Saturday, August 08, 2009

A Tragedy in Death Valley

I cried this morning when I read the RJ’s front page story about Alicia Sanchez and her 6-year-old son, Carlos. According to the article, Alicia and Carlos were stranded in a remote section of Death Valley National Park on Saturday, August 1, after she took a wrong turn and her vehicle got stuck in a hole. On Wednesday, her little boy died. Alicia was rescued in time to save her own life, but according to the article, “she was just barely hanging on.” Speaking as a mother, I imagine that she probably didn’t care at that point if she came home or not. The mental images in my mind of what this poor woman and her little boy went through broke my heart.

The desert is a brutal place in summer. Death Valley got its name because of the deaths of pioneers (members of the ill-fated 49ers) attempting to traverse it—in December. It’s one of the hottest places on earth, and its wilderness is vast and lightly traveled, especially at this time of year. This tragic incident proves that it can still claim a life, and Carlos is the third person to die in Death Valley this year.

Alicia had food and water with her, knew to stay with her vehicle, and even hiked to a higher point in an attempt to get cell phone service. All those actions are just what you should do. Prior to getting stuck, she had changed a flat tire on her Jeep, so I have to think she is a capable woman—heck, she’s a nurse. Had it not been 119 degrees, I think she and her son would have survived their ordeal.

I’ve lived in the desert my entire life. I’ve explored plenty of dirt roads, several of them with just my 11-year-old son in my Jeep with me. I’ve been to Death Valley in summer. I wondered if I would have turned down that rugged, little-used dirt path that Alicia mistakenly took, the one that stranded her and took her son’s life. Authorities are wondering why she took that turn. They aren’t sure if she was following her GPS, if the GPS’ information was incorrect, or if she was simply adventurous. When she recovers, I’m sure they’ll have plenty of questions for her.

The desert is a beautiful, but harsh, environment. I encourage people to explore the Mojave, but I also tell them not to venture out in the middle of summer. Let’s remember that the 49ers were traveling in winter, and they still lost enough of their party to give the park its name. People underestimate what heat can do. Sensible, outdoors-smart people who would never dream of venturing into sub-zero weather often don’t think twice about driving off into a blisteringly hot desert. It’s easy to understand why. If you have plenty of water, a functioning vehicle with air conditioning and four wheel drive, a reasonable amount of survival knowledge, and the skies are clear, what’s to worry about? Plenty, as this case illustrates.

I like a dirt road just as much as the next person, but when you are traveling with no one other than a child, extra caution is warranted. Actually, I never go on any dirt roads in Death Valley without another adult. The last time we drove Titus Canyon Road, we had a two-vehicle party. Death Valley’s expanses are too remote to tackle alone. The park covers 3.3 million acres. It’s bigger than Yellowstone. Your chances of running into a park ranger or another person are very slim in the less-traveled parts of the park, like the Owl Hole Springs Road Alicia was exploring. Park rangers and other explorers are too few to count on, and cell phone reception is iffy throughout the park and non-existent in canyons. If she’d had another adult, would that have made a difference in this case? Possibly, but I doubt it. Had another adult been with her, she might have gotten the Jeep unstuck, or one adult might have hiked out (at night) to get help. Since she was approximately 30 miles from a paved road, however, that would have been a risky tactic.

I’ve read that one mistake in the wilderness often leads to another mistake, and another, compounding the situation until tragedy strikes. Venturing deeply into the desert in 120 degree heat without another adult is certainly not the best idea, if not a mistake. Continuing on after using your spare tire is definitely a mistake. If you’ve used your spare, turn around and go back unless you’re carrying another spare. Let’s just say she hadn’t gotten stuck in the road. What if she’d gotten another flat tire?

Let’s talk about GPS systems. Personally, I’d rather have a detail map any day. I took a good look at the detail map of Owl Hole Springs Road and felt sick to my stomach. I felt positive that if Alicia had been looking at the same map I was holding, she never would have taken that wrong turn. The sharp right turn is easy to spot on a map. On a GPS, I don’t know what information you get. If you want to explore off the beaten path, I encourage you to buy a good detail map, maybe two. You can pick up one at any bookstore. Four-wheel-driving experts also advise scouting ahead on foot when roads look questionable.

The desert is unforgiving. If you are new to the desert, I encourage you to research desert survival, perhaps even take a desert survival class. Obviously, water is number one on the list of essentials. Shade is also a necessity in the desert’s heat, and learning to build a suitable shade structure, conserve your energy, and signal for help can save your life. Always tell someone exactly where you are going and when you will be back, and make sure that person will notify authorities if you don’t return. Had Alicia's relatives not alerted authorities, she would have perished also. Unfortunately, because she left conflicting information about where she was camping and exploring, rescue efforts were hampered.

My heart aches for this brave mother and her little boy. To say she has my deepest sympathies is a huge understatement. "There but for the grace of God go I" definitely flashed through my mind. The Mojave is an awe-inspiring place, and I only wish she had chosen October instead of August to explore it.

Corrections and updates: In my original post, I erroneously reported Alicia's name as Anita. On August 14, 2009, the Las Vegas Review Journal corrected Carlos' age, which they originally reported as 11. He was 6. The Fox News Report cited the GPS prominently in their headline: "...Mom Says GPS Left Them Stranded in Death Valley."
Photo information: My photograph of Titus Canyon Road.

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