Survival Stories: Hot, Thirsty, and Lost in Death Valley
by Kenneth Miller from Reader’s Digest Magazine | September 2012
Death 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 Spitz Donna 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.