Sweating It Out

How I learned to love the poisonous plants, treacherous terrain, and hellish heat of the Chihuahuan Desert.

October 1997By Comments

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 shade—only there isn’t any shade—nor 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 Texas—me, 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 cleaners—and 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 De partment 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 word—as 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 together—spinning a small spindle of willow like a drill between my palms into a small block made of sotol wood—but I created nothing more than a few wisps of smoke. My palms were too tender and raw from the rubbing to finish the job.

After dinner Alloway gave lectures and showed slides until bedtime. He began his lecture on the first evening with a quote often attributed to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche—”That which does not kill us makes us stronger”—pausing ever so briefly before adding, “We’ll ignore the fact that Nietzsche died of suicide.” (Actually he died of tertiary syphilis, but it’s a good story anyway.) Fear of the desert, Alloway told us, was the result of bad PR that had nothing to do with reality. “It’s not out to get you,” he said. “Otherwise, humans wouldn’t have been able to survive quite nicely in the desert for the past nine thousand years. But you wouldn’t know that from the movies you’ve seen.” For nighttime reading he had conveniently placed survival books (my favorite title, How to Shit in the Woods) and outdoor catalogs around the bunkhouse for us to read. Tools that he’d fashioned from desert plants and rocks were displayed for our inspection.

No matter how interesting Alloway’s observations were, he had to compete for our attention with the main attraction of the ranch itself. Though it lacks the alpine environs of the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend Ranch State Park has a higher mean elevation than the national park, averaging 3,500 feet above sea level. It is considerably wetter than the park too; it is rife with springs and claims three of the four highest waterfalls in Texas. Madrid Falls tumbles 150 feet into Chorro Canyon’s microclimate of ferns, vines, and forest. Even today, few Texans have ever seen it. This is rough, untamed country, which pretty much sums up its appeal. In the midst of our course we actually managed to visit some of the ranch’s hidden treasures, including Ojito Adentro, a pristine waterfall tucked far back in a small canyon, and Cinco Tinajas, a series of placid pools carved out of solid rock over tens of thousands of years. Still, given all that acreage and the few interpretative materials available to visitors, it was obvious that listening to Alloway was the best way to learn how to appreciate the ranch to the fullest.

Much of what he said was common sense. Intelligence is the most essential survival tool. Self-control is the first problem that needs resolution. In case of an emergency, get your priorities straight: Find water, make a fire, build a shelter, signal rescuers, gather food, make weapons and traps, and keep busy, if energy permits. “Boredom can be fatal,” Alloway said. “We have a saying in search and rescue. Down in twelve hours, dead in twenty-four. You can cut that in half out here.”

Water and fire are essentials. Looking for water (the presence of cottonwoods is a reliable indicator) was easier than figuring out how to obtain it, since solar stills and dew traps, touted by many survivalists as the best solutions, proved not to be effective in the Big Bend. How much water to drink, it turned out, was just as important as where to find it. “Don’t sip,” warned Alloway. “Keep your brain and liver and other vital organs well hydrated.” The best way to learn how to start a fire: “Read To Build a Fire, by Jack London,” he said, adding that rabbit pellets make excellent tinder if you can’t find anything else. In a place where everything either bites, sticks, or stings, he recommended wearing a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and a wide-brimmed hat for protection from the sun.

Alloway advised us to carry a survival kit. Into no more space than a soap dish he crammed blades, a knife, fishing line, hooks, sinkers, a teabag (as an astringent), water purification tablets, a condom (for carrying water in an emergency), an alcohol swab, a small butane lighter, two bouillon cubes, Band-Aids, tweezers, a sterile scalpel, a striker, a compass, a needle, a pencil, a box of matches, Benadryl, aspirin, Imodium, potassium permanganate, a packet of sugar (to mix with the potassium to ignite a fire), and more.

On the afternoon of the second day, he tested our mettle with a five-mile hike in the suffocating heat. We headed down a dry creekbed to a watering hole, or tinaja, that the locals referred to as Baño de los Mexicanos, the Mexican Bath, a reliable water source even in the driest of months. Observing that we’d held up all right as a group, Alloway then proposed a brief side trip. Everyone was game. He escorted us out of the creekbed to a cluster of cavelike shelters in a cliff. In the recesses of the shaded overhangs, crude renderings of human figures on horseback were painted on the rock. “These were obviously done in modern history, well after the Spanish brought horses to North America,” Alloway observed. He was at a loss to explain a more surreal depiction of two sets of eyes in adjoining floating heads. “We’re trying to get some of the elders from the Mescalero Apaches to come and interpret what they represent,” he said.

We inspected scat deposited in the riverbed to determine whether its origin was javelina or mountain lion. He pointed out a plant known as Mormon tea, which contains a stimulant not unlike caffeine. The bright red blossoms of the tall, spindly ocotillo were cited as a delicious punch drink, and when its roots are soaked, the liquid makes an effective poultice for sore joints, muscles, and general fatigue. The naturally occurring steroids in yucca root powder were similarly mentioned as an occasional treatment of arthritis: “A quarter teaspoon of powder in a cup of water, once a week, is said to provide relief.” The yellow-blossomed senna was important to recognize in case we might someday need a natural laxative, though Alloway cautioned, “A little bit is all right; too much causes cramping. Treat this as medicine. Just don’t go out and try it without knowing what it is.”

It was startling to realize how many plants surrounding us contained alkaloids or toxins that could induce varying degrees of psychosis. A general list of must-avoids included plants with seeds that are red, hairy, or have prickly pods; those with leaves shaped like an open hand (including poison ivy); pea- or trumpet-shaped flowers (for example, jimsonweed); or flowers that exude odors that are pungent or smell of almonds or peaches (a sure sign of hydrocyanic acid). Some plants have more-subtle hazards. “Try these blossoms,” Alloway said, pointing to the fluted red and purple blooms of the strawberry cactus. “They make great daiquiris. The Mexicans say not to eat too many during the heat of the day.”

By the end of day two, Alloway’s contention that the desert is good for the soul, even for folks who never intend to stray far from the city, was beginning to make perfect sense to me. “We need to have places that aren’t so easy,” he said one night, standing on the porch of the bunkhouse, staring at the stars. “Our civilization needs it. In one hundred years we’ve lost instincts developed over tens of thousands of years. If you know the hardest way, if you know the most primitive way, the easier it is to utilize modern technology.”

By day three I had adapted to what I’d once regarded as a hostile environment. I felt confident enough to enjoy setting out on my own to take short hikes in the morning and evening. I even developed an affection for lechuguilla and sotol, succulents that flourish all over the ranch and the entire Big Bend. Sotol I already knew as the main ingredient of the local version of fermented white lightning; drink enough and you’ll have visions of snakes crawling up your ankle. My familiarity with lechuguilla had heretofore been limited to a couple of unplanned encounters with its hooklike spiny tips, which are loaded with an exceptionally irritating toxin. My attitude toward both changed after snacking on lechuguilla and sotol hearts. The day before, we had dug several fire pits, into which we’d tossed whole uprooted sotol and lechuguilla, then covered them with leaves and dirt to be slow-cooked for 24 hours or more. The method, one that desert peoples have employed for several thousand years, effectively cooks out harmful alkaloids found in both plants.

The results were impressive. Roasted chicken, which was cooked during the last hour of the process, was tender and juicy. I thought the consistency and the texture of both succulents resembled an artichoke heart, while their smoky, nutty taste reminded me of a sweet potato. They were flavorful and unusual enough to rate as a double-digit side dish at Star Canyon, Cafe Annie, or Biga—or so it seemed to me, out there in the desert.

Some of the others weren’t so sure. “Y’all must be getting better pieces than I am,” said Windell from Houston, stepping aside to spit out the lechuguilla heart he’d been chewing. Later Windell admitted that he was still in a transitional phase when it came to embracing the desert. “It takes you a while to get accustomed to being out here,” he said. He shushed us and motioned for us to listen. “Hear that bird? When I first heard it a few minutes ago, I thought it was a beeper.”

For three days the band Cake’s determinedly blasé version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” played over and over in my head like a mantra. Now, at the end of the workshop, it finally had some meaning. I knew how to obtain food and tools from the plants of the desert. I could get my bearings, produce water, start a fire, build a shelter, and even make a needle and thread from a lechuguilla stalk.

I wouldn’t panic if the engine suddenly died or a tire went flat while I was driving on a back road in the middle of nowhere. If I suddenly felt a toothache coming on (you can never tell out in the desert), I was prepared to look for leatherstem, or sangregrado, as it is called in Spanish, to break off a piece and rub the red sap on my gums to numb the pain. I knew too that leatherstem is an effective astringent that can soothe cuts and scrapes, although it can eat holes in cloth. The song continued to play in my head as I approached the ranch gate, unlocked it, drove through, and relocked it. The summer sun beat down on me, and I could feel sweat break out on my forehead. It felt good. I hummed to myself, “I will survive.”

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