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

Updated: Mar. 28, 2022

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.

Photograph by Tom SpitzDeath Valley, the 3,000-square-mile sprawl of sand dunes and arid mountains along California’s southeastern border, is the hottest, driest place in North America. Temperatures soar into the triple digits from June through September. Annual rainfall averages 2.5 inches; most months, there’s none at all. Though nearly a million tourists visit each year, few venture into the valley during the summer, when the sun is at its most brutal.

Like most of her neighbors in Pahrump, Nevada—a dusty town of 36,000, just 60 miles from the entrance to Death Valley National Park—Donna Cooper had driven through the valley many times. But one Thursday morning in July 2010, the 62-year-old retiree decided to explore a corner of the park she’d never visited: Scotty’s Castle, a Spanish-style mansion built in the 1920s. Her daughter Gina, 17, and Donna’s friend and houseguest from Hong Kong, Jenny Leung, 19, joined her.

The trio arrived at the mansion around 1 p.m. and spent two hours touring the place. As they left the parking lot on the way home, they saw a sign for the Racetrack—a dry lake bed, where shifting boulders have left skid marks in the cracked mud. “I’ve always wanted to check that out,” Donna said.

The other two women went along with the idea. Gina, who was driving, pointed their Hyundai west on Route 267, then turned south on a dirt road. The temperature outside the tiny car was over 125 degrees. After about an hour, they reached an intersection, but the sign indicating the way to the Racetrack was unclear. Gina turned left. After ten more miles, she realized she’d made a wrong turn. She tried to reverse course, but they were soon climbing into the high country.

Photograph by Tom SpitzDonna consulted the road atlas, but its map of Death Valley showed only the park’s main roads. “Let’s ask Nell how to get back to Scotty’s Castle,” she said, referring to the GPS device she’d named after her mother.

Donna took the wheel and followed the machine’s instructions. “Drive 550 feet, then turn right on unnamed road,” Nell commanded in a voice brimming with digital certainty. “Turn left, then drive one mile. Turn right. Turn left. Recalculating. Drive five miles, then make a U-turn.”

Travelers have been losing their way in Death Valley—often fatally—since 1849, when pioneers began using it as a shortcut to California’s gold fields. Recently, growing numbers have been led astray by GPS devices, whose databases for remote areas such as Death Valley may include maps that haven’t been updated for decades. As Donna drove in loops and zigzags on unmarked roads that grew ever narrower and rockier, Gina’s head throbbed; nausea set in.

“I want to go home,” Gina moaned.

“Stop being so immature,” Donna snapped.

In the front seat, Jenny struggled not to cry. Since arriving in the United States in May, she’d enjoyed traveling with Donna to Florida, the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. This, however, was more adventure than she wanted. Though the car was air-conditioned, her lips had become painfully dry. But three of the four 16-ounce bottles of water they’d brought along were already empty, and she couldn’t bring herself to touch the last one. When Donna handed her the bottle, Jenny pretended to take a swig.

“Cut that out,” Donna said sternly. “You’ve got to drink your share.”

Jenny took a sip and swished it in her mouth for a long time before she swallowed.

As they drove on, the shadows lengthened, but the heat barely diminished. Outside the car, sand, scrub, and rubble stretched for miles around. At intervals, all three women tried calling 911 on their cell phones. No reception. Donna took inventory: Besides the remaining water, they had two apples, what was left of a bag of chips, and some cookies. The hatchback’s cargo hold contained blankets, sweaters, extra shoes, a tool kit, and a first-aid kit. There was still more than a quarter tank of gas.

Donna inhaled deeply, then exhaled the fear that had been building inside her. She’d survived worse fixes than this—including a serious accident in her 20s that had left her hospitalized for weeks and a near-fatal intestinal illness in Haiti earlier that year. She and her husband had raised eight children. Now, she knew, two young lives were depending on her to get them out of the desert alive.

Around 8 p.m., Nell’s robotic voice led them into a rock-rimmed dead end. Gina spotted a faint trail leading into the brush, and they followed it downhill to a smoother dirt road. As they rounded a bend, past a mostly dried-up salt lake shimmering in the sunset, they noticed a sign of civilization—a mailbox. Inside, Donna found a crinkled, handwritten note: “Sorry we missed you,” it read. Farther along was a wire fence, a padlocked gate, and an isolated stand of trees.

“Let’s see if anybody’s back there,” Gina said.

“We can’t waste time,” Donna replied. “We’re on a good road now. We’re going to find our way out.”

Following Nell’s instructions, Donna kept to the road as it rose into the barren mountains. As they gained altitude, Gina glanced back at where they’d come from. Behind the trees, she thought she saw some kind of habitation. But night was falling, and they’d gone too far to turn around.

At home in Pahrump, Charlene Dean, an old friend of Donna’s and a reporter for a local newspaper, wasn’t worried when Donna and the girls didn’t show up for dinner. Dean, 51, was boarding with the Coopers in exchange for house-sitting when they were out of town. She’d known Donna long enough to assume that her friend had changed her plans.

Donna’s husband, Rodger, 62, was in North Port, Florida, visiting their daughter Sky. He, too, was used to Donna’s independent ways. But Sky, a 21-year-old nursing home aide, had undergone gallbladder surgery that afternoon, and she couldn’t believe that her mother wouldn’t get in touch. “Something’s wrong,” she kept saying.

Photograph by Tom SpitzDonna 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.

Photograph by I, Adrille via Wikimedia CommonsThey 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.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest