Survival Stories: Hot, Thirsty, and Lost in Death Valley

Three women took a drive to Death Valley for a day of exploring. Three days and 300 miles later, they were out of gas—and hope.

by Kenneth Miller from Reader's Digest Magazine | September 2012

Survival Stories: Hot, Thirsty, and Lost in Death ValleyPhotograph by Tom Spitz
Donna drove until the gas gauge read empty, then pulled over. It was 10 p.m., and the odometer indicated they’d covered more than 200 miles since leaving Scotty’s Castle. Huge boulders loomed beside the car. The black sky blazed with stars.

“Looks like we’ll be camping,” Donna said.

“Are there wild animals here?” asked Jenny, her voice quavering.

“Mountain lions. Bears,” Donna replied. “Roll up the windows.”

The girls did as they were told. Donna passed around the last of the food, and they took a swallow apiece of their nearly depleted water. Then, with blankets they dug out of the back, they tried to sleep. Gina dropped off quickly, but Jenny was worried about wildlife, and Donna fretted about a boulder flattening the car. Both agonized about the next day. “Don’t be scared,” Donna said, as she and Jenny sat staring into the darkness. “We just need a plan.” A long silence followed.

At 6 a.m. Friday morning, the rising sun revealed that they were parked high above the valley, in a sparse grove of pines. Beside the road was a drop of several hundred feet. Donna tried starting the car, but the engine wouldn’t turn over.

“We have to get someone to see us,” Gina said. Donna and Jenny used stones to write HELP on a patch of flat ground. Gina built a fire pit, piling it full of branches and pamphlets from Scotty’s Castle. But when she pressed the car’s cigarette lighter to the kindling, it just smoldered.

In the distance, the women saw an airplane. Gina grabbed a CD and used it as a signal mirror, while Jenny waved a yellow emergency blanket. That plane-—and several more after it—flew on. Around 11 a.m., after they’d finished off the bottle of water, Gina hiked up the winding road for two miles, past a cluster of long-abandoned campsites, to where the trees thinned out. She gazed out over the landscape: nothing but desert.

Back at the car, Donna was peeling cacti with her jackknife. She’d read that one variety contained drinkable liquid—but as she and Jenny extracted the sticky pulp, they realized this one wasn’t it. Next, they gathered pine needles to chew; Donna knew they contained moisture and some nutrients. The two were digging for cactus roots as Gina returned.

“We’ve got to go back to that place where we stopped yesterday,” she said.

“How are we going to do that?” Donna asked. “The car won’t start.”

“Let’s try it again,” Gina suggested.

Donna said a silent prayer, then turned the key. The engine roared to life, startling them all, and they took off down the mountainside. Donna stomped on the accelerator at each dip in the road, so that they’d have enough momentum to make it up the next rise; if they stalled, she knew, it’d be over for them. Five, ten, 20, 30 miles—they were in the flats now and turning left onto the road by the salt lake. The locked gate finally came into view, and the women burst into excited screams: Here, at least, was a chance at shelter.

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