Travel | Sweating It Out
Sweating It Out
How I learned to love the poisonous plants, treacherous terrain, and hellish heat of the Chihuahuan Desert.
You're stuck in the middle of the desert, broiling hot, as dry as a bone, all the heat metaphors running through your mind, miles and miles of big empty surrounding you. It's 110 degrees in the shadeonly there isn't any shadenor is there food, water, or any sign of civilization. What do you do?
If you're at Big Bend Ranch State Park, you look for David Alloway, quick. Forty years old, an amiable fellow with a sun-bleached Fu Manchu mustache, Alloway is the interpretative naturalist at the park, and part of his job includes leading desert-survival seminars. Big Bend ranch is the kind of place that makes you think about such things. It sprawls over 287,000 acres of high Chihuahuan desert, the biggest and one of the newest state parks in Texas. To the east, Big Bend National Park is three times as large, but it is also much more developed. On the ranch, almost everything is backcountry. If you're someone whose idea of fun is doing a slow burn under the relentless Texas sun on a treeless plain, with your lips parched and a constant dribble of sweat trickling down your back, you need to hear what Alloway has to say. Like most Texans, I hadn't had much reason to contemplate desert survival. But an increasing frequency of visits to the Chihuahuan Desert and Big Bend Ranch in particular prompted me to think otherwise. The stunning beauty of the Chihuahuan, a broad expanse of peaks, plateaus, and canyons that extends north from Mexico into southwest Texas, belies its harshness. The ranch harbors a surprisingly diverse bounty of flora and fauna. For me, it's the last place left in Texas where I can feel as if I've fallen off the edge of the earth. With every trip, though, I've also become aware of its dangers, of what could go wrong in a place like this. Out here in the despoblado, the zone of no people, knowing what to do and what not to do in an emergency is the difference between life and death.
That reality was vividly underscored by a report in the Alpine Avalanche last May about the death of a hiker in the national park from heat exhaustion. I read the story in the bunkhouse of the ranch shortly before I was to take a desert hike. According to the story, the victim had collapsed while in the company of two other hikers on a day when the temperature reached only the mid-nineties, a relatively tolerable heat for this part of the world. The three were carrying plenty of water. The hiker's fatal mistake was not drinking a sufficient amount to keep his body cool.
David Alloway's goal is to prevent similar tragedies. My goal, and the goal of my ten companions, was to learn what he knew about staying alive in the desert. Our group consisted of nine men from Texasme, a retired engineer, a pencil salesman and his buddy, the owner of a Mexican food restaurant and his son, two doctors, and the owner of a dry cleanersand one woman, a masseuse and Rolfer, from Kentucky. We had paid $350 each to take part in a three-day workshop that was easily the most exotic of the programs offered by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at Big Bend Ranch.
After we met Alloway at the Fort Leaton entrance to the ranch, three miles east of Presidio, he escorted the convoy of his new charges along nine miles of paved and dirt roads to the ranch gate, where you have to know the combination of the lock to get in. Then it was another five-mile drive to an old stone corral, where he gave us a crash course in windmill repair (watch that rotator tail swinging around on you!) and imparted advice about why it's best not to drink out of a horse or cattle trough (saliva is an excellent carrier of livestock diseases).
A few miles farther down the main dirt road, our caravan pulled off the road again so our leader could march us on foot a quarter mile or so through the scrubby brush to a low thicket. Suddenly we found ourselves standing near the edge of Agua Adentro, a spring-fed wet spot on the northern slope of the Bofecillos range. Dark and wrinkled, the mountains are what remains of a volcanic cataclysm that occurred about 27 million years ago.
"See this?" Alloway fingered a leathery pod hanging from the limb of a mesquite. "This is a very good protein source. You can make flat cakes with this."
He turned around and grasped a twig from a spindly creosote bush, a desiccated excuse for vegetation that happens to thrive in the rock, pebble, and sand floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. I have always despised the creosote for the way it outcompetes its rivals for water and chokes out more-benign types of vegetation. "See this?" he said again to his audience. "Dip it three times in hot water with a pinch of salt. Let it cool, then drink a cup. It's an anti-aging elixir. The University of Minnesota is researching its beneficial properties. You can also use it as a scent disguise when hunting." I realized that we were hanging on to every wordas if our lives depended on it.
Two steps forward, then another turn. He hovered over a scraggly little weed that appeared to be permanently coated with a fine white dust. "A lot of people mistake this for sage, but it's not part of the mint family," he said, fondling a plant identified as a mariola. "Put three handfuls of the leaves in a tea and drink it for stomachaches."
He spun around once more, reaching for a scrawny plant that hugged the ground. Its distinctive purple blossoms drooped wearily in the heat. "This is a silver-leafed nightshade, one of the more toxic plants out here. It's not a good idea to eat this." Then he pointed to a nearby tree bearing a vague resemblance to a pecan. "It's a Mexican buckeye. Don't eat it. But you can use it as fish poison. It asphyxiates fish, as well as anything else in the water. Don't try it unless it's a life-and-death situation, after all other options have failed, because the game warden is going to get on your case big time."Growing up in El Paso, he developed a passion for the desert early in life. Alloway scraped out a living by hustling jobs around the Big Bend before the Parks and Wildlife Department hired him six years ago. Now he is something of a civic leader in the region. He's an Episcopal lay minister, a naturalist, a folklorist, and a local know-it-all. He is the team captain for the South Brewster County volunteer EMS organization, and he is writing a book for the University of Texas Press about Chihuahuan Desert survival. Last fall he became the first American to successfully complete a 120-mile training trek in the intimidating Pilbara outback of western Australia. To reciprocate, he's working on bringing aborigine tribesmen, the ultimate Australian survival experts, to the Big Bend to compare survival techniques. Within two hours of hooking up with our group, he had each and every one of us thinking the unthinkable: What if we really did get lost in the desert? What if we had an accident backpacking or hiking in the wilderness? What if we were just passing through and our car broke down or ran out of gas? If I were crawling through the sagebrush, would I be able to remember how to repair a broken windmill, if I were lucky enough to stumble upon one?
Don't get the wrong idea. Surviving in the desert is a treacherous and risky business, but the workshop is not. We were not dumped in the middle of the great unknown and required to find our way back home without a compass. We didn't have to live on mesquite beans. In fact, the breakfasts and dinners prepared by Tony Gallego, the cook at the ranch headquarters, were practically sumptuous, and the beds at the bunkhouse were actually comfortable.
Our daily regimen was a simple one. We hiked, listened to Alloway identify plants and their uses, and split up into groups to learn the secrets of survival. He showed us how to construct a shadow stick compass: Place a stick in the ground, put a rock at the end of the shadow, and thirty minutes later, put another rock where the shadow has moved; then draw a line between the rocks to get an east-west approximation. By wrapping a plastic bag around a cluster of leafy cottonwood branches, we could get water from transpiration. He showed us how to build a shelter out of branches and leaves, but evidently the process wasn't easy, because he had prepared the structure before we arrived. I tried to start a fire by rubbing the proverbial two sticks togetherspinning a small spindle of willow like a drill between my palms into a small block made of sotol woodbut I created nothing more than a few wisps of smoke. My palms were too tender and raw from the rubbing to finish the job.
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