He went out the mountain to pray… Luke 6:12


Lost in the Desert

Nevada Desert Humboldt Range as seen from French Boys Canyon

Me and my adventurous ways have really got us in the mire this time.  –Mathew McGough, stranded with his five-year-old daughter for seven days in the Australian outback

When I read stories about people getting lost in the desert, I begin with two assumptions.  The first is that the traveler did something wrong that resulted in him getting lost; the second is that he did something right if he lived to tell the tale. The second assumption is generous because lots of people who get lost in the desert are found only after arduous searches.   Still, the adventurer gets credit for telling someone who would notice him missing, where he was going and when he intended to return.  Leaving an itinerary with a responsible party is a preeminent rule of desert survival.  Mine is often a scrawled note that I tuck under one of the windshield wipers of our neighbor’s Chevy pick-up right before we depart on a Nevada desert journey.

I recently read with fascination Tom Mahood’s account of his investigative role in uncovering the fate of a German tourist family who vanished while traveling in Death Valley National Park.  Mahood stumbled on the story on the internet, twelve years after the family disappeared.  In 2008 he read that a Death Valley Ranger performing an aerial search for illegal drug operations, had spotted a passenger van on an abandoned desert road.  “The van was clearly stuck in the wash, sunk up to its axles in the sand, with its two rear tires flattened and its left front tire also flat,” Mahood writes in a measuredly ambling voice.  Despite his casual gait I felt my heart rate increase, having myself been confronted many times in the desert with flat tires, a mired vehicle and, once, a vehicle we had to abandon.

Hooked on the mystery, Mahood undertook a long and rugged trajectory.  He learned that the German family who rented the van in July of 1996, didn’t make their flight back to Germany–and were listed by Interpol as missing.  He learned that in the fall of 2008, the same year the van was discovered, a search of the Anvil Canyon area where it was found produced no clues as to the family’s whereabouts. Read the rest of this page »