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Water, Water ... Nowhere

Survival in the Desert

by Jay W. Sharp

The desert

Warning! In this story, you will find nothing about the magnificence of our Southwestern desert sunsets. Nothing about the splendor of our mountain ranges. Rather, you will find some grim details about the risks you can run if you take leave of cities and pavement and venture into the desert wilderness without full preparation for contingencies. You will learn what can happen in a desert basin where – by definition – no more than a few inches of rain fall in a typical year; where dependable natural water holes and streams lie far apart; where summer daytime air temperatures can soar to well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the soil temperatures to well over 150 degrees; and where small-leaf, spiny, low-growing and widely scattered plants offer scant shade or comfort.

“It is not a place to fall down, exhausted,” said Tom Cahill in his article “Border Patrol: Along the Devil’s Highway,” National Geographic Adventure, “People on the ground are literally roasted alive.”

The Cost of Misfortune or Carelessness

Those who came to the Southwest in pursuit of conquest, treasure, minerals, trade, land, furs or just sheer adventure sometimes learned of something far more valuable, specifically, water.

Desert treks hold risks for the unprepared, careless or unlucky.

Mountain man James Ohio Pattie, with a party of Mountain Men trapping beaver on the Gila and Colorado Rivers in 1828, gave an account of a grueling march across north central Baja:

“What with the fierce sun and the scorching sand, and our extreme fatigue, the air seemed soon to have extracted every particle of moisture from our bodies. In this condition we marched on until nearly the middle of the day, without descrying any indication of water in any quarter...



“We attempted to chew tobacco. It would raise no moisture. We took our bullets in our mouths, and moved them round to create a moisture, to relieve our parched throats. We had traveled but a little farther before our tongues had become so dry and swollen, that we could scarcely speak so as to be understood...

“Two of our companions here gave out, and lay down under the shade of a bush. Their tongues were so swollen, and their eyes so sunk in their heads, that they were a spectacle to behold. We were scarcely able, from the condition of our own mouth, to bid them an articulate farewell. We never expected to see them again...”

History of San Diego by Richard F. Pourade

The Human Body and Water

Within your body, water – which accounts for well over half your total weight – plays an essential role in sustaining life. It facilitates the physiological and chemical processes essential to life. It serves as a transportation medium, carrying dissolved nutrients, hormones, oxygen, carbon dioxide and wastes to their respective destinations within your circulatory systems. It helps regulate your temperature, primarily through perspiration.

Dehydration took its toll on livestock as well as people.

You ingest water, of course, in the liquids you drink and the foods you eat. Normally, you lose water by sweating, respiration or waste elimination. If ill or stressed, you may lose considerable water by vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to a dangerous level of dehydration.

In the first stages of dehydration, an individual may not experience any significant symptoms, but as it continues, he will feel thirst set in and his mouth go dry. If it intensifies, he will feel his thirst increase, his saliva thicken, his face flush, his skin wrinkle, his head ache, his arms and legs cramp, his strength dwindle and his temperament sour. If his dehydration becomes severe, his tongue swells. His eyes grow sunken and tearless, possibly cracking and bleeding. His stomach bloats. His hands and feet grow cool and moist. His major muscles contract severely and painfully. His blood pressure falls. His urination ceases. His pulse rate becomes feeble and rapid. His consciousness fades. He may experience convulsions and heart failure. He faces death without prompt and careful rehydration.



The Ordeal of Pablo Valencia

The ordeal of Pablo Valencia, who lost his way while hunting for lost treasure in southwestern Arizona, was chronicled by researcher W. J. McGee in a still-classic paper “Desert Thirst as Disease,” published in the Interstate Medical Journal 13, 1906. Terribly dehydrated, Valencia stumbled into McGee’s encampment in “the graying dawn of Wednesday, August 23...,” days after searchers had given up hope of finding him.

“Pablo was stark naked;” said McGee, “his formerly full-muscled legs and arms were shrunken and scrawny; his ribs ridged out like those of a starveling horse; his habitually plethoric [full] abdomen was drawn in almost against his vertebral column; his lips had disappeared as if amputated, leaving low edges of blackened tissue; his teeth and gums projected like those of a skinned animal, but the flesh was black and dry as a hank of jerky; his nose was withered and shrunken to half its length; the nostril-lining showing black; his eyes were set in a winkless stare, with surrounding skin so contracted as to expose the conjunctiva, itself black as the gums; his face was dark as a Negro, and his skin generally turned a ghastly purplish yet ashen gray, with great livid blotches and streaks... His extremities were cold as the surrounding air; no pulsation could be detected at wrists, and there was apparently little if any circulation beyond the knees and elbows; the heartbeat was slow, irregular, fluttering, and almost ceasing in the longer intervals between the stertorous [heavy] breathings.”

Under the careful nurturing of McGee, who administered a series of home remedies, Valencia recovered. “ a week he was well and cheerful,” said McGee, “weighing 135 pounds or more—though his stiff and bristly hair, which had hardly a streak of gray a fortnight before, had lost half its mass and turned iron gray.”

Primitive foundation for early house in desert landscape

The Desperation of the UDAs

In thousands of individual dramas every day, undocumented aliens (“UDAs,” as they are sometimes called by the Border Patrol) – men, women and children – put their lives on the line, crossing the desert from Mexico into the U. S. They come in the darkness, in remote areas, responding to the promise of America—jobs, family reunifications, running water, indoor toilets, medical care, education, a future. Of course, some come for more sinister purposes—human trafficking, drug sales, possibly terrorism. They raise a dilemma for the Border Patrol, which struggles with the complexities of enforcing our laws, protecting our border and saving human lives.

The UDAs may not know the grim story of Pablo Valencia, but they know well the dangers they face, especially the prospect of a lonely and agonizing death from dehydration in the desert. According to the Latin American Working Group Internet site, nearly 2000 UDAs died during the years 2000 to 2006 in the borderlands between San Diego and the Big Bend area, most of them from dehydration. No one knows how many bodies still lie undiscovered on the desert floor.

The lucky UDAs find help. One man “…sat hunched over on the side of the road, unable to lift his head or even his hand to take a sip of water,” said Kate Lynch, a Latin American Working Group intern who volunteered to help migrants in need in the summer of 2005. “He had been wandering the Arizona desert alone for days searching for help. His eyes, bloodshot and hazy, stared through a misty glaze towards the ground. He was no more than 5 feet tall and weighed around 100 pounds. He wore a red baseball cap and carried a heavy pack filled with clothes and family memorabilia. The group with whom he had begun this disastrous journey had now abandoned him because he was too slow. The $1,500 he paid for a smuggler was now lost. He hadn’t eaten in three days and his water bottle had been empty for hours. He was conserving his last drops for a day and a half. He mumbled as he spoke of his failure to make it, of his young daughters who will go hungry, and of the dying man he was unable to help. He wanted to go home.” Lynch’s UDA was lucky. He had been found.

Desert Savvy

If you plan a trip into a remote and unfamiliar area of the desert, especially during the summer, you should – as you have likely read in other articles – make sure that you:

  1. Drive a reliable vehicle, full of fuel, and carry a tool kit, critical spare parts, a tire pump, a towrope, a shovel and extra engine coolant and oil.
  2. Carry an up-to-date map and a compass.
  3. Pack emergency items such as a first aid kit, a metal signaling mirror, a whistle, a good knife and waterproof matches.
  4. Wear protective clothing, including a wide-brim hat and good hiking shoes.
  5. Carry enough water for each person in your party to drink at least a gallon a day, especially when temperatures range upwards of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
  6. If possible, convoy with another vehicle so that you have backup transportation.
  7. Most importantly, tell a relative or a friend where you are going and when to expect your return.

If – in spite of your precautions – you become stranded or lost a long ways from help, experts in desert survival recommend that you:

  1. Trust that your relative or friend will alert authorities if you fail to return at the planned time.
  2. Establish a base and/or distress signals at a site – preferably at a high, open location – where searchers can find you most easily. A raised car hood, a mirror flash, three fires, three gunshots, three whistles all serve as universal indications of a need for help.
  3. Construct a shelter with shade, possibly something as simple as a tarpaulin or blanket draped over brush, and stay in the shade, especially during the hottest part of the day.
  4. Stay completely dressed so that your clothing can restrain evaporation from your sweat and the consequent loss of moisture.
  5. Rest in your shade on iceboxes or cots or logs, on anything other than on the hot soil, which can bake you, causing you to sweat and sacrifice moisture.
  6. Scout for nearby water sources – in the cooler parts of the day – knowing that damp sand in an arroyo bottom, concentrations of willows or cottonwoods, flocks of birds and tracks of animals may signal moisture. You may find some moisture in cacti fruits if they are available.
  7. Husband your expenditure of energy and breathe through your nose to minimize moisture losses due to sweating and respiration.
  8. Minimize food intake because the digestive process consumes water.
  9. Do not drink alcoholic beverages because they accelerate dehydration.
  10. Conserve your sweat, not your water. Drink enough to slake your thirst. Mere occasionally sips do not meet the needs of vital organs.
  11. Unless you have a compelling reason to leave your shelter to look for help, remain at your base, where searchers can find you most easily.

Should one of your party begin to show symptoms of dehydration, you will have to move promptly to get him cooled and re-hydrated. Place him prone under shade, above the hot desert soil if at all possible. Loosen his clothing. Keep him still and quiet. Swab his body with water, even if it is from an undrinkable source. Fan his body to hasten the cooling. Have him sip water and, if possible, nibble salty foods frequently.

While the American Southwest is a wonderland of sunsets, mountain ranges, color, natural history, pre-history, history and awesome vistas, it exacts a discipline on those – hikers, rockhounds, treasure hunters and adventurers – who would venture into its remote regions, beyond the cities and paved highways. In the hardships it has imposed on colonizers, adventurers, treasure hunters, adventurers and today’s UDAs, it has given us a forceful lesson in the need for forethought and know-how if we are going to explore dim trails into the desert wilderness.

Desert Survival Primer
Desert Survival: The Solar Still
Desert Safety Tips
Desert Survival Handbook and Outdoor Gizmos
Desert Animal Survival


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