For decades the Mojave Desert has been synonymous in my mind with myths, legends, extremes of weather and feats of human courage and endurance – so what would it be like to walk through it?
I imagine all Walking Water participants had some anxieties around the long, hot, dusty days we’d spend tramping across this harsh landscape with its fearsome reputation for howling winds and searing temperatures.
Straddling a significant portion of Southern California along with parts of Utah, Nevada and Arizona, Mojave spans more than 50,000 square miles, although luckily our route by-passed Death Valley which enjoys a reputation as the hottest place this side of Hell with a temperature of 134 F (56.7 C) recorded in 1913 – the same year the controversial Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed.
More than anything my mental images of Mojave were shaped by an inspirational 1983 movie called The Right Stuff that told the story of the early years of the US space exploration programme and acts of great daring and courage.
It was here high above Rogers Dry Lake on 14 October 1947 that US Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager took a bold leap into the unknown and became the first human to shatter the sound barrier and fly at supersonic speeds. He entered the record books at a time when one in four experimental flights ended in tragedy.
Coincidentally that historic flight happened on the same day that this year’s Walking Water prayer and pilgrimage ended at The Cascades almost seven decades later.
Our walk, mostly following the aqueduct and pipelines above and below the ground, threw up many physical and emotional challenges, not least of all was witnessing the deep scars caused by mining in landscapes radically altered by vast wind farms and solar ranches that introduce their own aesthetic and environmental controversies.
Often we walked a land littered with broken glass and millions of spent cartridges, one afternoon and evening being reminiscent of the soundtrack for an apocalyptic movie as our campsite reverberated with gunfire, the discharge of automatic weapons and occasional explosions.
And even more disheartening was the fact that we were no longer seeing the clear flowing creeks that characterised the early days of last year’s leg of Walking Water from the source of the waters at Lee Vining Creek high in the Sierra Mountains above Mono Lake.
Now water trucked in to drink and sometimes wash with became an ever-greater luxury, and a brief outdoor camp shower a celebration and a time to abandon modesty. Being clean of the layers of dust and sweat felt more important than whether our nakedness was glimpsed by fellow hikers.
And yet for all the harshness of a terrain that has too often been desecrated and disrespected by humans, a haunting beauty remains and the critters astound with their resourcefulness and will to survive.
Eager trackers within our group were well aware that we were part of a wider community of life as they studied the footprints of coyote, mountain lion, bobcat and even a solitary bear venturing far from its normal food sources. More than once we enjoyed nocturnal meetings with rattlesnakes hunting for rodents between our central kitchen area and the buckets that served as portable toilets.
Always we asked questions of ourselves, of those we met along the way and of the waters that were only rarely glimpsed. Where the aqueduct has been sealed to minimise evaporation it was reminiscent of a prison visit as we glimpsed the underground flow through metal bars set in concrete.
Eventually we found ourselves in a changed landscape with tree-covered slopes, and yet the tinder-dryness remained a hazard.
Once during a lunch stop we noticed a puff of smoke appear on a nearby slope and within minutes we were witness to a runaway fire fanned by strong winds. The wail of sirens and clatter of helicopter blades reverberated across the hills as every available fire-fighting team rushed to the rescue.
Not wanting to get caught by the out-of-control blaze we dusted ourselves off and hiked vigorously towards the hamlet of Green Valley and our overnight stop at a backpackers’ lodge that normally welcomes hikers from the nearby Pacific Crest Trail.
Owner Terrie Anderson opened her doors and heart to us and refused payment, although we passed the hat around and happily collected and offered our donations.
Heading off again it was with a sense of relief that we finally encountered the open and seemingly unpolluted waters of Bouquet Canyon Reservoir, which features an inlet and outlet pipe to store or release water for the thirsty City of LA.
Although the dam is normally closed to the public the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) graciously allowed us traversing rights and arranged for Ethiopian-born engineer Abebaw Anbessaw to be our friendly and informative guide.
Leaving the reservoir behind, and lifted by just the sight of it, we felt that Walking Water was gathering momentum. Everywhere we ventured we were being met by kindness and an appreciation for our attempts to foster a new relationship with the waters, each other and all life.
Looking around our circle of international change agents I was inspired by the commitment and passion of participants of all ages from all walks of life and many different parts of the planet. I decided that they’re definitely made of the right stuff.
Some four years earlier English-born Kate Bunney was called by the waters to create the pilgrimage walk and carries the vision of a healed relationship between people and their environment.
Bolivian Marcela Olivera successfully joined her Cochabamba community in a battle to reclaim ownership of the local waters from a multinational bottling giant intent on profits rather than the wellbeing of people. She now heads a water justice network of grassroots organisations united by their commitment to the democratisation of the waters.
Jewish Israeli academic and engineer Shira Kronich of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies is bringing together Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians in a trans-border peace-building initiative that insists that Nature knows no boundaries, and nor should we.
Meanwhile Rajendra Singh of India is eloquent proof of how one person can make a difference. Last year he was honoured with the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize in recognition of his work in rejuvenating rivers and co-creating with nature to bring water to more than a thousand villages in Rajasthan.
North American Will Scott is the co-founder of the nature-based Weaving Earth Center for Relational Education and is dedicated to cultivating resilient, reciprocal relationships with people, places and communities in order to best respond to the dynamic times we live in. He believes a key question is how to remember ourselves as an interconnected part of a biosphere that is a closed system. “So many of us were brought up to believe we are separate and to ‘other’ ourselves from life,” he said.
Owens Valley resident Gigi Coyle has devoted much of her life to the waters and as a wilderness rites-of-passage guide and Council trainer, she spoke often of the power of questions. “In all the walking and all the silence have you listened to what the water has to say and teach?”
Many questions were with us as we took the final steps of Walking Water 2016, striding past a gushing fountain and well-irrigated upmarket housing estate as we arrived at The Cascades. It was here in 1913 that LA’s water chief William Mulholland famously declared: “There it is. Take it!”
This time, this walk was not a ‘Trail of Tears’ as was the case for so many Paiute in 1863, and yet there was still a lot of grief present. We were in the company of representatives of the native tribes including Alan Bacock, water coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, who noted that Mulholland’s much-quoted statement was devoid of gratitude and respect for the gift of life-sustaining water.
He surprised some by insisting: “I love the people of Los Angeles.” He’s worried about how they, like his own people in the Owens Valley, will navigate the escalating water challenges of an uncertain future.
This blog was written by Geoff Dalglish and originally posted on his personal blog, Earth Pilgrim Africa. Geoff is an ambassador for the Findhorn Foundation community during the Walking Water pilgrimage and is also an international representative for the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN).