What It’s Like To Live, And Die, Along A Hot, Dry Path From Mexico To The US

Below is a description of hyperthermia or heat-related illness.

Desert landscape in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, located in southwestern Arizona along the Mexico – United States border. The Devil’s Highway passes through this Refuge.

Here is an excerpt from the book, The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, about a group of men who attempted to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona through a deadly region known as the “Devil’s Highway.”

The excerpt is from the website Tucson Samaritans, which says, “There may be no finer sensitive description of heat-related illness than can be found in Luis Urrea’s book The Devil’s Highway.”

All sources say you will die in a period of time that can vary from hours to days.

However long it takes you to die, you will pass through six known stages of heat death, or hyperthermia, and they are the same for everyone. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, or what color your skin. Whether you speed through these stages, or linger at each, hyperthermia will express itself in six ways.

The stages are: Heat Stress, Heat Fatigue, Heat Syncope, Heat Cramps, Heat Exhaustion, and Heat Stroke.

I’m just going to sample the stages here. You can go to Tucson Samaritans’s site to read them in full. Alternatively, you can read Urrea’s book.

Everyone has been tired, or even dizzy, from walking in the heat. Everyone has been sunburned, sometimes quite badly. And many people have suffered the swollen fingers, feeling like sausages, and the funny stumbling at the tail end of a hot hike. This is where it begins. General discomfort, nothing heinous. A little heat rash. Headache from the glare. Thirst.

As you walk, the relentless heat makes your warm spots wet – your armpits, your crotch. Your head sweats, your neck, your skin blows a fine mist like steam to regulate your heat. You’re a big swamp-cooler, with water passing through your membranes and keeping the meltdown at bay. Most of your heat comes out through your head – your head is a chimney. Most of you didn’t think to bring a hat. If you’re from Mexico, your hair is probably black.

But you still have water, so you’re okay. If you brought beer, you’re an idiot, because alcohol makes you thirstier. The ground is burning your feet – it’s 120 degrees through the soles of your shoes. If you wore sandals, and many do, you are getting sunburns on the tops of your feet. … And now your jug is getting hot – your drinking water is starting to get hot as coffee.

Your spit turns to paste. Your mouth tastes nasty, so you take another little drink. You tell yourself you’ll only sip a couple more times, but to hell with it – you take a big pull off the bottle. Your lungs, now, are leaking moisture to the vampire air. Your tears leak into the sky – eyes dry and scratchy. The fluid in your lungs helps transport oxygen through the tissues in the blood. Less fluid, less oxygen. You breathe harder, you get drier.

You have a fever, though it’s a fever imposed from the outside. Your face, even though you’re a Mexican mestizo, turns pale. Suddenly your hot water is gone. You can’t remember where you dropped the jug. Dizzy. Where’s the water?

Now you’re officially in trouble. Your body has been dumping salts. Without salts, your muscles can’t function. That’s why people drink Gatorade. Muscle cramps kick in. Your legs suddenly ache. You get clumsy. When you fall, you hit rocks, cactus, gravel. Your abdomen clenches on you. You double over.

Your fever is spiking now, and like the flu, you have gotten more and more ill. Headaches. You get nauseous, you want to vomit. If you vomit, you lose more fluids. You are not only clumsy, but enervated [exhausted]. Your body is weak, and your will is slipping. Your tongue is wood. You could give a dam. Your heart pounds, loud in your ears. Your breathing is shallow and fast, and each breath dries you further. Eyelids scrape across eyeballs dry as pebbles.

This is a good place for the infirm among you to have their heart attacks. Your fluid level has dropped – there’s not enough fluid to fill the container of your body.

Those in good shape will, sooner or later, faint. This is the brain’s way of stopping the machine, like hitting the brakes when you realize you’re speeding toward a cliff.

First, you get tunnel vision. You might hear echoes. Your body falls on burning ground. And you sweat, especially where your body forms a seal with the earth. And you breathe. You get up worse than you fell, then you fall again.

You don’t know much anymore. You are confused; your memories are conflated with your dreams. Walkers see demons, see God, see dead relatives and crystal cities. They vomit blood. The only clear thought in your mind now is: I’m thirsty. I’m thirsty.

Sooner or later, you understand that you have to drink your own urine. … The first urine is pretty good, as urine goes. It is still relatively clear. The next time though, that same urine has picked up more filtered impurities, and it is a little darker now. Saltier. By the third round, it is orange. It smells bad. Then dark orange. Then pale brown. Then a darker and more poisonous brown. It looks like foaming Guinness stout. By the time your effluent is black, you’re doomed – even if you wanted to, you probably couldn’t drink it. It stinks of fish. Your body would retch. There is almost more bio-garbage in it than water.

Your blood is as low as it can get. Dehydration has reduced all your inner streams to sluggish mudholes. Your heart pumps harder and harder to get fluid and oxygen to your organs. Empty vessels within you collapse. Your sweat runs out. Your temperature redlines – you hit 105,106, 108 degrees. Your body panics and dilated all blood capillaries near the surface, hoping to flood your skin with blood to cool it off. You blush. Your eyes turn red: blood vessels burst, and later, the tissue of the whites literally cooks until it goes pink, then a well-done crimson.

Your skin gets terribly sensitive. It hurts, it burns. Your nerves flame. Your blood heats under your skin. Clothing feels like sandpaper.

They dig burrows in the soil, apparently thinking they’ll escape the sun. Once underground, of course, they bake like a pig at a luau. Some dive into sand, thinking it’s water, and they swim in it until they pass out. They choke to death, their throats filled with rocks and dirt. Cutters can only assume they think they’re drinking water.

Your muscles, lacking water, feed on themselves. They break down and start to rot. Once rotting in you, they dump rafts of dying cells into your already sludgy bloodstream.

Proteins are peeling off your dying muscles. Chunks of cooked meat are falling out of your organs, to clog your other organs. The system closes down in a series. Your kidneys, your bladder, your heart. They jam shut. Stop. Your brains sparks. Out. You’re gone.

Thank you, Virginia.

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