'I can tough it. I made it this far.'

Special to the Democrat-Gazette/TEXSAR
A searchers fanned out across the desert in Big Bend Ranch State Park as they looked for Cathy.

David Dotter

Fernie Rincon

s the six teams wended their way through the desert, volunteer searchers Shawn Hohnstreiter and Andy Anthony repeatedly called out for me.

Once, Hohnstreiter thought he heard a response.

He yelled again.


At 11:30 a.m., the team stopped briefly for lunch, then resumed walking.

Meanwhile, Rincon and game warden Isaac Ruiz had separated from the rest of their team to scramble down into a deep valley at the foot of the last ridge. When they reached their team's rendezvous point at the bottom, the two men decided to take a break.

In the distance, they could hear Hohnstreiter and the searchers on his team shouting in unison from a ridge: "Cathy, can you hear us?"

A woman's voice answered.


Rincon turned to Ruiz. "Did you hear that?"

Ruiz, wide-eyed, nodded.

"Cathy, can you hear us?!" the team on the ridge yelled again.

Those shouts snapped me back to reality. For the first time in 24 hours, I knew where I was and that people were looking for me.

"Help!" I yelled again. "Help me!"

This prompted a lot of hollering from the many searchers within earshot. From where he stood a quarter-mile away, Anthony could see Rincon and Ruiz jumping to their feet.

"Shut up! Shut up!" someone yelled, trying to silence the others so that I could be heard. The commotion prompted Tucker to radio another team to find out what was going on.

"We hear her voice," a searcher told him. "We're trying to find her."

Following my cries, Rincon and Ruiz ran 100 yards or so and peered down into the ravine where I lay.

When I saw them, I yelled again.

Special to the Democrat-Gazette / KEVIN FRAZIER
Texas game warden Brent Tucker helps Cathy hold up her head so she can sip water from a bottle cap.


Somehow, Rincon spotted my bare legs sticking out from under the mesquite tree 50 yards below. Disbelieving, he and Ruiz clambered down into the ravine.

"We've got her! We've got her!" Rincon hollered. "We found her! She's alive! She's alive!

I was naked, feral-looking and babbling about how Rick and I had gotten married at Big Bend National Park 13 years earlier.

Rincon and Ruiz immediately pulled off their uniform shirts and covered my needle-pierced torso. Even then, I continued to shiver violently. My tongue was thick, my lips swollen, and I made little sense to them at first. Slowly, as I calmed down, I became more coherent.

"Thank God, you found me," I said hoarsely.

"Do you know your name?" Rincon asked.


"Do you know your husband and kids' names?"

"Rick, Amanda and Ethan. Is my husband OK?"

"He's fine," Rincon said. "He's why we're here. Do you know what day it is?"


"Actually, it's Sunday."

Special to the Democrat-Gazette / KEVIN FRAZIER
A Texas game warden and Texas Search & Rescue volunteer take a break during the search for Cathy Frye.

ther searchers surged down into the ravine. For days, I'd been alone. Now I was surrounded by a growing crowd. I hadn't been forgotten. All of these people had been looking for me.

I wanted to cry. I tried to cry, but my body was too dehydrated to produce tears. I had so many questions. Where was Rick? Was he really OK?

My rescuers were stunned. I was not only alive, but conscious and talking nonstop.

I asked those gathered around me to tell me where they were from. I told them how much I had wanted to get back to my kids. And

I insisted repeatedly that a mountain lion had watched over me during my time alone.

Rincon asked game warden Hallie Rodriguez, the only woman present, to look me over. She asked about my children. I told her I had just talked to them the night before and that they were fine.

I mentioned that my wedding ring had fallen off, and several people immediately began sifting the dirt around my tree. My ring didn't surface.

Tucker and game warden Kevin Frazier arrived, breathless from their sprint to the ravine. Tucker knelt and took my pulse.

"Hey, Cathy, I'm a medic," he said. "We've been looking for you."

"I'm so glad you found me," I replied. "Do you have any water?"

Hallie Rodriguez

Ray Spears

remained focused on the glistening bottle of water in Tucker's hands.

He took off the cap and poured a tiny amount into it. "Your body's in shock," he explained. "You can't guzzle it. Your organs may have shut down already."

He had to hold up my head so I could drink.

Tucker noticed that if he kept me talking, my shivering would temporarily cease. So he and Frazier bantered with me. Tucker took out his phone and showed me a picture. "We went to your spring," he said, referring to the clearing where Rick and I had spent Thursday night.

"Oh, where did you get the pictures?" I asked.

"Rick," Tucker said.

Frazier chimed in: "We've got some of you dancing on top of a bar."

"That would have been 10 or 15 years ago," I replied.

"Did you hear the coyotes?" Tucker asked. Earlier, he and the other game wardens had found a pack of five or six coyotes assembling 200 yards downwind of me and feared the worst.

"No, but it's OK," I assured him. "The mountain lion was protecting me."

Oookaaay. ... Tucker thought. Time for some more water.

Tucker told me that they were trying to find a helicopter to airlift me to a landing strip, where a plane waited. The Texas Department of Public Safety helicopters weren't available — one was on a call; the other down for maintenance. I could sense that my rescuers were getting antsy. They knew, even if I didn't, that my medical condition remained precarious.

Finally, despite the federal government's shutdown, a Border Patrol pilot volunteered to pick me up in an agency helicopter. In preparation for his arrival, searchers hurriedly cleared a landing zone.

When the helicopter got close, the group loaded me into a cloth stretcher as I moaned, wailed and apologized. Tucker warned that the 15-minute hike to the helicopter would be painful. I didn't care. I wanted out of that desert, no matter how much agony was involved.

"Just do what you've gotta do," I said. "I can tough it. I made it this far."

My first-ever helicopter ride lasted only a few minutes. We landed, and a flight crew loaded me into the air ambulance. I could hear Rick's voice. I have only a wispy memory of his face and grin.

Rick had expected me to be unconscious. But when he approached the helicopter, he heard me giggle.

She's going to be OK.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/RICK McFARLAND
Cathy used a small mesquite tree for cover from the sun for three days and two nights after Rick left for help in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Texas game wardens and Texas Search & Rescue volunteers carry Cathy Frye to the approaching Border Patrol helicopter, which airlifted Cathy out of the desert.

Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / CLAUDIA LAUER
Rick and Cathy reunited at University Medical Center of El Paso

n Wednesday, Oct. 9, I left the hospital after a three-day stay. My mouth remained full of cactus needles, as did the rest of my body. The medical staff assured me that the needles would eventually surface as my body rejected them.

Rick and I headed to a nearby drugstore to fill my prescriptions. There, in the waiting area, I broke down. No longer sedated, I could finally feel emotion again, and the enormity of what had happened hit me fast and hard.

Back in Arkansas, my parents were watching our children. They hadn't told Amanda and Ethan about my ordeal until after I was found.

But a few hours after letting them know, Mom found Amanda, 10, sobbing inside her bedroom closet with her stuffed animals and our orange tabby cat, Mr. Kitty.

"My mom could have died, couldn't she?" Amanda asked.

"Yes, honey, she could have."

"But she didn't," Ethan, 8, chimed in. "They found her."

On the evening of Oct. 10, nearly two weeks after we'd set off on what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation, Rick and I pulled into the driveway of our North Little Rock home.

Amanda and Ethan waited for us in the front yard. On her wrist, Amanda wore a leather bracelet that I had given her a few years earlier. It came from Big Bend.

They watched as I crawled painfully out of the truck.

I limped across the yard to my children — the little girl with a smattering of freckles across her cheeks and the little boy with an unruly cowlick.

I pulled them close, inhaling their familiar scents, and thanked God for giving me more time to be their mother.

Amanda, now-11, Ethan, now-9