High & Dry in the Arizona Desert

After about an hour's drive down a long dirt road,
we came to a dead end at the edge of a cliff. Outside, everyone put on sunscreen and chugged two quarts of water (Cody chugged a gallon), and Mark and Matt checked us again for contraband. "OK," Cody said as we gathered around, "it's about to get real. Be present in your body. Be aware of your surroundings. Don't fiddle-fuck around on the side of a cliff. Once we drop off this, we're in a whole other country. This is not a drill."

We made our way down into the slot canyon, through a narrow corridor the color of rust. On the way, I chatted with Zach, a bookish computer programmer from Charlottesville, Virginia. Zach was a fan of Cody's TV show; his sister had given him the course as a Christmas present. "I've never really even been backpacking before," he said. He'd brought a spiral notebook to write down everything he could.

Most of the other tribe members were more experienced. Robin was a musician who'd grown up camping and backpacking in the Pacific Northwest but now lived in New York and missed the outdoors. Susan was a healer and folk-medicine specialist who lived in a remote cabin in the Sacred Valley of Peru. Kevin was a former Navy diver who'd worked as a reactor technician on a nuclear sub, and Sam was a retired Navy mechanic who now taught at SERE, the elite military survival school. He didn't make a show of his expertise, but as the trip wore on we all found ourselves looking to him for leadership: the tribe naturally sorting itself out.

Eventually the canyon spit us out into a dry, rocky riverbed. The sun was about to set, so we found a juniper tree with a low canopy – the better to retain heat – and Cody showed us where to get grass to make a bed. He went off to sleep by himself, as he did every night, and the rest of us huddled together for warmth, one big snoring mass. (As Cody explained later: "That first night is about thermoregulation, but it's also profoundly about, 'Hi, my name is Steve, what's yours – because I'm fucking sleeping next to you.' ")

In the morning, we woke with the sun. We filled our Nalgenes at a small, scummy pond with two dead lizards floating on top that would turn out to be the cleanest water we'd see for a while. Also floating in the water was a dead bat – or at least we assumed it was dead, until Cody fished it out and set it on a sunny rock, and a few minutes later it flew away. "Goodbye, bat," Zach said. Cody taught us how to disinfect water with iodine and led us to an old campfire where we used burned charcoal for sunscreen. And then we began the mission that would take up the next several days: the hunt for water. We walked for miles – over basin-and-range flatlands, past towering sandstone stacks. At one point I bumped into a prickly pear bush; I was pulling whiskery needles out of my skin for days, pain shooting through my leg every time my pants brushed against them. By midmorning, it was 90 degrees, and although we hadn't eaten in almost a day, weirdly, no one was hungry. Around lunchtime, we stopped to nap under a sycamore tree and Cody gave us our first gift: a Xerox of an old topographic map, damp with his sweat. He also bestowed the first of several Indian names; henceforth, I would be known as Cactus Shins.

The map showed cow tanks to the southwest, so we set out in that general direction. But as the day wore on and the sun beat down, we grew increasingly exhausted and irritable. Cody told us that on days like this, "drifting" was very literal. "Just let your mind just go," he said. "Keep it running in the background. The main goal – the only goal – is water." We may have taken his advice too literally, as we walked right back to the corral, and missed the cow tank, in a quick succession of one, two, three strikes you're dead. But just as we were resigning ourselves to a night without water, Steve, the Apple guy, spotted a burlap sack near a fence, under which were two large jerry cans full of water.

The group hikes through the desert, in search of water.

"They must belong to some local cowboys," said Cody, not quite believably. "Let's hurry up before they come back." We were all too busy guzzling water to call him on it. Happy and hydrated, we bedded down for the night, this time with the foresight to separate into snorers and non-snorers. The tribe was learning.

The next morning we resumed the water hunt. According to the map, the closest tank was several miles south, so we began a long day of uphill hiking and brush-busting through the scree and scrub. For a while, it was actually fun: Cody pointed out interesting sights and Steve kept us chuckling with Simpsons quotes. Occasionally someone would joke about wanting a cheeseburger or a cold beer or a shower. But usually the joke died there, a brief moment of vulnerability that no one wanted to encourage.

We kept climbing. A couple of the tribe started having knee problems, so we stopped more often, frequently in direct sunlight. I felt simultaneously annoyed and ashamed of my annoyance. For the first time in the trip, I felt hungry. At one break, a plane flew overhead; I thought about how they probably had ice water and air-conditioning and peanuts, and I found myself hating them. I decided we never should have let that bat go.

When we finally reached the top of the ridge, what seemed like many days later, we stopped to rest under a juniper tree. No one looked happy. "Status check," Cody said. "Let's go around the circle. How's everybody feeling? And don't say fine. Because fine means fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional." He smiled mischievously. "I learned that in drug rehab."