Grand Canyon: Stranded in the Desert

For 24-year-old college student Amber Vanhecke, what began as a spring break road trip soon became an arduous struggle for survival.

The University of North Texas student left Denton on March 10th, Arizona-bound and looking forward to touring the Grand Canyon. 48 hours into her journey, she entered “Havasu Falls Trail Head” as her GPS destination—and that was when the nightmare started to unfold.

With a 70-mile supply of fuel left in her tank, the navigation software steered her onto a cross-country route scarcely deserving of the term “road.” It also informed her that she would meet a highway in 40 miles, where she planned to gas up and grab a bite to eat. Later, with 35 of those miles behind her, she was directed into a turn that put her on a faint, washed-out dirt road. By this point, night was looming and the panic was beginning to set in. Vanhecke turned around in search of a proper road, but soon realized her tank was nearly empty.

That was when she placed her first 911 call… and lost the connection before she could get further than “please help me.” Without a cellular signal, not only was her phone useless to her—so was her web-based GPS. Unable to find her location or contact help, she parked next to an old rusted-out water tank (the only man-made object she could find) and settled in to wait until morning.

She would spend a total of four nights alone in the desert before her ordeal was over.

Vanhecke owes her survival through the five-day stranding largely to her own foresight, having brought nearly a full week’s worth of trail mix and water along on the trip. An avid reader, she passed the time reading books and writing in her journal as she waited to be found. The sky was so clear, and the moonlight so bright, that she could read well into the night.

On more than one occasion, her hopes for rescue were raised only to be dashed afterward. Once, she thought she heard helicopters on the horizon, so she collected large rocks and spent two hours spelling out the word “HELP” on the ground in giant letters. But no helicopter came. On her fourth day of isolation, March 16th, a truck drove right by her makeshift camp without noticing she was there. She built a rough barricade across the even rougher road to stop any future traffic, but there was no more.

In the meantime, Vanhecke watched prairie dogs forage for food and her own skin turn red, battered by the relentless sun. With blisters on her feet from walking, she resigned herself to the knowledge that she might not be found in time, and took up recording video messages to be sent to her loved ones in case she didn’t make it. One message for each of her recently-divorced parents reassuring them that it was okay to find new love. One message for her friends and another for her sister, telling them that she loved them. She was too emotional to get many words out, but she figured that the filmed messages would still be better than nothing.

As punishing as the desert sun was, the cold of night was no improvement—especially not when Vanhecke was stirred from fitful sleep in her car by the sounds of bickering coyotes. She even resorted to flashing the car’s headlights and honking the horn to scare them away and, with luck, to secure the safety of the prairie dogs that she watched by day.

After the fourth such night, her supplies having dwindled to mostly pumpkin seeds and a meager ration of water, Vanhecke struck out from her car, walking 11 miles in search of a cell phone signal and periodically dialing 911, hoping against hope to hear a voice on the other side. The moment she did is one that Vanhecke won’t soon forget. This time, she managed to give the dispatcher her location—in the desert between Havasu and the southern rim visitor center—before the connection dropped.

Another 15-30 minutes spent trying to regain the signal proved fruitless, so Vanhecke set out to retrace the 11-mile walk to her car, knowing that it would be easier to spot from the air than she herself would be. And at long last, her efforts were rewarded. This time she was actually able to see the helicopter once she could make out its sound, although it wasn’t until she heard rescuer Edgar Bissonette’s voice that she knew she wasn’t dreaming.

The greeting that ended her five-day exodus was as simple as can be, but no words could describe the relief Vanhecke felt when she heard: “Hi. Did you call?”