Out of Luck II

Hard on the heels of the two people found dead in a minivan stranded in the desert near Lake Mead comes news closer to home of two French tourists dead at White Sands Nat’l Monument. Their little boy survived, apparently because his dad gave him more than his share of the remaining water.

I’m a great believer in taking risks in the wilderness. Defying the odds not only promotes a healthy burst of adrenalin in the moment, but makes you savor life all the more (if you survive the experience). But I do feel bad for people who lose even before they realize they’ve been gambling with their lives. NPS Rangers, especially those who’ve spent time at the big-draw tourist attractions like Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon and Death Valley, have a hair-raising fund of stories about feckless urbanites who wander away from pavement in shorts and flip-flops, blissfully unaware that they’re literally treading the edge of disaster with every step.

Without disrespect to the deceased, it’s worthwhile to review the mistakes these French visitors made that contributed to their demise. First, despite prominently displayed warnings (in a number of languages) they walked off into the dunes at mid-day in August. Air temperature was 101˚F, and ground temp 20 degrees hotter. High in a cloudless sky the sun is pitiless, the glare from the dunes blinding even behind sunglasses and a billed cap, and there is no shade, not even a lonely bush to crawl under.

The tourists may have been misled by the name “Alkali Flats Trail,” where in fact there is no “trail” in the civilized European sense of the word and precious few “flats.” Only occasional poles mark the route over the ever-shifting dunes, and walking through the soft sand is painfully slow and quickly exhausting.

Second, the French family carried just two 20-oz. plastic water bottles. That’s 2 ½ pints, or a little more than a quart shared among two adults and a child. A gallon is four quarts. Remember Groucho: “a gal a day is enough for me”? A gallon of water is barely survivable in the Arena Blanca. If I were rash enough to hike there in August I would carry two gallons for myself alone. That’s 16 ½ lbs., but I know I would be glad to have it before I was through.

Finally, they split up. When the woman began feeling ill (the first symptoms of heat stroke) the man and boy left her to make her own way back to the vehicle while they continued on (impaired judgment is another symptom of heat stroke). She never made it back to their car, and the man collapsed about a mile farther along the trail. The little boy survived to be rescued by the rangers, partly because of his father’s selfless decision to give the boy more than his share of the remaining water, but mostly because the boy’s smaller body evaporated less moisture (skinny little people have a better chance in the desert than big, fat people; it’s a question of skin surface area).

Lost and Out of Luck

Because I have made so many solo trips into the deserts and mountains of the Southwest over the years, I’m a collector of “Lost” stories — people stranded, injured, drunk, disoriented or simply fuddled and far from help in adverse environments. My favorites, of course, are the survival stories, but there’s generally something to be learned from these tales one way or the other. Latest I’ve seen is of two unfortunates whose minivan got stuck on a sandy road near Lake Mead, out of cell phone range and soon out of both water and luck.

Lesson 1: Never go out into the desert without at least two days’ worth of water (a gal a day may be enough for Groucho, but  in the Nevada desert in August, you’ll crave more than that). Lesson 2: Always tell someone you trust where you’re going and when you expect to return (and be sure to let them know when you get back to civilization; few things are more embarrassing than turning on the TV in your motel room to find you’re the subject of a multi-agency search & rescue effort). Lesson 3: Don’t overestimate your fitness level, or your vehicle’s; a minivan is no ride to take off pavement. Finally, in Lesson 4, a friend of mine with considerable experience in S&R suggests these two might have saved themselves by taking off the vehicle’s spare tire, soaking it with gas siphoned out of the fuel tank, and setting it on fire. A burning tire will send up a column of thick, black smoke visible for miles. Plus you can make s’mores while you’re waiting for rescue (you did bring e-rats, didn’t you?)

The Rebel Flag Revisited

Our mayor, courageously defying the Texas tourists who keep Old Town’s shops afloat, has ordered the removal of the Confederate Flag from the Plaza. I have no particular affection for what we used to call the “Rebel Flag” when I was in college back in Illinois, but I believe rewriting (or even worse, simply  erasing) inconvenient bits of history is a dangerously slippery slope, especially in a land where we have so much history to regret. Several weeks ago, I was dismayed to meet a young woman born and raised in NM who had never heard of the Texican invasion during the Civil War. She explained that in her school New Mexico history was generally the last topic at the end of the term, and the teachers  skimmed over it as “not important.”  She had never heard of the Warm Springs Apaches, either.

12 revised

I’ve revised Chapter 12, based on some new information I’ve turned up regarding the aftermath of the fight in Gavilan Canyon. I’ve also added a new section to the site, Sources, beginning with the bibliography I’ve had several requests for. I’ll be adding links and some other original documents to that, as soon as I finish the Epilogue. Until that’s done (and likely for some time after), Tracking Nana is still very much a work in progress.

New take on the Bascom fiasco

Latest edition of True West has an excellent piece by Doug Hocking with a new look at the infamous 1861 encounter between Cochise and Army Lt. George Bascom at Apache Pass. In the popular histories, Bascom generally comes across as an arrogant and inexperienced fool. Hocking somewhat mitigates that judgment, although he doesn’t challenge the accepted version of the key event: Bascom violated the rules of parley (as recognized by both the whites and the Indians) by attempting to seize Cochise and his companions after inviting them to attend a conference under a flag of truce. What’s worse, his treachery was so inept that he allowed Cochise to escape the trap.

Fire in San Mateos

Forest Service reports a lightning caused fire in the San Mateo Mountains. As of July 7, the Red Canyon fire on the Magdalena Ranger District remains at 17,843 acres. Burning since July 3, the fire is 2 miles southeast of Grassy Lookout and 27 miles southwest of Magdalena,  With luck the monsoon rains will keep it under control, reducing dead wood and underbrush.

Face in the Rock

Still struggling with the final chapter/epilog. Too many ends to tie up. So instead I went for a walk yesterday to a petroglyph site out west of Albuquerque. Nothing to do with Nana, but another of my favorite places.

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The Old Gringo

Ambrose Bierce (June 24, 1842-1914?) was never my favorite writer. I grew up myself on Mike Royko at the old Chicago Daily News, and what I’ve read of Bierce’s newspaper work doesn’t impress me much. For short stories, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge has a memorable Twilight Zone twist (and I believe it was made into an episode) but I don’t class him with Bret Harte or Mark Twain for sheer entertainment. And although you can’t spend a career in newspapers and later PR without becoming either a cynic or an alcoholic – or both – I found the Devil’s Dictionary a little too relentless for my taste.
What makes Bierce memorable is his end. While it’s not uncommon for historical figures to sport a question mark beside their birth date (Nana is one of those) it’s comparatively rare to see a “?” marking a man’s demise. But Bierce just vanished like Amelia Earhart or Judge Crater, leaving behind an enduring mystery. Not a bad way to go.
“Good bye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease and falling down the stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico – ah, that is euthanasia!”
Gregory Peck did an interesting movie with Jane Fonda and Jimmy Smits based on Gringo Viejo, a novel by Carlos Fuentes, I haven’t read the book yet, but the movie is an excellent treatment both of the Mexican Revolution and Bierce.

Stars ‘n Bars

There’s a little campo santo about 60 miles west of Albuquerque, untended if not abandoned. The fence is down, and the ground is overgrown with weeds; I couldn’t find a stone dated later than 1910. But at one end there’s a little area surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, marking the graves of three men of the 7th Texas Mounted Volunteers, dated 21 March, 26 March and 5 April 1862. Sibley’s men obviously. There may be Confederate war graves farther west in southern Arizona, but as far as I know these three lonely rebels mark the high water mark of the Confederacy’s march to the western sea.

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