Words: Mike Madison / Illustration Hans Bennewitz
A thirsty person has a wide choice of drinks: beer, wine, cider, or perry; apple juice, orange juice, tomato juice, or prune juice; cow’s milk, goat’s milk, soy milk, or almond milk; Coke, Mountain Dew, Ginger Ale, or Moxie; coffee, green tea, black tea, or herbal tea; whisky, brandy, tequila, or ouzo; and many others. And yet, despite seeming diversity, all of these drinks are merely embellished or disguised forms of the one true drink: water. Water is a physiologic necessity to us, and without it we perish rapidly. If you are in good health at the outset, you can pass an unhappy month without food, but our survival without water is measured in hours, or a day or two at the most.
Not all waters are equal. Some are lively, some are flat, some are laden with minerals or salts, others are redolent of organic molecules. As with any variable drink, there will be occasions when a drink of water is special or unusual enough to stick in your memory. Here are a few of my memorable drinks.
In what must have been the hottest summer of the 1950’s, my parents decided to take our family on a vacation drive to Death Valley. Our old green Dodge had neither air conditioning nor a radio; my father made up for the second deficiency by singing all the way from Yolo County to Death Valley and back. And so we found ourselves rumbling along in the appalling heat, listening to my father sing: ‘All day we faced/the barren waste/without the taste/ of water—cool water.’ Our water was in a dented, war surplus canteen shaped like a giant lentil; the water was warm, and tasted of metal.
Hiking near Mt. Lassen, I drank from a mountain stream. The water was rich with iron and sulfur and other fortifying minerals. I could almost feel my bones strengthening and my eyesight sharpening as I drank it—powerful stuff. The nineteenth century fascination with the curative benefits of mineral waters may not have been physiologically sound, but psychologically, it was right on.
When I was in college in Boston I would return to California in the summer time to work in a lab at the UC Davis College of Agriculture. One of the old professors insisted that he drank only distilled water, other waters being inferior. Distilled water, after all, is absolutely pure water—no minerals, no ions, no salts, no dodgy organic molecules or microscopic creatures, just 100% water. Intrigued by this, I got a clean beaker from the glassware cupboard and filled it from the special spigot for distilled water. It tasted flat, stale, and lifeless—dead water. It is the impurities that make water (and people!) interesting.
In the 1970’s I was employed as a botanical collector in the western Amazon basin and eastern slope of the Andes. Finding potable water was always on my mind. On my third expedition to the Cordillera Cutucu in 1978 I completely ran out of water. That is a wet part of the world, but the terrain is so steeply pitched that there is no place where water accumulates. Finally, becoming crazy with thirst, I knelt down and drank from a muddy footprint in the path, and was grateful for it. Thirst is relentless and uncompromising, and makes a mockery of our notions of hygiene.
In the redwood forest of Mendocino County I came across a hollow stump of a redwood tree that had filled with water. The water derived from fog that had condensed on the leaves and branches of firs and cedars and dripped into the stump. It was the color of weak coffee, and was aromatic with resinous, primeval flavors. You could have bottled it in those elegant, tall, mossy green bottles that Riesling wines come in, and sold it for eight dollars a bottle, and your customers would not have felt cheated.
The well water on my farm is decent and drinkable, although magnesium carbonate is present at more than four times the recommended maximum rate. Because it comes from a private well with an electric pump, whenever there is a power outage we not only lose power but we also have no water. And so I bought a thousand-gallon steel tank and rigged it up to collect rainwater from the roof of my house. I fill the tank each year in late winter when a powerful storm is blowing in from the Gulf of Alaska. Come June, when I’ve spent a hot day at the sticky work of harvesting apricots, I’ll come back to the house and draw off a mug of the rainwater, which at that season is still cool and refreshing.
The municipal water in Davis is geologically ancient water pumped from deep wells; it is flat, alkaline, and sodic, with a soapy mouth feel. I know people who live in Davis and work in Sacramento who haul empty jugs to work each day so that they can bring home Sacramento water for drinking. Sacramento is blessed with delicious water: snowmelt from the Sierra, lively and fresh. Not only does Sacramento have great water, it also has great public art. One of my favorites is the metal piece by artist Michael Bishop that is installed on the surface of the giant concrete water tank on 33rd street. It depicts the rivers and tributaries that bring water from the Sierra to Sacramento, and the grid of water mains that distribute the water from the tank throughout the city. You can get a good view of it from the northbound segment of Business 80 between P and H streets.