In my soon to be released YA novel The Scent of Rain, as in all my books, the beautiful but sometimes treacherous southwestern desert plays a part. I’ve lived in Phoenix, Arizona for over 25 years and I’d always believed that, in the event of a Zombie Apocalypse, I could manage to stay alive in the wilderness that butts up against our urban landscape. Years of Girl Scout camp, rock collecting in remote abandoned mines, and scuba diving in wild locales made me confident I could outwit the elements, if I found myself stuck in the middle of nowhere.
The key to survival is planning. Make rules and stick to them. As a sports official for over thirty-five years, I tend to be quite dedicated to rules. Still, one awful day, I committed the worst mistake imaginable. I broke my own rules: a decision that could have been fatal.
I was headed for a day of rock collecting in the Superstition Mountains. As always, I’d left a detailed map of where I planned to be and when to expect me home. Since finding a person in hundreds of square miles of mountainous wilderness is always a daunting task – especially when cellphone access is rarely available – the rule was that I would stay with the vehicle, which would be much easier to spot than a lone individual. My old Ford pickup was stocked with water and food, a sleeping bag, books to read, a tent, a bottle of tequila – to disinfect wounds, of course – and dog food. I traveled that day with Georgie, my aging sheltie collie, and a young spotted cattle-dog mix named Sadie.
Once off the two-lane road, I drove about a mile on a well-maintained dirt trail. But quickly, the ground became rocky and steep. A few twists and turns later, I stopped. The track was too rough. Unfortunately, I was between a rock wall and a small ledge leading into a sandy wash, so I couldn’t turn the truck around. I draped my arm over the passenger seat and started backing down the trail. Almost immediately, my rear tire slipped over the ledge, and the pickup slid into the wash. When I gunned the engine, the back tires sunk into the sand.
I swore loudly and jumped out, landing in a jumble of sharp rocks. My leg slipped into a crevice and I fell, slicing my arm on a jagged boulder. Blood ran down to my elbow in bright red streaks. I swore some more.
I stared back in the direction of the road. I was only about a mile-and-a-half in. It would be a short hike on a cool, cloudy day. I could flag someone down and call home. I strapped two water bottles around my waist, grabbed some energy bars, reapplied my sunscreen, and squashed on my Aussie hat. I put the dogs’ leashes in my pack.
I walked on the sandy wash for a short time, admiring the rocky desert beauty: spindly ocotillos, majestic saguaros, and twisted mesquite trees dotted the landscape. The dogs bounded around me. Then I stopped. Two trails, right next to one another, led away from the wash. I thought for a moment. Which one had brought me here? I took the fork to the left. I can’t remember why.
Later that morning, I stood near the top of a small mountain. The dark, open face of an abandoned mine yawned at me. I’d taken the wrong trail. I turned and gazed out at the valley. With the exception of the massive Ray Copper Mine edging the horizon, I saw only wilderness. Where was the road?
Then, the sun came out, strong and hot. I squinted and saw what looked like a white roof way off to my left. We started down the trail, which forked again. This was a mining road, composed of jagged rocks. After about 30 minutes, Georgie stopped. My collie had cut her paws on the rough trail and sat down, refusing to budge. Both animals stared at me, tongues lolling out of their mouths. I reached again for the water bottles, and was stunned that only about an inch of precious fluid remained.
The heat became stifling. I tried carrying Georgie, but she was too heavy. I looked for shade, knowing that we should wait out the heat and hike at night. But could we all survive on the little bit of water that remained? Death can come quickly in the desert.
Feeling sick to my stomach, I walked away from my girls. I’d leashed them to the meager shade of a scraggly bush, hoping to find help before dark. The coyotes would be out by then. Two tied dogs would have no chance against them.
I wiped tears from my face as I built cairns: trail markers that could lead me back. I’d had heat sickness before and recognized that I was beginning to succumb again to the light-headedness that precedes passing out. I finished the water.
Later, when I put my foot on a flat piece of pavement, I was stunned. The road simply appeared with no warning. Then, out of nowhere on that lonely stretch, a single car pulled up and stopped next to me. A young man, incongruously wearing a white button-down and tie, leaned out the window and asked if I needed help.
“You’re hurt,” he said looking at the dried blood on my arm.”
The kind young man dropped me off at the Kearny sheriff’s office, where Mayberry-esq matrons in floral-print blouses fussed over me. “No, I don’t want a paramedic,” I assured them, red-faced, crying. “I want my dogs!”
Several hours later, Sheriff Joe Martinez drove his cruiser into the desert with me on the seat beside him. We followed the trail of stone markers. I worried about my girls and was afraid to look when he said, “There they are!”
To my relief, we were greeted with wagging tails. Later, Sheriff Martinez, in true western hero fashion, pulled my truck from the sand and waved me off.
Prior to my brush with disaster, I could sometimes be heard mocking ill-prepared visitors who would end up lost in the desert without food, water, sunscreen, or proper clothing: hikers who approached the desert environment like a walk in a pastoral garden.
I don’t do that anymore.
And I never, ever, break the rules.
Anne Montgomery is an author. Her new novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are their any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other? The Scent of Rain will be released on March 28, 2017.