Editor's note: The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is sister paper to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
EL PASO, Texas — When family members called Monday to ask Rick McFarland if he needed people to sit with his wife, Cathy Frye, as she recovers at the University Medical Center in this west Texas city, he shook his head and answered quickly.
“I left her once, and I never want to leave her again,” he told them.
Frye, a reporter at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and McFarland, a photographer at the paper, were lost for several days in the Big Bend Ranch State Park on the western Texas border with Mexico while on a camping trip to celebrate their 12th wedding anniversary.
McFarland made his way to a ranger station Friday after separating from Frye, who was too weak to continue.
A two-day search-and-rescue effort found Frye about 11:45 a.m. Sunday.
Badly sunburned and covered in bruises and scrapes from falling and sleeping on rocks, Frye’s legs and arms showed lines of scratches from the sharp vegetation in the park. Dozens of cactus needles were still stuck in her skin and in her mouth Monday.
Doctors were most worried about treating her severe dehydration when she was airlifted to the hospital, saying at midafternoon Monday that she would need at least three more liters of fluid through an intravenous drip before she would be hydrated to a safe level.
Her arms and legs trembled intermittently Monday from the dehydration, but from the hospital bed in a small fourth-floor room, Frye and McFarland recounted how the two avid hikers lost their way and how they survived.
AN ANNUAL TRADITION
Frye, 43, and McFarland, 58, both grew up in different parts of Texas. They’ve hiked and camped all over the Lone Star State, roughed it while covering hurricanes and floods for newspapers and even exchanged vows in the Texas wilderness.
They were married on the Window Trail in the Chisos Basin of Big Bend National Park in April 2001. They spent their honeymoon there, away from the rest of the world in what would come to feel like a second home, Frye said.
Every year the couple goes back to celebrate. They know the trails in the basin like they were printed on road maps under their skin.
But this year, a few hours after the pair arrived and set up camp on Monday, Sept. 30, they were told that the shutdown of the federal government meant all of the park’s trails were closed.
A ranger told them they could camp for two nights, but they couldn’t hike or leave the campsite.
The ranger suggested that they consider going to neighboring Big Bend Ranch State Park, which he said had some pretty hikes and great views of canyons and waterfalls.
The couple talked it over and decided to give the state park trails a try.
After arriving at the state park early Tuesday, they checked in at the Sauceda Ranger Station at the center of the 311,000-acre park. The ranger there told the couple about his favorite camping spot in the park. He explained that it was close to a loop of hiking trails - the Puerta Chilacota Trail - and he gave them a standard park map.
The two set up camp at the spot, packed two granola bars, some bottles and canteens of water and a banana, then walked about a mile down a dirt road to the trail.
The first leg was easy enough. The couple, who were used to day-long hikes, finished the stretch around noon, and still having energy, they decided to keep going.
“We went into this dry river bed, and it was a downhill climb,” McFarland said. “We both drank a lot of water on the way down, and it was just hot.”
Frye and McFarland talked about turning back. She was tired from the heat and the descent.
“There was no way we wanted to make that uphill climb to go back the way we came,” McFarland said.
So the two looked at the 24-by-18-inch map to see whether the trail loop could take them back without the climb they faced if they simply turned back.
The map had no mileage or distance markers and no detailed elevation descriptions or topographical helpers like the ones on many national park maps, but the rings that were on the map looked like small elevations to McFarland.
He and Frye thought they surely could make it most of the way around the loop by dark. So they surged onward.
But the trail was much harder than they had expected, full of arroyos - dry river beds that fill up when it rains. They climbed through them in the heat and burned through their remaining water supply.
When the sun began to set Tuesday, the couple knew they were in trouble.
TRAPPED IN THE HEAT
For the next three days, McFarland and Frye spent nights shivering in temperatures that dipped into the low 50s, then sweating in sweltering upper-80-degree temperatures in direct sunlight during the day.
They found small amounts of water along a makeshift trail they made, having strayed on and off the park’s trail, which was marked by piles of rocks.
“They were hard to see. I mean the paths weren’t well worn, and vegetation had grown up around those markers in places,” McFarland said.
On Tuesday night, the two bedded down in a clear patch of dirt away from snakes and other wildlife that could be moving through the brush.
McFarland had worn prescription sunglasses on the hike, but had left his regular glasses back in the truck, which made walking at night difficult. To add to their sight problems, the moon didn’t come out until almost morning, he said.
“It was just black,” Frye said. “We used my cellphone for light the first night, but it wasn’t much and it started to lose power, and we thought it was a good idea to conserve the power in case we ever got cellphone reception and we can call for help.”
Cell reception never got better.
The two trekked a couple miles Wednesday, stopping often to take shade behind rocks and under brush.
“At that point Cathy insisted that I go cut her some cactus to try to get some water out of the pulp,” McFarland said.
“You only moved if you had to,” said McFarland. “I know there were spiders and flies on me, but I didn’t expend the energy unless I had to. When we were walking, we got so covered in that yellow pollen from all the plants, that bees would just come land on our legs when we’d rest and eat the pollen and we just let them.”
After the sun moved lower, the two walked a little farther down the trail. Then McFarland spotted cottonwood trees. He knew where there were trees, there was water.
McFarland found the source of the water, which was clear, hidden under a triangle of rocks. They drank and set up camp for Wednesday night.
“We’ve covered search-and-rescues and we’d covered disasters and all of these kinds of things where you have to have an exit strategy, a plan to get out in case of the worst, and I told Rick, before we found that water, that I didn’t see an exit strategy,” she said.
“For the first time, I didn’t see a way out, and I started to think, ‘What if we don’t make it.’”
The couple filled their canteens before setting out Thursday with renewed energy from the hydration. They had tried not to glut on the water because neither had iodine tablets to make sure it was 100 percent safe.
They lost and found the park trail several times before deciding to cut north early Thursday. They moved quickly, knowing they needed to get out soon or find help.
“We had crossed over the first part of the trail. We just had no idea how far we had gone because we would stop and rest in the shade, and pacing out how far you had gone, it just, it was hard,” he said.
The two ended up almost a mile north of the trail when they stopped Thursday night.
They decided to head northeast Friday morning toward a line of ridges to try to get a better view.
“It got to the point where Cathy was just, she was needing to stop so frequently,” McFarland said. “It had only been about five minutes between stops. I didn’t know how much longer she was gonna be able to go. I just knew we needed to keep going.”
A JOURNEY OF ONE
The couple had the hardest conversation of their lives nestled near some rocks on the side of the ridge.
“I told him that he needed to go on without me, that we had been putting off making the decision, but it needed to happen,” Frye said Monday.
“I told him to tell our kids that I wanted to see them again more than I had ever wanted anything in this world. And that I didn’t just sit down and give up on them, that I had tried my damnedest to get out of there and see them,” she said.
McFarland also was having trouble moving.
“It feels like somebody whipped me with razorblades,” he said Monday, lifting his leg to the light to show the thatches of bright-lined scabs checkering his calves.
He moved slowly until, resting on a rock about a mile away from where he left Frye, he saw a glint. He took a photo and zoomed in. It was a truck. Not his truck, but he knew his couldn’t be too far away.
Once he reached his truck he chugged water as he sped to the ranger station. He sent a text message to Cathy’s father in Little Rock to call 911 to get emergency help to the trailhead.
He pulled into the ranger station at 7:30 p.m., three hours after it closed, blaring his horn, yelling for help.
Ranger David Dotty threw on his uniform, and they got into the ranger’s truck. Sirens blaring, lights flashing, Dotty began to call over the intercom into the wilderness, “Cathy, we’re coming. Cathy, we’re coming.”
That night 12 to 15 searchers arrived in with flashlights, frantically scouring the darkness for Frye. A U.S. Border Patrol helicopter came in and, using a search light, swept about a half-mile radius near where McFarland had been.
The searchers suspended the efforts at 2:30 a.m. to make plans for the morning and call in reinforcements.
“What scared me to death was they were yelling and she wasn’t answering. I thought, why the hell can’t she answer? Why isn’t she saying anything?” McFarland said.
HEARING THE CALL
Saturday morning teams of people arrived from all over the state as part of the new Texas Game Warden Search and Rescue Team. Game wardens and rangers arrived from Austin, San Angelo, Odessa and El Paso.
The Presidio County sheriff, firefighters and EMTs came. Volunteers from the Texas State Police, the Texas State Guard, the Texas State Park police, the Texas Search and Rescue, the Border Patrol and other agencies filled cots and bunks and threw sleeping bags on the floor of a park bunkhouse.
About 40 people actively searched throughout Saturday, split into four teams. But when sundown came, the group had not found Frye.
They set to work Sunday when the sun rose.
Fernie Rincon, a park police officer at Franklin Mountain State Park in El Paso, was on rescue team one. The group of volunteers climbed the ridges around where Frye had last been seen hoping to get a better, elevated view.
“The team on the other side of the ridge was yelling, ‘Cathy can you hear us?’ They yelled it three times, then I heard this faint ‘help.’ I turned to [Issac Ruiz] who was standing next to me and said, ‘Did you hear that?’” Rincon said Monday.
The warden had heard it. Volunteers across the ridge yelled again in unison, “Can you hear us Cathy?” Again came a faint, “help.”
Rincon, who had climbed part way down the ridge began running toward the sound full speed through the sharp vegetation. He stopped and searched the brush with his eyes.
Frye was lying naked underneath a bush for shade.
Other volunteers worked to get the Border Patrol helicopter a place to land. Frye was too weak and sore to walk. Carrying her out to the park’s dirt road would have taken too long and in her condition would have hurt too much.
Frye, who had spent two days moving around the brush to stay out of the sun, had lost hope. She had seen the search helicopter come and go, yelling at it, “I’m here. Why can’t you see me?”
She had slipped in and out of consciousness, had made a kind of flag from her canteen and a stick, hoping the glint would catch a rescuer’s or hiker’s eye.
She recounted Monday feeling her wedding ring slip slowly off her finger and expending precious energy brushing her hand across the dirt, unable to feel it.
“I didn’t know if Rick had made it. I didn’t know if they had found his body and that was what made them start the search,” she said. “I asked them did Rick make it? Is he OK? I didn’t know. I had spent hours in the heat just imagining the worst.”
McFarland had done the same.
On Sunday a flurry of activity had tipped McFarland off that something had happened on the search.
“I was trying to get them to answer me, and someone yelled, ‘We found her. She’s alive. She’s alive.’ And I hit the ground,” he said. “I just fell into the warden in front of me. I was hugging anyone who would take a hug.”
Some federal resources - such as staff and equipment - weren’t available during the search for Frye. Normally the Big Bend Ranch State Park staff would have requested resources from the neighboring national park for a search effort this large, but because the national park’s employees were furloughed and the park was closed Oct. 1, that wasn’t an option.
“We knew we couldn’t reach out to them this time,” said Deirdre Hisler, the Texas parks and wildlife director over the region. “Congressman [Pete] Gallego [D-Texas] was very mea culpa - very apologetic - for the fact that there was the shutdown going on. But he wanted me to know that he wanted to be kept informed and if I felt there was something we needed, he said please reach out to me.”
Arkansan politicians also made efforts to assist in the search for Frye.
When Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Managing Editor David Bailey got the phone call Saturday night that Frye was missing and had been stranded in the desert terrain for days, he immediately began thinking of who he could call. By Sunday he had the cellphone number of U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark.
Griffin was teaching a Sunday School class with his wife when he looked down at his phone and saw Bailey’s missed call. He stepped out of the classroom and phoned back. Griffin’s first instinct was to gather information about the search and try to get federal resources involved.
“I knew if they didn’t have helicopters, that was critical. So, I got the call that they did have one and another on the ground, so that was encouraging. But I kept making calls,” Griffin said.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman had been in contact with Griffin by email and offered to pay for any resources that were needed in the search.
“I said that’s good to know, but when I was talking to people, I never had to get there,” Griffin said.
Eventually Griffin had reached the head of the Texas Rangers, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s chief of staff, someone with the U.S. secretary of the interior, the Presidio County sheriff and law enforcement dispatch at Big Bend National Park.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe’s spokesman, Matt DeCample, also helped by having department heads in Arkansas call their counterparts in Texas to get information on the search. The Arkansas State Police made some inquires as well, but by that time the news came in that Frye was found, DeCample said.
As McFarland waited in the ranger station for word about Frye, the phone would ring every five minutes. He recalled the same conversation being told to whoever was on the other end, each time.
“I listened to the ranger tell them about the search, about who was here and about what else needed to happen, over and over. I had no idea who was on the phone,” he said. “He told me the governor had called at one point and asked if we were political in some way because he said we must know somebody to have all of these people calling.”
There were 38 on-the-ground personnel from all over Texas and different agencies involved in the search for Frye and another 100 on standby, Hisler said.
Searches aren’t rare at the park - 311,000 acres of the most remote wilderness in Texas. A search-and-rescue team was initiated there the weekend before when two women from Hong Kong lost their way. In that case the women were able to make it to a high ridge and gain cellphone service, at which point they phoned park personnel.
The difference in the search for Frye, Hisler said, is typically that when that much time has passed, it’s a body recovery instead of a rescue.
“Cathy must be made of some real true grit for her to have been out for four days,” Hisler said.