Chapter 9 Summary

Killed by the Light

It is Sunday at six o’clock in the morning on the Sonoran Dessert, and it is already hot. Mendez insists he is not lost, but the workers doubt him because he is leading them back across the Growlers, a mountain range they have already crossed. The mountains collect the light and “pour it on them like lava.”

It is not only Mexicans who die in the desert; campers, off-roaders, and others also succumb. In June 2002, one couple enjoys a day of dune-buggying; however, the buggy breaks down and both die. He made it two hundred yards and she never left the buggy; neither was found for more than two days. One month later, another couple suffers the same fate near the Devil’s Highway where they go for a walk without enough water. He dies within sight of his car.

There are six stages of death from hyperthermia (heat death): Heat Stress, Heat Fatigue, Heat Syncope, Heat Cramps, Heat Exhaustion, and Heat Stroke. Heat Stress is a general discomfort which many have experienced when they get overheated. Heat Fatigue causes the body to sweat excessively and everything feels as if it is burning—because it is. The desert air dries the sweat and causes everything inside and outside the body to dry up. Heat Syncope is evident when the person has a fever (from the outside) but is actually getting colder. Speech becomes slurred and ideas are difficult to formulate. Confusion begins to erase who the person once was, just as the name of this stage implies (syncope denotes contraction).

Heat Cramps are an indicator of serious trouble. The body is depleted of salt and muscles cannot function. Muscle cramps cause everything to hurt and abdominal contractions begin. Eighty percent of people can be saved, even at this stage, with an IV and water; otherwise, this stage is the beginning of a death spiral. Heat Exhaustion is marked by a high fever and nausea, and the elderly and infirm are most likely to die at this stage. The body faints to protect itself and the brain begins to rot. Anyone in this condition can be saved, but he is on the “borderline, standing before the abyss.” Dreams and memories conflate and confusion ensues. Eventually people suffering in this stage of hyperthermia drink their own urine out of desperation. At first their urine is clear and relatively pure; soon, though, the recycled liquid is nearly black with toxins.

The final stage is Heat Stroke. The blood moves sluggishly and the heart struggles to pump fluid and oxygen to vital organs. Body temperature rises to nearly one hundred and ten degrees and the body suffers a “core meltdown.” The skin is so sensitive that many in this stage strip naked for relief; without water, the muscles begin to feed on themselves. The system of internal organs begins to systematically shut down until the brain finally quits and death ensues.