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 I, Adrille via Wikimedia Commons
They left the car and ducked under the wire fence, the ground burning through their sneaker soles as they walked up the long driveway. As they emerged from the trees, they saw three trailers clustered around a free-standing wooden porch. They called out, but no one answered. The trailers were all locked. But behind the largest one, Donna found something incredible—a garden hose attached to a spigot. The water was hot, but the trio gulped it greedily. Then they lay down for a nap on the porch.

When they awoke, Gina fetched the tool kit from the car. She unscrewed the hinges on the big trailer but couldn’t get the door open. Using a crowbar, she pried a padlock off one of the smaller trailers. Inside, they found a few cans of chili and beans, some packets of instant ramen and cranberry oatmeal, half a box of spaghetti. There were also eight half-cases of beer. The food would last only a couple of days, Donna figured, but the beer could sustain them for two weeks—assuming they survived the heat.

The air inside the trailer was furnace-like, so they pulled the mattresses from the two bunks and laid them on the porch, where it was slightly cooler. Donna opened the beans and chili, and everyone sat down to eat. Then they found a collection of jars and bottles in a trash bin and began filling them with water in case the hose ran dry.

In Florida, after arriving home from the hospital that morning, Sky tried calling Donna’s phone, only to be routed to voice mail. She checked her mother’s Facebook page: no updates. Then she checked Donna’s credit card account. The last charges were on Thursday at 1 p.m., when Donna bought three tickets to Scotty’s Castle. Sky called Charlene Dean, who said she hadn’t heard from Donna either. That evening, she called the supermarket where Gina worked as a courtesy clerk. Gina’s shift had started at 4 p.m. Nevada time. “She hasn’t punched in,” Sky was told. Her father grimaced as Sky hung up the phone. “Now I’m worried,” Rodger said.

Sky phoned Charlene again, and the two called the sheriff’s departments in several counties, the California Highway Patrol, and the ranger station at Death Valley National Park. But the authorities said it was too late in the day to mount a full search.

At nightfall, Gina lit a signal fire, using matches from the trailer kitchen and logs she found stacked in the yard. Then the women bedded down on the porch. The heat on the valley floor was so intense that they had to get up every 15 minutes to douse themselves with water.

As morning approached, Donna and Jenny walked out to the road and made a cross in the dirt with tree branches. They wrote, HELP, CALL POLICE in the dust coating the car.

The women then broke into the big trailer, finding little of use. Next, Gina pried open a window on the smallest trailer, and Jenny crawled inside. There, on a table, was a CB radio. But after hauling it out, along with the antenna, and hooking it up to the car battery, there was only static when Jenny twirled the dial. After ten minutes, the static died out too.

Gina was ready to weep. But her mother had a better idea: “Let’s get cleaned up.”

Jenny and Donna took baths first, filling the tub in the first trailer with water from outside. Around 5 p.m., it was Gina’s turn. Donna washed Gina’s hair, her hands firm on her daughter’s scalp.

Gina thought she heard screaming. It was Jenny. “Come out!” she was yelling. “Come out!”

Donna ran outside, and Gina—pulling on her clothes without drying off—followed. Jenny was waving the yellow emergency blanket madly. A deafening racket came from the sky. A helicopter marked California Highway Patrol was slowly circling. They’d been found!

After landing, the pilots, who were also EMTs, checked the women’s vital signs and gave them as much fresh water as they could guzzle. “We were about to give you up for dead and fly back to base,” one of the men said. The women appeared healthy, so the pilots offered them two options: to board the helicopter, one by one, and be flown to Lone Pine, the nearest town, or to wait for a backcountry campground operator to bring a can of gas and give them directions to the highway. They chose the latter.

After the park official showed up, they filled their tank, thanked their rescuers, and drove away into the night. This time, they knew where they were going.

You could say that getting lost gave Gina and Jenny some direction. Inspired by a conversation with one of the helicopter rescuers, Gina decided to enroll in nursing school. Jenny went back to Hong Kong shortly after the ordeal but returned to the United States to live with the Coopers and attend a local college. And Donna remains undaunted by that wide swath of desert in her backyard. “Never for a second,” she says, “did I doubt that we would make it out of there.”

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