La Grulla Meadow
If you had to pick a group of people to pit against a large, deadly rattlesnake, the men and women who drove south into the Baja wilderness last June would have been a good choice. There were nine of them, every one the most solid of citizens: a retired metallurgist, a college professor, several housewives, a small businessman, a librarian, a truck driver, a school food service director.
Illustration by Tom Voss
These were reliable people who long ago acquired big, gracious homes in older neighborhoods scattered throughout San Diego County; they were people who between them have raised more than twenty-five children. Though only one member of the group was under the age of thirty-five, all were trim and fit, and most were in superb physical condition. Every one was well educated, and thoughtful, and sensible. Most important, every one of the nine was profoundly at ease in the wilderness, indeed, had sought refuge in it repeatedly, almost compulsively, over the years. They could take care of themselves, they all thought.
Front row: Claire Brey, Rosemary Nugent, Karen Rudd; middle row: Betty Conklin, Glen Conklin; top row: Dick Schwenkmeyer, Bob Rudd; missing: Verle Schwenkmeyer
They thought not so much in terms of “taking care of’ rattlesnakes as casually coexisting with them. Every person in the group had encountered the local vipers on many occasions. One man, Glen Conklin, even liked to catch wild rattlesnakes with his bare hands; though he’d been bitten a few times, he had suffered no ill effects. One of the women on the trip said complacently, “I’m more afraid of traffic accidents than rattlesnakes.” Said another, “We’ve been camping for so many years, so many times, and no one has ever gotten hurt by one.” They had come to assume, at least on some level of consciousness, that no one ever would.
Bob Rudd, Ray Bogowitz
The trip on which someone finally did was planned for the third week in June, one of the many half-spontaneous outings spawned by the “Baja group.” That’s what people call the loose, informal association of thirty or forty San Diego County residents who share a passion for Baja and get together for potlucks maybe once a month to show their most recent slides. Some have been camping together for twenty years, others are newcomers, but almost everyone is a long-time San Diego County resident.
Map of snakebite site
Betty and Glen Conklin heard about the trip to La Grulla Meadow from Dick Schwenkmeyer, an old friend and biology teacher at Mesa College. Schwenkmeyer and his wife Verle had made the 250-mile trip several times; in fact, Dick had twice led groups from the San Diego Natural History Museum to La Grulla, a high meadow located in the center of Baja’s Sierra San Pedro Martir National Park, just about halfway between San Quintin and San Felipe.
Group under shade
The Schwenkmeyers were planning to return this year with the Conklins, and when Claire Brey heard this, she envied them. Claire, a grandmother, lives in La Jolla and is still a hardy hiker, but back troubles had always prevented her from visiting this particular spot, since reaching it requires carrying a backpack over a half-dozen miles that begin at an elevation of 7500 feet. Then Claire got the idea of hiring a pack mule from a ranch near the meadow; Verle Schwenkmeyer and Betty Conklin also liked the idea of having mules carry their packs. At a “Baja group” beginning-of-the-summer party, word of the outing spread. Among those who decided to join it were Rosemary Nugent, the thirty-three-year-old food service director for the Francis Parker School, and a hiking buddy of Rosemary’s named Ray Bogowitz.
On the Saturday morning Ray left his Poway home, his spirits were high. Fifty-nine years old, he had taken an early retirement last December from his job as a metallurgist at Solar, and practically every day since then, he had exclaimed to his wife how happy he was to have done so. Ray adored being outdoors, particularly in the wilderness, and though a seasoned Baja explorer, he had never laid his eyes on La Grulla Meadow. When his automobile battery started acting up the morning of the trip, he wasn’t about to let that ruin his day. He managed to get to Mission Hills, where he picked up Rosemary Nugent; then the two of them stopped in Chula Vista to buy a spare battery and some medication for Rosemary, who just that morning had broken a tooth. By midafternoon they had made it to the landmark Meling Ranch, the cattle and guest ranch located about twenty-two miles from the entrance to the Mexican national park. They arrived just as a tow truck pulled in Glen and Betty Conklin’s pickup truck, disabled by transmission problems. Later, members of the group were to comment on how many little things had gone wrong, as if the trip were cursed from the beginning.
That Saturday afternoon, the Conklins, Ray, and Rosemary weren’t thinking any such gloomy thoughts. Ray was renowned for his ability to fix mechanical things under even the most primitive of circumstances, and he set to work immediately on the disabled vehicle. But finally he had to admit he was foiled by the lack of metric tools. From the ranch, the group was able to radio to a man in Colonia Guerrero with a telephone. He in turn called San Diego and asked the other group members to bring the needed tools, a tow bar, and some transmission fluid. It was early afternoon the next day by the time the supplies arrived, borne by the five other members of the expedition: Claire Brey, the Schwenkmeyers, and a married couple in their early forties, Karen and Bob Rudd. Everyone was anxious to reach the meadow, though, and so the job of repairing the Conklins’ truck was postponed until the return trip.
By early Sunday evening, the party of nine had driven from the Meling Ranch to their trail head — a spot inside the park called La Tasajera. There they met Petin Thing, the fifty-eight-year-old vaquero who had agreed to work as their mule driver. After supper by the campfire, everyone bedded down early, and they arose early the next morning. By eight they had loaded Petin’s two mules and left the vehicles behind to follow a trail that twists through stands of pines and manzanita, passing great granitic boulders, crossing a small stream, leading steadily downward about a thousand feet, many times over the steep faces of ancient rocks. Rosemary and Ray, the friskiest hikers, reached the sandy-bottomed meadow at the end of the trail after about three and a half hours, then settled down to wait for the others to trickle in: first the Conklins and the Rudds, then the Schwenkmeyers and Claire Brey.
Over the next few days, Bob Rudd took photographs of the meadow, and the images are amazing. A verdant carpet covers the meadow for miles in all directions. The only reminder of how brutally broken is most of this part of the world is the mountains. Once a lake covered the meadow bed, and the land hasn’t completely dried out; people tell stories about mules wandering off and disappearing into the boggier patches of ground. More than a dozen ranchers run their cattle in the park during the summer. No roads have been built here, and no truck could enter. This is a fragment of the Old West, still surviving. People travel by horseback or on foot.
By one that afternoon, the San Diego hikers had made their way to a cluster of trees and boulders bordered on one side by a meandering stream. Several vaqueros were fishing there, hooking plump trout with nothing more than worms stuck on crude hooks tied to kite string. Nearby the hikers set up a central campfire that they would use for communal meals. Two big logs provided seating, and a slab from a broken boulder formed a convenient serving table. But though they would share their meals, the members of the group scattered when they went to set up their bedrolls, each individual or couple settling into private nooks spread over an area the size of a baseball field.
No one wandered very far from camp that day, but by the next morning, the divergent interests in the group had sorted the nine individuals into three different parties. The older two couples and Claire Brey hiked a short loop around the meadow, while Rosemary Nugent and the Rudds followed a longer loop that took them to the noisy scene where vaqueros were hard at work, branding their cattle, cutting ears, and inoculating the animals.
Ray Bogowitz struck off alone across country to visit Rancho Viejo, another cowboy camp he had never seen before. This was typical of Ray, who commonly ventured forth on solitary hikes. People in the Baja group thought of him as a risk taker, as well as a man extraordinarily competent at extracting himself from sticky situations.
But none of the group ran into any trouble that first full, idyllic day, and in the evening, each made eager plans for the next morning. Three of the women announced they wanted to relax and so would head for a pool where the streambed widened to read, sun themselves, and wade. Dick Schwenkmeyer planned to lead a second group including his wife, the Conklins, and Rosemary Nugent on a seven-mile hike to La Encantada Meadow, where Dick had found a metate some years before. He hoped to relocate the grinding stone and carry it back in a day pack. Most ambitious were the plans of Ray Bogowitz and Bob Rudd, who decided to leave at dawn for a ten-mile trek to the ruins of the old San Pedro Martir mission, rumored to have been the base for some silver-mining operation. Originally they had talked about hiking to the site and camping overnight there, returning the next day. But then Petin had advised that with an early start, a day trip would be feasible, if physically demanding. It sounded a little too punishing a hike for the taste of Rosemary, who originally had thought about going but changed her plans to join Dick Schwenkmeyer’s group.
Still, the outing to the mission must have lingered in Rosemary’s unconscious, for she had a dream about it, an oddly disturbing one. Early Wednesday morning, she had heard Ray preparing to leave, and he apologized for walking through the area where she was sleeping. She rolled over and went back to sleep, and probably a half-hour, later she dreamed everyone was standing around her, discussing whether to wake her. Ray was saying, “Don’t wake her. Let her sleep,” when Rosemary sat straight up in her sleeping bag and said, “Don’t go! Don’t leave me behind!” It was then she realized Ray and Bob Rudd had already departed; there was no way she could communicate her misgivings. Throughout that day, June 25, Rosemary was to feel a sense of ill-defined malaise.
By the time Rosemary awoke from her nightmare, Ray and Bob had hiked halfway to the end of La Grulla Meadow. Petin, mounted on horseback, led them along the trail leading to the neighboring Alcatraz Meadow; then about 7:15 a.m., the two hikers and their guide plunged into the brush, heading west through stands of jeffrey pine, redshank, and manzanita. By eight, they had reached the top of a high ridge, and Petin described the landmarks that Would lead Ray and Bob the rest of the way to the mission: a canyon called Arroyo Alcatraz, two distant ridges, then a pine-filled valley, and finally a sharp drop-off to their destination. Ray and Bob said good-bye to the vaquero and soon came to the bottom of the arroyo through which water coursed. “What a lovely place for a picnic,” Ray commented. They filled their water bottles and pressed on.
Their first encounter with a rattlesnake turned out to be graceful and a little comic. They had headed south into a small side canyon they hoped would lead them over the top of the first ridge. Ray was crashing along, maybe fifty yards in the lead, when he vaulted over a log crossing the bottom of the gully and called out, “Rattlesnake!” in an emphatic but calm voice. He had landed with one foot on either side of the serpent. But the rattlesnake fortunately was in the process of swallowing a small rabbit, and thus it was in no position to bite anything else, no matter how close. After withdrawing a few paces, Ray and Bob found themselves looking at a fully mature Southern Pacific rattlesnake, the most common rattlesnake found in Southern California and Baja. These snakes range from the beaches to the high mountains, though the coastal snakes tend to be more gray and mottled, whereas the mountain dwellers are blacker and bigger. Hikers say the mountain variants disturbingly resemble the dead tree branches found everywhere. Some people also claim these particular snakes are unusually aggressive, more apt to strike with no provocation. Others say they’re simply more ill-tempered and nervous. In any case, Ray and Bob were sufficiently unruffled by the incident to photograph both the snake, before it went sidewinding into the bushes, and the half-digested rabbit that it hastily disgorged.
The men hiked on, crossing both ridges described by Petin, and reaching the pine-filled valley by ten that morning. For a while the going seemed to get easier, but soon the two again found themselves following false trails, mocked by the heavy brush. The dearth of trail surprised them, but they figured four successive wet years had obliterated most of whatever path once had been there. By noon they still faced a 1500-foot drop to the mission, and they reluctantly admitted they could not reach their goal and return the same day. Accepting defeat, they turned back and rested at a spring to eat jerky, cheese, crackers, and dried fruit. Bob took a delayed-release photo of the two of them, and the image shows the fatigue they already were feeling. Ray’s arms look dirty and scratched from the brush; Bob’s shirt is soaked with sweat.
After lunch they hiked at a somewhat more leisurely pace, and by 2:45 they had retraced their steps to the Alcatraz Arroyo, the spot Ray had described as a great place to picnic. They couldn’t decide whether the high ground or the stream offered the better course, so Ray charged up the bank to take a look. The people in the group say this also was typical of Ray; he hiked fast and furiously, showing no caution. Claire Brey says hiking with him was a little like hiking with a dog. “By the end of the day, they cover five times the ground you do, since they’re always running here and there, up and down,” she says. “That’s why Ray got so far.” It’s also why Bob Rudd never even saw the rattlesnake that sank its fangs into Ray as he ascended to the high ground. Bob only heard a sharp slap, followed by a “Yeow!” Then Ray called out that a rattlesnake had bitten him.
The wound was high on the inside of Ray’s right calf. What surprised Bob most was all the blood; all he saw was blood running down to Ray’s ankle. Only when he got his canteen and washed away the slippery red stream did he see the two puncture wounds, much wider apart than he thought a snake would leave, perhaps an inch and a quarter apart.
Ray’s wife Gloria didn’t come along on the La Grulla trip, but she has camped and hiked uncountable times with her husband over the years, and she says he never once felt threatened by rattlesnakes. Gloria says Ray’s attitude was that the snakes were here first, and humans had intruded on their territory. Whenever he would find a rattlesnake on the one-acre Bogowitz home in Poway, Ray made a point of removing rather than killing it. The day he was bitten, he wasn’t even carrying a snakebite kit, but Bob had packed one of those kits that looks a little like an overgrown green capsule, manufactured by Cutter Laboratories. He immediately extracted the thin string from it and tied it around Ray’s upper calf. Though Bob inserted a stick and twisted it, the tourniquet seemed a flimsy barricade to any venom. However, Ray claimed he felt no pain, just a slight tingly sensation throughout his body. He nonetheless requested that Bob use the “scalpel” contained in the snakebite kit to cut the fang marks (so venom could be more easily suctioned from them). Bob sliced maybe a half-inch into Ray’s flesh, cutting two X-shaped incisions; he felt as though he didn’t know exactly what to do, but he somehow figured it was important to cut deeper where the fangs had penetrated, and they had gone deep. “When I was carving on him, you would have thought Ray would have winced a little bit, but he was just as relaxed as if I were stroking him with a feather,” Bob marvels today. When Bob tried to use the plastic suction cup included in the snakebit kit, it hardly seemed to cover the wounds, and finally he suggested it might be better if he tried to suck the venom out with his mouth. “Well, if you wouldn’t mind,” Ray said with mannered calmness.
Bob recalls, “I was getting pretty good mouthfuls of blood for a while, then everything seemed to coagulate.” Less than three minutes had elapsed since the time of the bite. He substituted the waist strap from his day pack for the flimsy string tourniquet, then helped Ray walk down to the edge of the water in the arroyo. Though Ray was unusually wobbly, he still reported no pain or swelling, just a faint sensation of numbness throughout his body. The two men both began to hope the bite had been “dry,” as it sometimes happens, delivering little or no venom. Briefly, they discussed the possibility of setting up camp on the spot, allowing Ray a chance to rest and recover. But Ray seemed adamant about wanting to get back to the base camp, a trip he didn’t think he could make on foot. Around 3:00 p.m., Bob settled Ray as comfortably as he could, then he set off on the trek back for help.
“I was pretty excited,” Bob recalls. He tried to run, but his hiking boots kept hitting the rocks and brush that armor the Baja mountains, and finally he settled into a fast, steady march. His emotions were mixed. Though he felt a real sense of urgency, the accident also seemed more than anything an inconvenience. Bob was virtually certain rattlesnake venom invariably causes intense pain, so Ray’s bite had to be dry, he told himself.
By the time he reached the lower end of La Grulla Meadow, around 4:45 p.m., and began searching for one of the local vaqueros, Bob’s mouth and throat were sore from breathing so heavily. It didn’t take long to find some cowboys who rode off and brought Petin to Bob, about a mile outside the hikers’ camp. In broken Spanish, Bob explained where Ray was, then watched Petin gallop south down the meadow. As the vaquero’s figure grew small in the distance, Bob felt a wave of relief. “At that time, I thought Petin would surely know what to do. These guys live on these horses. And I’m sure they have people injured down there. And they must know how to transport them out on horseback.”
When Bob strode into camp a few minutes later, a worried crowd greeted him. They had heard a brief, confusing report about the snakebite from Petin, and they grilled Bob for details. Quickly the group reached the consensus that Bob and Glen Conklin should also head for the spot where Bob had left Ray, in case Petin had any problem finding the snakebite victim. The group hurried to gather every item they could imagine Ray might need: soap, thermal underwear, bedding, and some food. Once Ray was back in base camp, they could more fully assess his condition; with any luck, he would be feeling shaken but healthy. If outside help were needed, then Dick Schwenkmeyer would hike the six miles back to the cars at the first sign of light the next morning.
To this day, the people in the group still talk about whether this was the right decision. Everyone knew that the fastest way to return to the cars was on horseback, but dusk was approaching, the night would be moonless, and Petin insisted that no horse or mule could climb the steep and tortuous trail leading out of the meadow in the dark. For Dick to hike out on foot would have exposed him not only to the danger of stepping on a rattlesnake himself but also that of falling or getting hopelessly lost. He couldn’t have reached any place with a radio much before midnight, and then there was a question of who would have responded to a call for help at that hour of the night. Besides all that, Dick adds, “We just didn’t know how Ray was. I could have gone up and gotten the U.S. Army together and brought all these people down there and found Ray walking back in. That would have really been embarrassing.”
So everyone hoped for the best. Glen and Bob, though tired, were in good spirits as they made their way down the trails leading to the Alcatraz Arroyo. Both felt comforted by the thought of Petin on horseback, somewhere miles ahead of them. Petin had lived his entire life in this country, as had his parents before him, and “he’d know what to do,” Glen Conklin recalls his thoughts at the time. Petin and the other vaqueros would get out their folk remedies, and they’d fix Ray right up, if he needed fixing. When the two men finally reached their destination and found Ray gone (apparently transported by Petin over an alternate route), they felt even better. Too fatigued to return to base camp, they decided to stay in the arroyo. By nine o’clock, Glen and Bob had settled down in front of a campfire with a flask of rum, confident that Ray was by then resting comfortably, surrounded by friends.
In fact, it wasn’t until almost 10:30 that the first sound of slow hoofbeats reached the tense group of six back at the base camp. For a long time, they could see nothing. Only slowly did the light from the campfire illuminate the shadowy figures of Petin, two other vaqueros, and Ray — and with their approach vanished the communal hope that Ray had sustained only a dry bite. The tall, lean gringo was ashen-faced and draped over the horse like a rag doll. Part of what shocked those who greeted him was the swiftness with which this vigorous, energetic man, renowned for his catlike survival instincts, had deteriorated. As the group helped him down, he was cold to the touch. Though Ray had donned an insulated shirt, he still wore only his hiking shorts. But he managed coherently to express how happy he was to be back with the group; the ride back had been the most miserable experience of his entire life, he said without equivocation.
Apart from the venom, one of the great dangers of rattlesnake bite comes from the risk of simple infection, and the women in the group knew this. So they immediately turned their attention to cleaning the wound. Ray’s leg had swollen considerably, and though he still wasn’t feeling much pain, he reported feeling increasing numbness and tingling, other common symptoms of envenomation. As they ministered to him, the group learned why it had taken so long to transport Ray back. Petin’s horse wasn’t strong enough to carry both the vaquero and the stricken man, so Ray rode alone — but he already had lost so much muscle coordination that several times he fell from the animal’s back to the rocky ground. Finally, Petin had been forced to leave Ray alone in the dark and return to the cowboy camp where he summoned two more vaqueros, including one who had a horse capable of carrying two riders. Even thus assisted, the rescue party had had to stop several times and let Ray down to the ground, whether to sleep or regain consciousness no one was sure.
Later, Claire Brey would look back and comment on how the crisis brought out unique strengths in different people. “Somebody would just start bossing the group around, and the rest of us would follow, and then someone else would take over.” Once the group had helped Ray into a sleeping bag and piled warm clothing on him, Rosemary Nugent, Ray’s young hiking companion, stepped into command. They should set up nursing watches, she suggested, with two people on each watch. She and Karen Rudd took the first tour of duty and quickly developed a routine in which they worked at keeping Ray comfortable, periodically offering him tiny sips of weak Tang to prevent dehydration. They also monitored his heart and respiration, thinking that when a doctor got there, he would want such information. Throughout that first shift and the second, in which Betty Conklin and Claire Brey took over, Ray’s pulse held right at sixty-six beats per minute. He breathed easily and steadily.
He seemed to remain stable as Dick Schwenkmeyer and Petin saddled up one of his mules and his horse and rode out of the camp a little after five in the morning. Although Dick hadn’t been on a horse in twenty-five years, the two men still managed to arrive at the trail head in just about two hours. There they climbed into Dick’s truck. Petin had suggested that instead of seeking help at the Meling Ranch, they should head for the astronomical observatory operated by the University of Mexico inside the national park. It was closer, about a seventy-minute ride from the trail head, and its radio was likely to be in better shape than the one at the Meling Ranch.
Schwenkmeyer’s heart sped up a little as the buildings of the observatory operations center came into view around 8:30 a.m. Within minutes, he and Petin had enlisted the aid of the resident electronics engineer, a man named Jose Murillo, who led the visitors to the radio shack near the top of the mountain. Dick’s first thought was to call the operator in San Diego and ask for the emergency number 911. Almost immediately a voice answered. Dick tried to explain as succinctly as possible what had happened. To his dismay, however, the voice curtly informed him that 911 services don’t extend south of the border.
Dismissed without even a suggestion for whomever else he might call, Dick asked Murillo to try Scripps Hospital; perhaps a Life Flight helicopter could bring help to Ray, he thought. Twice Murillo reached the hospital, and both times Dick tried to talk with the operator only to hear her hang up. This time the problem was that the radio signal from the observatory was taking six or seven seconds to reach the hospital; when the hospital’s switchboard operator heard nothing, she must have assumed the caller had hung up. Murillo then took the initiative and radioed a government agency in Mexicali, where a helicopter might be available — only to be told that it had flown to Mexico City for some official function. Dick had almost given up hope of raising help on the radio when Murillo thought of calling his boss in Ensenada, who in turn called the American consulate in Tijuana. This was the right button to push; almost two hours after Dick and Petin had reached the observatory, word finally came back that the U.S. Coast Guard was willing to help. A copter would pick up a navy flight surgeon in San Diego, then it would stop again in Ensenada to collect a Mexican doctor and the observatory director.
Enormous relief swept over Dick Schwenkmeyer, who all along had felt “if we could get that helicopter, we could save the day, get Ray out of there, and fix him up.” At last, good fortune seemed to have smiled on the group. Within moments word came that clearance for the U.S. flight into Mexico had been granted by officials in Mexico City — an achievement nearly miraculous in its speed (it had taken more than twenty-four hours to get such permission in the past). Dick began worrying about how the helicopter would find the proper site on the meadow, but another radio message came to the observatory from someone at the Meling Ranch who volunteered to fly a small plane up and escort the chopper in.
About the time Dick received all this encouraging news, Ray seemed to take a turn for the better back in the base camp. He slept more and appeared more restful. His color looked better, too, and the clammy coldness that had gripped him in the night receded. But some disturbing things also had happened. At one point, Ray had confided to Rosemary that he was feeling crushing pains in his chest. Around ten or eleven, his heartbeat had begun to sound somewhat erratic, skipping beats. Every hour or so, he would ask the time, and at one point, he talked with Rosemary about whether she understood clearly how to operate his truck. But Rosemary doesn’t think at any point Ray himself doubted he would make it, nor did anyone else in the group.
About 11:30 a.m., Rosemary was sitting with Ray under a sunshade that the group had rigged when she noticed that his eyes were open and somewhat glazed. Alarmed, she ran from the spot to find Claire Brey, who had gone to rest on her pad in the middle of the meadow.
Years before, Claire had learned CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), and once she verified Ray had indeed stopped breathing, Claire dubiously acceded to Rosemary’s panicked request that the group administer the resuscitation technique. No one else had had the training, so Claire not only had to struggle to remember the exact sequence for pushing on Ray’s chest and blowing air into his lungs, but she also found it difficult to direct her assistants. Glen Conklin recalls, “You see it done in the movies and all that, but it’s not all that easy working with a dead person. He’s cold, and there’s no response. Ray had a little mustache, and you’re supposed to get your lips up over his.’’ People tire quickly; they hyperventilate. At one point, when Verle Schwenkmeyer’s turn came to blow into Ray’s lungs, she wasn’t succeeding at getting the air in. Frightened, panicky, she cried, “I’m not doing it right! I’m not doing it right!”
“Keep it up, Verle,” other people implored her.
Today Glen looks back and says, “We didn’t have experience with this. But something had to be done. We didn’t know if it was the right thing. But we tried.”
The group struggled valiantly for almost half an hour, but Ray remained lifeless. One by one, the members of the group stepped back and admitted to themselves the unthinkable: Ray was gone.
Like almost everyone else in the group, Glen Conklin felt utter shock; he simply could not believe what had just happened. While he fought quietly to retain his composure, Rosemary cried hysterically, calling out, “No! Don’t leave us Ray! No!” Claire Brey wept too, as she hugged Rosemary and tried to comfort her. Several long minutes passed before the paroxysm of grief began to subside and Claire began directing the men to place Ray’s body in his bedroll, then to cover that with cloth and plastic.
“You’re still sort of thinking in terms of him as being Ray,” Claire says. “You’re trying to make him comfortable, put him in a nice shady place under a tree while waiting for the helicopter to arrive. I actually don’t know when I began to think of him as ‘the body.’ He was Ray for a long time after he was dead.” At some point, someone did think of the fact that sooner or later rigor mortis would set in. If no helicopter showed up, the corpse would have to be removed on horseback. Finally, the group decided to check Ray periodically; if stiffness-appeared to be setting in, they would maneuver him into a transportable position.
Early in the afternoon, Petin arrived bearing the news that a chopper was on its way, and around 2:00 p.m., the small plane from the Meling Ranch appeared and began flying a seemingly endless series of circles overhead. But it was 2:45 before the group heard the first sound of the Coast Guard helicopter’s blades slicing though the thin air.
It passed overhead, then disappeared. The people on the ground wondered if the pilot somehow had failed to see them, though that seemed doubtful, since they had spread out their colorful tarps on the meadow as a primitive landing marker. The next time the sound of the chopper swelled, everyone ran out waving their arms and hollering, yet once again the helicopter flew out of sight. Finally, on its third pass the pilot signaled to the wildly gesturing people on the ground. When the helicopter finally landed about a mile away and the men on board reached the waiting group, they explained how little maneuverability a heavy helicopter has at such an altitude. Incapable of hovering, the pilot had had to search for a spot where he could land and roll over the rough ground before coming to a stop.
When the helicopter took off an hour or so later, Claire Brey says she was still thinking in terms of “Ray” being on board and seeing the beautiful mountains as the aircraft flew out of the meadow. The group had earlier packed up and had planned to hike out as soon as the helicopter left, but it was after 4:00 p.m., suddenly too late for the difficult trek, so they set up camp again. Though no one said anything, every person there noticed how everyone had arranged his bedroll close to the others. They seemed more fragile to each other, more dear.
That night around the campfire, they talked about what they had done and whether they should have handled anything differently. They talked about snakebite and marveled that no one in the group remembered with certainty much beyond the admonition to get the victim to a hospital. Someone had heard massive doses of Vitamin C could help a victim; someone else recounted an even more colorful bit of folk wisdom that says if you can catch the snake that bites the victim, cut out its gall bladder, and squeeze the contents into the wound, that this will help counteract the venom. But who would have the presence of mind to catch and kill the rattlesnake when a friend is bitten? Who carries massive doses of Vitamin C on a backpacking trip? Would those things have worked? Would a tighter tourniquet have saved Ray’s life, at the expense of his leg? They had a dozen more questions.
They didn’t talk a lot about Ray, but somehow the gathering felt like a wake. People experienced that sense of relief that comes with huddling together after a tragedy and conversing about small things. Here and there, people made reference to Ray’s quiet gentleness and his astounding skills as a mechanic and driver and wilderness explorer. For years Ray had been charting trails in the remote Laguna Hanson area in the Sierra Juarez northeast of Ensenada. In recent years, the Sierra Club had asked him to share the wonderful map he had constructed, but Ray, concerned about preserving the area’s privacy, had declined. Claire Brey thought about one night she and Ray and some other hikers had been camping in the Sierra Juarez and had seen a rocket taking off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. It had lighted up the sky in an extraordinary display of light that led to a long discussion of unidentified flying objects. That group had talked about what it would be like to be invited on a UFO manned by extraterrestrials, and only Ray could say with certainty that he would not hesitate to go. He was a person always ready to go on ahead, Claire said.
Something strange occurred to the group that night as everyone lay down to sleep. Each night before, the nearby cattle had filled the night with a noise that seemed prehistoric, a mixture of cries and weird moans, rather than moos. But on the night of Ray’s death, utter silence filled the valley. No wind stirred. No sound of singing from the vaqueros’ camps reaching the hiking party. Something even stranger occurred a little after midnight, as everyone slept. Suddenly, Bob Rudd, Rosemary Nugent, and Claire Brey all heard a tremendous roaring, crashing, banging noise. To Bob it sounded just like a heard of cattle stampeding in the direction of the camp. All three who heard the noise sat bolt upright, when suddenly the noise came to a dead stop. The next morning they heard a similar sound, much more distant, and one of the vaqueros said it was a tree falling. “But there was no breeze, no wind,’’ says Bob, who to this day doesn’t believe it was a tree.
Before Ray’s death, Rosemary Nugent often camped and hiked alone. But since Ray’s death, she hasn’t done so. She now fears if she were bitten by a large rattlesnake, she might lack the muscle coordination to hike back to her car or to drive herself to help. But if she now sees more of “a real need for teamwork,” she certainly hasn’t given up backpacking in wilderness areas, nor has anyone else who made that trip to La Grulla Meadow. Says Glen Conklin, “If you had a friend who was killed in an automobile accident, would you stop driving? If somebody was killed in a plane crash, would you not use planes anymore? For some period of time — maybe an hour, a day, or a month — you’re a little more cautious. But you invariably get back.”
Since Ray’s death, everyone in the group has done some research on snakebite. They’ve read repeatedly that the best treatment is administration of antivenin, which can’t be done practically by a backpacker; the antivenin is best dripped intravenously under carefully controlled conditions. The medical literature also agrees that the symptoms of rattlesnake bites vary tremendously. About the only thing common to all victims is the fang marks. Just as varied is the advice that has been given over the years on the best first aid to administer in the absence of a hospital. Once people were advised to make many little cut marks, but now some experts say not to cut at all. One widespread recommendation was to apply ice to the bite mark, but that too has been discredited. The role of tourniquets is also hotly disputed.
To air some of the debate, Ray’s widow and five children asked at the time of Ray’s death that any memorial contributions be sent to the San Diego Natural History Museum, which offered to sponsor a symposium on snakebite. Glen Conklin, who owns Conklin Litho, has offered to print the proceedings of the event, and though plans for the symposium are still vague, museum directors say it will take place sometime next spring.
Everyone who was on the La Grulla expedition looks forward to such a symposium. They would like to learn about something else they could have done to save Ray’s life. If any of them were ever in the wilderness again and the same thing were to happen, they would like not to feel that appalling sense of helplessness, of impotence. They would like to continue to think that careful, informed human beings can take care of themselves, no matter what. The La Grulla trip taught them otherwise.