Tooth Water and Cow Pee

Staying hydrated in the desert

A water cache stocked by volunteers in the Great Basin of Wyoming.

By Mary Anderson

The heaviest thing I carry is water. I can easily drink one gallon, or eight pounds per day, especially in the windy desert. Some water sources are 30-plus miles apart. This is when I have to decide how thirsty i am willing to be. I don't like having to hike much more than 15 miles per day. There is no way I am going to carry 16 pounds of water. The more water I carry, the slower I walk. That much weight is hard on my feet, knees, and shoulders and makes for really painful walking. So I make a decision to go thirsty. I drink whatever water I brush my teeth with. I eat the wettest foods I have with me, like cheese and tuna. And for two days I don't ever quench my thirst.


Sometimes there are closer water sources that have cows standing in them, peeing and pooping. That's when I really have to weigh my thirst against my ability to force down cow pee. I realize that there are people in the world who would be glad to have enough water to drink every two or three days. And even cow-pee water would be welcome.

I have learned that out here people have no right to take water from the river. In fact they are not allowed to collect the rain off their roofs, even if it is to water a garden and return that water to the earth. Nebraska owns the rights to a lot of the water the flows through Wyoming. All of this sounds scary to me and I think of the potential for future water wars as more and more people build homes in the desert.


The next time you flush your toilet, be grateful for the abundance of water in your part of the world. That water is better than what I and many others have for drinking. At least I am voluntarily thirsty. That is a luxury many people in the world will never have.

Mary Anderson is writing a book about her trek along the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail, a journey of healing that she began in her sixties. Mary hiked the southern half of the trail in 2020 and is undertaking the northern half this year.

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