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.





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