Earl Nottingham, © Texas Parks and Wildlife DepartmentMy love affair with the Chihuahuan Desert of western Texas began in 1996, during my time as a reporter at the Odessa American. The Big Bend—named for a sharp turn in the Rio Grande—was part of my coverage area. I loved the silence, the night sky so dark and clear, the constant surprise of finding small, brilliant blooms scattered along the desert floor. My husband, Rick McFarland, a photographer, loved the area as much as I did—we were married in 2001 on a trail in Big Bend National Park. (Speaking of, have you checked out these practically secret national parks?)
arkansas democrat gazetteTwelve years later, we returned to the area for a hike on the trails of the Fresno West Rim in neighboring Big Bend Ranch State Park, nicknamed “The Other Side of Nowhere.” The five-mile round-trip to the West Rim Overlook was supposed to offer beautiful views of the Solitario flatirons, steeply inclined and inverted V-shaped rocks. If you hike past the overlook, the trail, which passes an abandoned ranch and eventually loops back to the Puerta Chilicote Trailhead, should take a full day. As Rick and I prepared for our trek, we were excited. The desert was a place that offered solitude and peace.
DAY 1: Wednesday, October 2
At 10:15 a.m., Rick and I pulled in to the parking area, which was a mile away from the trailhead. The temperature was 73 and would peak at around 91 degrees. We grabbed two canteens and eight bottles of water from the cooler, and we stuffed granola bars and bananas into my fanny pack. Bees buzzed around patches of yellow flowers. Pink blooms dotted the desert floor. This might become my new favorite trail, I thought.
Arkansas Democrat GazetteWhen we began the descent into Fresno Canyon, the trail turned steep and rocky. Each step required me to plant my wooden hiking stick in front of me to brace myself. I skidded and slid, cussing all the way down.
At the bottom of the canyon, we followed a jeep trail alongside the dry bed of Fresno Creek. At one point, a second creek bed intersected it. We weren’t sure whether to stay on the Fresno creek bed to the left or follow the branch to the right. We tried the right side first. There were no signs or cairns (piles of stones used as trail markers) indicating where the ranch might be. “Let’s go the other way,” Rick said.
We did, and found the ranch. We were back on our trail. A Jeep was parked out front, and we collapsed in its shade. We’d each guzzled three bottles of water already. Then we drank deeply from our canteens.
“I think we should wait for these people to come back and ask for a ride,” I said. “I don’t think I can climb back up what we just came down. And we’re running out of water.”
It was nearly 1:30 p.m., almost the hottest part of the day. It had taken us a long time to descend into the canyon. Going up would take longer. We might run out of daylight before getting back to the trailhead. Rick studied our map. “It looks like we’ve made it almost halfway around the loop,” he said. “We could just keep going.”
Over the next several hours, the sun beat down unmercifully. We stopped frequently, often sprawling on our backs and turning the canteens up and shaking them to get the last drops. We stuck our tongues inside the bottles and licked the interiors.
Arkansas Democrat GazetteIt seemed we were walking forever. The cairns kept disappearing, obscured by vegetation. Backtracking and searching for the trail burned time and energy. It also required us to forge our own paths through cacti.
And then we came to a dead end: the edge of a canyon. “Oh my God,” I said. It was 8 p.m. We’d hiked nearly eight and half miles and gotten nowhere.
“Help!” Rick yelled, startling me.
[pullquote]I joined him. “Help! We’re lost! We need water!”[/pullquote]
There was no answer but our own voices echoing off the canyon walls.
Rick took out his phone. No signal. The phone, however, did provide enough light to scan the overlook. Rick worried about wildlife. Mountain lions. Snakes. Coyotes. He found a rocky patch of ground, and we lay down.
“It’s going to get cold,” he said. Shorts and light shirts were all that we had on, so we entwined our legs and lay chest to chest to share body heat. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.
DAY 2: HOPE
Dawn. It had been 13 hours since we had drunk the last of our water. Rick and I trekked 500 yards to the last rock cairn we’d seen the night before, which led to the Mexicano Falls Overlook. “So that’s what happened,” he said. “We followed the markers to the overlook instead of staying on the trail.” According to the map, we had five miles to go to get back to our pickup near the trailhead.
We hiked steadily for a while, and I began to feel a little more upbeat—until we lost the trail markers again. We backtracked and crisscrossed our path countless times in search of hidden cairns. This portion of the desert undulated mercilessly. Dozens of arroyos, or gulches, forced us to clamber up steep hills only to skid down and face yet another ascent.
“When will this stop?” I shouted.
“Never,” Rick muttered, plowing through yet another prickly bush.
“We’ve got to get back to the kids,” we told each other, our voices hoarse from lack of water. Amanda, ten, and Ethan, eight, were at home in North Little Rock with my parents. I pictured their sweet faces and imagined how scared they would have been if they’d known of our increasingly dire situation.
We hiked for another four hours. At 2 p.m. and 91 degrees, I insisted that we find shade.
As it happens, I’d once read a book called Death in Big Bend in which a woman survived the desert heat because she took shade in the afternoon and walked at night. I saw a rock formation that offered a patch of shade big enough for both of us. Cooler air flowed through a hole at the bottom of the rock. I sat down next to it, reveling in the funneled breeze. A moment later, a bright green prickly pear cactus caught my eye. They put cactus juice in margaritas. Surely there’d be something to drink in there.
After wresting away two cactus pads, I used Rick’s knife to slice the bottom off one and sucked liquid out of it. Then I pulled it apart and ate the pulp. Its tiny, hairlike needles embedded in my tongue, cheeks, and lips. I didn’t care. A mouthful of needles couldn’t compete with my thirst.
“That’s disgusting,” Rick said, spitting out the pulp.
“Don’t spit! We need all the water that’s still in us.”
We lay down in the rock’s shade. Every so often, I pinched my skin and it stayed folded, a sign of severe dehydration. My lips were cracked and swollen, and my tongue felt thick and useless.
[pullquote]“Babe, I’m worried that we’re not going to make it,” I said, hoping he would contradict me.[/pullquote]
“Me too,” Rick mumbled.
Hours later, when the sun began its slow descent, Rick stood. “We need to get going,” he said.
As we staggered along the trail, Rick spotted something in the canyon below: cottonwood trees. In a desert, cottonwoods mean water. He took off at a near run.
“Water!” Rick yelled. He crossed a dry streambed and disappeared into the cluster of cottonwoods.
“Bring it to me!” I begged, struggling over a rock.
I found Rick crouched over a tiny triangular spring hidden beneath a large limestone rock. He filled my canteen with water, and I guzzled it.
Darkness descended. We would have to spend another cold night on the ground. But we were too giddy over the water to care.
DAY 3: SEPARATION
Arkansas Democrat Gazette“We have to get back on the trail,” Rick said after we’d woken up.
Though the spring had undoubtedly saved our lives, I knew he was right. It was too small to provide enough water for the two of us, and we felt weak from hunger. No one knew we were out here. No one was looking for us. We had to keep going.
We refilled our canteens, then climbed out of the canyon. As we did, we found the trail. And then, just as on the previous two days, we lost it.
“Damn it!” Rick shouted. “I know the way! My truck”—he pointed with his hiking stick—“is THAT WAY! We are done with the damn markers.”
And with that, we abandoned the trail for good. Rick knew if we headed that way, we would eventually stumble across the trail we had set out on two days earlier. And he was right. We did reach the trail. But neither of us recognized it. We crossed it and kept going.
Rick kept a close eye on the time. We had until 2 p.m. to find the trailhead. Otherwise, we would have to stop and take shelter from the sun.
At 12:30 p.m., I spotted a small mesquite tree in a narrow ravine. I dragged myself over and sat in its shade. “I’m done,” I said. “I’m just holding you back.”
Rick wrestled with his choices. He couldn’t imagine leaving me behind to fend for myself. At the same time, he believed he could make it back and summon help.
“I will wait for you,” I told him. “I can hang on.”
Rick had two swallows of water left in his canteen, and he poured one into mine.
“I love you,” he said, clasping my hands.
“I love you too.”
“Want anything when I come back?” he joked.
“Yeah, two waters and a beer.”
Soon after he left, I drank the last of my water.
It was evening—several hours since Rick had left me—and the oppressive heat had lessened a bit. Even so, Rick, as I would learn later, was near the end of his endurance. He hadn’t eaten for days. He’d hiked all day with only one swallow of water in his canteen to keep him going. And still, there was no indication that he was even headed in the right direction. It would be so easy to give up, so easy to welcome death rather than keep fighting it. He could just stay right where he was and go to sleep. But then Rick thought of me lying helplessly underneath a mesquite tree. If he died, I died too.
Then a glimmer in the distance caught his eye. A truck. It was parked at a parking area next to the trailhead. That meant our SUV waited just a mile down the road.
An hour and a half later, Rick roared up to the park’s headquarters, blaring his horn and yelling. His erratic driving caught the eye of the assistant park superintendent, David Dotter.
“My wife and I were lost in the desert,” Rick yelled. “She’s still out there.”
Dotter drove Rick to the trailhead. Too weak to be of any help, Rick let the ranger attempt to find me without him. But when Dotter returned nearly two hours later, he was alone. The first thing he did was call the Texas Department of Public Safety to request help.
The thrum of a helicopter roused me from a fitful sleep. A searchlight blazed from the chopper, cutting through the darkness. A wave of euphoria swept over me.
“Rick!” I yelled. Then, inexplicably: “Mommy! Daddy! Please, help me!”
The helicopter flew slowly and methodically back and forth across the horizon. Too weak to stand, I used my hands and feet to crab-walk up a small incline. “I’m here!” I yelled. “I’m here!”
In the end, it didn’t matter. The helicopter’s spotlight never illuminated the deep ravine in which I lay.
DAY 4: ALONE
When my wedding ring fell off my shriveled finger, I listlessly groped the twigs and rocks within reach. Nothing. The desert had already taken so much from me. Now it had my ring too. And as the heat intensified, so did the hallucinations. One cast me in the role of babysitter. Our neighbors asked me to take care of their son, who had developed a physical disability. In reality, the son was me, struggling to move arms and legs that no longer worked.
My physical condition continued to deteriorate. Fluid leaked from my body as my kidneys, heart, liver, and lungs suffered from the varying extremes of heat and cold, as well as from exertion and severe dehydration. Organ by organ, my body was shutting down.
Rick, now rested, was back on the trail with two dozen rescuers. As he plowed through thickets of cacti, park superintendent Barrett Durst had to jog just to keep up with him. “Wait! Wait!” he called to Rick.
Rick kept going. “I’m going to find her. I’m going to bring her back.”
They spent the day trying to retrace the path back to where we had separated the day before. Rick looked for landmarks, in particular a pair of boulders near the mesquite tree where he had left me. But nothing looked familiar, and Rick grew increasingly frustrated. Where is she? Why can’t I remember?
DAY 5: THE LAST DAY
By 6 a.m. on Sunday, the number of searchers had grown to nearly 40. Most feared this would be a body recovery, not a rescue. No one wanted Rick to see my remains. So when the teams left for the trailhead, Dotter persuaded him to stay at HQ with him.
As the searchers wended their way through the desert, volunteers Shawn Hohnstreiter and Andy Anthony repeatedly called out for me. Meanwhile, state park police officer Fernie Rincon and game warden Isaac Ruiz scrambled down into a deep valley. In the distance, they could hear Hohnstreiter and his team shouting, “Cathy, can you hear us?”
“Help!” I yelled out.
Rincon turned to Ruiz.
Following my cries, Rincon and Ruiz ran to a precipice and peered into the ravine. “We’ve got her!” Rincon hollered as they clambered down. “She’s alive!”
Courtesy Andy AnthonyWhen they reached me, I was shivering, feral-looking, and babbling about how Rick and I had gotten married at Big Bend National Park 12 years earlier. Rincon managed to interrupt. “Do you know your name?”
His question brought me to my senses.
“Cathy,” I croaked. “Is my husband OK?”
“He’s why we’re here.”
At University Medical Center of El Paso, doctors told me I was only a few hours from death when the searchers found me. I was in acute renal failure. My heart, lungs, and liver were damaged. I was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which muscle fibers disintegrate and dump cell contents into the bloodstream, often causing kidney damage. My temperature fluctuated wildly. Cactus spines protruded from all over my body.
Courtesy Mary FryeI was a mess. But I felt a wave of relief the moment Rick arrived at the hospital. He was really OK. We talked about the children and how the search had unfolded. When Rick prepared to leave for the night, a nurse asked if he wanted to take any of my valuables with him. “Maybe her wedding ring,” Rick said. Then he noticed my stricken expression.
“It fell off my finger, and I couldn’t find it,” I told him.
Rick clasped my hands long and hard, just as he had in the desert when I’d told him to leave me. The desert had taken my ring. But it hadn’t claimed us.