DRAMA: HOURS FROM DEATH IN THE DESERT

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We hiked for an­other four hours. At 2 p.m. and 32 C, I in­sisted we find shade.

As it hap­pens, I’d 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 near the bot­tom of the rock. I sat down next to it, rev­el­ling in the 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.

“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 my tongue felt thick and use­less.

“Babe, I’m wor­ried that we’re not go­ing to make it,” I said, hop­ing he would con­tra­dict me.

“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 stream bed 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 about the wa­ter to care.

Day 3: Sepa­ra­tion

“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

I DRAGGED MY­SELF OVER TO THE MESQUITE TREE IN THE RAVINE.

“I’M DONE,” I TOLD RICK. “I’M JUST

HOLD­ING YOU BACK.”

right. No one knew we were out here. 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 stum­ble across the trail we had ini­tially set out on. 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. At the same time, if he forged ahead on his own, he could make it out and sum­mon help.

“I can hang on,” I told him.

Rick had two swal­lows of wa­ter left in his can­teen, and he poured one into mine.

“I love you,” he said, clasp­ing my hands in his.

“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 on Fri­day, Oc­to­ber 4—sev­eral hours since Rick had left— and the op­pres­sive heat had less­ened a bit. Even so, Rick was near the end of his en­durance. He hadn’t eaten for days. He’d hiked on and on, with only one swal­low of wa­ter 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. But then Rick thought of me ly­ing help­lessly un­der­neath a mesquite tree. If he died, I died too.

Then, a glim­mer in the dis­tance. A truck. It was parked at an area next to the trail­head, which meant our pickup waited just a mile down the road. An hour and a half later, Rick roared up to the park’s head­quar­ters, blar­ing

RICK ROARED UP TO THE PARK’S

HEAD­QUAR­TERS, BLAR­ING HIS HORN

AND YELLING. “MY WIFE IS OUT THERE!”

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. Se­verely weak­ened, 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 pass­ing 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 crab­walk 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 shriv­elled 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.

My phys­i­cal con­di­tion con­tin­ued to de­te­ri­o­rate. Fluid leaked from my body as my kid­neys, heart, liver and lungs suf­fered from the 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.

They spent the day try­ing to re­trace the path back to where we had sep­a­rated 24 hours ear­lier. Rick looked for land­marks, in par­tic­u­lar a pair of boul­ders near the mesquite tree, but noth­ing looked fa­mil­iar.

Day 5: The Last Day

By 6 a.m. on Sun­day, Oc­to­ber 6, 42 hours af­ter Rick left me, 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

WHEN THEY REACHED ME, I WAS SHIVER­ING

AND BAB­BLING ABOUT HOW MY HUS­BAND AND I HAD GOT­TEN MAR­RIED

AT BIG BEND.

teams left for the trail­head, Dot­ter per­suaded him to stay at head­quar­ters.

As the searchers wended their way through the desert, vol­un­teers 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 peo­ple shout­ing, “Cathy, can you hear us?” “Help!” I yelled out.

Rin­con turned to Ruiz.

“Help me!”

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!”

When they reached me, I was shiver­ing and bab­bling about how Rick and I had got­ten mar­ried at Big Bend Na­tional Park. Rin­con man­aged to in­ter­rupt. “Do you know your name?

His sim­ple ques­tion brought me to my senses.

“Cathy Frye,” I croaked. “Is my hus­band okay?”

“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 fi­bres dis­in­te­grate and dump cell con­tents into the blood­stream, of­ten caus­ing kid­ney dam­age. My tem­per­a­ture fluc­tu­ated wildly. Cac­tus spines pro­truded from all over my body.

I was a mess, but I felt a wave of re­lief the moment Rick ar­rived at the hos­pi­tal. He re­ally was okay. When he even­tu­ally 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 when I’d told him to leave me. The desert had taken my ring, but it hadn’t claimed us.

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