Saved by Prickly Pear

A hiker gets trapped in Big Bend.

It was a gorgeous Tuesday morning in April 2010, and Merritt Myers was going on a hike. Hiking was a form of spiritual therapy for Myers—the Austinite had trekked in the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, even Machu Picchu—and one of his favorite getaways was Big Bend National Park. (He’d even held his bachelor party there, but that’s another story.) When he arrived at park headquarters, he registered for a three-night permit to camp in the backcountry. He planned to tackle a new trail, Marufo Vega, a route along the Rio Grande known for its views and technical difficulty.

But then, as he unloaded the car, Myers changed his mind. He decided he’d rather do a single overnight hike instead. Ditching his heavy pack for a lighter one, he grabbed only a sleeping bag, a shovel, a stove, a map, an orange, an apple, and some nuts and granola. He also loaded up with four and a half liters of water, plenty for a day-and-a-half hike. Eager to set off, he didn’t change his permit at the ranger station. 

By noon Myers had reached a beautiful spot on the Rio Grande and taken a dip, relaxing in the shade afterward to eat his fruit. He’d had to leave the trail to reach the river, and when he started off again, he inadvertently followed a horse path instead. Myers soon realized his mistake and decided to push on toward the northwest, figuring he’d eventually rejoin the Marufo Vega. Instead, after bushwhacking through the desert scrub until nightfall, he found himself atop a cliff, the Rio Grande three hundred feet below. He made camp and waited for dawn.

Most of his food and water were gone, so the next morning Myers decided to strike hard for the river, where he’d be able to boil water and use his filtration tablets; so long as he had enough to drink, he could figure his way out. After some scrambling, he found a steep ravine that appeared to lead down to the river from the cliff. The midday heat was rising, and he had only a few swallows of water left. Myers could see the river—about a quarter of a mile away—so he took a chance, tossing his pack into the ravine and using handholds to lower himself, jumping the last ten feet to the canyon floor. 

He headed through the canyon in the direction of the river but soon discovered that his path ended in a seventy-foot drop-off. Myers backtracked, but there was no way out of the canyon. No reachable handholds, nowhere to climb—just slick, vertical rock. Exhausted and bloody, Myers ate the last bit of granola, washing it down with the last swallow of water. He was trapped, and his water was gone. He screamed in frustration, his anguished voice bouncing off the canyon walls. 

After finding a cave to nap in, Myers took stock of his situation. There was plenty of shade in the canyon; there was also a lot of prickly pear cactus. He suddenly remembered a camping trip his family had taken when he was thirteen, during which his mother had taught him how to eat cactus. Grabbing his shovel, Myers broke off a few pads, shaving the needles and slicing the slimy green insides. The tiny needles pricked his hands and the inside of his mouth, but there was moisture, and Myers’s body gratefully accepted the nourishment.

It occurred to him that, because of the permit, nobody would look for him for another two days, so Myers focused on staying hydrated. He lay in the shade, watching vultures circling overhead as he ate prickly pear, and thought of his wife, Hanalei, at home in Austin. The next morning he built a signal fire, spelled out a giant “HELP” with rocks, and spread out his bright-orange sleeping bag. When he heard an airplane in the distance, he rushed to light the fire, but the airplane disappeared before he could get any smoke going. 

Myers was losing body weight so quickly that his wedding ring now slipped off his finger. As night fell, he figured he had one more day in the canyon before he died. The following morning, he recorded a few video messages for Hanalei on his camera just in case. Then, as if in a dream, he heard the sound of an airplane again. Hauling himself to his feet, Myers rushed to light his fire. This time he’d piled up some dry grasses for a quick flame, and once it was smoking, he began flapping his sleeping bag like a madman. The plane made a banking turn and flew directly overhead; Myers began to hyperventilate, tears bursting from his eyes.  

Soon Myers heard the heavy thumping of a helicopter, and he was lifted to safety. He had lost sixteen pounds, and when Hanalei arrived in Big Bend to meet him, she was shocked at his emaciated figure. “It was scary to see him like that,” she recalled. “I had no idea how bad it was.” It was Hanalei who had set the rescue in motion; when Myers didn’t return home, she had filed a missing person’s report. The park rangers had found his car within hours. At a hotel in Terlingua that night, Myers drank a steady stream of water and Coke, soaking the liquid up like a sponge, never feeling any urge to urinate. “He did well for himself,” Big Bend’s chief ranger would later say. “I’m surprised he lasted that long.”

Not surprisingly, Myers’s attitude toward hiking has been irrevocably changed. He still finds nature restorative, but he will never forget the awful solitude of that canyon, the memory of perhaps never seeing Hanalei again, or the idea that his life might slip away without a sound.


Gasoline and Saltwater

Three fishermen capsize off Matagorda Bay.

James Phillips had been out to sea before. A thirty-year-old from the town of Blessing, he’d often gone fishing off the Texas coast at distances of up to eighty miles, chasing swordfish and blue marlin on his 23-foot twin-hulled catamaran. So on August 21, 2009, when he set out from Matagorda Bay for an overnight trip, he didn’t think much of it. Two fishing pals, 28-year-old Curtis Hall and 43-year-old Tressell Hawkins, had joined him, and the men planned to return the next day with coolers full of fish. 

The three trolled the waters around an oil rig, then settled in for the night as the sun went down. Around midnight, Hawkins, who had been sleeping in a beanbag chair in the back of the boat, was startled awake. The boat was taking on water, fast. “We got water in the boat, and my beanbag’s floating!” Hawkins shouted, waking his friends. As they scrambled in the dark, Phillips tried to radio a distress signal, but he was cut short when the boat flipped over, dumping the men into the sea. Phillips suspected the port-side bilge pump had failed, allowing seawater to fill one of the hulls. 

The men clambered onto the overturned craft, and Hall dived back under the boat to collect a bag containing flares. They were only about five miles from the rig, but after shooting six flares, they got no response. By the time the sun rose, it was clear they were in real trouble. Phillips and Hall began to make repeated dives under the boat searching for supplies, coming up with crackers, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, chewing gum, two gallons of water, and a couple of cases of beer. They rationed it all immediately: one beer each for the morning, a few crackers at lunch, another beer in the evening. “Everything tasted like gasoline and saltwater,” Phillips later recalled. They cut the canopy off the boat and used it as a sun shield; that evening, the canopy served as their blanket. 

One day turned into another, and then another. U.S. Coast Guard jets passed on the horizon without spotting them. At night, schools of jellyfish clustered around the catamaran, stinging the men. During the day, with the sun blazing, the effects of deprivation set in. One afternoon, Phillips saw a man swim up to the boat and offer him a biscuit and some coffee. After gratefully accepting, Phillips sat down to enjoy his repast. Hall and Hawkins asked him what he was doing. “And then I looked down and saw that my hands were empty,” recalled Phillips. Another time, Phillips got up and walked across the hull, certain he was headed to the store for a tin of Copenhagen. He walked right off the boat.

They continued to dive under the boat to scavenge for anything that might be useful, creating a sort of game to occupy their time. The game got serious, however, when one evening the boat was suddenly surrounded by baitfish, pursued by tuna. “I heard James say, ‘Look, is that a shark?’ ” Hall said. “I looked, and it was. And it was a big one.” Quickly they were surrounded by large blacktip sharks in a thrashing feeding frenzy.

On the sixth day, their rations nearly gone, the men began drinking their precious water, aware of how dire their predicament had become. But then, on one of his dives, Phillips made a discovery: he found the end of a hose that was connected to the fresh water tanks he used for washing off the boat when out at sea. Phillips sucked on the hose and got a gush of water—fresh water—to his face. “You could just see all our eyes light up when that water hit our mouths,” Phillips said. They now had thirty gallons of fresh water, which they began drinking from the tube nearly constantly.

They didn’t know that the Coast Guard had been looking for them and would officially give them up for dead the next day. What they did know was that the boat would sink as the pontoons filled with water. The three decided to fashion distress flags out of their shirts and boat railings. On the eighth day, they drew close to an oil rig, but they couldn’t get the attention of anyone on it. Finally, a Corpus Christi car dealer named Eddie Yaklin, who was sailing nearby on his 75-foot yacht, Afordable Fantasea, spotted the flapping shirts. By the time he pulled the trio aboard, they had drifted 180 miles southeast of Matagorda. He fed the hungry men his steak dinner, their first real food in over a week.

The ordeal created a bond between the three men. It also gave them a new beginning. “A lot of promises were made out there,” Phillips told news reporters after their rescue. “I’m going to hold every one of them.”


Lost in No Mans Land

 A hang glider pilot wanders the desert outside Zapata.

The dusty border town of Zapata, almost seventy miles south of Laredo, is known primarily for three things: oil, drug violence, and long-distance hang gliding. About fifteen years ago, hang glider pilots from around the world began flocking to the area because of the giant wall of wind created by the hot desert air as it rushes north for hundreds of miles. Moisture from the Gulf creates healthy cumulous clouds, and when these clouds line up, they create “cloud streets” that gliders can ride for miles, often farther than they can anywhere else in the world. (Last year a pilot named Dustin Martin set the world record, flying 475 miles propelled only by the wind.)

In August 2000, as Zapata was just becoming popular, a professional hang glider pilot from California named Tiki Mashy got a call from Davis Straub, the editor of the Oz Report, a hang-gliding website. Mashy held several hang-gliding world records and had appeared on television for National Geographic; she was no stranger to flying long or difficult distances. Straub, a hang glider pilot himself, encouraged Mashy to join him in Texas for a potential record-setting run. The projected conditions for the month looked good, he told her, and it was the perfect opportunity.

There was only one thing to be wary of, Straub cautioned, and that was the dangerous early section of the northward course. “There are a few dirt roads where you can land if you end up too far downwind, but for the most part they are behind locked gates,” Straub warned. “So you need to be at least two thousand feet in the air before you start to head north.” In other words, if she couldn’t catch a lift and found herself forced to ground, it would be in an empty, inaccessible no-man’s-land. “Good luck trying to walk out with your hang glider and the rest of your gear, especially by yourself,” Straub told her. “The heat is a real killer.” 

Mashy, who is both athletic and highly competitive,

 headed to Zapata immediately to meet Straub. One bright Monday, thin cumulous clouds began to form and move quickly, an auspicious sign. Mashy and Straub were towed down a short runway by a truck with a winch and launched into the sky. Straub found some thermals as he drifted near the Rio Grande, but then he had a mechanical problem and was forced to turn around and land. Mashy, meanwhile, climbed a thermal that took her to about two thousand feet. This was her chance.

She was drifting away from the airstrip, searching for more lift, when the thermal died. She was too far downwind, she realized, to make it back, so she had no choice but to press north and hope to make it past the no-man’s-land. But because she knew that landing areas were going to be few and difficult to maneuver, she ended up forgoing any more thermals so she could devote her attention to the ground. Eventually she landed safely in the desert and radioed to her pick-up driver, Dale Tyson. When Straub heard that she had called in, he figured she would be picked up without incident. While he waited for Mashy’s return, he decided to go to a movie that afternoon in Laredo. 

Using Mashy’s coordinates and a GPS device, Tyson was able to get within two miles of her location, only to find the last stretch blocked by a locked gate. It was just after noon and already 110 degrees when Mashy decided she would walk the distance, leaving her glider behind. Tyson begged her for permission to call the sheriff first for help with the gate, but Mashy, already delirious from the heat, refused. “I’ve walked out of a lot of situations,” Mashy explained later. “To call the sheriff, somebody needs to be dying.” 

As she trekked through the desert landscape, winding through sagebrush and mesquite, she began to feel weak. Her radio batteries died, and she was no longer sweating as heatstroke set in. At one point, her water bottle hose got snagged on a bush, and all her water leaked out. Mashy wanted to cry, “but I couldn’t generate any tears,” she recalled.

Then came a lucky break: Tyson discovered her truck had a flat tire. Now she had to call the sheriff for help. Meanwhile, disoriented and upset, Mashy used her cellphone to call a hang-gliding friend in Florida and have a rambling, disjointed conversation. “I wanted to hear a friendly voice,” Mashy said. “I wanted to say goodbye to someone.” The friend immediately called Straub, who was now in a supermarket in Laredo. “What the hell y’all doing to Tiki down there?” he remembers her saying. “She says she’s stuck in the desert, and she’s not making any sense!”  

Straub sprang into action, calling Tyson and coordinating with the sheriff’s office. By now it was after five o’clock, and Mashy had been wandering the desert for at least five hours. The sheriff’s office got a spotter plane in the air to assist with the search. Zapata County is well-known as an immigrant graveyard, as many border crossers perish there every year trying to traverse the desert to San Antonio, and the pilot had experience finding bodies lying out among the cactus and mesquite.  

Mashy was stretched out on a gravel road, unconscious, when the pilot caught sight of her. “I just closed my eyes, and I didn’t feel the pain anymore,” Mashy said. “The golden light through my eyelids was warm and pleasant. I didn’t want to leave.” The sheriff’s team quickly cut through a set of gates to retrieve her, rousing her to give her water. 

The next day a rancher discovered the body of a Mexican man in the same area where Mashy had been found. “In thirty-five years of hang gliding, I’ve never been so scared,” Mashy recalled. “I’ll never fly at Zapata again.”