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Desert Crossing

David Alloway taught people how to survive in the desert in hopes that the desert would survive the effects of people.

By E. Dan Klepper

One of the first things I noticed about desert survival expert David Alloway was the similarity between his preferred environment, the desert, and his sense of humor. Both were very, very dry. It was just one of the many attributes he possessed that will be missed here in far West Texas, where Alloway, a 10-year veteran of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, died suddenly in early March.

Having first met Alloway just five years ago during one of his Basic Desert Survival workshops, I had anticipated a long and lazy amistad with a fellow Texas writer. Alloway fit into the desert as readily and comfortably as the desert seemed to embrace his attentions, and I felt at once a kinship in his affinity for exploring the secrets of the natural world. After our introduction, I signed up to take part in one of his advanced survival workshops. At that time Alloway wrote the phrase, "From one author to another, both desert lovers" inside the pages of my copy of his new book, Desert Survival Skills. The first part of the phrase had just become a fresh reality for each of us, but the second seemed to have always been true.

Alloway, a writer, cowboy, father and friend, made his home and his career from the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas and never ceased to find the humor in the challenges of harsh desert life. His company, David Alloway’s Skills of Survival, specialized in the art of desert survival. Its motto, Dum vita est, spes est, translates into English as "Where there is life there is hope." Alloway was fond of his informal and more inspiring translation, "It ain’t over ’til you’re buzzard chow."

His dry wit shines in his book. Alloway wrote this about a conversation taking place on a typical 85-degree West Texas day: "Visitor, mopping brow: ‘Whew! What do youse think the temperature is?’ Me: ‘I dunno. I don’t pay attention to these cold snaps. They never last.’"

Regarding the proper clothing to be worn in the desert, Alloway was amused that "…many people are amazed at me wearing long pants on days at 115 F. I am amazed someone would wear shorts out in the direct sun, surrounded by thorny vegetation…. I am a big believer in long, loose-fitting pants. I think blood on top of a sunburn is so déclassé." My favorite, however, is the short and sweet "…let’s talk candidly about underwear. To wear, or not to wear, that is the question."

Alloway’s humor and antics occasionally scaled the heights of West Texas mythology. He is rumored to have ridden a horse into the old Lajitas Bar and, once he had thoroughly startled the bar patrons, proceeded on horseback up the bar staircase and onto the balcony. But every once in a while Alloway ended up receiving the punch line rather than delivering it. His friend and fellow TPWD ranger David Long tells of Alloway in the early days.

"When David was going to school at Sul Ross [State University], studying biology and learning about resource protection and desert ecology," Long says, "he and a buddy of his took a couple of girlfriends down to Big Bend National Park. It had been a really great year for wildflowers, so the bluebonnets were everywhere. He and his buddy decided to pull over and pick some bluebonnets for the girls. They were down among the wildflowers picking away when a park ranger pulled up. While Alloway and his friend listened to a stern lecture on the value of natural resources and the rules for leaving plants and animals undisturbed, his girlfriend snapped a picture of the confrontation. The next week the photograph was pinned up on the Sul Ross bulletin board without any explanation. The photo showed Alloway down on one knee offering up a bouquet of bluebonnets to a park ranger."

Mischief and good humor aside, Alloway was a levelheaded thinker and a realist who tackled the vagaries of life — whether in desert extremes or the pedestrian day-to-day — on their own terms with an informed mind and a steady sensibility. But he was also a deeply religious man. In addition to his regular attendance in area church services and his membership in the St. James Episcopal Church in Alpine, Alloway was an Episcopal lay minister. His friend and fellow Big Bend writer, Sam Richardson, recalls the two sides of Alloway that made him such a great West Texas personality.

"David had agreed to marry a couple who had come to the Big Bend and wanted the marriage ceremony to take place outside," Richardson recounts. "David comes out in his full Episcopal robe, marries the couple and then plays them a wedding song on a flute he had hand-carved and decorated with feathers and beads. At the end of the ceremony he made a gift of the flute to the newlyweds. An hour later he was wearing cowboy boots and a hat, drinkin’ beer at the Lajitas Bar and talkin’ cowboy talk." It was this odd blend of rough-necked cowpoke and theologian that gave Alloway’s character a special light and allowed him to cast a warm radiance across the lives of so many West Texans. It is a light that will surely be missed by both the people and the landscape that he loved.

Alloway leaves behind family and many friends as well as a full array of accomplishments. He began his career in West Texas more than 15 years ago as a wrangler, guiding horseback trips for a touring company owned by rancher Cathey Carter and her late husband.

"David was great with people and he knew a lot about this country," Cathey Carter recalls. "He became like one of our kids, a real lovable person who fit right into the family. David was funny and smart and very well read. He always wanted to be a cowboy."

Alloway worked with the Carters for five years and then landed a job as an interpretive ranger with TPWD at Big Bend Ranch State Park, where he spent the next 10 years honing his skills as a desert outdoorsman and survivalist. His expertise led him to create his own company, specializing in desert survival instruction for a broad array of students including the U.S. Air Force and Customs Service pilots, National Park Service personnel and Mexican and Australian park rangers. He became the first non-Australian to complete the 200-kilometer Pilbara Trek in Western Australia, considered to be the toughest civilian survival course in the world. Alloway wrote many articles on desert survival, and his company has been featured in such magazines as Outside, Texas Monthly, Men’s Journal and Maxim, as well as the April 2003 issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. He guest starred in episode three of the television hit Worst Case Scenario, illustrating survival and rescue techniques for someone whose car breaks down in the middle of the desert. But it wasn’t the accolades that drove Alloway to devote his life to teaching people how to survive in the desert. It was, instead, the passion he felt about helping the desert to survive humankind.

"I hope you come to the desert and find all the special things that have made it such a big part of my life," Alloway wrote. "Not all people view the desert as a providing and fragile ecosystem. Desert rivers are pumped dry and the water replaced with sewage. Some consider it a place for low-level nuclear waste, which they tell us is safe… Others see it as a place no one cares for or owns… The desert is not inhospitable, but it does require special survival strategies. The desert also requires some special care for it and its inhabitants to survive… We need to protect the desert through considerate use, economic alternates and using our vote. For those who see what the desert truly is, its use as a dumping ground is not only unwarranted, but an attack on the very environment that nurtured humankind in its infancy… We need not fear the desert. We should fear for it."

As I struggled to write this tribute, an assignment I took on willingly only to discover the difficulties of facing a loss while trying to focus on a life, I sifted through my file of correspondence with Alloway looking for direction. There were e-mails in which we discussed our plans for an article I wrote for this magazine, messages about new ideas for other articles and ways we could work together, certificates he mailed, note cards he sent and copies of his newsletter, The Buzzard Cheater. During my search I came upon a short paragraph he wrote in one of his newsletters describing his return to the desert of Australia, one of his favorite places on earth:

"The Pilbara is an ancient, magical place. The dawn chorus of birds, the aboriginal rock art, and the wild solitude call me back. I love the brick-red color of the land, the silhouettes of tangled trees against the sunset, the eerie glow of ghost gums in the moonlight, the howl of dingoes, and the sapphire waters of the Indian Ocean. It was a homecoming for me."

As I read the description, I was struck by the imagery of the passage and the tenderness with which Alloway revealed his feelings for this place, a place in many ways so much like his Chihuahuan Desert. It was as if he spoke of a love for all desert places, a devotion born from his own desert home where his spirit, without a doubt, prevails.

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