Windmill Water

The mules and I are riding deeper and deeper in to the eastern Wyoming desert. Creeks, ponds and lakes, reliable watering sources to the east, have vanished. Increasingly we are relying on windmills for water.

Windmill water (south of Shawnee, Wyoming)

Across the Dry Land

Every day, mules Brick and Cracker drink 5 to 10 gallons of water apeice. I get by on less than a gallon. Until now, we’ve traveled from town to town. Mornings, I fill my jugs at whatever town we stayed the night before – Lusk, Harrison, Douglas. Then, in Lost Springs, our wet streak ran dry.

Lost Springs, Wyoming: elevation 4996 feet / Population 4

I know. It’s fitting I couldn’t find water in Lost Springs. The bar was closed. No one was at home at the only residence that looked inhabited. I was down to my last quart of water. I used half a quart to cook my pasta supper. The next morning I hit Highway 20 with the last 16 ounces of water.

Cooking supper with half of my water (Lost Springs, Wyoming)
Precious pasta water. The yellow liquid floating on the surface is olive oil. What I can’t eat with a fork, I drink.

The mules got even a worse deal. The only tap in town had a sign over it that read “Do Not Drink This Water”. They’d gone 24 hours without a drink. Certainly not a crisis in the making for the mules. They can easily travel 2 days in this sort of terrain without water. But I could tell they were getting thirsty. Brick was licking my sleeve. She does this when she wants water.

In to the Land of Poison Creek

Back in western North Carolina, when you look at a creek on a map, you see a blue line and think, “that’ll be okay to drink out of.” Maybe you run the water through a water filter. But chances are it’ll be fine for your horse or mule to drink.

You can’t assume that out here. We’re walking across the land of Poison Creek, Buzzard Gulch and the Devil’s Half Acre. This is the land of 12 inches of annual rainfall. Much of that comes in the form of snow and spring showers. By late August, the time I’m crossing this land, aside from the occasional violent thunder storm, the rains cease.

The morning I walked out of Lost Springs with my half quart of water, the scenarios started churning through my head. I was on foot. I had 25 miles of desert between me and Douglas, Wyoming, where I’d planned to spend the night. 25 miles. That’s 12 hours by mule.

The Search for Water

Walking up Highway 20, all I could think of was water. After one hour, my throat got scratchy. I took one swallow from my precious bottle. Three miles later, I noticed my eyes drying out. I walked through a long valley with one eye closed, imagining that was keeping me from drying out but just one tiny bit.

Funny how the mind starts acting crazy in the eyes of shortage. If I thought I had a gallon of water in my pack saddle, I’m sure my thirst would have vanished. But it didn’t and I walked on.

I usually walk in peace, quiet of mind. This particular morning, I could only feel myself drying out in the breeze.

Walking up the road with a dry mouth, staring at a waterless land, gave me a sense of what the early pioneers endured. There was one major difference between me and them. I could have flagged down a passing motorists and asked for water. Luckily, it didn’t come to that.

8 miles up the road, along a deserted gravel road, I spotted a windmill.

But I didn’t get too excited. Out here, when approaching a wind mill with a thirst and an empty bottle, you don’t celebrate until you’ve tasted the water.

It’s that Poison Creek thing.

I got lucky. The windmill water was sweet. Very sweet. Here are some photos I thought you’d enjoy.

The windmill. Hint: that’s not a speck on your screen on the horizon above Cracker’s ears. It’s what we’re aiming for.
Water. Glorious windmill water. Just looking at this photo, I can hear the water gurgling.
Business end of a “wind engine”
The mules get the first drink. Followed by…
…me. Here, I’m filling my water bottle. Wow that water tasted good!
Rubbed finish: a wind mill timber that’s been polished smooth by all the thirsty cows rubbing up against it.

Thoughts for a Dry Land

Since that day at the windmill, I’ve upped the amount of water I’m carrying in to the desert. The mules and I are preparing to walk across some wide, dry expanses.

Wide and dry: what the next 150 miles look like

From Douglas, we plan to head west toward Casper and Lander. I’ve found some spots we can find water, about 20 – 30 miles apart. Hopefully it will be sweet.

2 Responses to Windmill Water

  • Reminds me of the time (not very long ago) when I ran out of water on a long run. I was way out in the middle of the nowhere, south of Paris. No houses, no cars, no creeks, and at least two hours to get back home. I’m not proud of it, but I found a third-full plastic bottle full of Lipton’s Ice Tea (the soft-drink variation) and I drank that. Yes, it was pee-yellow. Not quite Mountain Dew yellow, but close. I figured, whoever set it down beside the bench probably just lost focus and wandered off. Didn’t hope some thirsty runner would come upon the bottle, lips cracking, throat sore.

    It was delicious. The sugar buzz lasted easily an hour. I was home in no time.


  • It is a feeling in which you picture your fellow human from movies, books and TV Westerns, of the shipwrecked, Desert wanderer, lost victims and such. The tongue does swell.The eyes do become dry. The mouth feels stuffed with cotton and the breath stinks of horse manure. But, by far the worst, is the mind racing uncontrollably towards panic. I have run out of water twice seriously while climbing long desert routes and becoming benighted on them. There is no happier feeling when the water destination comes into view again.

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