Tuesday, November 9, 2010
There is nothing more ominous than flies buzzing around your head as you lay dying.
Dehydrated and completely exhausted, I lay in my poorly erected tent in the middle of a dry creek bed swatting weakly at the desert flies that had gotten in through the open vestibule. The morning sun was now racing into the shadowy creek from the surrounding ridgeline and I felt the heat instantly on my skin. I had learned to hate the sun in the past two days, wishing secretly for a world that saw only hazy dusk. Like the night before, where I lay in the same tent, shivering and heart racing due to an electrolyte imbalance while Jens and Logan went on in the night to try and find help. And water.
What had started as an ambitious three day hike through Big Bend's "Outer Loop" had turned into an impromptu rescue mission that split three hikers into search team and dehydration victim. It became apparent on the second day that we had underestimated the amount of water needed to sustain ourselves with our pack weight through a 33 mile mountainous desert hike. In retrospect, the textbook signs were all there: fatigue, a sudden midday argument, salt-encrusted clothing, muscle cramps, slurred speech, wandering off the trail at times... But the constant flaying from thorny plants, twisting of feet on loose rocks, and screaming muscles turned our attention to just moving on. By darkfall on the second night, we had no idea if the Homer Wilson Ranch water cache was 1 mile ahead or 11 miles ahead. Maps, compass, and GPS were utterly useless when we didn't know the exact scale of what we were traversing. Every topographical feature on the supplied park map looked just like where we were standing at the time. The trail would suddenly turn into a dry wash and we assumed we were in Blue Creek, just near the ending. Then the scenario would repeat about a mile down the trail and you started losing faith in your navigational skills. It didn't help that the surrounding vista for miles around was nothing but desert and brown rolling mountains. The only recognizable topography was the red rocky cliffs of the Chisos Mountains to our North, and their South Ridge had taken on a bad habit of looking "finished" the further West we walked.
"Can't be far now," I would say numerous times as we stumbled through the murderously thorny Dodson Trail, "the map shows we are on THIS ridge and THAT is the westernmost end of the South Ridge. GPS shows us at mile 19, and we need to get to 22 or 23 to see the water cache!"
In reality, we were more than 7 miles from the water cache. At our rate of travel, that would have meant seven more hours of hiking to even get close and it was already late in the afternoon. The situation was made worse when we finally ran across a rusted metal signpost in the waning sunlight proclaiming "Homer Wilson Ranch" to be just up the trail. No distance was indicated.
I still cannot believe how hard it is to set anything in the desert on fire in an emergency. In the moments before I fell into my tent on the last morning, I learned that anything yellow burns with so much speed that the surrounding green vegetation will hardly singe. My attempts to pull up tufts of dead grass and lay them in a pile in the creek left me nauseous and weak. When I held a match to the pile and watched the fire race across it with little or no smoke left behind, I was devastated. Not only had I already crossed the moral boundary that prevented me from setting fire to a precious landscape, but it had failed to work as expected and I was at a loss for what to do next. So I went to the tent and collapsed amongst the buzzing flies.
I couldn't think of much, except the flies and the sun crawling up the side of the blue rain cover. I wondered if I'd be found dead with the same amount of flies on me or worse. All at once I realized how useless money was. I would easily spend $10,000 for a helicopter flight out of here at that moment without batting an eyelid. How long until they sent a helo? Three days from right now was my guess, and it would probably be used to spot my dead body on the desert floor.
A wave of panic washed over me, and my heart began racing uncontrollably again.
I began thinking frantically of what I should do next. I have to put a plan together - but WHAT?
Option 1: Lay here and hope that someone finds me before sunset. While seemingly easy, it was my worst option since laying in the heat without water would leave me weakened to the point that I wouldn't be able to hike out even at sunset. I was already barely able to walk up the slightest incline without stooping over and gasping for air.
Option 2: Rest for a while. Drink a few mouthfuls of water. Then attempt another mile of hiking. This option would expose me to heat and direct sunlight that would likely dehydrate me fastest and deplete my last cup of water in the next 30 minutes. I liked this option the least.
Option 3: Discard everything and hike freely until I can't walk another step. This seemed like the last thing I wanted to do, since I would be leaving shelter and water behind in favor of encountering another living soul on the remainder of a 33 mile trail. But there was an end out there somewhere. And the trail only went in two directions: forward and back.
It was at this moment that I was awestruck by how still the desert was. The only noise was that of the flies and an occasional wind gust that swept through the creek bed, making the tent's rain flap pop and roll. The first night on the mountain I could hear only crickets and an occasional wind gust. But in the early hours of the morning, a phenomenon I call the "desert ocean" would begin where rolling waves of air would blow off the desert floor and smash into the mountainside some 2000 feet above. It was eerie, since there was about a 10 second delay from when you heard the gusts winding up on the desert floor to when they actually crashed into the campsite. The second night up on the ridgeline by myself was constant gusting wind, preventing me from sleeping more than several minutes at a time. I remember thinking how warm the air was that night compared to the night before. I was worried that the weather pattern was going to get hotter over the next several days.
A tiny whistle hung around my neck on a red lanyard. I had broken it out on the ridgeline that morning, telling myself that if things got bad enough I would start blowing on it at intervals in the hopes that someone would hear me. I already knew that yelling for help across such a huge expanse of land was useless. The whistle seemed to make sense. What I didn't know is that even a whistle can't be heard more than several dozen yards across rugged terrain.
Around 9:44am (as I remember it) I heard something that sounded like a human voice after my last whistle blast. I paused and listened hard.
THERE IT IS AGAIN!
I definitely heard someone talking, so I sat up in the tent and blew long on the whistle one more time. Then I heard what sounded like my name being yelled!
It was Jens and Logan! I could hear them yelling for me and the sound of their feet shuffle-running across the rocky trail just above and to the right of the creek's edge. I attempted to work the vestibule zipper flap when I suddenly saw someone materialize from the scrub brush - a hiker wearing a pack!
At this point, I was up and out of the tent completely exhilarated and oblivious to my exhaustion. It indeed was Jens and there was Logan behind him, and they were carrying two full packs of water! I was shouting something incoherent as Jens stopped to unpack the first plastic gallon jug and handed it to me.
I downed half the jug without breathing, then looked up at both of them standing against the unforgiving desert landscape and said, "Let's get the fuck out of here NOW."
We packed my tent so fast that small bits of rocks rolled out when I unpacked it the next day in my garage.
As it turned out, I was less than 200 yards from the metal box containing the water cache for the trail. Above that some hundred feet or so was a paved park road. It had all been obscured by the gradual ascent out of the creek and lay just below the towering mountain vista in the distance. If I had just kept walking rather than deciding to collapse in that creek, I'd have been hydrated and next to a road where I could have flagged for help.
None of this mattered though as we walked up the flat gravel trail to where the car was parked. I briefly examined the metal bear-proof box that held several precious gallons of water, set there by hikers as insurance against death by dehydration - should they make it this far. There were names and dates attached to some, and there were two that had been replaced by Jens and Logan with a note thanking the finder for the water that saved their friend's life. I closed the door and walked on to the next sign of civilization - a metal handrail next to the road.
On the night Jens and Logan left me on the ridgeline, they hiked 6 more miles before finally reaching the water cache. They nearly missed it in the dark. After replenishing their water supplies and spending half an hour next to the park road without seeing anyone drive by, they decided it was in my best interest to complete the Outer Loop trail back to the visitor's center at Chisos Mountain Basin where they could get the car and return to start looking for me. This was at least another nine grueling miles of hiking along steep terrain in the dark and I still don't know how they did it. Logan admitted all he saw for the last few miles was his own feet as he shambled along in a stupor. They reached the visitor's center by 4am, feet covered in blisters and muscles cramping painfully. Jens stumbled over to a nearby vending machine and bought a Coke. Then they both collapsed in the car and slept until being woken by a park ranger at daybreak. Upon explaining my situation to the ranger, they were notified that a volunteer had been sent out to look for us the previous day but that volunteer had apparently started AHEAD of us when we had just turned onto Dodson Trail. Logan remarked that he had seen a solitary tent on the mountainside during the forced nighttime hike and he assumed it was the volunteer's. After buying several gallons of water at the local gift shop, both Jens and Logan repacked and drove out to the Sotol Vista Overlook, below which I had just begun setting up my tent in the creek bed for the last time.
As I write this, it is my first day back from the trip to Big Bend and I am still recovering from the effects of dehydration, puncture wounds to my legs and arms, a sunburned face and neck, fatigue from muscle pain and a lingering headache. I have lost 10 pounds.
At times, I am gripped by the fear that I am still lying in that tent in the creek bed and have yet to be discovered. I am still trying to convince myself that I am home.