This is a true story about a harrowing rescue. Just replaying this story in my head gets my adrenaline up again. But really, this story is about family.
To set the stage, imagine an old farmhouse on the plains of West Texas. My great-grandfather built the house, and his descendants have now protected it with a family trust. The outhouse is still there, though the house was adapted for indoor plumbing some time ago. I love how you can identify such a conversion by observing the bathroom taking a corner out of a room rather than being built into the floor plan. This farmhouse and the land around it are important to the family primarily for the one weekend a year when they gather there for a family reunion. The numbers vary a bit every year, sometimes with perhaps fewer than 100 people coming, and sometimes closer to 200. But they keep coming every year. The extended family has long outgrown the capacity of the house, so for that one weekend and several days on either side, the old farm looks like a campground with RVs all around the house and a few brave souls pitching tents in between.
There are reunions for other branches of my family, but this is the only one that I attend every year that I possibly can. I think it’s because this is where I’ll find my first cousins and many other relatives that I remember as far back as I have memories. It’s great to see the traditions of the reunion carry on even though my great-grandparents are long gone, and their many kids who lived in that farmhouse are mostly gone too.
The reunion happens at the peak heat of the Texas summer, because that’s when Great-Grampa’s birthday falls, and well, traditions die hard even when we’re facing the blazing sun and nighttime surprise thunderstorms. There are no name tags. I’ve actually started asking people I’ve seen for decades what their name is (or at least the name everyone calls them, which is often different), because they had never once said it to me directly. We’re just all comfortable sharing space without any formalities.
Most years during the reunion, a group of people set out to hike a spot near the Caprock Escarpment, which is a few miles away and clearly visible from the farmhouse. The Caprock is where the rolling plains rise abruptly up to the high plains. We love exploring this part of the landscape that our ancestors used to see from the house every day. The part we like to explore is a narrow ridge that juts out from the Caprock like a finger. As best as I can calculate, the top of the ridge is about a 160 foot vertical rise from where the base starts to level out below, and another 90 feet to where we start the hike. For people who are used to scaling mountains, it doesn’t appear to be a very challenging hike, but there are plenty of extra challenges along the way, including rattlesnakes, loose rocks on steep slopes, black widows, prickly pear, and very little shade from the intense summer sun. There is clear evidence of the presence of wild pigs on the trek to the base of the ridge. In fact, the only established trails are the ones made by the local animals. The clearest evidence I’ve seen of the pigs was the two I hit on the highway at night that tore up the front of my car. They can easily tear up a person, too, but I’ve never encountered one during the day except that one that we barbecued, and man was that good eating.
A few years ago, my then 67-year-old mother decided to try the hike, despite her frail knees. She hadn’t gone on the hike for some time, and she felt that this might be the last chance she had before her body couldn’t take it any more. It’s no coincidence that my father had not gone to the reunion that year. None of us who were there had the gumption to tell her “no,” but Dad certainly would have. She brought a walking stick, and offered an extra one to me.
Eleven people covering a broad age range joined the hike that morning. Mom fell once on the way to the base of the ridge, but she got right up, not much worse for the wear. She started slowing down as we got higher, taking breaks more and more often. The last 10 feet or so is nearly vertical as you scale the hard top of the ridge. Mom was so exhausted we had to drag her up. As I pondered the wisdom of dragging her up there, I thought about how the route down on the other side would be more direct. I took a picture of her looking across the landscape from the top that’s one of my all-time favorite pictures of her.
We rested at the top, hoping to regain some strength. All of the younger crowd headed back down, leaving my aunt, my uncle, me and Mom. As we snacked and rehydrated while we feasted our eyes on the expansive landscape below, we saw that Mom wasn’t recovering any of her strength. She seemed to be suffering from heat exhaustion. We had started our hike early in the morning, so we now had several hours before we would get any relief from the heat. Mom had difficulty standing up, and it was hard to imagine her getting back down from the ridge under her own power. I tried to stand so I would cast a shadow over her as we discussed what to do. The temperature was about 95º, a good deal less than the highest we’ve seen, but still we could feel the heat beating down on us. The breeze we often enjoy on the top of the ridge was sparse that day.
We decided to call for help. Cell phone coverage has improved in the area in recent years, but it still was challenging to find a signal from the top of the ridge. We needed more water, and something to repair a blown out sole on my uncle’s shoe. We asked for a tarp so we could fashion some sort of sling to get Mom down the ridge. We got through to the family at the farmhouse, and the rescue was underway. The ATVs that several families bring to the reunion proved useful in getting supplies to the base of the ridge quickly, and soon we had a bag full of water bottles and a roll of duct tape. Where would we be without duct tape, after all? But no tarp was offered–all the tarps that could be found were being used as ground cloths for tents, and they all had hundreds of sticker burrs embedded in them. We offered Mom more water, but she was feeling nauseous and couldn’t drink any more. She also tried to eat some cheese crackers, but couldn’t stomach that either. I’m thankful for whoever included some sports drinks in the bag, because I needed the extra electrolytes at that point. I had brought just enough water for an uneventful hike, but not enough for a rescue.
We struggled to make a plan to get Mom off the ridge. My aunt (Mom’s sister-in-law) sat with her, giving her a bit more shade, and kept talking to her to keep her calm and awake. They sang some songs, but they had to use some discretion a few times. They changed their minds about singing “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead.” I vetoed “I’ll Fly Away”, though I love that hymn, because I know Mom wants to include it in her funeral. Some of our fears were cracking through our facade.
At some point, the decision was made to call for an air ambulance. However, the emergency medical services denied the request because we were too far away from where the helicopters were. It was pretty clear that we were on our own.
I grabbed the walking sticks and walked to the edge, thinking that I would throw them down the hill and recover them later. I needed to lighten my load. But I stopped myself, remembering my Boy Scout training about building a stretcher. If only we’d gotten that tarp! I walked back to the group, which now included several people from the farmhouse encampment who came to the top to help. I mentioned building a stretcher somehow, and one cousin immediately took off his T-shirt and offered it to me. I practically slapped myself over having forgotten that part of my first aid training. Another cousin offered a shirt, and soon we were building a stretcher with two walking sticks, two T-shirts, and the extra duct tape. I felt a little guilty for not thinking to use my own shirt, but I was feeling pretty exposed to the elements already and I was glad to have that little bit of protection from the sun.
We decided to go down the slightly steeper south side because it would give us easier access to get vehicles to the base. There’s a trail taking a nice easy slope angling across the south side, but it’s too narrow to accommodate the width of two people plus a stretcher. So we decided to go straight down. I’m guessing it’s about a 35º slope on average, starting with a vertical drop down several feet. We loaded Mom on the stretcher and down we went. We had six people holding the stretcher at a time, so if one or two people fell, the stretcher would still be secure. We found out pretty quickly that we had to build a headrest to keep Mom’s head from banging on the rocks that were just a few inches below her head on the high side of the stretcher. More duct tape to the rescue!
As people got tired, someone else would rotate in to hold the stretcher. It was rough going. Normally when walking across the rugged terrain, you take a wandering path, avoiding large rocks, cactus, and scrub brush. But with six people walking in the same direction, you don’t have much choice of where to get a foothold. I lost my footing a lot, and one time I fell completely underneath the stretcher, sliding downhill for a bit. We all had to take a break at one point, so one inventive family member sat down near the downhill end of the stretcher and held that end in his lap so we could set the stretcher down.
After we started our descent, we saw a patrol car that stopped at the end of a dirt road in the distance. Two sheriff’s deputies made their way toward us from the car, and one of them scaled the hill to meet us. He didn’t hesitate to join the rotation of stretcher carriers. Our call for help from the authorities didn’t come up totally empty after all.
My 21-year-old daughter also made her way up the hill and joined the rescue. I was fatigued at that point so I gave her my spot. She explained that she had been told that only menfolk were going to help and she should stay behind. She said “That’s my Granny up there!” and got in the car anyway. There might have been a few, uh, emphasizing words she added that I chose not to remember. I congratulated her for sticking to her guns. She was an accomplished athlete after all, and could certainly be a help.
Back at the farmhouse, tensions were high as everyone waited for news of Mom’s well-being. After the first call for help, adrenaline peaked as supplies and people were quickly gathered and sent on their way. But then that energy had nowhere to go. I had another daughter there who had some health issues, and she had argued with her sister about staying behind. Many of the remaining men were champing at the bit to join the rescue party, but others were pleading with them not to get in the way if there was enough help already. Some people were praying, and some were endlessly pacing. The person who is our best organizer for many things related to the reunion expended a great deal of effort coordinating the phone calls. It seems the anxiety was higher at the farmhouse than it was even on that hill, where we were focused on the task at hand.
Pretty soon I had given all that I could. Having helped Mom up that darn hill, I didn’t have the energy to get her all the way back down. My uncle and I both sat down on the hillside to rest. We had more than 30 people participating in the rescue operation, some on the hill and some providing support at the bottom. The stretcher crew continued down to the base where one of my cousin’s Jeep was waiting. I managed to get myself the rest of the way down. We loaded Mom in the back, lying down. We heard that an ambulance was waiting on the nearest paved road. Another cousin drove the Jeep, tearing through the landscape, right over prickly pear patches and even a few of the thorny mesquite trees. Our driver hadn’t driven the Jeep when she came over to the Caprock, so she didn’t have a good recall of what the route was. We lost all sense of where the roads were, and I had to use my phone to get our bearings to find our way to the ambulance. I couldn’t believe that the tires on that Jeep were still intact, though the paint was all scratched to hell. Our driver ignored us as we warned her that the car was taking damage. She was on a mission. The Jeep’s owner shrugged it off later, saying that that was her contribution to the mission.
Mom had this recollection of her journey down that hill–
I cried most of the way down, but I covered up my face with a damp bandana because I thought that seeing that would make things harder for the ones carrying me. And I prayed that we were making enough noise to scare away snakes. I was so afraid someone would get hurt because of my determination to hike. I was exhausted and felt old and stupid. And my hair kept getting stuck in that duct tape and that hurt. For some reason, both my feet were hurting badly, but I didn’t say much about it because I just couldn’t think of anything we could do about it.
We rolled up to the ambulance that was waiting some distance down the road. When we said that Mom had fallen, the paramedics were concerned and insisted that they take her to a trauma center some distance away. We told them that the fall wasn’t really the issue, and we convinced them to go to a smaller hospital in a nearby town.
I headed back to the farmhouse, where family expressed concern about my own condition. I was exhausted and dehydrated, as were most of the other rescuers. I found more electrolytes and took the coveted seat next to the window air conditioner in the house. You have to get pretty close to the air conditioner to get much of the benefit from it in the poorly insulated house. After a while I had recovered well enough to go with a carload of people to visit Mom in the hospital.
It was a pretty routine case of heat exhaustion. Perhaps it would have become a life-threatening case of heatstroke if we hadn’t taken action when we did. Mom’s sister, who’s an X-ray technician, insisted on reviewing the X-rays herself to make sure there was no damage from the fall. In the hospital room, someone noticed an orange trail on the floor. Mom explained that they must be crushed cheese crackers that had been in the cargo pocket on her pants. Her brother, who was also holding vigil in the room, dropped down into his chair and said “Oh, thank God.” He had grabbed her leg there earlier and felt a sickly crunching sensation. He had been afraid he had crushed the bone. Only then did he realize how silly that fear had been.
Mom checked out from the hospital, and we all went to the Dairy Queen for supper. It occurs to me that eating out with my aunts, uncles, and cousins is a rare event, though we’ve eaten home-cooked meals together countless times. I like the homemade food better. Mom had been very reluctant to call my Dad to tell him what was going on, but around this time she finally filled him in. I don’t think he’s going to miss another reunion.
Many of us who were involved in the rescue were due to go home that same day. As I drove to get back to my daily routine back home, it felt surreal having been through that experience. It still feels that way.
A few days later, the rescue was written up in a local newspaper. The article was filled with wild inaccuracies, like the slope being nearly 90º, and it minimized the family’s role in the rescue. The deputies were commended, and I’m fine with that. I was glad to have them there. Mom made commemorative bandanas for the family with “We take care of our own” printed on them. Those who participated in the rescue got a star added on the bandana. I can’t help but think of star-bellied Sneetches, but I digress. Mom kept the stretcher as a souvenir, and the guys didn’t mind not getting their shirts back.
I’ve had a few years to reflect on this experience. Is my family special? Wouldn’t other families also take care of their own? Surely they would. We’re special in how tight-knit we are, though our links to each other on the family tree get looser with each new generation. We still show up in great numbers to see each other every year, so we had plenty of able hands at the ready when someone needed help. Maybe another family would have been smarter about letting a 67-year-old grandmother scale a hill, or maybe they would have figured out how treat heat exhaustion while still on the ridge so she could come down under her own power. Who knows? I like my family’s sense of adventure, though I do regret both the family and public effort that was ultimately required to recover from being a little too adventurous.
Most people in the family are proud to identify as rednecks, with the conservative politics and religion that goes along with it. That doesn’t describe me at all, but they let me hang out with them anyway. I can identify with the part of the macho redneck bravado that motivates people to get a job done without whining when it really needs to be done. But the part where the women are expected to stay in kitchen needs some updating. I hardly ever listen to country music, but I was happy to find common ground with my aunt recently when she was complaining that old-fashioned country music is better than what the kids are listening to now. Right on. One family member who played a prominent role in the rescue is someone who has made decisions both before and after that day that I take strong exception to. Typical dynamics found in any family, I suppose. He certainly earned some respect that day, and it showed me that no one is all bad all the time.
I’m glad that Mom got her one last chance to see the beautiful landscape below the Caprock with her own eyes. Actually, knowing her stubbornness, I won’t guarantee that it was her last chance, but she darn well better have a creative plan for getting back down if she ever tries it again.