The moment Bill Broyles dug up the plastic water container he had buried under the palo verde tree, he realized he was in serious trouble.

It was midmorning in early August 1980, and daytime temperatures on the Arizona-Mexico border were well over 100 degrees. There was little or no shade in this part of the Sonoran Desert, about 40 miles east of Yuma.

This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.
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After a day and night of hiking, he was down to a single cupful of water. The five-gallon plastic jug he’d buried a few weeks before—the one he was counting on to keep him alive in the furnace of late summer—was now empty. Puncture marks showed what had happened.

“A coyote had got to it,” Broyles says. “He was probably the happiest coyote in Sonora County.”

Alone, on foot, and almost out of water in one of the hottest deserts in North America, Broyles knew his life was suddenly at risk.

And because of the story that had brought him here—the almost unimaginable ordeal of a Mexican prospector in this very place, 75 years earlier—Broyles also knew just how bad it could get.

“I realized, I’ve become the person I’m looking for,” he says. “I’ve become Pablo Valencia.”

thirst illustrations
John Mattos

In August 1905, the geologist and anthropologist William McGee was working at a field camp at Tinajas Altas, a series of water-carved pools in the granite mountains on the border between the Arizona Territory and Mexico. With help from his camp manager, a local from the Tohono O’odham tribe named Jose, McGee spent his days gathering data on the weather, studying the area flora and fauna, and sleeping under the stars.

Tinajas Altas was the only dependable source of water for a 100-mile stretch of El Camino del Diablo, a notoriously difficult route that ran along the American side of the border. Over the centuries, Indigenous people, Jesuit missionaries, American pioneers, and gold seekers had all traveled the desert track, part of a longer trail between northern Mexico and southern California. Hundreds of graves marked with crosses of heaped pebbles told the fate of those who had died along the way.

Even reaching Tinajas Altas wasn’t a guarantee of salvation. Some travelers arrived to find the lower pools dry and no longer had the strength to reach the upper basins, where water might be available. Bodies were found with their fingers worn to the bone from trying to climb the rough granite.

On August 14, two men rode into McGee’s camp. Jesus Rios, 65, was a former vaquero. Pablo Valencia, 40, had served as a sailor in the Pacific before turning to mining and prospecting in the Southwest deserts. McGee was impressed by how strong Valencia looked.

The pair’s goal was a recently rediscovered gold mine on a rocky ledge about a day and a half’s ride east, on the Mexican side of the border. They carried enough food for a week, but only six gallons of water. McGee knew that wasn’t nearly sufficient for two men traveling for three days in the heat of summer, even on horseback. Despite his warning, the six gallons were all the water they took when they left at 3:45 a.m.

Rios returned the next night with both horses. They had traveled about 35 miles, he said, before Valencia sent him back to get more water and continued on foot carrying two gallons. They had agreed to meet a day or so later, on the far side of a small mountain range. McGee thought this vague plan was “inane if not insane,” a second serious mistake in a place that left no room for error.

Rios refilled his canteens with five more gallons and set off again before dawn. He was back a little over 24 hours later, almost as exhausted as his horse. He hadn’t been able to find any sign of Valencia at the rendezvous point, and he didn’t have enough water to search or wait around. Hoping his partner had backtracked, Rios had decided to do the same. On August 17, McGee sent Jose, an experienced tracker, on horseback to find Valencia. He returned to camp speechless from fatigue the next day, alone.

It was now August 18. Valencia had been alone for three days with only about one day’s worth of water. For the next few days, McGee kept an eye out for any sign of the lost prospector. But he was sure there was no way Valencia was still alive.

Broyles was working as a high school English teacher and track coach in Tucson when he first came across McGee’s account of his experience with Valencia, Desert Thirst As Disease. The 1906 monograph had become a classic in the literature on dehydration and desert survival, read by doctors and search and rescue teams alike. Broyles had already spent years hiking, camping, and driving throughout the Sonoran Desert, captivated by its austere, unforgiving beauty, but he knew it could be as deadly as it was enchanting. In July 1980, a month before he set out on Valencia’s trail, half of a group of 26 Salvadorans had died in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, within earshot of a highway, after being abandoned by a smuggler.

Broyles wanted to understand how something like that could happen and what separated those who lived from those who died. He wondered how accurate the rough description of Valencia’s route really was. Deep down, Broyles admitted, he also wanted to test himself. He was running marathons at the time and had just finished an emergency medical technician class.

“I thought, I’m pretty tough. I can do that,” Broyles says. He planned ahead and buried water caches at strategic points of the journey, which he described in a 1982 article. “Intending to parallel [Valencia’s] route, I had no design to parallel his plight,” he wrote. “But the desert doesn’t always honor human plans.”

Like Valencia, Broyles left Tinajas Altas early on an August morning. Mesquite and creosote bushes spotted the dun-colored landscape. Steep, isolated mountain ranges rose in all directions like dark islands.

By 11 a.m., his thermometer read 101 degrees in the shade, and he had drained the first of his three canteens. “Emptying a canteen, even when another is at hand, is shocking,” he wrote, “like switching to the reserve gas tank on a remote stretch of highway.”

He crossed into Mexico—border security was looser then—and sat down to rest around noon. Even though he didn’t feel particularly tired, he dozed off briefly, a sign that his body was already running low on water and salt.

As he continued, Broyles thought about how the Sonoran Desert was so unlike the overwhelming scenery of places like Yellowstone or Yosemite. The desert was a void, a place that demanded instead of offered. “It mirrors the self, reveals your own strengths and weaknesses,” he wrote. “Here you can expect nothing—and will get nothing—except yourself.”

Later in the afternoon, he took refuge in the scant shade under an acacia. He unearthed his first cache of water, refilled his canteens, and hiked into the evening. After a flamboyant sunset, the stars were bright enough to light his way through hedgehog cactus and the tall, thorny wands of ocotillos. The sand radiated the day’s heat until well after dark. At midnight, it was still 94 degrees.

A pair of croaking ravens woke him at sunrise. It was midmorning by the time he reached the tree where he had buried his second cache and eagerly started digging.

thirst illustrations
John Mattos

After Rios had left to get more water, Valencia managed to find the rocky ledge, where he staked a claim and gathered ore samples. But any excitement must have evaporated quickly when Rios didn’t show up at the rendezvous.

Valencia was tough and had experience staying alive in the desert. Still, he knew he had only a certain amount of time left before his water ran out. Alone in a sea of sand, it was as if he were inside an hourglass that had just been flipped.

Since there was nothing but 20 miles of raw lava fields to the east, turning around was the clear choice. But if he could reach El Camino del Diablo, about 10 miles north, he could travel faster, and the odds were higher that he might meet someone who could help.

As Valencia walked for the next two days, his body passed through the early stages of dehydration. His thirst became worse by the hour, his head throbbed, and his steps grew unsteady. The weather was cloudier than usual for that time of year, but the heat was still overwhelming, sucking moisture from his body with his every breath.

When his canteen was empty, he started shoving anything that might have the tiniest bit of water into his mouth: the thick, spiny leaves of a mezcal plant; bitter wild gourds called calabacitas; even a few spiders and a scorpion he managed to catch.

He discarded everything that might weigh him down: money, knife, tobacco, food, ore samples, everything except his empty canteen. He needed that to collect his urine, gargling a mouthful from time to time to relieve his parched throat. Eventually, his body stopped sweating, its main way of staying cool. The blood in his arteries started to thicken, and his pulse sped up as his heart struggled to keep his circulation going.

As the cells of his brain started to shrink, Valencia’s thoughts went haywire. He became convinced that Rios had deliberately abandoned him so he could have the gold mine for himself. Homicidal rage helped spur him forward.

Somehow, Valencia managed to keep his head enough to continue walking north, in the right direction. He stumbled on the mule-wagon tracks that marked El Camino del Diablo on August 19, four days after leaving McGee’s camp. It was about 40 miles back to Tinajas Altas.

At least he was moving faster now. And he knew that about halfway back to Tinajas Altas there was a 30-foot-deep pit—Tule Well, located about a mile off the road—that might have some water. Buzzards were already circling overhead as he started west. Mountains and bushes swam before his eyes. Sometimes he found himself crawling.

Time stretched and twisted. At some point the next day, he came upon a signpost that warned, “go back and fill your canteen.” He had passed the side trail to Tule Well.

Through a haze of pain and exhaustion, Valencia tried his best to make a logical choice. He could turn around and backtrack, but he might find that the well was dry, or he could end up trapped in the hole. Although the thought of crawling into cool mud at the bottom to die was tempting, Valencia wasn’t ready to give up yet. He hung his hat on the guidepost as a signal should anyone come looking for him and staggered on through another night, imagining how wonderful it would be to stick a knife between Rios’s ribs.

Throughout the following day, he hallucinated the sounds of wheels and hoofs and napped in the middle of the road. He woke to the blank stares of buzzards sitting barely out of arm’s reach. Somewhere he lost all his clothes.

Before dawn on August 22, Valencia reached a guidepost that was just six miles from Tinajas Altas. But he couldn’t go any farther. He lay in the shade of a shrub, made the sign of the cross, and felt his spirit leave his shriveled body.

McGee thought he was dreaming about a bull bellowing as it led a line of cattle across a range. Then he realized that he was awake and the noise coming from the darkness was real. He and Jose grabbed two canteens and a medicine case and ran down the road. It was August 23, eight days after Valencia and Rios had first left camp.

In the sand under an ironwood tree, they found what looked like a skeleton sheathed in purplish-gray rawhide. Valencia’s body was covered in bloodless gashes from crawling over rocks and cacti. His face was something they would never forget:

His lips had disappeared as if amputated, leaving low edges of blackened tissue; his teeth and gums projected like those of a skinned animal, but the flesh was black and dry as a hank of jerky; his nose was withered and shrunken to half its length; the nostril-lining showing black; his eyes were set in a winkless stare.

Valencia barely had a pulse and was almost completely deaf and blind. The only sound he could make was the unearthly moaning that had woken them.

“In a cracked voice, breaking involuntarily from bass to falsetto, he began to beg pathetically for ‘agua, agua,’ ” McGee wrote. When they doused him with water, at first his skin was too desiccated to absorb any; then it started to soak it up “as greedily as a dry sponge.” It was an hour before he could actually swallow anything. In the meantime, his rescuers dribbled diluted whiskey down his throat and gave him tablets containing digitalis, nitroglycerin, and belladonna to stimulate his heart. As his circulation slowly returned, the wounds that covered his body started to ooze blood. After about three hours, they were able to help him back to camp.

Valencia slowly returned to life over the next few days. Bit by bit, he was able to recognize objects—shrubs, rocks, his own hands and feet—and keep down meals of wild birds, rice, and bacon. Eventually, he started trying to put into words what he had been through. In the six and a half days since he had run out of water, he had walked or crawled somewhere between 100 and 150 miles. It was a mystery even to him how he had dragged himself those last few miles.

Once he was back on his feet, Valencia traveled by wagon to Yuma, where he spent an entire day deliberately and methodically devouring watermelons. Within a week, the prospector had recovered the 20 or so pounds he had lost and seemed to be doing well, McGee wrote, “though his stiff and bristly hair, which had hardly a streak of gray a fortnight before, had lost half its mass and turned iron-gray.” What happened to Valencia after that, including whether he ever returned to the mine or confronted his former partner, is unknown.

thirst illustrations
John Mattos

Broyles gave up digging and sat in the shade, sipping slowly from his final cup of water. The nearest place he might find help was a ranch six miles east, close to where Valencia and Rios were supposed to meet. He didn’t want to miss it in the dark—or be shot for trespassing—so he left in midafternoon instead of waiting for nightfall. It was 106 degrees, and a rainbow hung tantalizingly in the northeast.

What would have been an easy hike in cooler weather was harder than any marathon Broyles had ever run. Again and again, he had to rest in whatever scant shade he could find. His breath came in gasps, his heart pounded, and his legs felt like they were made of lead. When he started stumbling, Broyles realized he had to make a break for it.

He abandoned most of his gear, including his camera and wallet, and pushed himself to walk as fast as he could. Like Valencia, he felt his mind start to slip. Trees and rock formations began to look like cars, houses, convenience stores. Was that really a cow trail he was following? Would the next people he saw kill him for the $5 in his pocket? But wait—hadn’t he left his money behind?

Broyles had heard enough desert survival stories to know that cutting open a cactus was a waste of time and energy, but the temptation was just too great. The inside was gritty and drier than his mouth.

Just before sunset, he saw a windmill that marked the ranch. There he found two vaqueros, who gave him water and coffee, then grapes and tuna salad. “From what they later said, I looked very wilted,” Broyles recalled in his published account. Today he can barely find words to express his gratitude. “If they hadn’t been there, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”

Broyles returned a couple of weeks later and finished retracing Valencia’s route. The experience left him astonished at what the prospector had done—and gave him even more empathy than he already had for the undocumented immigrants who brave the desert to enter the United States every year. “As amazing as Pablo Valencia’s feat was, I’m appalled, shaken really, by the thousands of real-life stories about ordinary people,” he says.

The dangers are rising: Between September 2021 and September 2022, U.S. Customs and Border Protection rescued over 22,000 migrants trying to cross the Mexican border. At least 853 died—more than a quarter of them in Arizona—making 2022 the deadliest year for border crossers on record. As much as Valencia suffered, Broyles says, his story still had a better ending than theirs.•

Julian Smith is an award-winning nonfiction journalist specializing in history, science, and travel.