted it: a bright-green berm surrounding a grove of verdant cottonwood trees. This was what a tank with water looked like. We practically sprinted to it, giddy as we crested the ridge, and dropped inside. It was bone-dry. It was getting colder now. The sun had almost set. We had no water, and no idea when or where we might find some. We had five days left.