Five Days in the Desert
I had been looking forward to a hike with my husband. Days later, I was stranded and alone. CATHY FRYE FROM THE ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
MY 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 River—was part of my beat. I loved the silence, the night sky so dark and clear. My husband, Rick McFarland, a photographer, enjoyed the area as much as I did—we were married in Big Bend National Park in 2001.
In the fall of 2013, we returned to the area from our home in North Little Rock, Ark., for a hike on the trails of the Fresno West Rim in neighbouring Big Bend Ranch State Park. The eight-kilometre round trip to the West Rim Overlook promised beautiful views of the Solitario flatirons, steeply inclined and inverted v-shaped rocks. If you hike past the overlook, the trail takes a full day.
Day 1: Hike
At around 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday, October 2, Rick and I pulled in to the parking area, which was a kilometre and a half away from the trailhead. The temperature was 22 C and would peak at 32 C by that afternoon. We grabbed two canteens and eight bottles of water from the cooler, and we stuffed granola bars and bananas into my pack. Bees buzzed around patches of yellow flowers. Pink blooms dotted the desert floor. This might become my new favourite trail, I thought.
When we began the descent into Fresno Canyon, the path 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 keep following the branch to the left or switch over to the one on the right. We tried the latter option first, but there were no signs or cairns (piles of stones used as trail markers). “Let’s go the other way,” Rick said.
We did, and soon found an abandoned ranch that we’d seen on the map—we were back on our trail. A Jeep was parked out front, and we collapsed in its shade. Each of us had already guzzled three bottles of water.
“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.”
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 lose the 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 keep going.”
Over the next several hours, the sun beat down mercilessly. We stopped frequently. When we ran out of water, we stuck our tongues inside the bottles and licked the interiors.
It seemed we’d been 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. It was 8 p.m. We’d hiked nearly 14 kilometres and gotten nowhere.
“Help!” Rick yelled, startling me. I joined him. “Help! We’re lost! We need water!”
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’d finished our water. Rick and I trekked the 500 metres back to the last rock cairn we’d seen the night before. “So that’s what happened,” he said. “We followed the markers to the overlook instead of staying on the trail.” According to the map, there were eight kilometres between us and our pickup truck 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 criss-crossed our path multiple times in search of hidden cairns.
“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, 10, and Ethan, eight, were at home with my parents.
AS I ATE THE
CACTUS PADS, TINY
HAIRLIKE NEEDLES EMBEDDED IN MY LIPS, CHEEKS AND TONGUE.
I DIDN’T CARE.