DRAMA: HOURS FROM DEATH IN THE DESERT
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.
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.