Death Valley van trip turns into something pretty special


Sep 7, 2016
It's been a long time since I've visited here much less posted anything. My reasons are two-fold, we've been doing a lot of van trips recently and not real "back country" stuff, but mostly cause I just haven't felt like writing because I'm lazy. We had an experience last weekend in Death Valley however that I felt was worth writing about.

For starters, Death Valley is pretty awesome. If you've never been, I recommend checking it out and spending a full day but it's probably not worth more time than that. For us, it was a long haul from SLC for one day, but in the end, probably worth it. If I had to do it over, I'd plan a visit "on the way" to another destination, but again, it's worthy of a full day of your time.

We arrived after dark and parked the van in a pretty remote area and I awoke having no clue what was around us. It turns out, I awoke in Mordor. I climbed up to the first ridge I saw to watch the sunrise and for as far as I could see, there was no sign of life – at all. Not a single blade of grass, not a single ant, literally nothing living, it was quite eerie.

We did pretty much standard tourist stuff that day, visited bad water basin, hiked around the artist's pallet area, saw the arch and cathedral etc etc. Nothing crazy adventurous, but extremely cool nonetheless. That evening we went to Mesquite Flat Dunes to watch the sun go down before we planned to return to where we camped in the van the night before.

As dusk started to set in, we were walking back to the van in the parking lot and Hope spotted a young lady obviously looking for something in the sand. Truth be told, I walked right by her but in a complete oblivion, didn't even notice she was distressed – thank god my wife is more attuned to things that should be completely obvious to any normal human being. She asked the young lady what she was looking for and the response was "my rental car key". That caught my attention and I did an about-face and immediately put my head down to help her search. There was still probably 30m of light left so things weren't completely dire, but in situations like this, the sun seems to drop 30x faster than normal.

We asked her where she last knew she had the keys and she thought she remembered having them where she went out to take a picture near a mesquite tree. This young woman literally only had two cell phones on her person with every other possession she brought on her trip either in her locked car or back at her hotel on the NV / CA border – a few hours away. As the light started fading away, her panic began to set in. To make matters worse, neither of her cell phones had service (one was a T-mobile, the other a Verizon). Hope and I are on AT&T with the exact same phones and weirdly, Hope had some service, I had none. We asked to see the picture she took in hopes that maybe we could identify the location from the picture and find they key nearby. I've spent enough time on ranches in South Texas to know however, that one mesquite tree looks like every other mesquite tree which looks like every other mesquite tree and that plan was very needle / haystacky. I was right, the picture did nothing to help us identify anything of any value.

I then had an idea and asked if she had location services turned on for her pictures on her iPhone. If she did, my plan was to get the Lat / Lng of the picture she took and plug it into an app I wrote on my phone to use my phone as a homing beacon to take us to where her picture was taken. I'm not an iPhone guy at all and so had no clue how to find the EXIF info from photos taken on an iPhone. I used Hope's phone to call my son in LA whose girlfriend has an iPhone to have him try to figure that out while we kept searching.

During this time, we felt it was finally time for her to call the rental car company and figure out options. They indicated that they could send a tow truck, but that the tow truck would have to come from Las Vegas (3ish hours away). They warned her about the cost of a "replacement key" (north of $400) and didn't even give her a quote for the towing costs but certainly, that was going to be astronomical. The young woman whose name we now knew as Michelle was doing her dead level best to keep a cool head, but any normal human being under this amount of stress and pressure would certainly start to crack – she was right on the verge, but kept it together pretty well. She was using Hope's phone for the call and had it on speaker and I heard the rental car representative ask "I see you're calling us from 801.721.xxxx, is this a good number to call you back on?" My immediate knee-jerk reaction was "No, Michelle, this is not a good number for them to reach you back on" but that thought lasted literally less than half a second as I fully understood that this situation was getting dire. Of course that was a good number to call her back on, that was her ONLY number to call back on.

A little bit of a back story worth mentioning – we were told about a young couple that died the day before in Death Valley due to heat exhaustion after getting a flat tire on a remote road and trying to walk for help. I knew this, Hope knew this, and it turned out Michelle knew this so having this in the back of our minds painted a pretty clear picture that this was a serious situation. Death Valley is famous for getting extremely hot, but it also gets pretty cold and windy during the night and Michelle was dressed in very short aerobics shorts and a sleveless tank-top shirt, certainly not what you want to be wearing stranded in the desert in the middle of the night.

Back to the search. The phone call with the rental car company ended with them telling her they were going to dispatch a tow truck out and they would be able to open her car for her to get her belongings but she would need to find a way to some town in BFE California to get a replacement car – nothing good. After the call with the rental car company, I called my son back to find out if he had discovered anything about getting coords off a picture taken from an iPhone. He said there was an app you could download to do it which, with no service, was obviously out of the question. He had also discovered that if you view the picture in the default iPhone photo gallery and swipe up on it, it takes you to a map and drops a pin where that picture was taken. This map also displays other pictures taken nearby. The gears in my head turned a quarter turn and I realized we could just take more and more pictures to triangulate where the original one was taken. We started this process but Murphy and his damn laws had other ideas…her phone was now at 1% battery and dying fast and of course didn't last long enough for us to complete our quest.

It's now dark, like no moon and no light pollution at all dark. I had been asking every person I saw if they had seen keys and to please keep an eye out for keys as they walked back to their vehicles. I made 3 or 4 trips back to the parking lot myself to look near the information signs to see if someone had dropped them there. No one had seen anything and no keys had been deposited near the signs. On one of my return trips back out to the field, I noticed two very dim red lights so I walked toward them and heard voices as I approached. Good I thought, more people to ask. There were two gentlemen standing at a table with two red "pilot" lights. I asked if either had seen keys, neither had and upon closer inspection, I noticed the one standing behind the table was a ranger. Thank god I thought, finally someone will be able to actually help.

I said "oh great, you're a ranger. There's a young woman who has lost her rental car keys and has absolutely nothing on her, what should she do?"

His response "tell her to call the rental car company and have them come out and help".

I responded "she's already done that and they're hours away, what should she do now?"

"she could call another towing company to see if they can get here faster"

"dude, I don't think you're understanding what I'm asking – this is a real situation, what should she do right now? She has no shelter, no water, no nothing, what is the protocol for this?"

"well maybe she could get a ride to the hotel and stay there"

"she has no money, she has nothing…….."

"excuse me for a second I need to answer this guy's questions about the stars"

I have been alive for 46 years and I don't recall ever having been more appalled at an utter lack of empathy and complete display of incompetence. I get it that this was an "experiential ranger" who was set up in the desert to answer questions about star gazing but I feel like anyone wearing that uniform has a duty and a responsibility to offer assistance at pretty much the most basic human level, this fella couldn't connect those dots at all and proved to be completely useless.

Hope and Michelle were still searching more or less aimlessly with cell phone torches and at this point we all figured it was a hopeless endeavor for the night. We all returned to our van in the parking lot to make dinner and refuel. Sadly, I don't own a lightning charger for an iPhone but Michelle was able to find one from a kind person in the parking lot so we immediately set to charging her dead phone in the van. After getting some food and water in us, we all were able to unwind a bit and de-stress. We all got to talking and it turns out Michelle is one of the coolest, smartest, most adventurous young women I've ever had the pleasure to meet. We learned a lot of her life's back story and she ours.

After a few hours, we tried calling the rental car company again to get a status update and were transferred to the dispatch office which ended up being a perma-hold situation. We waited on hold for literally an hour and fifteen minutes before finally giving up. A second, and then third, and then fourth call all led us to the same road block. At this point, we decided to give up on waiting up and get some sleep keeping one ear to the van door to listen for the tow truck in the middle of the night. We set up what we could for a bed on the floor of the van for Michelle as Hope and I slept in our normal pull-out bed.

Dawn comes, still no tow truck but now we have a fully charged iPhone and can try the plan of taking pictures to drop pins to find out where her original picture was taken. I could hear a lot of bustling going on outside as people began to flock to the dunes to get pictures as the sun rose. I didn't want people disturbing the area where she may have left her key because I feared if someone stepped on them, it would bury them forever so I made a bee-line to get out and start searching. Michelle was 15m behind me with her phone in hand and I asked for it to start the pin-search technique. I narrowed it in with 4 pictures and the final picture I took dropped a pin over the top of the original. I said "this is exactly where your picture was taken, if you put your keys down around here, they've got to be within a 30' radius of this exact spot". Literally within 30s of my saying that, Michelle kicked her feet through the sand and uncovered her key which was completely buried.

I was thrilled and she was far beyond thrilled. I pulled my phone out and started to take a video of the sunrise but immediately switched gears to capture her complete exuberance. Here is that video: (be warned, there's a little bit of adult language)

If I had taken a video from the night before when we were all stressed, putting that video next to this one in Webster's would be the best definition imaginable for "contrast". I'm so glad I captured this moment of pure, genuine happiness – anyone who watches this can immediately feel it.

In the end, everything worked out, the tow truck which was supposed to have been there the night before was cancelled, Michelle made it back to her hotel and Hope and I drove home feeling good about being decent samaritans. Life has a funny way of working itself out and the connections you make along the way are what make it so fulfilling. I feel very lucky to have made this one.
If you've never been, I recommend checking it out and spending a full day but it's probably not worth more time than that.

This line really stood out to me out of everything you wrote. One day doesn't even scratch the surface of Death Valley, there is way more than a lifetime of places to explore in DV and I sometimes wish I lived closer!
This line really stood out to me out of everything you wrote. One day doesn't even scratch the surface of Death Valley, there is way more than a lifetime of places to explore in DV and I sometimes wish I lived closer!
that's fair - maybe it's just not my thing. I've been to far more places that are much more extraordinary to me. But really? That stood out more than anything else I wrote? o_O
“If you've never been, I recommend checking it out and spending a full day but it's probably not worth more time than that.”

From experience I would completely ignore that recommendation. It is a vast and incredibly multi-faceted Park that one can completely get caught up and lost in. The varying surreal scenes are constantly mesmerizing. Their is really nothing else quite like the place and it’s incredible distances. The first thing that struck me as I drove to the rim and started in was the amazing and immense alluvial fans. There are far corners of the Park that almost nobody visits and they are both spooky and unreal in their beauty.

the place is so vast and geographically diverse that that weather can be hot and dry in one area but snowing cold and enthralling after a short drive to another area within. Down in the salt you can look up to the snowy peaks. Views are incredibly deceiving and gorgeous. No, it would take a lifetime not a day...
This is a wonderful story of your incredible goodness and generosity! I shudder to think what could have happened to Michelle if you had not been there that evening and extended such tremendous kindness to a her, a complete stranger. When I think about all the news stories that make me sad about how people treat each other, it is nice to have a story that makes me smile instead. Hooray!
Nice work helping her out. That said, Mesquite Dunes is not exactly the remote back country--it's only a couple of miles from Stovepipe Wells with a store, campground, cabins, ranger station, etc.

We love Death Valley, and have been many times, But to truly get the scope of it, I suggest getting more than a mile or two off the main road. You will be alone, and the solitude and splendor will reward you.

And after all, you deserve it for your good deed!
....That said, Mesquite Dunes is not exactly the remote back country--it's only a couple of miles from Stovepipe Wells with a store, campground, cabins, ranger station, etc.

Tell that to a terrified, alone, hardly dressed 25 year old girl from NYC - she may as well have been stranded on Mt Everest.

I'm curious and very serious with this question - do you have a daughter?

Perhaps to people like you and me, her situation really isn't that extreme, but I do have a daughter and I truly shudder to imagine her in that situation.
Similar threads
Thread starter Title Forum Replies Date
regehr kayaking death valley On The Water 1
balzaccom Death Valley in January Hiking & Camping 3
balzaccom Death Valley again Hiking & Camping 0
T Death valley Trip Planning 3
J Death Valley Natl. Pk. Upper Monarch Canyon plus. Dec 1, 2021 Hiking & Camping 1
J Death Valley Natl. Pk. A Black Mtns and Canyons Traverse Nov 30, 2021 Hiking & Camping 2
J Death Valley Natl. Pk. 6 Days hiking. Nov 14-19, 2021 Hiking & Camping 1
J Death Valley National Park and Area Mountain Rambles Dec. 16-17, 2020 Hiking & Camping 0
J Death Valley Natl. Pk: Funeral Pk, Slit Canyon, and Big Dune. Dec 21-22, 2020 Hiking & Camping 1
J Death Valley NP Black Mountains and beyond Hiking Dec 19-20, 2020 Hiking & Camping 1
balzaccom Death Valley again Hiking & Camping 4
Miya Death Valley Birthday - Part 2 (3.7.20-03.8.20) Backpacking 15
Miya Death Valley Birthday - Part 1 (3.5.20-3.6.20) Hiking & Camping 28
Scott Chandler Death Valley Trip Planning 7
J Death Valley National Park Keene Canyon-Wonder Mine Loop. Dec. 3, 2019 Hiking & Camping 1
J Death Valley Natl Pk Ibex Peak, Jubliee Mtn, Virgin Springs summits Dec. 2, 2019 Hiking & Camping 0
J Death Valley NP: Corkscrew and Artist Palette Peaks, scramble dayhikes Nov 2019 Hiking & Camping 1
J Death Valley NP. Marble-Cottonwood (side slot) lollipop loop Nov 17-19,2019 Backpacking 10
fossana Death Valley road closures post flooding Trip Planning 3
balzaccom Rainy days in Death Valley Hiking & Camping 3
J Sierras to Bristlecones to Death Valley NP: Peaks, Trails, Dunes and Canyons Oct 26 to Nov 10, 2018 Hiking & Camping 0
balzaccom Death Valley once again Hiking & Camping 1
Perry Death Valley to Whitney - Very Intriguing General Discussion 2
Glasterpiece Death Valley Road Conditions Resource Discussions 0
J A New Classic Death Valley Natl Park Backpack Nov 16-19,2016 Backpacking 5
C Death Valley backcountry trip Trip Planning 4
balzaccom Death Valley, March Backpacking 2
Tres Westbrook Death Valley National Park - Day Two - Mount Perry Hiking & Camping 4
Tres Westbrook Death Valley National Park - Day One - Golden Cathedral / Gower Gulch Hiking & Camping 7
Nick Death Valley Flooding 10-2015 General Discussion 1
Tres Westbrook Road Trip to the Racetrack Playa - Death Valley Off Road 5
ram Death Valley Service Projects General Discussion 0
balzaccom Death Valley in February Backpacking 0
mike_offerman Death Valley and Joshua Tree suggestions Trip Planning 2
IntrepidXJ Leaving Death Valley Hiking & Camping 2
IntrepidXJ All Around Death Valley Hiking & Camping 2
mtthwlw Death Valley in March Trip Planning 17
Nick What to do in Death Valley National Park Trip Planning 7
balzaccom Death in the National Parks General Discussion 1
F Little Death Hollow Backpack Trip Planning 2
canadug Hiker death in Zion National park :( Hiking & Camping 32
climbhigh1119 How doable is the sneak route out of Death Hollow with kids and a dog? Trip Planning 6
Duketogo13 BMT- Death Hollow-Escalante Triangle loop Trip Planning 20
Janice Cosmic Ashtray via Wolverine/Little Death Hollow & Escalante River? Trip Planning 16
napatony13 DEATH & DESTRUCTION-Incredible Video of Rockslide in Northern India General Discussion 1
Bob Death Hollow - Top Half a revist..... Backpacking 0
RyanP Conditions (water/bugs) for Escalante/Death Hollow Trip Planning 27
J Trip first week of April 2021 Southern UT/Anywhere AZ - Death Hollow, Coyote Gulch, or other suggestions? Trip Planning 9
R Boulder Mail Trail to Death Hollow Trip Planning 1
norwegianxplorer Death Hollow from Hells Backbone road 7 day loop with My Own Frontier Canyoneering 0

Similar threads