After more than a decade of trips, Cathy Frye and Rick McFarland expected peace and quiet from the Big Bend region of southwest Texas. Then they got lost.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/RICK McFARLAND
Rick took this photo at the rim on the first morning of the couple's hike. The rim looks across Fresno Canyon in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

y love affair with this remote region of southwest Texas began in 1996, during my time as a newspaper reporter at the Odessa American.

The Big Bend — named for a sharp turn in the Rio Grande River — was part of my coverage area. I loved the silence, the night sky so dark and clear, the constant surprise of finding small, brilliant blooms scattered along the desert floor.

There are two parks in the area: Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, known as “The Other Side of Nowhere.” But I had only ever visited the national park.

Rick, a photographer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and my spouse of 13 years, loves the area as much as I do. He often visited the national park when he worked for Texas newspapers.

We were married on April 29, 2001, on the Window View Trail at Big Bend National Park. We return each autumn, just the two of us.

But, as we left on Sunday, Sept. 29 for our 2013 trip, the possibility of a federal government shutdown left us fretting over what we would do if the park closed.

We arrived on Monday, set up camp and hiked.

Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / JIM FRYE
Rick McFarland and Cathy Frye were married on the Window View Trail in Big Bend National Park on April 29, 2001. After the wedding, the couple spent a week camping and hiking in the park.

hat evening we grilled steaks, drank wine from Solo cups

and stayed up late to gaze at the Milky Way.

We saw several falling stars, and Rick made a wish. "I wish for our children

to be happy and healthy," he said.

I didn't make any wishes. A childhood love of fairy tales had taught me that falling stars, while beautiful, are harbingers of doom. In "The Little Match Girl," written by Hans Christian Andersen, a falling star represents the death of a child — not the promise that a wish will be fulfilled.

The story begins on a bitterly cold New Year's Eve. A little girl is afraid to go home to her abusive father because she hasn't sold any matches to passers-by. She tucks herself into a nook beside a building and uses the unsold matches to warm herself. Visions of a Christmas tree, a holiday feast and her loving deceased grandmother appear in the wavering glow of each match.

The little girl looks to the night sky and sees a falling star. She remembers her grandmother saying that a falling star means someone has died.

The story ends up with the little girl being carried to heaven by her grandmother. We crawled into our tent, and I shook off the morbid thought and drifted into sleep.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / RICK MCFARLAND
This is the steep and rocky trail that Rick McFarland and Cathy Frye followed down into Fresno Canyon. Frye slipped and fell several times during their descent.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / RICK MCFARLAND
This is the steep and rocky trail that Rick McFarland and Cathy Frye followed down into Fresno Canyon. Frye slipped and fell several times during their descent.

fter watching the sunrise, Rick and I ate a couple bowls of cereal. Then we each chugged several bottles of water, as we always do before a long hike.

If we’d followed our usual preparations, we also would have stopped at the ranger station to tell personnel there of our plans; then, if we didn’t return, they would realize we were in trouble.

But for the first time ever, we didn’t make that stop. We only casually mentioned our plans to a park employee we bumped into.

We didn’t bother to leave the usual note on our truck’s windshield with an outline of our hike’s path and when we expected to return.

Worst of all, we failed to pack emergency items. We carried no flashlight, space blankets or matches.

At 10:15 a.m., Rick and I pulled into the parking area for the Puerta Chilicote trailhead.

We opened our cooler and pulled out eight bottles of water — four for each of us. I stuffed several granola bars and a couple of bananas into my fanny pack. As always, Rick wore a knife at his waist and a Canon 5D over his shoulder. I packed the map we’d received at the ranger station, sunblock and Chapstick. My smartphone was dead, so we took Rick’s, not bothering to check the battery level.

We walked a mile down a dirt road to the trailhead and discovered a second parking area — not shown on our tiny map.

The brochures I’d read the night before said the trails were well marked by stacks of rocks, or cairns, and that hikers should be able to see two of them at any point along the way.

The West Rim Trail was pleasant and easy to follow. Bees buzzed around large patches of yellow flowers. Pink blooms dotted the desert floor.

This might become my new favorite trail, I thought.

When we reached the West Rim, Rick took a few photos and pulled out the map. The ranch ruins appeared to be close by.

We began the descent into Fresno Canyon. The trail turned steep and rocky. Each step required me to plant my wooden hiking stick in front of me to brace myself. I skidded and slid, cussing all the way down. Having undergone shoulder surgery earlier in the year, I worried about falling and re-injuring myself.

The heat drained our energy. Drops of sweat rolled down my forehead, stinging my eyes.

At the bottom of the canyon, Rick and I followed a Jeep trail alongside the dry bed of Fresno Creek. At one point, a second creek bed intersected it. We weren’t sure whether to stay on the Fresno creek bed to the left or follow the branch to the right.

We tried the right side first. No signs or cairns indicated where the ranch might be. “I need a break from this sun,” I told Rick, taking off my hat and wiping my forehead.

Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/RICK MCFARLAND
Rick McFarland shot this photo of his wife, Cathy Frye, as they began their decent into Fresno Canyon at Big Bend Ranch State Park.

e walked back to the vehicle and collapsed in its shade. We’d each guzzled three bottles of water already. I crammed the crunched-up empties into my fanny pack. Then we drank deeply from our aluminum containers.

“I think we should wait for these people to come back and ask for a ride,” I said.

“We don’t know how long that will be,” Rick countered. “What if they’re backpacking and spending the night somewhere?” He stood up and looked inside the Jeep. No supplies. No water. No way to tell whether the owners were returning anytime soon.

“I don’t think I can climb back up what we just came down,” I replied. “And we’re running out of water.”

I listened for voices. Maybe the Jeep’s occupants were just touring the ranch.

“Hello!” Rick and I yelled several times.


It was nearly 1:30 p.m. We were nearing the hottest part of the afternoon. It had taken us a long time to make the descent into the canyon. Going up would take longer. We might run out of daylight before getting back to the trailhead.

The relief I’d felt since we spotted the Jeep evaporated.

We are in trouble.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/RICK McFARLAND
Rick and Cathy crossed rough and rocky terrain for much of the first day of their hike in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

ut every time I hit my groove, we had to stop. The cairns kept disappearing, obscured by desert vegetation.

Backtracking and searching for cairns burned up time and energy. It also required us to forge our own paths through the cactus. Needles tore at our skin. Vultures started to follow us. Each time we sat down, they circled.

Finally, Rick stopped abruptly. There was a sign. We'd found the Mexicano Falls trailhead. We were heading the right way.

Thank you, God.

There were no cars or people at the trailhead. It was 7 p.m., almost sunset, and we had only a couple of swallows of water left. The fading daylight, lack of water and the circling vultures quickened my pace.

But as I charged forward, Rick grew increasingly tired. The heat had finally caught up with him. He lagged behind, which worried me. Normally, I'm the one trying to keep up with his long strides.

By now, we'd emptied the water bottles. Even so, we frequently sprawled on our backs and turned the bottles up and shook them. Sometimes we were rewarded with a lingering drop or two. We licked the lids. We stuck our tongues inside the bottles and licked the interiors.

The cairns soon became more reliable, and the temperature began dropping. But just as I started to feel optimistic we reached a dead end and the edge of a canyon.

We looked at each other in disbelief.

"Oh my God," I said.