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Under the Desert Sun
Scant water. Blistering heat. When prominent real estate broker Ed Rosenthal went missing for six days in Joshua Tree one summer weekend, people assumed that he was a goner. They were wrong.
It was September 24, 2010, and looking to be very hot. I’d stayed at a motel in Desert Hot Springs the night before and planned to go on a hike in Joshua Tree that morning. You go from Black Rock Canyon to Warren Peak—about a five-mile round-trip that you can do in maybe three hours. It’s a nice little climb, about a thousand feet total. I’ve taken this hike nine or ten times over the decades.
I’m a real estate broker downtown, and typically I go out to the desert after a deal. It’s a cleansing experience to forget about business and be alone out there. In this case I had recently done two great deals—the Clifton’s Cafeteria building and parts of the Eastern Columbia Building. My plan was to wake up at eight, but I didn’t feel well that morning and got a late start. Along the way to Joshua Tree I stopped at a place to get a Styrofoam cup of coffee to go. When I pulled into the campground at about 12:30, this old guy suggested I park next to his trailer because he was by the trailhead. So I did. I was still basking in the glory of my deals and just looking forward to the hike.
I had brought a tomato and a peanut butter sandwich with me, which went into my backpack with some essentials: tape, rope, a Swiss Army knife, a Mylar blanket, a headlamp, matches, flares, a little medical kit, Clif Bars, dates, a CamelBak. It had only about an inch and a half of water, but I didn’t fill the thing even though I had big bottles of water. I figured, “I’m going to be back in a few hours. I don’t need any more.” I also had ground tarps that you can put under a tent and jackets but left them in the trunk. In that heat my floppy hat, short-sleeved shirt, and shorts seemed like plenty. The only other thing I brought was my walking stick.
I grew up on the East Coast and came out in 1976 to visit a friend who was living in Malibu. After that, I made a quick decision to move here. I’ve been hiking in the desert since the 1980s, around the time I got married. There’s an openness to the desert that is just wonderful. It lets you focus on what matters in life. There are no real estate deals going on. You are alone with yourself, and there’s a spirit of the desert—an energy you don’t find elsewhere. They say everyone’s soul corresponds to some environment. Mine is definitely the desert. It’s always given me inspiration to continue and build up a successful life in California. There’s a renewal.
Other than that camper, there was no one out as I headed along the trail. About an hour into the hike, I passed these giant rocks that reminded me of an old water tank. It’s the spot where my daughter, Hilary, had called when I was on a hike two years before to tell me she had passed her driver’s license exam. Warren Peak is about another 90 minutes on.
The view up top is beautiful. You can see the Coachella Valley, San Jacinto—it’s all so open. I ate my sandwich and my tomato and felt really good. But as I turned around to go back, I realized that I had lost the trail. I saw an outcropping lower down where I went one time with some locals—a bunch of younger guys—and I remembered them taunting one another because a couple of them couldn’t find the trail. I looked around down there but couldn’t find any footprints, not even my own. I didn’t see any trail, for that matter, so I went back up to where I’d come across a sign that said WEST TRAIL. It hadn’t made any sense to me, given where it was placed, but I was hoping the sign might point me in the right direction. I couldn’t find that either, though.
Survivor: Shortly after leaving the ICU, Rosenthal was at a press conference downtown describing his experience. Photograph Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.
Wandering around, I saw a chute between some boulders. It dropped about six feet into an arroyo that went in the direction I thought I should go. I’m not adventuresome normally, but I decided to jump down and walk along that streambed. A half a mile on I reached an even bigger drop-off and was like, “What the hell?” I tied my rope around a rock and played with the idea of rappelling down like a climber. But I thought, “No, not with my rope-tying skills.” I worked my way around these craggy rocks and jumped down that one, too. I wound up on a part of the hillside that was so steep, I could barely stand. Was this really a trail? I found out later I’d gone down a dry waterfall by mistake. I was in a dangerous situation. I had to hold on to cactuses, trees—anything I could find to steady myself. After I reached the bottom, I said to myself, “This can’t continue. I cannot do this.”
But there was more. The only way out of the area was over this scraggly hill that was all cactus and succulents and loose soil—it must have been a debris trap from when the waterfall was active, and it seemed hundreds of feet high. I was close to falling several times, it was so steep, and my entire body got scratched up. I was determined to stay calm. When I descended the thing—“Oh, my God,” I thought. “I’m OK!”—I found myself on a trail that never seemed to end. I only stopped once, when I came to this beautiful purple canyon. I don’t know what happened there, but it was a spiritual experience. It’s the only thing I would cry about afterward. This is where I started to see how small I am—not some big shot who did all these deals but a little kid being told where to go. Until then I’d blocked out my fear. I learned later that people do that, like when soldiers are in a war—they shut down and don’t admit fear as a way of surviving.
I continued on that trail, thinking there’d be a turnoff, but there wasn’t. It went on for miles. I didn’t know it, but I walked so far, I almost made it back to Desert Hot Springs. If I’d continued, I could have gone to my motel. The sun was going down, though, and I turned back and walked till I discovered what I call a baby canyon—a tight little niche, maybe 40 by 60 feet, that was closed at both ends. It must have been about eight o’clock, and I needed to stop for the night. My phone was dead by then; I’d been dialing 911 all afternoon and couldn’t get through. I was out of water, too. My mouth was so dry, it seemed like sand was accumulating on my tongue. I’d even started to scratch at it with my fingers.
At night I signaled with my headlamp and blew a whistle—three sounds in a row—trying to attract attention. I also held up my Mylar emergency blanket and shined my light on it, thinking someone would see it. Whatever planes or helicopters were flying over, they weren’t looking for me at this point. My wife, Nicole, hadn’t grown alarmed yet because I’ve gone on these hikes for years and usually don’t call. And even though on Friday morning I’d told the front desk at the motel that I was going to Black Rock Canyon for the afternoon, they didn’t report anything to the sheriff until Saturday.
It wasn’t cold that first night, but I tossed and turned. When I woke on Saturday, at about four or four-thirty, it was already getting hot. In the morning moonlight I saw this high rock wall in front of me. I have no recollection how I’d gotten down that thing to reach this spot, but I knew I had to get out. I was able to climb a pile of sandstone debris maybe 30 feet high—not a lot, but if you fall, you’re finished. When I got out, I decided to head back to the purple canyon, where several arroyos stretched in the direction I thought I should go. Which one should I take? I had no idea. “Well, I’m picking this one and that’s it,” I told myself. And away I went. The sun was coming up. I could see these marshmallow hills going off into the distance. It was gorgeous. By about ten in the morning I saw a conifer tree on a hillside. I hurried over and broke away branches so I could get under it. The rest of the day consisted of the sun chasing me around the tree and me getting farther and farther inside. I was spent. I would move, fall asleep. The sun would wake me. I would move farther in. The sun would burn me.
I finally admitted that I was really and truly lost. I was in a wasteland of ditches near where the park ends. I was too weak to move up the hill to see what was on the other side. No one would ever have found me or my bones. I couldn’t eat. The dates I tried to chew on just stuck to my tongue—I had to spit them out. It was frustrating, but you eventually get over not eating. Afterward I was told I was lucky I didn’t eat, that if you have food while you’re severely dehydrated, your body has to use up resources to help with digestion.
As evening approached I spotted some yuccas nearby. I started to cut away the sheathing at the base of one with my Swiss Army knife—you can suck on the tendrils for water. The stalk was too tough, though: I didn’t want to be away from the tree at night, so I gave up, went back to the tree, and struggled to make myself comfortable. But even under those branches I didn’t feel sheltered on that open hillside. It was freezing. The emergency blanket was falling apart. I tried to wrap pieces around me like a mummy—they just blew off into the night. So I spent my time slathering Mercurochrome and antiseptic from the medical kit onto my cuts. It reminded me of how I’d needed to apply Mercurochrome to my legs after a quadruple bypass ten years earlier: A calamitous real estate deal had triggered the heart attack that led to the surgery; the memory of it helped keep me calm that night. I was determined not to have another heart attack.
Vanishing Point: Rosenthal’s ordeal began after he ascended Joshua Tree’s Warren Peak. Photograph Seth Smigelski.
I’m 65. I’ve been a commercial real estate broker downtown since 1980. I began working in the area as a leasing agent for Norm Dreyfuss, Richard Dreyfuss’s father. He owned—they still own—the Washington Building at 3rd and Spring. At that time it was called Bunker Hill East. I’ve seen a lot. I work mostly with what’s called the private client group. They aren’t corporations or banks; they’re entrepreneurs. Some rough characters, unlike Norm. One property owner downtown has said that working in this area prepares you for the desert. It makes you tough.
Sunday morning I started to cut into that yucca again. I managed to cut away some tendrils and put a few in my pack, but they provide so little water, it’s hardly worth the effort. Then off I went to search for a place that wouldn’t be as exposed at night. By ten the heat was so extreme, I had to hide under a boulder, where I slept until the sun hit me in the face. Opening my eyes, I saw a small angular canyon a few miles away. That was my canyon. I stayed there for the rest of my time in the desert. I wasn’t searching for a way back. I had no energy. I often sat against the rock during the day when I wasn’t moving out of the sun’s glare and into the shadows. It required a lot of strength just to move 20 feet. And I knew: Either I’m going to be dead here or they’re going to find me here or both. I named it Salvation Canyon.
My thirst was unbearable on Saturday and Sunday. I sucked on rocks, which helps a bit, but you tire of it. I even tried to drink my urine, which was so concentrated by the time I was able to urinate, it was like a thick orange broth. I put it in that Styrofoam coffee cup but spit it right out. If that was the only choice, I would have been dead. The strange thing is, by Monday thirst wasn’t such an issue. Of course I was still thirsty, but you sort of forget about it.
That morning a cloud cover started to develop, dropping the temperature to around 95. I spent the next two days hiding from the sun, moving as little as possible. I used my flares to light signal fires and kept track of the days by noting them on my hat. I wrote, “Tuesday, still alive.” I’d also begun to write poems as well as jot down instructions to my wife and daughter, telling them, “I got lost, and I may not get back. I want you to know I love you, and here’s what you should do”—who they can trust, who owed me money, who to have at the funeral. I wanted a wake where everybody should drink and get stoned, and there should be a poet and Persian food. I started doing the Jewish prayer that night, the Shema—what you do when you don’t know if you’re going to wake up the next day. And I began dreaming that this wasn’t real. I’d fall asleep in that canyon and would dream I was just living in normal life, not lost on a hike. I kept waking up: “Oh, I’m here.”
Apparently my daughter kept telling everyone, “My dad’s still alive because he hasn’t walked me down the aisle.” Little did she know, there are plenty of dead dads who don’t get to walk anywhere. My main goal was to survive for her—and my wife, but it’s stronger with the daughter. You figure your wife can take care of herself. The father-daughter thing is powerful. And I was thinking that if I died around a Jewish holiday—Rosh Hashanah had recently passed—every year around the holidays she’d be thinking, “This is when my father died, and they never found him.” It’s almost as if I discovered I was living for them.
Wednesday morning the sky was purple. There’s that old rhyme: Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morn, sailor be warned. So I thought I might get lucky. I prayed for rain, and it rained that afternoon. A light drizzle. I didn’t know the technique you’re supposed to use to collect water—like putting out a plastic sheet to gather it. Instead I lay on my back with my mouth open and let the water go in. It wasn’t enough to make my clothes wet, but it was wonderful.
By then I couldn’t get up to sit against the rock any longer. I pretty much knew I was almost finished. I got to thinking about things. I grew up in the projects in Rockaway, New York. There was this sweet girl, Marsha Kap-lan. Everybody loved her. She fixed me up with my first wife. One night she was on a bench, and a guy who was trying to look cool began swinging his umbrella. Somehow the point came off and went in her eye. She died almost instantly. She was 16. I couldn’t accept that God had allowed this to happen. Now, 50 years later, I was able to accept it. Maybe it was enough that she was such a good example to everybody and that everybody would remember this nice person.
Search-and-rescue is like a military operation. Everyone works under whoever’s in command in that spot. In this case it was the ranger in Joshua Tree. There was the Joshua Tree search-and-rescue, Palm Desert search-and-rescue, Morongo Basin search-and-rescue, San Bernardino search-and-rescue. They were all involved in my search, which began on Sunday. Saturday afternoon the man who saw me at the trailhead in the campground that first day told the ranger I hadn’t returned. He had to drive to the other end of Joshua Tree to find an open station. My wife and daughter went out to the desert with my brother and sister on Sunday. They got updates from the rangers every day, but nobody had anything to report on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. Throughout the event there were planes and helicopters flying over the canyon I was in. It was constant. The problem was that they were looking too far away from where I was.
Something miraculous happened on Wednesday when they picked up the trail at last. They hadn’t found me yet, but the searchers were close. Wednesday night a ranger finally had something to say to my family: “We know where he is, and we’re going to get him tomorrow.” My wife yelled, “Well, is he alive?” They didn’t answer. They have a code: “We found a blue bag,” which means a dead hiker. And they pretty much thought I was dead. By Tuesday most of my friends thought I was dead, too.
Sure enough, on Thursday at around 11, I see this helicopter much closer than any had been before. It was getting bigger and bigger, and I was thinking, “They’re in my canyon!” And the guy yells out over the speaker, “Hey, are you that Rosenthal who’s out here?” His exact words. He asked if I was able to stand. I couldn’t. They managed to land in that space, and I realized I was going to live. I said to myself, “I am really tough to be able to survive this.” Then that thought passed right out of my mind. It turned into thankfulness for everything—for the helicopter, the searchers, everything.
The moment they gave me water, I threw up all over the helicopter. They brought me to the hospital and started filling me up with fluids. I was in the ICU for two days. I experienced some heart damage, and my left ankle is shot. I don’t know what it is; they can’t do anything about it. But the rest of me is stronger. I’m hiking again. More with the Sierra Club. Now I experience plants as not being a separate species. They’re like cousins. It’s not like, There’s me and there’s plants. There’s us. I’m overwhelmed by how incredible they are.
The other day I was hiking in the morning. It was beautiful and misty. All the plants, all the chaparral, were out—the buckwheat, chemise, deerweed. I was overcome with emotion. And I got on my knees to thank God for creating the universe. There are so many reasons I should not be alive. I feel like I was saved for sure—but why, I have no idea why. Why should God save me and let 1,800 Pakistanis drown a month earlier? I don’t understand it, but I know it happened.
Ed Rosenthal is writing a book on his experience in the desert.
ALSO: Read Postscript: Under the Desert Sun, a behind-the-scenes look at how this article was put together by Los Angeles magazine photo editor Amy Feitelberg
This feature originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Los Angeles magazine.