water was running low, I was hot and tired, but like a stubborn
camel, I had been determined to finish retracing part of the route
the Army's 1859 caravan had taken through a portion of what is now
Big Bend National Park.
Now, having wisely realized that I couldn't risk going any farther,
I just hoped I could make it back to my vehicle.
After resting five minutes or so in Dog Canyon, I got up and started
back-tracking through the draw to the cutoff and the trail back
to the highway. By this point, the temperature had increased considerably.
And as the heat rose, my energy level continued to drop along with
my water supply.
When I reached the small, relatively fresh-looking pool of water
I had seen on my way in, I soaked my bandana and put the damp red
cloth over my head. That made a nice difference in my comfort level,
though I was amazed at how rapidly that cooling moisture evaporated.
Soon, that handkerchief felt like it had just come out of a tumble
Well before I reached the cutoff, which meant I would still have
1.5 more miles to cover after that, I realized I probably had bitten
off too much. I was beyond hot and thirsty, getting increasingly
tired, and my left foot still hurt. Oh, and I was now just about
out of water. But I felt I had no choice but to keep going.
Back on the desert hardpan, nothing stood high enough to offer enough
shade to cover my body. I emptied my last water bottle, crumpled
it and stuck it in my cargo shorts. From here on, I'd be traveling
solely on will power.
My mind remained clear, but I realized I was steadily moving in
the direction of heat exhaustion. My limp had turned into a stagger,
my pace continuing to slow. Soon, every step amounted to a considerable
effort. Where's a camel when you need one?
When I managed to make it to within cell phone range, I called my
"base station" to report I had run out of water and didn't know
for sure if I could make it back to the SUV.
"You've got to," my fellow traveler said, realizing he didn't have
enough wherewithal or water to get to me. I told him if I didn't
show up in 20 or 30 minutes, to go to the ranger station and get
But I didn't want to give up. Even if I had decided to stay put
until someone could get to me, I wouldn't have been in a much better
position by sitting down and waiting in the burning sun with no
water or cover.
This wasn't the first time I had hiked in the desert and it wasn't
that I didn't know about heat exhaustion and the importance of staying
hydrated. I knew if I started getting confused, I would really be
in trouble. The next step down from heat exhaustion was heat stroke.
That's what back in the mid-1950s had killed famed former Texas
Ranger Frank Hamer, a man who had survived numerous gun fights with
a fair amount of lead still in his body to prove it. And the old
lawman had collapsed in Austin,
not the Big Bend.
Finally, I saw the SUV in the distance and assumed I could be seen.
If I went down, which seemed increasingly likely, surely my partner
would see me collapse and go get help.
Luckily, though clearly right on the figurative canyon rim of serious
trouble, I made it back to the SUV. I grabbed the one bottle of
water we'd stupidly left behind, sucked it down in a few swallows
and managed to say, "Drive me to the ranger station."
There, in the air-conditioning, I drank from the water fountain
as heartily as those long-ago Army camels must have done at the
first water hole they made it to after trekking through Dog Canyon.
These days, I don't even walk around the block without a bottle
In 2017, a few years after my close call, a 46-year-old woman died
from the heat in Dog Canyon. Since the park's been open since 1944,
I doubt if she was the first. As for the military's long-ago camel
experiment, the onset of the Civil War followed by a post-war expansion
of the nation's railroads ended the program.
Back to « Part I