The Gritty Side of Desert Travel

Nevada Desert Road

Wilderness survival has been on my mind since I learned of the fates of James Klemovich and a friend stranded in an isolated region of the Nevada Desert.  The bittersweet outcome of that incident–one lived while the other died–brought to mind for me other occurrences of desert breakdowns, some with similar outcomes.  As we approach another season of desert travel and adventure, it seems the perfect time to remind ourselves that no one is immune to the perils of the wilderness.

It was not quite a year ago that hunters discovered fifty-six-year-old Rita Chretian in the northern Nevada Desert where she had been stranded for 49 days.  Chretian, who had been traveling with her husband, survived in a mini-van by eating trail mix, reading books, and exercising daily.  Prior to her rescue, she received a sign from God that her trial would soon be over and although she wasn’t certain whether that meant she would be rescued or meet her savior, Jesus Christ, she knew she would be at peace.

Subsequent to her rescue, she returned home to her children without her husband who, at some point during their ordeal, left the mini-van to walk out in search of help and vanished.  Medical professionals who treated Rita Chretian were quoted as saying that she was so near death when she arrived at the hospital that it was a once-in-a-career case.  It bears mentioning that during the 49 days that Rita Cretian awaited rescue, a search party launched by family and friends failed to locate the missing couple because the Chretians had set out on a route of which no one was aware.

A rescue in the Utah desert last August benefitted a mother and daughter stranded for two days in an area described as “one of the most barren regions in the United States.” The women had taken refuge from extreme heat inside their car covered with towels and did not see or signal the vehicle passing on the road above them.  Fortunately the occupants of that vehicle, two geocachers, did spot the women’s’ car stuck in a gully.  The geocachers saw no sign of life but, in keeping with the desert tradition of offering assistance to any vehicle which is stopped, felt compelled to drive down and investigate.  When they arrived, the women emerged with the words, “Thank God.”

Most recently, a New Mexcio couple in their eighties, after spending Thanksgiving with family in a suburb of Phoenix, became stranded in the Arizona wilderness. Dana and Elizabeth Davis departed Phoenix intending to take route 60 which would ultimately lead them around the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico but accidentally ended up on the wrong highway.  Instead of reversing direction, they decided to navigate a shortcut across a forest road that would put them back on course.  When the pavement on their alternate route ended, Dana Davis remained undaunted; he had driven the Alaskan-Canadian Highway before it was paved.

Moreover, he and Elizabeth, during their 60-year marriage, had traveled extensively and on distant continents: Asia, South America–through the jungles of Borneo.  So it is easy to understand why, when the terrain they were crossing became rugged, the couple chose to keep going–it is my guess that somewhere in their past under somewhat similar circumstances, a decision to keep pushing forward, despite warning signs, produced a succesful outcome.

This time, however, would be different.  Their Buick bottomed out several times before a rock punctured the oil pan, rendering the vehicle immobilized.  During the next four days, the couple survived on two sandwiches, four cookies, two chocolate bars and two bottles of juice.  Dana stayed optimistic but Elizabeth began to worry.  She wrote letters to her children and grandchildren as a snowstorm blustered around them.

The Davis’s ran their car engine nights  to stay warm but after they ran out of gas, decided to walk out in search of help.  Within a few feet of leaving the vehicle, 82-year-old Elizabeth Davis, weakend by her ordeal, collapsed.  Her husband moved her body out of the road and proceeded alone to search for help.  He used pieces of his wife’s knitting yarn to mark his trail, so he could find his way back to her body.

That night Dana Davis slept in a snowbank under a tree.  The next morning, he encountered a ranger who assisted him with recovering his wife’s body and reuniting him with his remaining family.

Elizabeth Davis’s children deemed the letters written to them during the final hours of her life, “a legacy.”


4 thoughts on “The Gritty Side of Desert Travel

  1. Amazing stories indeed. Reminds me of a story about a man who was trapped in an elevator on a friday night and not found until Monday. The man said that a different person walked out of the elevator.

    As a new westerner and avid photographer who likes to take random turns down interesting roads I have trained myself to be ready for a minimum 48 hours stay should I break down. However that kit only works for mechanical breakdowns not a rollover, fire or sliding down a ditch. As a new explorer of the west safety is a concern and I’m probably more likely to over analyze what could happen than the people in the stories who seemed more comfortable with their surroundings and abilities. As I think of getting farther away from civilization I’m interested in something like the Spot locator and or a HAM radio. What do you use for communication?

    Great post.

    Some good information for vehicle kits:

    • Hi Andrew,

      Yes, being stranded is an opportunity for review and redemption. I recall the retired newspaper editor who with her husband was stranded in the Utah desert some years ago. When they were rescued after four days, she began attending church with her husband, much to his delight.

      My husband is an experienced 4-wheeler and he would tell you that it’s impossible to be overly prepared. I think you’re right, a false sense of comfort is dangerous, whether the initial travel is on or off road.

      Like you, we do not yet have a form of communication. We’ll be looking into a satellite phone this year so thanks for the link.

      Stay safe!

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