Missing in the Mojave

I try not to post on back-country misadventures too often, since the plot lines are so often drearily familiar. But every once in a while one comes along sufficiently out of the ordinary to attract my attention. Such a one is this report from California. Search continues, but air temp is around 104 today, the ground underfoot is 20-30 degrees hotter than that, and shade is minimal to non-existent. If the missing woman has been out there for more than 72 hours with no water and no clothing to speak of, her survival chances are slim. What’s puzzling is that she’s no feckless German tourist, but a local resident who should have been aware of what that desert is like this time of the year. Unless she’s no longer entirely compus mentis (in which case a responsible adult should have been keeping a closer eye on her) it’s hard to understand why she would go hiking in mid-afternoon, without a cell phone, any water, or any covering but a baseball cap, hiking boots and a black bikini. I pray she survives to tell her story.

The Abandoned Rifle

New developments in a story that stretches not just five years but more than a century into the past. In November 2014, Park Service archeologist Eva Jensen was doing a field survey in Great Basin National Park. I’ve accompanied archeologists on these walkabouts and I was amazed at all the things they could see at a glance – sherds scattered in what they call an “Oops! site,” the charcoal bed of an ancient hearth or the remnants of a rock shelter — that I would have missed completely. Soldiers accompanying Apache scouts had the same reaction to their guides’ uncanny ability not just to see the terrain but to experience it with all their senses.

Others have certainly hiked the ridge Jensen was scouting – there’s no place in the West a man has yet to set foot on, so far as I can tell. But she was the first in decades to spot a rifle leaning up against a juniper trunk. The cracked and weathered stock and rusted barrel blended perfectly with the tree, rendering the old gun all but invisible.

It’s an 1873 model Winchester, manufactured in 1882. Buyer and any subsequent owners are unknown, as is how it came to be where it was discovered or even how long it rested there before Eva Jensen’s sharp eye spotted it.

The ’73 Winchester was the AR15 of its day, “The Gun That Won the West.” Its rapid rate of fire and accuracy (at least at short ranges) made it the favorite weapon on both sides in the Apache Wars. It may have been a lever-action Winchester that cost Domingo Gallegos not just his wife and baby girl but his life. I believe Nana and his warriors rode down to Rancho Cebolla that day not because their Navajo guides had boasted of Domingo’s marksmanship but because they told Nana of his gun.

News stories don’t specify the caliber of the Great Basin find but it was probably chambered for the powerful .44-40 cartridge. That was scarce in Mexico, and the need to resupply was an important factor driving the Apaches to raid north across the border.

According to the news reports there was one bullet left in the Great Basin gun. The empty magazine might explain how the rifle came to be left behind. It was not dropped or lost on the trail but left neatly propped up against a tree trunk.

You don’t forget a ten-pound, yard-long weight. You’ll notice it’s missing before you’ve gone a hundred yards. I believe even a man suffering from dehydration, hunger, hypothermia or heat-stroke would keep such a valuable possession with him until the last extremity. Not to mention its value as a defensive weapon even with just one bullet, a good Winchester was worth around $40 or $50 used, which was a lot of money in those days.

I presume the Park Service archeologists made a very careful survey of the surrounding area, looking for harness or bridle hardware, spent cartridges, buttons and buckles, or any human remains. If so, nothing was found.

Imagine a man propping his rifle against a tree and walking off, never to return. Why?

Death in the Desert

This story reminded me of the old picture above, which appeared in the June 2014 Wild West.  This was also an Arizona case, and I believe the skeleton’s location might have been the country around where Roosevelt Dam was built sometime before 1910. I don’t know anyone ever identified the dead man, however. The skull in the more recent case has been ID’d but there’s no hint as to where the rest of his remains rest of how they came to be separated from his head, or how he came to be out in the desert in the first place.

Nana and his warriors left quite a few corpses in the mountains and desert, of course. I’ve seen a couple of graves myself and can guess where there are others. But it’s likely some were never found or discovered so much later they were never identified as the old man’s victims.

Death in the Desert

I occasionally do posts on desert survival (or lack thereof) that offer worthwhile life lessons for feckless wanderers like myself.  Although I’ve written newspaper columns about the border, the death toll on the line is rarely remarked by myself or anyone else.

There are few descansas along la frontera — no one has the time or inclination to pause to honor the dead, and their passing is marked only by discarded plastic bags, empty bottles and rags of clothing blowing in the wind. I remember a black bra dangling from the thorny limb of a palo verde tree that told me more of a story than I wanted to hear.

The grief and anger of survivors dissipates with time, allowing historians and archeologists to pursue their trades unharried by ghosts. Most of the deaths on the border I’ve referenced occurred more than a century ago.

But the death of a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl apprehended by the Border Patrol in the Bootheel is a tragedy we all need to confront, wherever you stand on the spectrum from open borders to the Great Wall of China.

Unfortunately, we’ve already raced past the fact-finding phase of this story and rushed on to the political outrage theater that is now the default setting for any story that momentarily engages the nation’s increasingly short attention span.

The little girl’s father has lawyered up.  (For a Mayan peon the global media/legal circus must be like being abducted and anally probed by space aliens.) The feds have gone to the mattresses, awaiting a coroner’s report guaranteed to stall questions until the news cycle turns to the next hot story. And a flock of political spin merchants have descended like a murder of crows on a roadkill jackrabbit, ending any chance we will ever really know what happened to the poor little girl.

Without knowing anything more of the story than I’ve read in the Journal and seen online, I will say this: I’ve spent more time in the Bootheel and in northern Mexico than 99.95% of  the “journalists” bloviating on this story. I’ve met and talked with some of the men and women who guard that remote corner of our nation’s border. I cannot believe any of those people would not do everything in their power to save a little girl’s life.

There are EMTs, nurses, doctors, pilots and Border Patrol officers at home tonight, staring at the ceiling and wondering whether there was anything more they could have done that might have made a difference. While we grieve for young Jakelin Caal, let’s spare a prayer for them as well.

Que Macho!

Left over from my recent trip to AZ/NV,  here’s the story of one very tough old man Nana would have appreciated. His adventure reads like a page out of True Grit, and I can’t help but admire his cojones even as I have to question his good sense. Exploring abandoned mines is a very dangerous hobby and rappelling down into an old shaft solo borders on the suicidal. Years ago I spent some time tagging along with the state’s Abandoned Mine Lands team surveying the country around Madrid, Golden and Hagan south of Santa Fe. There are at a minimum several hundred and by most estimates a thousand or more abandoned mines in the state, ranging from extensive underground complexes like the labyrinth under Madrid to rough prospect holes scratched a dozen or a hundred feet under the surface. These doghole miners never heard of today’s mine safety regs and they likely would have paid no attention to them if they had. What sketchy shoring  they put in place they salvaged as they pulled out. Another danger, as the Arizona guy discovered, is that the old shafts and nearby building foundations attract snakes. One of my archeologist acquaintances described the ruins of Hagan as a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The only thing worse than being trapped in a cave-in, in my nightmarish imagination, would be to be trapped in the dark with a den of buzzworms for company.

I’ll Drink to That

I try to keep this website focused on the Apache Wars and one incident in particular in that long and tragic conflict. Most of my other public thoughts are at NM News Service. But since I encourage people to get out and explore Apachería on the ground and experience the country for themselves, I feel the obligation to offer some occasional cautionary advice for those who take up that challenge, I sometimes stray into what I think of as “lost in the woods” stories, not to engage in vicarious thrill-seeking or voyeuristic schadenfreude but to explore whether these incidents carry a valuable life lesson.

Such a one is this recent story from California, where a young couple wandered away from their vehicle in the Imperial Sand Dunes on the Cal-Mex border and were finally picked up by the Border Patrol five days later, very hungry and very, very thirsty.

I won’t criticize these poor folks; I got lost on a quarter-mile nature trail myself, years ago, and still haven’t lived it down. Dunes are so alien a terrain it’s very easy to get disoriented. To me the only more bewildering country is the hoodoos in De Na Zin and the Bisti in northwestern New Mexico. In those places even a compass is of limited utility; a good GPS is a must. The lesson, as always, is “Be Prepared.” Never get out of sight of your vehicle without the equipment you need to survive if not thrive.

A more interesting aspect of the California story is the report they drank their own urine to relieve their thirst. This detail shows up occasionally in survival stories and always raises the reaction: uck! The response to that, of course, is you’ve never really been thirsty. Overcoming that first hurdle, the question becomes: does it work?

There is water in the desert, of course – if you have the time and tools to get to it. You can dig a hole, if you have an entrenching tool or sturdy knife, and cover it with plastic, if you have plastic sheeting, to condense water from the air. Certain cactus plants will yield some moisture, but it’s often bitter and obtained only at the cost of more sweat than you want to expend.

So urine is if not an attractive option at least an efficient one. Your pee is 95% water; the problem lies in the waste products your body wants to discard. Plus, while I won’t get into the whole dehydration thing here, suffice to say your body is discarding less liquid through the kidneys and so the concentration of toxins increases as you recycle.

As you expect with any weird topic, there’s a lot on the web about all this (including some sites that are really disturbing). Short answer is, yes it will work, for a very short period of time. These two hikers were lucky to make it as long as they did.