Ep03: The Devil’s Highway, Part 1

Series I: Science of Survival

May 4, 2016
Outside Magazine

   Photo: rappensuncle/iStock

Thirst is an unpredictable threat. In its early stages, it is much like mild hunger. For centuries, hydration was as much superstition as science. Then, in the summer of 1905, in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, a geologist named William John McGee got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see what actually happens to the body as it dies of thirst.

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McGee was working in southern Arizona, along a notoriously deadly path where water sources can be separated by 100 miles. Spanish conquistadors who had used the route to escape local tribes defending their land often died there. They called it El Camino del Diablo, The Devil’s Highway. In the mid-1800s, gold prospectors passed through en route to California. By some estimates, roughly 2000 people have perished there, many in the final leg, succumbing just a few miles from water and shade.

Pablo Valencia, a gold prospector in his 40s, spent six days wandering lost in 110-degree heat before stumbling into McGee’s camp. He shouldn’t have been alive, but he was. What he went through, and the condition he was in when McGee began slowly helping him recover, forever altered our understanding of the outer limits of dehydration. 

The “Science of Survival” is a joint project of Outside and PRX. Support for the series comes from the Arthur P. Sloan Foundation and its commitment to storytelling around STEM issues.

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