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Texas Tales

published: June 14th 2019
by: Mike Cox

Even at the time it seemed bizarre, but the U.S. War Department had a logical enough idea: Why not mount horse soldiers on camels?
     After all, a camel could go a lot longer without water than a horse. True, soldiers charging on camels might not be as intimidating as a wave of saber-brandishing, blue-coated troopers astride galloping horses, but for getting from Point A to B in the desert Southwest, camels would be highly efficient. Too, they could carry more supplies than mules.
     The Army acquired 33 camels from the Middle East and shipped the animals and their North African handlers to the Texas port of Indianola. In 1859, a Cavalry camel caravan traversed the Big Bend as the military continued the experimentation it had begun two years earlier. Their route included moving through a feature now known as Dog Canyon, though given its history it seems like Camel Canyon would be more appropriate and alliterative.
     Each camel carried more than 400 pounds of equipment, went up to 72 hours without water, and enjoyed eating the ever-present creosote bush that no other stock would touch.
     As a modern interpretive marker in Big Bend National Park explains, in summarizing the camel’s performance in the Big Bend, Lt. Edward L. Hartz said they effortlessly cros-sed terrain of the “most difficult nature” while covering 20 to 34 miles a day.
     Several years ago, by accident, an acquaintance and I decided to do what the soldiers on camels had done—hike Dog Canyon. My original plan had been to walk the two-mile Grapevine Hill Trail west of the Panther Junction visitor's center, but a heavy rain in that part of the park the day before had left the trail temporarily closed.
     At the visitor’s center, I asked a yucca-thin, old-hippie-looking park ranger if he could recommend any short trails not impacted by the recent rain.
    “Dog Canyon,” he said right away. “It’s only a little over four miles and easy. It’s only called moderate because once you get in Nine-Mile Draw, it’s rocky.”
    He provided a one-sheet map of the trail, which begins 22.5 miles north of Panther Junction. Once we got to the trail head, we parked, smeared on sunscreen and packed two 16-ounce bottles of water each. We set out about 12:30 p.m. The temperature was around 90, relatively cool for mid-day in the Chihuahua Desert low country in early summer.
    I was doing fine, but we had barely gone a half-mile of the 1.5 miles to the cut off to the canyon when my fellow hiker—hefty and not in great shape—said he couldn’t go any farther. I knew I couldn’t carry him out if he got in trouble, so I didn’t try to convince him otherwise. Since I had already started on my first bottle of water, he graciously gave me both of his and headed back to the car. 
    The trail to the canyon is “cairned.” That means that every so often, there's a pile of rocks to mark the route. If you see one pile on your left, the next pile should be on your right and so on.  The trail crossed white, dusty hardpan dotted with an occasional cactus, including the strong-spiked variety known as the horse-crippler. Patches of grass and brush with rising yucca stalks completed the landscape.
     The rock piles are a low-impact way to guide hikers, but I somehow managed to get off course by mistaking a left-side rock pile for right-side.
    When I finally figured that out, which cost me some distance, time and water, I had to cut through shin-high grass to get back to the trail, hitting the cover with my walking stick to ward off any rattlers that might be lurking there waiting for lunch to wander by. Not being able to see where I was stepping had me spooked so I jumped the last foot or so to get back on the trail. I landed too hard on my left foot, which was already a little sore. Now it hurt worse and I was walking with a decided limp.
    As I continued to navigate the rock piles, it was getting hotter. I was hitting the water regularly and before long I had finished the second of my four bottles. 
    I finally reached the Y where the trail turns east up Nine-Mile Draw to Dog Canyon. The draw proved much more interesting than the trail. But the walking was harder. Now I was alternately walking over gravelly sand still moist from the previous day’s rain or large beds of water-smoothed rocks of all shapes and numerous colors ranging from pebbles to basketball-size. Interesting geology, but I was now significantly hotter, thirstier and more tired than I had expected to be.
    Still not to the canyon, I decided to take a break. I picked a shady spot against the bank of the draw, took off my fanny pack, hat, bandana, and sunglasses and sat down in some still runoff-moist sand. I ate some trail mix and drank some water. After about five minutes, feeling better, I got up and started out again.
    As I approached the entrance to the canyon, a party of young hikers from Angelo State University passed me on their way out. The professor leading the students stopped to ask if I was by myself and I said yes, that my erstwhile co-hiker had turned back and was waiting in my vehicle. I had decided to go it alone, I said.  "Bravo!" he said, moving on.
    Finally, I reached the deepest part of the canyon. With high rock on either side, it would have been a great place for an ambush back in the day. But heat, fatigue and a low water supply were now my enemies, not renegade Apaches or Mexican bandits. Still, I kept going toward the eastern mouth of the canyon before finally deciding I had gone far enough. When I got to the highest wall, which also made for the most shade, I again took a break to eat more trail mix and down more water.
    Now, I had less than one bottle to make it back on and began to realize that when saavy desert hikers say you should always take more water than you think you’ll need, they know what they're talking about. I should have rested longer, but I knew if I sat too long, which is what I felt like—even lying down sounded good—it might cause my fellow traveler to think I was in trouble. Which I was about to be.
    My water was running low, I was hot and tired, but like a stubborn camel, I had been determined to finish retracing part of the route the Army’s 1859 caravan had taken through a portion of what is now Big Bend National Park.
     Now, having wisely realized that I couldn’t risk going any farther, I just hoped I could make it back to my vehicle.
     After resting five minutes or so in Dog Canyon, I got up and started back-tracking through the draw to the cutoff and the trail back to the highway. By this point, the temperature had increased considerably. And as the heat rose, my energy level continued to drop along with my water supply.
    When I reached the small, relatively fresh-looking pool of water I had seen on my way in, I soaked my bandana and put the damp red cloth over my head. That made a nice difference in my comfort level, though I was amazed at how rapidly that cooling moisture evaporated. Soon, that handkerchief felt like it had just come out of a tumble dryer.
    Well before I reached the cutoff, which meant I would still have 1.5 more miles to cover after that, I realized I probably had bitten off too much. I was beyond hot and thirsty, getting increasingly tired, and my left foot still hurt. Oh, and I was now just about out of water. But I felt I had no choice but to keep going.
     Back on the desert hardpan, nothing stood high enough to offer enough shade to cover my body. I emptied my last water bottle, crumpled it and stuck it in my cargo shorts. From here on, I’d be traveling solely on will power.
    My mind remained clear, but I realized I was steadily moving in the direction of heat exhaustion. My limp had turned into a stagger, my pace continuing to slow. Soon, every step amounted to a considerable effort. Where’s a camel when you need one?
    When I managed to make it to within cell phone range, I called my "base station" to report I had run out of water and didn't know for sure if I could make it back to the SUV.
    "You've got to," my fellow traveler said, realizing he didn’t have enough wherewithal or water to get to me. I told him if I didn't show up in 20 or 30 minutes, to go to the ranger station and get help.
    But I didn't want to give up. Even if I had decided to stay put until someone could get to me, I wouldn't have been in a much better position by sitting down and waiting in the burning sun with no water or cover.
    This wasn’t the first time I had hiked in the desert and it wasn’t that I didn’t know about heat exhaustion and the importance of staying hydrated. I knew if I started getting confused, I would really be in trouble. The next step down from heat exhaustion was heat stroke. That’s what back in the mid-1950s had killed famed former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, a man who had survived numerous gun fights with a fair amount of lead still in his body to prove it. And the old lawman had collapsed in Austin, not the Big Bend.
    Finally, I saw the SUV in the distance and assumed I could be seen. If I went down, which seemed increasingly likely, surely my partner would see me collapse and go get help. 
    Luckily, though clearly right on the figurative canyon rim of serious trouble, I made it back to the SUV. I grabbed the one bottle of water we’d stupidly left behind, sucked it down in a few swallows and managed to say, "Drive me to the ranger station."
    There, in the air-conditioning, I drank from the water fountain as heartily as those long-ago Army camels must have done at the first water hole they made it to after trekking through Dog Canyon.
    These days, I don't even walk around the block without a bottle of water.
    In 2017, a few years after my close call, a 46-year-old woman died from the heat in Dog Canyon. Since the park’s been open since 1944, I doubt if she was the first. As for the military’s long-ago camel experiment, the onset of the Civil War followed by a post-war expansion of the nation’s railroads ended the program.

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