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True Thirst

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BADLANDS
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I tilted my head skyward and raised up the bottle and squeezed it with both hands. A shy tablespoon of lukewarm water wet my tongue. I squeezed harder, and the plastic made that pathetic wheezing-donkey sound, and here came a drop, and another, and another, and...

My eyes still on the bottle, I asked, "So, hey, how much water do--"

"I don't want to talk about it," Rachel said.

"Right. Well, then I guess I'll just have to drink these here Cheetos."

"You do that." She looked off to the west, over the barbwire and apple-bobbing oil derricks and dirt -- so much dirt --and said, "How far did you say it was? To Wilford Brimley?"

"Watford City," I said. "About thirty miles."

She picked up a rock, tossed it from hand to hand. "We're not very good at this, are we?"

"No," I said. "No, we are not."

Despite having spent the morning shuttling between Kill-deer's well-equipped town park and its downright deluxe Cenex, we'd forgotten to fill our Camelbaks. Again. And now, barely halfway into this ride through high plains heat, we'd emptied our bottles.

Rachel stood and stretched her arms high overhead, shielding her eyes from afternoon sun.

"Well?" she said. "Wilford ho?"

I nodded. "Wilford ho."

We saddled up and pushed back into the blast-furnace heat, and after a mile I already felt like I was sucking a salt lollipop. I tried to distract myself, to think of anything else, but there was only this. Only thirst. When I closed my eyes, I saw a montage of plump, juicy oranges and rainforest waterfalls. When I opened them, I saw dirt. And dirt. And dirt.

The Badlands weren't so romantic when viewed up close. Those velvety wrinkles, the ones that from afar had made the mountains look as cuddly as sleeping sharpeis, were just a bunch of eroding canyons. And the peaks themselves? Those blue-brown, pastel-chalked domes? Piles of dirt. This was just a bone-dry, brown-scale dust bowl peppered with sagebrush and dead grass and the most decrepit little shrubs I'd ever seen. They looked as thirsty as I felt.

So, for that matter, did Rachel. Her skin was slick with sweat, her face a hangdog droop. I wanted to say something, anything, to help her forget the heat and thirst and dirt, but my mind was blank. I couldn't put together words, much less sentences. All I could do was ride. And count -- pedal strokes and eye blinks, miles and minutes, fence posts and passing cars. I'd had a mild sleep disorder as a kid, and now I was thinking of those long hours when I'd lain in the dark, counting sheep or, more often, puppies. I'd keep my eyes shut as long as possible, would finally check the clock to find that nine minutes had passed since I last looked. It was the same sh*t out here. Only now, my clock had this speedometer, this oscillating reminder that time was moving so slow only because I was too weak to speed it up.

For somewhere between an hour and a decade, Rachel and I rode, silent and separate, suffering from cotton mouth and twinklevision, until at last we came upon a splotchy white ranch house sitting just north of the road. We dropped the bikes in the gravel driveway, climbed the steps and knocked on the door. No answer. I walked to the side of the house, hopped the chain-link fence and cased the backyard. Sure enough, over there by the deck was a spigot. I popped around the house and told Rachel to toss over the bottles, and she did, and I filled them, and I came back over the fence, beaming with pride, like some kind of returning war hero, and we both closed our eyes and put the bottles to our lips and took in that sweet... Poison. F*cking poison.

I spat onto my shoes, Rachel onto the dirt between us. "You've got to be kidding me." She spat again.

The water, if you could call it that, was hot enough to bathe in. And rotten. I'd had some nasty, sulfur-saturated sludge in my day, but nothing like this. It tasted like a sewer smelled.

Rachel dug out the toothpaste, and we both started finger-brushing our teeth and tongues and gums, and soon we were laughing, because boiling-hot sulfur-lava, because heatstroke delirium, because here was this truck speeding on by, the driver watching two sweaty idiots standing over two crash-parked bike-tanks, before a house they obviously did not own, with fingers in their mouths. And now I was laughing even harder, because I'd somehow forgotten that there were people in the passing cars, that they could help us if things really got dire, and that, anyway, I'd chosen this, had even secretly hoped I'd find myself in absurd situations just like this one, and so why not stop pouting and just appreciate it for a second? I mounted my bike-tank, and Rachel mounted hers, and with some poison in our bottles, some toothpaste close at hand, we rode on.

From GOING SOMEWHERE: A Bicycle Journey Across America by Brian Benson. Reprinted by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Brian Benson, 2014.