It is April 28, 2017, the eve of our 16th wedding anniversary, and we have marked the occasion by returning to the place where we almost died together 3 ½ years ago.
Earlier this week, Rick and I also visited the place where we were married, just as we have each year since a justice of the peace pronounced us man and wife on a hiking trail.
This is a love story – no, a love triangle, really – involving an adventurous couple and a place dear to both parties.
First, however, I must introduce you to the Chihuahuan Desert, which is as ruggedly beautiful as it is hostile to human interlopers.
It is in this region of southwest Texas that the Rio Grande River makes a sharp turn – known around here as the “Big Bend.” There are two parks in the area: Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. Both parks encompass the vast Chihuahuan Desert – the third partner in our marriage.
As a single, young newspaper reporter for the Odessa American, I covered Texas’ Big Bend region in the mid-1990s. I fell swiftly in love. Something about this desolate and inhospitable area spoke to my most private self, the part of me I don’t share with even my closest friends. What appealed most was the absolute silence. Here, I could put my brain – constantly steeped in chaos it seemed – and my life on hold for as long as I stayed.
Rick, meanwhile, often visited Big Bend National Park on his days off from the San Antonio newspapers at which he worked as a photographer. He was captivated by the area’s inapparent beauty. Photographing Big Bend requires a searching eye and curious mind. Rick always has loved a challenge.
When Rick and I met in 2000 at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, we quickly discovered that each of us had remained enamoured of the Big Bend region since leaving Texas. Six months after our first date, we exchanged vows at Big Bend National Park on April 29, 2001.
We return each year, sans children, to revisit old haunts, as well as to search for new ones. The desert is full of surprises – if you know where to look.
On those early trips, Rick and I made love and argued with equal passion. Over time, as we settled into a daily, domestic partnership, we whittled away at and polished all of those jagged edges that define young relationships.
What we forgot was that the Chihuahuan Desert was under no such obligation. It remained just as prickly and unpredictable as when we all first met. And honestly, that’s part of its enduring allure.
On Oct. 1, 2013, Rick and I were at the national park when the federal government closed down. We broke camp and headed to the neighboring Big Bend Ranch State Park, new and unfamiliar territory to us. We found a beautiful, albeit solitary, campsite and congratulated ourselves for our refusal to give up on our annual rendezvous with our beloved desert.
The next day, on Oct. 2, 2013, we set out on what was supposed to be a day hike. Instead, we embarked on what turned into a death march through every single circle of hell. By the end, we were bloodied and feral, desperate for water and oblivious to the hundreds of cactus needles embedded in our legs, feet, hands and lips.
What happened out there seemed to us at the time to be a betrayal. Why had our desert, a place we had long loved, suddenly turned on us?
April 25, 2017, Big Bend National Park
This year, we started our annual anniversary trip at the national park, a place where happy memories still reside, with plans to end it at the state park. It seemed fitting – a chronological journey from where – and who we were – to now.
Our first day at the national park, Rick and I hiked a new-to-us desert trail. All the while, I kept an anxious eye on the gauzy clouds that only barely masked the sun. Scanning the terrain on either side, I searched for anything – a mesquite tree, creosote bush, cactus, even – that would offer shade once the clouds dissipated.
It took an hour to hike the 2 ½ miles that led to a large rock decorated with Native American pictographs.
Rick shot photos. Then he poked around the jumbled clusters of rocks, hoping to spot something else that would hint at this area’s storied past.
“We need to go,” I insisted. “Once those clouds disappear, we’ll be hiking all the way back without any shade.”
“Hang on,” he replied. “Just a few more minutes.”
I continued to watch the strip of gauze in the sky as it stretched into a thinner and ever more transparent film over the sun.
“Rick,” I said again, this time in a trembling voice. “We have to go. Now!”
I took off at a near run, my Camelbak backpack – still heavy with water – riding on my shoulders. A satellite tracking device with an SOS button remained securely tucked inside. One push of that button would summon the nearest law enforcement agencies and search-and-rescue teams.
Still, I maintained a frantic pace, ignoring burning legs and lungs.
“Hey, slow down,” Rick called from behind. “You’re using too much energy too fast.”
Above us, the clouds shredded and separated. I felt it then, that searing desert heat I had feared.
There’s got to be a tree, a bush, something.
Ahead of me, I could see the road and cars that were mere specks. Our truck was parked there, at the trailhead. But to get to it, I would have to cross a tortured landscape that shimmered with heat.
You are fine. This is the national park, not the state park. You have plenty of water. You have an SOS button. Get it together.
Abruptly, I sat down. I dropped my head and tried to slow my breathing. Rick stopped and stood over me, leaning on his hiking stick.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
“I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “I feel so stupid.”
“We need to keep going,” he said.
“Just give me a minute.”
And with that exchange, eerily similar to one we shared 3 ½ years ago in this same desert, I fell back in time.
12:30 p.m., Oct. 4, 2013: Big Bend Ranch State Park
“Babe, we’ve got to keep going,” Rick said. Stooped over his hiking stick, he spoke in gasps as he struggled to catch his breath.
We’d been stopping and starting and stopping all morning. Each time, I begged for just a few minutes’ rest.
“Are you ready?” Rick asked again.
“I can’t,” I told him. “I’m done. I’m just holding you back. You have to leave me. You have to go.”
For 2 ½ days, we had been lost in the Chihuahuan Desert after setting out on what was meant to be a day hike at the unfamiliar state park.
We spent the first night on a cliff overlooking a steep canyon. The second day, out of water and worried about heat stroke, we hiked only during the morning and then spent the afternoon plastered against a large rock, moving in sync with the rotating shade it offered. Desperate for liquid, we cut open the pads of prickly pear cactus and lapped at juice from the pulp.
That evening, Rick spotted a cottonwood grove in yet another canyon. We used our last reserves of energy to scramble and skid down to it. Just as the sun began its slow slide behind the mountains, we staggered into the grove. There, we found a tiny spring.
The next morning, we refilled our aluminum containers with water and set out yet again.
Around 12:30 p.m., I spotted a low-lying mesquite tree that offered more shade than most. That’s when I stopped, sat down and told Rick to leave me.
I didn’t cry. If I had, he wouldn’t have gone. My voice wavered only when I asked him to tell our children, Ethan, then 8, and Amanda, 10, that I loved them dearly and had done my damndest to get back to them.
That evening, Rick finally made it back to the trailhead.
Forty-eight hours later, search-and-rescue teams found me sprawled – naked and incoherent – underneath the mesquite tree.
April 25, 2017, Big Bend National Park
Rick waited patiently while I tried to pull myself together.
“Look,” he said. “You can see the road and cars from right here. We have plenty of water. We’re fine.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s just that there’s no shade and I’m scared.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We shouldn’t have tried this hike.”
“It’s OK,” I said.
This is not that time. This is not that place. We are not the same people.
Shakily, I stood up. “Let’s go.”
As we trudged toward the trailhead, a thick layer of clouds scudded across the sky and hid the sun. My panic ebbed away.
It was then I recalled a conversation with a state park employee. I met her about six weeks after my rescue, when Rick and I returned to the area to hike out to the mesquite tree that had sheltered me.
“You’re the woman who was lost,” she said, inviting me to sit down over iced tea.
“It must feel really special, to know that you survived something like that,” she continued. “In its own way, the desert protected you. It gave you its cactus. It gave you the spring. And then it gave you the tree. You see that don’t you?
“It took care of you.”
Anniversary Eve, April 28, 2017, Big Bend Ranch State Park
After driving out to the trailhead where we began our ill-fated hike in 2013, we fill two glasses of wine and watch the sinking sun paint the sky various shades of pink and red.
For years, Rick and I were an intrepid team of journalists, out to conquer any assignment we were given. And for years, we came to Big Bend determined to conquer the desert by choosing hikes that would challenge us physically and mentally. We claimed a victory each time we hobbled back into camp – sore, sweaty and hungry.
I’m more cautious now. Even so, I still have panic attacks when hiking. What I’ve learned is that while I can face my fears, I will never conquer them. When I was lost out here, my brain reprogrammed the most primitive, reptilian part of itself to ensure that – if I survived – I would never find myself in such a dire situation ever again.
As the shadows deepen, I look toward the mountain cut where I was found. My wedding ring is still out there, somewhere. It fell off of my withered finger while I was alone under the tree.
After my rescue, I considered the loss to be a sacrifice to the desert – my ring for my life.
Now I’m inclined to think of it as a pledge to do right by the mistress in our marriage. She was never meant to be tamed. She was never meant to be conquered. Rather, she was meant to be loved – not in spite of her needles and thorns and scabrous edges – but because of them.
Sunset on April 28, 2017, at the trailhead. Photo by Rick McFarland