The hunt for the Death Valley Germans
January 3, 2013 11:23 AM   Subscribe

In 1996, a family of German tourists went on vacation in the desert Southwest of the US. They disappeared in Death Valley sometime late July of that year, and despite repeated searches, their remains were not found until 2009. Tom Mahood details how that happened.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt (168 comments total) 150 users marked this as a favorite

 
Try to put my head around taking a 4 year old boy to Death Valley.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:43 AM on January 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


Death Valley in the summer will kill you very quickly if you wander around without water. Your feet, even in boots, feel like you're walking on coals. Don't leave the main roads, don't wander far from your car, and have lots of water available.
posted by Blue Meanie at 11:44 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Death Valley in the summer will kill you very quickly if you wander around without water. Your feet, even in boots, feel like you're walking on coals. Don't leave the main roads, don't wander far from your car, and have lots of water available.

Shorter: Do not visit Death Valley.
posted by odinsdream at 11:49 AM on January 3, 2013 [35 favorites]


[Link seems to be working now, feel free to flag it if it goes down again]
posted by jessamyn at 11:54 AM on January 3, 2013


> Try to put my head around taking a 4 year old boy to Death Valley.

It probably just seemed like one more thing to see, and it is a National Park so it's not like the second you enter you're immediately in peril.

Now, anything other than a brisk drive through with a few stops where stopping/looking is indicated is pretty foolhardy, though.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:55 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


In my experience, European tourists frequently underestimate the size of North America and driving distances involved. Coming from a place where everything is relatively close together it's hard to wrap your mind around the idea that it is 5471 km just to drive across the USA from one coast to the other by nearly the most direct route on interstate freeways.
posted by thewalrus at 11:59 AM on January 3, 2013 [23 favorites]


Do not visit Death Valley.

If you're super risk-averse, this is good advice, but otherwise there are ways to at least see the place relatively safely if not go noodling around there. I've driven through there a few times and I've even camped there and it's a strikingly beautiful place and very otherworldly. I've been reading through the main link and the older news stories and it looks like these guys took off in a rented van and were going places that aren't really that easy to get to in "normal" weather. With the heat wave they were going through and the off-the-beaten path trail they took, they were involved in a much higher risk activity. Not saying "Oh Death Valley is totally safe!" but there is a lot of it that's no more dangerous than any other natural area that has high temperatures and limited water. There are warning signs everywhere telling folks to be careful.
posted by jessamyn at 11:59 AM on January 3, 2013 [22 favorites]


No, you should go to Death Valley. It is amazing. Just go in March, and respect the desert.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:00 PM on January 3, 2013 [16 favorites]


Now, anything other than a brisk drive through with a few stops where stopping/looking is indicated is pretty foolhardy, though.

The TLDR on how the family ended up there is basically that they took a little used dirt road that lead to a closed and unmarked dirt road and then they went off that road and into a sand filled wash when they missed a turn.

They had passed a cabin a few miles before they got stuck, but rather than return there, they chose to push further into the desert - apparently hoping to find rescue at a military installation or radio tower that were in the area.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:00 PM on January 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


Ha, on non-preview I agree with jessamyn.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:01 PM on January 3, 2013


Anyone have a link to a map that shows the places referenced in the article (Anvil Spring, Anvil Canyon, Butte Spring, Mengle Pass, Warm Spring Road) in context with the rest of the world? All I could find in google maps is Furnace Creek Campground and it'd be interesting to put the rest into the physical space.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:03 PM on January 3, 2013


Death Valley isn't that dangerous, *IF* you're being safe, and is very beautiful when the desert flowers bloom...

...but it is, in fact, a large desert, and potentially the hottest place on earth.

Just because it doesn't look like the Sahara, that doesn't mean you shouldn't be suitably equipped, if you're going to wander around in it... or that you shouldn't consider the merits of staying near the access roads or the visitor center, especially if you have young kids in tow.
posted by markkraft at 12:04 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow. This was a great writeup. Reminds me a lot of The Hunt for 928.
posted by mrbill at 12:05 PM on January 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Anyone know of a service that will concatenate multi-page articles like this into a single Instapaper article?
posted by migurski at 12:08 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fascinating article. Looks like it took place around here: 35.886825,-117.027569
posted by dabug at 12:12 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyone have a link to a map that shows the places referenced in the article (Anvil Spring, Anvil Canyon, Butte Spring, Mengle Pass, Warm Spring Road) in context with the rest of the world? All I could find in google maps is Furnace Creek Campground and it'd be interesting to put the rest into the physical space.

Its in the area just west and north somewhat from Sugarloaf Peak, CA.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:13 PM on January 3, 2013


Kevin Kelley just had a relevant CoolTools post today:
You can drink urine! The rules for urine drinking are straightforward: drink it as soon after you urinate as possible; the first time you urinate is usually fine to drink; and you can drink the second pass in dire circumstances. After a second pass, chances are that you won’t be urinating again anyway if there is no more fluid going in. There simply won’t be any fluid left to be passed.

Myth: You will not die or get sick if you drink urine. It is not poisonous. It is actually sterile the moment it leaves your body, and only contact with the air allows for bacteria to grow. This is why you shouldn’t urinate and then store it for later.
posted by stbalbach at 12:13 PM on January 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


My dad took us hiking in death valley when I was about 11. I am in fact a ghost.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:14 PM on January 3, 2013 [10 favorites]


Taking a four year old to a very hot place in the wilderness is just a bad idea. Children at that age can very easily develop heatstroke and die.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:16 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is beautiful and memorable. We took some gorgeous family trips that crossed Death Valley. But anyplace wild can kill you. (Indeed, many civilized places can do the job too.)
posted by bearwife at 12:16 PM on January 3, 2013


After the age of seven or so your body is better able to regulate temperature.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:16 PM on January 3, 2013


Also, never put your kid in a car because they could die from something.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:20 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


What a horrible way to die.

.
posted by procrastination at 12:23 PM on January 3, 2013 [9 favorites]


This backcountry roads map is 7MB and it shows how the places fit in to the rest of the world. When I was there we stayed at the Wildrose campground. This set of photos taken by a 4x4 driver shows what some of the roads are like in that area. It's interesting to see some of the odd abandoned-but-provisioned little buildings out there.
posted by jessamyn at 12:25 PM on January 3, 2013 [13 favorites]


What an interesting if tragic story. Mahood really makes a case that a series of unfortunate missteps can leave you dead. What really struck me was

Generally, there is no cell phone coverage in Death Valley (Note:  This was before the cell tower was installed at Furnace Creek

For all that we lose as technology creeps into every facet of our lives, this family, if lost today, could been saved by a phone call.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:26 PM on January 3, 2013


Suggested reading for those who want to read a gripping first-person account of Death Valley:
Death Valley in '49. Important chapter of California pioneer history. The autobiography of a pioneer, detailing his life from a humble home in the Green Mountains to the gold mines of California; and particularly reciting the sufferings of the band of men, women and children who gave "Death Valley" its name. By William Lewis Manly (click on view text)
posted by buggzzee23 at 12:28 PM on January 3, 2013 [17 favorites]


Yeah, the Squaw Spring area would appear to be on the mountain side near 35.889085, -117.004358 . Turning on the photo overlay in G-Maps shows that it's way off the beaten trail even for DV.
posted by snuffleupagus at 12:29 PM on January 3, 2013


When I first glanced at the post, my first thought was, "Is that Tom Mahood, the X Planes/Blue Fire guy?"

And damned if it wasn't ... he knows the desert, that's for sure, and he's really knowledgeable about the workings of aerospace contractors (I had the occasion to correspond with him years ago while working on a computer game).
posted by Relay at 12:30 PM on January 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Rats, Tom is not single.
posted by Melismata at 12:32 PM on January 3, 2013


[Seriously folks maybe don't continue to harp on the "this is dangerous for kids" stuff after a couple comments. Everyone is dead, we know it's not safe.]
posted by jessamyn at 12:33 PM on January 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Thanks for posting. Tragic story, great read. Reminds me of the search for James Kim from a few years back.
posted by Borborygmus at 12:41 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm more than a little dismayed that I just favorited a comment regarding best practices in drinking one's own urine.
posted by stubie at 12:45 PM on January 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


Those practices could apply to anyone's urine.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:47 PM on January 3, 2013 [36 favorites]


Thanks for the map and pictures, jessamyn!
posted by crush-onastick at 12:48 PM on January 3, 2013


I can easily imagine them being sure that the military base would have a regularly-patrolled fence and perimeter. The concept of security via sheer remoteness is a difficult one to grasp, even for Americans. For a German, it's likely impossible.
posted by tommasz at 12:48 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you'd told the Germans on the 22nd of July that in a couple of days they'd be abandoning their rental car with three flat tires, mired in the middle of a desert with no humans around for miles with little more than the food and drink one would carry to a picnic, and they and the children would eventually die there of heat and thirst, they would have laughed in your face.

And yet, that's what happened.

Little decisions that seem okay at the time have a way of building up into mortal disasters because humans are terrible at risk assessment. We don't often actually consider how bad the "worst case" scenarios can be, and thus when the dice roll against us several times in a row there may be nothing left to do but die.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:49 PM on January 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


Pretty anticlimactic, that he put that much of his life into the search, found nothing, and then got a phone call from the sheriff later saying some bones were found. The county never bothered to release any further information about DNA identification and wouldn't return his calls.

So if you skip to the end to find out what happens, there's really no there there.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:50 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


My own personal rule is never go more than 10 blocks from the 2 train.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:53 PM on January 3, 2013 [16 favorites]


Is the author a MeFite?

While romping around the Innerwebz, between piano playing cats and oceans of porn, I saw references to the tale on a Death Valley forum. It sounded interesting, so I Googled a bit more and came across a report the CLMRG had done for their newsletter, “The Talus Pile”. The newsletter item laid out the basics of the case, but not much more. I was intrigued, but was quickly diverted by more piano playing cats.
posted by whatzit at 12:54 PM on January 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Pretty anticlimactic, that he put that much of his life into the search, found nothing
...then got a phone call from the sheriff later saying some bones were found...
So if you skip to the end to find out what happens, there's really no there there.


Yeah, no. Try not skipping to the end.
posted by snuffleupagus at 12:55 PM on January 3, 2013 [33 favorites]


When I was, I don't know, 13 or so, my mom took my sister and I on a trip around the southwest - we flew into Las Vegas, drove to Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon NPs, and were scheduled to spend a day in Vegas then continue on to see family in Los Angeles. Instead of going through Vegas, though, my mom decided that we should drive through Death Valley instead while we're there. It's July. Cool. I think it was my first time experiencing 100deg+ temperatures.

So of course the radiator...does something, I don't know, overheats? We pull over and wait for maybe an hour. No cars go by. We drive a little farther and come to a fork in the road that is NOT ON OUR MAP. This isn't, like, offroading or anything. The main road! So we wait for another hour or so until a park employee comes by, pours water on some part of the car (I still have no idea how cars work), and tells us which way to go.

It was so hot and so isolated out there, even for those two or three hours in the car. That poor family.
posted by troika at 12:59 PM on January 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


Here's another page with some photos of the area. The ones looking across from peak to peak across Anvil Canyon are helpfu.
posted by snuffleupagus at 1:09 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pretty anticlimactic, that he put that much of his life into the search, found nothing, and then got a phone call from the sheriff later saying some bones were found.

That's the opposite of what happened. The blogger examined the evidence, formulated a plausible hypothesis as to what the Germans did then started searching based on the hypothesis. He and his friend found where the Germans died, including ID and bones.

I think it would be more interesting if it were edited down, there's a lot of stuff after the initial find that really isn't that interesting.
posted by justkevin at 1:09 PM on January 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


Pretty anticlimactic, that he put that much of his life into the search, found nothing,

"I could see a number of white items, which were clearly skeletal remains, scattered over a wide area. As I was headed down from the saddle, Les had found a wallet full of ID cards. They all said Cornelia Meyer."
posted by rtha at 1:11 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


This was an awesome read. And I have just spent an hour at work that is totally unbillable. Totally worth it. I love this stuff.
posted by Kokopuff at 1:30 PM on January 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


Don't leave the main roads, don't wander far from your car

We can't stop here, this is bat country!
posted by banshee at 1:34 PM on January 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


This backcountry roads map is 7MB

I love how in the middle of that map is just the text label "Death" without any other geographic descriptor obviously nearby.

DEATH
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 1:37 PM on January 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's not terribly clear from the article because no one knows, but it seems like the mother and father died first, and then the kids aged 11 and 4 set out on their own. Heartbreaking.
posted by lstanley at 1:38 PM on January 3, 2013


It's not terribly clear from the article because no one knows, but it seems like the mother and father died first, and then the kids aged 11 and 4 set out on their own. Heartbreaking.

This is exactly what has been haunting me all afternoon, and will continue to do so for a long time.
posted by procrastination at 1:46 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


The author seems to think the children set out on their own, but that doesn't seem plausible to me. Seems more likely that the kids were too exhausted to go on, so the parents hid them in a shady spot, maybe somewhere in the mud hills in the N3 canyon, and tried to get out for help.

Horrid story, however you arrange the details. Great writing.
posted by echo target at 1:48 PM on January 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


Every picture made me very glad I was not there. Such a sad and accidentally tragic story
posted by marienbad at 1:49 PM on January 3, 2013


Reminds me a lot of The Hunt for 928.

D'oh. Because the writeup is by the same guy. No wonder it seemed familiar.
posted by mrbill at 1:50 PM on January 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


That was a chilling story but yes, it could have used a little editing.
posted by Curious Artificer at 1:50 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've written about the desert before, in particular that desert, and, yeah, it surely still occasionally kills people who zig when they should have zagged and carried more water.

Death Valley gets so hot you can't physically carry enough water to survive hiking out of it. You need a truck, jeep or car, or a burro or maybe even at least a bicycle with a trailer full of water. It's still lonely and isolated enough you can not see someone else for days even though there's a relatively busy highway just a few miles away.

Going off road and away from asphalted, higher traffic roads is extremely inadvisable if you're not experienced with the deep Mojave, carrying a good map, compass and/or GPS and traveling with a caravan of other vehicles.

Traveling around out there in Death Valley on or off road completely alone is a bad idea even if you have a nice 4x4, multiple spare tires and plenty of water. There's a reason why the OHV and 4x4 enthusiasts out there travel in packs, and it's not just to share cold beers. It's because if one car gets stuck or breaks something another can usually still get out to go for help, or there's enough people there to winch or push the stuck car out of the sand.

I've been so far out in the deep desert on my own on foot or bicycle that I've, uh, actually had to drink my own pee and carefully, slowly self-rescue my stupid ass by slowly, carefully walking home because I ran out of water and I stayed far too long climbing a particularly pretty ridge.

My first experience with Death Valley was driving through with my grandfather. I probably would have been about 4 or so, maybe even younger. I remember when we stopped and got out of my grandpa's huge air conditioned Oldsmobile it was so hot it like getting punched in the face. It was instantly dazing and dizzying.

A bit over a dozen years later I was out there in the same areas with a bunch of techno hippies partying many dozens or hundreds of times. Someone would scout an accessible road or box canyon on BLM land and they'd set up large sound systems and throw 1-3 day parties out in the middle of nowhere. It was like raving on Mars or the Moon, totally alien and deadly landscapes. High altitudes, freezing cold temps and wind chills at night, temps over 110 to 120 during the day.

Despite this foolishness there was remarkably few casualties for the first 10 years of these monthly parties - zero. Well, outside of the occasional stuck cars and minor injuries. The first actual fatality happened when someone inexperienced tried to drive home to LA from near Lone Pine without sleeping first. They fell asleep and rolled their car on the impossibly straight, boring and soporific 395. This had less to do with the desert than just a stupid operator error.

We always brought plenty of water. 2.5-5 gallons per person per day plus some extra for others or the car. We'd usually leave a 2.5 gallon cube on the trunk of the car for strangers to fill their bottles from. For the larger gatherings there was also often a "water buffalo", basically a huge tank of water on a trailer with wheels.

So we were relatively smart and safe, basically just car camping and staying within a quarter to half mile of the encampment. It was as safe if not safer than the OHV enthusiasts who would also drink and car camp with the added risk of riding powered vehicles at high speeds all over the desert.

We had plenty of stuck cars and trucks and iffy moments. The rented 4-runner full of frat boys who got directions somehow weren't so much fun. They buried that poor truck up to the rocker panels in sand in less than 30 seconds. A crowd of 30 people bodily picked that truck up, placed it back on the dirt road after turning it around facing the way they came. Then we told them to go home before the desert killed them and to drive slowly and carefully without stopping until they hit the main road. They'd thankfully had enough desert and just wanted to go home.

There were a few lost people, too, complete with successful search parties. There was a reason why I packed a first aid kit and binoculars and a GPS and stuff. If I got the directions early enough I'd even print out topo maps of the area so I could be familiar with the area before I even got there. The binoculars were more for looking for lost people than looking at the stars. Usually it was just someone who took the wrong or too much of a recreational chemical and/or got in a fight with their partners or something, but it's alarmingly easy to get truly lost and be difficult to find out there. The creosote bushes are just big enough to hide a standing human and block your view, and there's always little washes and arroyos and slot canyons to get lost in.

In all of the lost human cases they weren't that far away, usually intentionally hiding in the shade of a bush or shrub just trying to be alone with their thoughts for a while.

Once I was the "lost" person. I wasn't lost, I just ended up totally glued to the side of a nearby hill watching the sky. For, uh, like 8 hours. I worried my friends pretty good but they also knew that I had lived in the Mojave and I was probably fine. I was totally fine, just distracted. I could see the encampment across the small valley from my hillside just a few hundred yards away. I had food and water. But I probably should have unglued myself from the hillside and skywatching to check in with them and let them know where I was at.

These same desert parties even used to have docents of a sort that would give daytime and nighttime nature walks and tours and describe the ancient trail systems, pointing out edible or poisonous plants, how to find water, how you could follow a given trail and hike up into the Sierras or down into the deserts and narrows. Many of the places we camped you could actually take a long hike and end up on the Pacific Crest trail or other major trails.

Anyway, I'm rambling. My main point is that this is a tragedy that shouldn't have happened. Perhaps there needs to be big, bright signage around the area that warns people to not enter or tour through without enough water and telling someone where they're going, or that there are absolutely no services or stores in the area and that the name "Death Valley" isn't just a cute nickname.

It's called Death Valley for a damn good reason. It's not a joke.
posted by loquacious at 1:51 PM on January 3, 2013 [189 favorites]


Yeah, this was a gripping read (the last link). It's a reminder to not rely on maps as though they were the Final Word from your diety of choice. Even around here, in the relatively benevolent PNW, there are things marked on maps as "roads" which will get all but the most foolhardy stuck.

(I hope this isn't a practice and isn't relevant in this case, but please tell me map-makers don't put "copyright traps" into maps where the trap might mean the difference between life and death.)
posted by maxwelton at 1:52 PM on January 3, 2013


max - I make maps (though not the kind that require traps) and I've heard from other cartographers that if a trap is added, it's never in a remote area because they're easier to spot in areas with nothing around. Traps are (supposedly) located in cities as a weird little alley, or a nonexistant landmark, or something like that.
posted by troika at 2:00 PM on January 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Odd that they left the van locked and with two full beers in it. I guess by the time they realized their predicament, it wasn't worth going back.
posted by exogenous at 2:00 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Death Valley isn't necessarily the death trap it is made out to be. It is beautiful and peaceful and a wonderful place to visit. Those who visit just need to remember two things, be prepared and there is no way you are acclimatized to the heat. I spent the latter part of my youth not too far from there and I remember going on runs of several miles on >110 degree days; not having lived there for years, something that foolhardy would certainly get me killed today.

When I was a teenager I had a work friend who was a search and rescue volunteer member out there. I think I remember when these tourists were lost, because my friend was used to this sort of thing and mentioned it. The reason is Europeans, and Germans specifically, were always getting into trouble in the desert. My search and rescue buddy said that after the movie Bagdad Cafe came out and was a cult hit in Germany, they had an increase of German tourists who want to see the desert, specifically Death Valley and the cafe (which is actually in Newberry Springs, next door to Yermo where my friend resided) at the height of summer. People used to the German climate generally can't deal very well with the heat, and as mentioned upthread, don't judge distances in the desert very well.
posted by roquetuen at 2:07 PM on January 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


We got a flat tire in the middle of Death Valley.

Called AAA and it took them 3 hours to get there.

Then I found $20.
posted by miyabo at 2:07 PM on January 3, 2013


I hope this isn't a practice and isn't relevant in this case, but please tell me map-makers don't put "copyright traps" into maps where the trap might mean the difference between life and death.

Not on USGS topo quads, no. But the thing is is that a lot of those topo maps are based on pre-GPS surveying techniques, and the landscape out there can shift wildly due to flash floods, winds, landslides and more, so they're not that accurate. In the high deserts of the Mojave you don't want to count on any fine details smaller than about a quarter to half a mile. Anything finer than that isn't to be trusted and should be just considered a generic eyewitness description of the area.

What could have been a nicely packed and used "road" or "trail" during the survey could have been washed out or severely damaged due to erosion, or perhaps a mine or stake is closed down and that road isn't used or maintained any more.

One of the problems with roads in the Mojave is that one of the only things that's keeping the sand from blowing around is the "cryptosoil" - a fine layer of lichen, fungi and tiny grasses that can be a crust or shell over loose sand. This crust of cryptosoil is as thin as a millimeter or two, or as thick as several inches where it has built up.

Disturb the cryptosoil by cutting a trail or a road and that area is now much more prone to wind or water based erosion. The sand/soil/pebble mixture becomes loose and mobile, which in a flash flood can quickly become slot canyons or huge ruts or washes where there was once a "road".

The desert party crew I mentioned above has reused camping sites in the past. More than a few times previously accessible areas were no longer accessible due to the roads being washed out or drastically altered. They were diligent about checking and rechecking the roads for accessibility and writing new directions with landmarks and mile markers, because you couldn't just trust the old directions. It changes too much and too quickly.

It's a weird place. A footstep in the sand can last a hundred years, but a road could be washed out overnight.
posted by loquacious at 2:09 PM on January 3, 2013 [42 favorites]


It's quite a story and worth the read. Having spent the last half-hour looking at the area via aerial photography, I just can't imagine how you get to the spot the van got stuck at without thinking, "We should turn back." Not just once, but that second or third time where you actually do it, even if you're drunk.

On the other hand, I've only strengthened my resolve to avoid places that have "Death" in the name unless it's part of a well organized tour.
posted by ob1quixote at 2:10 PM on January 3, 2013


Not to mention, what kind of map do they give tourists that might lead them to such a place? You've got to drive half a mile off of what is charitably marked a road to even get to the Anvil Canyon trail head.
posted by ob1quixote at 2:13 PM on January 3, 2013


I was supposed to leave work 45 minutes ago, but I couldn't stop reading. And thinking. And imagining.

.
posted by flyingsquirrel at 2:16 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


The mini-van in the middle of nowhere was a great hook. I kind of regret reading it though because I'm left a bit haunted imagining what the family's final hours must have been.
posted by humanfont at 2:20 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not to mention, what kind of map do they give tourists that might lead them to such a place?

I very much doubt that the map they had was the problem. You need to know the limitations of your vehicle, and your supplies. You don't drive down a road that you can't get out of. You don't keep driving with flat tires. You don't traipse off into the desert in summer when a cabin with water is four miles back the way you came. These tourists made a series of catastrophically bad decisions that got them killed, decisions which I have a hard time understanding. I feel the same way when I read about people who get trapped on logging roads in the winter and, instead of walking back down the road to the highway, set off into the wilderness, and then die. Why didn't they just go back the way they came and flag someone down?

It's a tough article to read. You think about how they must have felt when the seriousness of their situation finally dawned on them. I can't imagine anything worse than having put my kids in that sort of situation.
posted by Dasein at 2:23 PM on January 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


. . . .
posted by ericb at 2:24 PM on January 3, 2013


The bluff located here appears to be Connie's bluff.

Great read and pretty decent story telling, but yeah, don't skip to the end. The last page makes the guy sound like kind of a jerk to me. He's worked up that the Sheriff's office won't give him the details of what they found? Why don't we leave that to the officials and the family? They certainly seemed grateful to you for your work, even if you had to pay for your hotel room that one time (how many chopper flights did you get? What'd those cost you huh? Nothin).

I've spent some time in Death Valley, and it's pretty safe if you stay in the tourist areas where the people are and read the signs (which he never mentions by the way - these are Germans, were they able to read all the signs that are everywhere telling you to be careful, have water, etc?).

Hike up Mosaic Canyon while you are there. Go see the pupfish. Get out at Badwater and have your picture taken. Drive up to Dante's View. But do it in the spring if you can. Or winter. Not July.

And for god sakes don't drive down dirt roads in a mini van.
posted by Big_B at 2:25 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Now having finished this, it's a great read, although I agree it could use some editing.

Spoiler, after the initial main find of the adults' remains and a few personal items (ID cards, day planner), he goes back several more times looking in other nearby areas for the kids, but doesn't find them. The last several pages of the article just describe these searches, and a few criticisms of the agency that handled the aftermath.

The author seems to think the children set out on their own, but that doesn't seem plausible to me.

Yes, I agree - this seems very unlikely to me and I don't know why he assumes this. It seems much more likely that the kids would have less endurance and resistance to dehydration than the adults.

From his photos it's easy to see why the adults would have headed for the bluff they did; it's the nearest shady spot at the base of that line of hills. It sounds like his early guess (that the wife was left waiting there while the husband and kids scouted up over the ridge) turns out to be incorrect, and that the husband's remains were found near hers, so they may have just sought shade there after crossing the plateau.

I do really like his explanation of how they might have ended up making these decisions, though - including the point about expecting the military base to have perimeter patrols.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:28 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


they had an increase of German tourists who want to see the desert, specifically Death Valley and the cafe

When I was going to school in Riverside, California, I spent most of my free days at Joshua Tree. I ended up talking to one of the rangers who was overseeing towing an abandoned minivan and he casually noted that it was yet another rental van from a German party and that it was pretty common for Germans to get permanently lost. His theory was that Germany was small enough that most of them really never GOT that you could walk for days without running into a house, let alone a source of water.

It really shocked me, because I grew up in the redwoods and when I moved to Riverside I was terrified of the desert- I carried an absurd amount of water with me because I was sure that if (when) my car broke down I would die. I took a couple of semesters of botany courses, which helped immensely, but even then I didn't stray very far off the marked trails.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:29 PM on January 3, 2013 [10 favorites]


> don't judge distances in the desert very well.

Yeah, distances in the desert are really hard to get right. On a clear day you can see to the edge of the curved horizon, 20-30 or more miles - and it looks like it's just a couple of miles. I've seen 20-30 mile long valleys that look like you could easily cross them, but the perspective is all screwy due to different plant sizes and false perspectives. Soon you realize that those small bushes off in the distance are actually huge cottonwoods or oaks rising out of the shrub-sized creosotes and you've got your mileage all wrong.

I remember on one the first of these party-campouts I went on with some friends they'd set up in a nice dry lake bed. To the south there was a very gentle slope of sand, just barely more of a ridge than a dune. One of my friends said "Hey, lets climb up that ridge! It's just right there!" and I said "No, it's not. It's like 2+ miles away." "No it's not, it's like less than half a mile!" "Fine. Let me go get some water." and I went and grabbed a gallon of water.

Thirty minutes later we're still slogging up this wedge of sand and the peak looks like its getting farther and farther away, and the slope is just getting steeper and more vertical and deeper and deeper sand. An hour later and we've gone through half the water and the slope is still rising ahead of us, and we never made it to the top and we're now scrambling up a steep slope of deep, sluggish sand. I insisted we turn back since we were going to run out of water and it was getting hotter and later in the day.

Another location out near Jawbone Canyon and Inyokern and there was a huge, pyramid-shaped hill with a total brain-fuck of a trail up the side of it. Experienced people tried climbing to the top of this "hill" only to discover that it was a several thousand foot rise and the trail sort of receded and played tricks on your eyes. You could see clearly to the top, but it was several miles away. All night long we saw experienced hikers packing up water and trying to climb the hill. You could see their flashlights and headlamps receding, receding, but never getting past what appeared to be the halfway mark.

When dawn came there was a trail of a few dozen people trying to slog up it and they were still only 1/3rd of the way up this really sandy trail.

The huge perspective was finally grasped when some Enduro riders came through on big offroad bikes. A group of them went tearing up the trail at high speeds, easily 30-40 MPH, throwing up huge tails of sand. It took them like 15-20 minutes at high speed to even start approaching the top, getting tinier and tinier and so far away we could barely hear their loud engines anymore. They never actually reached the "top", either, they just vanished over the curve of the trail after losing line of sight about 2/3rds of the way up.
posted by loquacious at 2:30 PM on January 3, 2013 [33 favorites]


A fantastic read and some wonderful comments here. I went to Death Valley once, in winter, 15 years ago and have been captivated by it ever since (I'd love to go again.) Indeed, reading this, I recall being told then of the lost Germans, and I'm glad there's closure to their very sad tale.
posted by ob at 2:45 PM on January 3, 2013


jessamyn: "This backcountry roads map is 7MB and it shows how the places fit in to the rest of the world. "

This backcountry roads map is only 155kb and is the one I'm familiar with that gets handed out as a pamphlet, whereas I think that one you have to buy. The route they supposedly where taking is #14, but the van was found in the canyon south of Butte Canyon, so they made a wrong turn and didn't take a route on either of these maps.
posted by Big_B at 2:46 PM on January 3, 2013


Death Valley isn't that dangerous, *IF* you're being safe, and is very beautiful when the desert flowers bloom

... and sometimes this happens
posted by philip-random at 2:47 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've seen 20-30 mile long valleys that look like you could easily cross them, but the perspective is all screwy due to different plant sizes and false perspectives. Soon you realize that those small bushes off in the distance are actually huge cottonwoods or oaks rising out of the shrub-sized creosotes and you've got your mileage all wrong.

I think it's also partly just the air - it's so dry that there's no obscuring of distant objects by any haze, and things 10 miles away look as crisp and clear and something right next to you. We get a similar sort of effect in SoCal during Santa Anas (basically, when the coastal areas get the desert's atmospheric conditions), and distant mountains are so starkly defined they almost look like cardboard cutouts.
posted by LionIndex at 2:57 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Right, I meant to infer that it is very much the clear, clean dry and often very thin high altitude air. The lack of human-scale objects for perspective and very weird terrain is just additional mind-fuckery.

I remember when I lived in Lucerne Valley (South of Victorville, North of Palm Springs in the Mojave Narrows, just east of Big Bear) the air was so clear you could actually see the river of smog around the 15 and pouring out of the El Cajon pass from LA and the Inland Empire/Riverside areas.

Valleys with heavily traveled roads in them were always smokier and smoggier than ones without. The farther you get away from the heavily traveled roads and the higher your altitude, the clearer the air is and the farther you could see.

So the farther off the beaten path you go, the more likely it is that you're going to misjudge distances.
posted by loquacious at 3:09 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


re the maps they had and why they went off the marked road: The author says "However their pamphlet offered an (erroneous) alternative, apparently shorter route back down to the valley in the form of a road down Anvil Canyon." On the first page, he explains that this had been an official road until only two years earlier. I expect that some time in the last 15 years, they updated the map being handed out/sold to visitors, which would explain it not showing up on either of your maps. So yes, the map was part of the problem.

Also, a note to all the Americans saying "Germans/Europeans just can't understand the distances involved and how huge America is!" This is kind of how Australians feel when an American says "I'm thinking of driving from Sydney to Perth...Is the road between Sydney and Alice Springs very much like a typical American drive i.e. settlements/towns with McDonald's, Denny's, Comfort Inn, Fuel (or equivalent) etc...... spaced periodically on the Highway?" What gets you is the unknown unknowns. Stop making fun of people who don't know they don't know what you know, and start freaking out about all the things you don't know you don't know.
posted by jacalata at 3:09 PM on January 3, 2013 [24 favorites]


What a fascinating, sad and haunting story.

The first thing I would have done - well, the second. The first thing, in a minivan in the desert with children, would have been to not leave a paved road.

So, the first thing I would have done after getting stuck would be to light fire to the spare tire and hope that the smoke might cause someone to investigate.

I probably would have burned all five tires one at a time, and maybe the minivan itself, before setting off on foot.

posted by mmrtnt at 3:16 PM on January 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


I started to read the FPP blurb..."Family of German tourists"..."desert Southwest"..."summer of 1996"...and got a little tight in the throat.

In early August of 1996, I was done with my internship, and a high-school-summer-enrichment classmate was fresh out of the Corp, and we took a road trip out West. Drove straight from St. Louis to the Grand Canyon, no stopping except for gas, piss, and when we threw the a/c belt because the a/c clutch was locked up.

Being good citizens, we'd stop on the side of the road to help anyone we saw stranded. I'd forgotten my clothes bag, and Phill's a minimalist, so once I used my t-shirt to open a radiator (the third car we'd helped), we had only one shirt between us. Basically, for nine days, we wore nothing but baggy surfer shorts and Teva sandals. We looked...grubby.

After the Grand Canyon, we headed up into Utah - Zion, Bryce, and a drive up Utah State Highway 12. Three miles outside of Boulder, UT, we came across a "See America" camper; the type European vacationers drive all over. It was a family of four; man, lady, their early-teens son and daughter. The camper wouldn't stay running, and only one of them knew English ("holy shit it's hot" has something of a universal ring to it). So we ferried them to Boulder in our car, and Phill limped somehow got the camper to start (motor pool in the Corps) and limped it into town.

I read the part in the FPP that mentioned the ages of the kids and that they were lost in July. Now I feel kinda guilty at feeling *relief* that it wasn't was *my* German tourists. This tale is harrowing.

[I've been through Death Valley in the summer. Just "through". In the heat, for the first minute -if you're hydrated- it almost feels cool because the sweat is evaporating so quickly off your skin. Then your lungs report that they're on fire...]
posted by notsnot at 3:23 PM on January 3, 2013 [16 favorites]


> In my experience, European tourists frequently underestimate the size of North America

My wife once took the train from Toronto to Banff with a Scottish friend. The friend fell asleep shortly after they pulled out of Union Station and when she woke up in the morning she was astounded to learn that they were still in the same province.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:23 PM on January 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


... and sometimes this happens

No, it doesn't. Or shouldn't.

Look, I hate to spoil the romance of a fictional movie - but judging by the fine, white, talc-like sand they're sitting on it looks like they're in an alkali/salt alluvial deposit.

They're basically risking minor to severe chemical burns if they get any of that fine white powder on their nethers or mucous membranes, or severe drying/cracking.

There's a reason why you're not supposed to walk around Burning Man in bare feet on the playa or have sex laying down in it. The stuff can be mildly caustic and cause some pretty severe problems.

That's actually something I saw very little of at the desert parties I went to - sexual activities in the sand or dirt. It's extremely unpleasant. Sure, people did have sex out there, but mainly in their cars or clean tents or up on a nice rock formation somewhere. But never down on the sand or dirt. Very bad idea.

On that note: if you're ever out there - don't camp or picnic in areas that show white, pink or green stains on the ground. They could be mining tailings or an old cyanide leach pit. If there are obviously human-made piles of dirt around, or dams or dikes or pits, or rusty mining machinery or open mine shafts - avoid the area and don't hang out there. Especially if the ground is funny colors or is stained with rinds of salts.

You can usually safely travel through these areas but you really don't want to set up camp, sit down in the dirt or eat your lunch there or otherwise ingest much of the dirt or dust. It could be laced with metal salts, cyanide, arsenic and other nasty stuff.
posted by loquacious at 3:25 PM on January 3, 2013 [29 favorites]


Stop making fun of people who don't know they don't know what you know, and start freaking out about all the things you don't know you don't know.

No one in this thread is "making fun" of people. It's not a dis to point out that growing up in a different landscape means you have different expectations about geography, space, and infrastructure.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:30 PM on January 3, 2013 [18 favorites]


One other thing I though of: I only lived in Albuquerque for a few months, but that was long enough that "Ditches Are Deadly — Stay Away!" and the "Ditch Witch" logo are burned into my psyche forever and ever. Thus, I'd think twice about venturing into anything that looked even remotely like a wash.

I note that here 17 years in the future, warnings about flash flooding appear at least three times on this list of dangers in Death Valley National Park. One wonders about how seriously they warned visitors in 1996, especially non-English speakers, to exercise extreme caution in arroyos.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:33 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Stop making fun of people who don't know they don't know what you know, and start freaking out about all the things you don't know you don't know.

I don't think anyone is making fun. As they say - in America a hundred years is a long time, but in Europe a hundred miles is a long way.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:35 PM on January 3, 2013 [41 favorites]


Burhanistan: "Now, anything other than a brisk drive through with a few stops where stopping/looking is indicated is pretty foolhardy, though."

When I went there I asked a ranger at the visitor center where I should get out and look. She said to drive through, AC off and windows down, and not get out of the car.
posted by brundlefly at 3:35 PM on January 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


loquacious, your comments have really made this thread for me. Thank you for all of the fascinating info!
posted by elsietheeel at 3:36 PM on January 3, 2013 [9 favorites]


small_ruminant: "His theory was that Germany was small enough that most of them really never GOT that you could walk for days without running into a house, let alone a source of water. "
Germany isn't small as far as European countries go; it's only slightly smaller than Montana and is thus larger than 45 of the 48 contiguous states. But stuffing about a quarter of the US population into Montana would indeed mean that the nearest neighbour isn't far away.

The area I'm living in, which admittedly is very densely populated even for Germany, has about 10 million people living in an area half the size of Inyo County.

Death Valley NP would cover a third of my native country, by the way.
posted by brokkr at 3:39 PM on January 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


We did a road trip last fall from that took us through Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches, and a bit of Canyonlands, over to Mesa Verde in Colorado, and then down into New Mexico to Chaco. The temperatures never cracked 80 degrees, but it was very dry, and between that and the altitude it was easy to get dehydrated without really realizing it.

And yeah, the air and quality of light were amazing, and made judging distances difficult.
posted by rtha at 3:41 PM on January 3, 2013


Those curious about the parties of the sort loquacious has described might want to take a look at these old vids of Moontribe 95 and Dune 2/3/4.

I remember being at one of the Dune raves, probably '97 out by Indio.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:45 PM on January 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


My wife once took the train from Toronto to Banff with a Scottish friend. The friend fell asleep shortly after they pulled out of Union Station and when she woke up in the morning she was astounded to learn that they were still in the same province.

This is remarkable understatement: going westward, it is just under 31 hours before the train reaches the Manitoba border.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:51 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


In the words of Bob Dylan in the Ballad of Frankie Lee, "One should not be where one does not belong."
posted by Xurando at 4:00 PM on January 3, 2013


> going westward, it is just under 31 hours before the train reaches the Manitoba border.

Her Scottish pal was probably really freaked out, then (this was before I met my wife). Google maps says 1900 km from Toronto to the Manitoba border, which is almost exactly the same distance, by car, as it is from Glasgow (where her friend lived) to Kiev. Canada is freaking huge.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:11 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I spent a couple of days on the Blood Indian reserve in Alberta a couple of decades ago they really enjoyed asking me how far away I thought the mountains were. It was laughter all around the circle followed by tales of how they sent missionaries they didn't like off on walks to visit them.
posted by srboisvert at 4:16 PM on January 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


When we drove through Death Valley, it was 1996 or 1997. I think we were eight. I can't even imagine setting out on foot there, and we had been camping for years by that point. There are huge signs warning you about the backcountry and about the last stop for water, and for gas. The heat was eerie, to someone raised in the humid muck of DC-- it doesn't even feel that hot, until you realize your skin is radiating, and your lips are all parched. We drove around a corner once, and there was a tiny oasis in the side of a cliff, and the startling brightness of all that green and the reeds against the sun-bleached walls made even the puddles seem alien.

Everything is very far.

.
.
.
.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:17 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Interesting and tragic story... I went ahead and created a big Google Earth map of all the spots in this search here: KMZ file. I used USGS topo maps and other sources to place all the locations. The van route is in red, going southwest, and the foot route is in purple, going south.

That said, I haven't read the whole story in depth so I may have screwed something up, but I did the map so I could really soak in the story later and put everything into context. If anyone sees an error I'll upload a corrected version later tonight, or one of you is welcome to post a fixed version.
posted by crapmatic at 4:20 PM on January 3, 2013 [20 favorites]


it doesn't even feel that hot, until you realize your skin is radiating, and your lips are all parched.

No kidding! When someone gives you water to drink, and you tell them that you aren't thirsty, be prepared for looks of bafflement as though you'd randomly announced your love of the polka; thirstiness has exactly zero to do with whether or not you need to drink water or your level of dehydration, unless you're dangerously dehydrated already.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:22 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


The thing about America is that its big. I mean you might say that running to the shops downtown is a long way, but that's peanuts compared to America.
posted by humanfont at 4:26 PM on January 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


So haunting. We drove through the desert south of Death Valley on routes 40 and 15 just a month later than their disappearance, on our way from upstate New York to Los Angeles. We stopped in Needles for gas and hydration at about 1:00 in the morning, and the temperature was 108ºF - when I wondered out loud when it starts to cool off, the guy behind the counter said "This is about as cool as it gets this time of year." Those 100+ mile stretches of desert with no services scared the hell out of me, even on a big interstate, especially in pre-cell phone days.
posted by usonian at 4:38 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Reminds me of Ordeal in the Desert by Evan Wylie, "a true story of a family that got stuck in the Utah desert in 1959 and struggled for survival" which gave me nightmares for years.
posted by Rash at 4:39 PM on January 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


Death Valley, and environs, are one of my favorite places on earth. It's a transformative place; hypnotic and creepy and just chock-a-block with history. The place names alone fire up the imagination.

I very much recommend the book noted in the article to anyone interested in digging deeper on the place:

Lingenfelter's "Death Valley and the Amargosa: A Land of Illusion".

One thing I've experienced in Death Valley and other jumbo deserts is a phenomenon known as "desert rapture". It's a trance-like state, a spaciness that causes you lose sense of time and distance, and to want to keep driving "just one more mile" and to keep hiking around "just one more bend". This has bitten me in the ass more than once.

Another aspect of the scenario that might have contributed to the Germans' fate is the relative crappiness of standard-issue American rental vehicles relative to German autos. I only suggest this because my friends and I once rescued a very sweet, and very exasperated, German couple out on a dotted-line road in the desert. Their rental had blown a tire, and they were struggling to work with the cheap-o tools and donut-spare that came with the car, and to decode the stupidly-organized owner's manual. They were otherwise well-prepared, but truly were at a loss with the damn tire.
posted by nacho fries at 4:50 PM on January 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


Here is the road they took the right turn on. In case you're interested.
posted by zorro astor at 4:55 PM on January 3, 2013


This isn't just a Death Valley thing -- it happens all too often and not just to European tourists. The weather, desolation, and ruggedness of the American west is beautiful but it deserves a lot of respect -- it'll try to kill you if you give it a foolish opportunity.
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 4:56 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's a good read, thanks.
posted by Jehan at 5:16 PM on January 3, 2013


Indeed. This reminds me of some of the stupid things I've done that didn't lead to disaster. Like routing out across the Black Rock desert with a quarter tank of gas. Driving up to Dead Horse, AK in a 2wd street car wasn't my cleverest move either. Given the wrong inputs in an unfamiliar environment, even a smart person can make one or two dumb inferences and end up in trouble.
posted by wotsac at 5:19 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


.
posted by sgt.serenity at 5:20 PM on January 3, 2013


Her Scottish pal was probably really freaked out, then (this was before I met my wife). Google maps says 1900 km from Toronto to the Manitoba border, which is almost exactly the same distance, by car, as it is from Glasgow (where her friend lived) to Kiev. Canada is freaking huge.

I once won a bet with British coworker by proving that the distance between here (Portland) to Miami was further than than the distance between London and Baghdad.
posted by dersins at 5:23 PM on January 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is the spot in google maps.
posted by lamp at 6:15 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's frustrating that he describes his colleague having found what could have been notes or a letter ( Closer inspection by Les showed it to actually be pages from a daily planner….with printing in German!) but which are never mentioned again once the bones are discovered.
An interesting read, despite its longueurs. I expect it could also be a very good book, if a Jon Krakauer or Susan Orlean can tie all the threads together to which Mahood didn't have access.
posted by Flashman at 6:27 PM on January 3, 2013


He mentioned asking the Sheriff's department about the note - they handed it over. The Sheriff replied that they didn't have anyone on staff who spoke German.
posted by maryr at 6:44 PM on January 3, 2013


Surely the thread doesn't end there. I'm thinking the letters must have been returned to the family (in Germany) by the consulate?
posted by echo target at 6:50 PM on January 3, 2013


This was a really good FPP. Thanks!
posted by cribcage at 7:19 PM on January 3, 2013


God. Horrible to contemplate. Thanks for posting.
posted by chinston at 7:34 PM on January 3, 2013


He mentioned asking the Sheriff's department about the note - they handed it over. The Sheriff replied that they didn't have anyone on staff who spoke German.

I saw that, but he's describing another piece of paper, not the pages found in the bush near the wine bottle:
"When Les and I took Conny’s day planner back to the DVNP HQ at Furnace Creek, we saw a pronounced folded piece of pink paper stuck in it. We thought it could be a note, but didn’t want to risk any damage by trying to open it, so we let it be. But I was VERY interested in what it could be."
posted by Flashman at 8:42 PM on January 3, 2013


Those curious about the parties of the sort loquacious has described might want to take a look at these old vids of Moontribe 95 and Dune 2/3/4.

I remember being at one of the Dune raves, probably '97 out by Indio.


Heh. Man, those videos look kind of bad. I'm probably somewhere in all of those videos but I also had a knack for staying out of range of cameras when I was out there. Thankfully they're too grainy and oldschool for me to pick myself out of the crowds, and the shock of seeing myself with a shaved head and big stupid pants might not be good for my heart condition.

I was definitely at basically all of the Moontribe parties in 95 and I recognize the location on the one in the video which could be near Inyokern or China Lake, but I definitely remember the old car cruising around with a pile of people on top of it. And I was at all of the Dune raves, including the first one which was partially my fault.

And yet it's still automatic and natural for me to not mention the parties by name as if they still need protection, because you weren't supposed to talk about Moontribe. Dune was a commercial rave held on private property, though, so it's easier to talk about.

Fine, I'll derail a bit more and talk about Moontribe by name, and later Dune.

Moontribe is still throwing parties but they've turned into some kind of new age cult for the rich and pretty kids from LA and Hollywood. Like, seriously rich and seriously pretty kids, models and actors and crap, people that like to wear a lot of fancy white clothes and expensive Burning Man costumes and while they go be bourgeois out in the desert in their SUVs and shit. That's fine, but I didn't really need the ration of haughty, snooty shit the last time I went out to one of those in the mid 2000s. Yes, I'm not as rich or pretty as you - but I was going to these things before you were even in high school, kid.

As lore has it - Moontribe initially started in the early 90s with the hybrid live/electronic/trance band called Electric Skychurch who was tired of having their parties busted in LA. So they started going out to the desert. It naturally evolved into a more DJ-centric party. Same music basically, less instruments and hassle. They certainly weren't the first weirdos to do this kind of thing - there have been weirdos doing this with freakout rock and other hippie weirdness since the 60s - and, of course, much earlier. It just sort of depends on where you set your historical plane of focus.

But Moontribe may have been among the first or the first in the deserts of the southwest to do it every time there was a full moon, rain or shine, whether or not it was a weekend or weekday. The parties quickly accelerated from 25-50 people to hundreds, or even up to several thousands when the full moon landed on a weekend.

The parties were free and donation based. Occasionally they held non-full moon fundraisers to help pay for the soundsystem or repairs.

I was at the new moon fundraiser that helped pay for the fairly new looking speakers you see in the Moontribe 95 video. This new moon benefit party that was on the lakebed I described in a comment above where my friend said that the sandy ridge was "just right there" even though I knew it wasn't.

That party was super weird, like raving in a dry, snowless Antarctica. Dry lake beds are strange places even in broad daylight. There was maybe 50-100 people there mostly hiding from the bitter wind in their cars. People were wearing snow pants, boots and huge hooded parkas and looked like they had space suits on with their little raver backpacks full of raver stuff. The winds were so strong they kept blowing the needles across the records or blowing records and slipmats right off the turntables. People had to go chase down records blowing across the lakebed a couple of times. To light a cig or pipe you basically had to crawl up inside the wheel well of a car or truck to get out of the wind.

I remember they actually moved the DJ stand and coffin case holding the turntables into the back of a van in a heroic group effort with a record still playing. The music and sound must stay on and all that. God forbid the music ever stops in the middle of a dry lake bed experiencing a 60-70 MPH sustained windstorm complete with blasting sand. Even after they got the DJ in the van he had to DJ with the doors mostly closed, and it was gusting strong enough to rock the van enough to make the needles skip on the records. I remember him laughing like a mad chemist whose experiments kept going hilariously but frustratingly wrong.

From the Moontribe 95 video you can see a bunch of irresponsible looking kids obviously off their faces on whatever after dancing all night long. At one point in the video you can even see a balloon that was probably filled with nitrous, not air or helium.

Hell, I was just barely early 20s at the time and was still a kid myself.

What you don't see in the video is how these same kids would bring trash bags to pack out trash that wasn't even theirs, stuff that had been out in the desert for decades. How people would carry their own little empty altoids tin ashtrays to safely dispose of ashes or cigarette butts. How these kids would bring kitty litter scoops to sift through the sand on and all around the campsite for bottlecaps, cigarette butts or whatever.

The morning of the new moon benefit party I remember when dawn broke and there were dozens of people up to miles away across the dried lake bed, alone or in couples or small groups, each person with a wind-blown trash bag just contemplatively walking along, looking around and listening to the music booming across the lakebed. Every so often they would bend over and pick some piece of rusted tin can or broken glass out of the dried mud of the lakebed, look at it and then drop it in their bags.

This became a fairly regular thing at Moontribes. Dawn would come and reveal people dancing up on rock piles and formations, or people snoozing under bushes or in or under their cars. And there was always some ad-hoc trash patrol going on, someone off in the far distance gingerly picking their way around the bushes and cacti and carefully picking up old trash. "Carefully" because old tin cans are fine homes for scorpions or tarantula. People would usually kick the can free with their toes and look at it. Occasionally you'd see someone pick something up and drop it like it was hot and they'd leap back in alarm.

This is one of the secrets as to why Moontribe survived so long doing these parties every single month, sometimes twice a month for blue moons. The BLM absolutely loved us because we didn't only leave only footprints, we left each site cleaner than we found it and actually packed out lots of trash.

More often than not the BLM would roll through in their government issued trucks and uniforms and check in on us. They'd see we had plenty of water and that we weren't littering, and that we were picking up trash that wasn't even ours and they were just like "OK, you guys are fucking awesome. Are you guys going to be here for a while? We want to come back with cold beers when we're off the clock and hang out and party with you!"

And they would. It was a little weird but they basically didn't care what the hell we were doing as long as we took care of the land better than the OHV folks, which wasn't that hard. Beyond the heavy tire tracks and torn up terrain the OHV camps were usually littered with crushed Budweiser cans or shot up TVs or burnt trash, while we obviously never shot anything because we didn't have guns, and we also generally had a no campfire policy unless there was an established fire ring and it was really cold out.

And more than once the BLM rolled through to inform us we were actually on private land or state or national parkland and they would actually tell us where the BLM land was and helped us move to the new location. Often times the new location was even better than where we had camped, so thanks, BLM!

Another thing you don't see in the videos is the ad-hoc breakfasts. People would appear with baskets or trays of fruits, melons, rolls, juices and nice things to eat after being awake all night in the cold desert. I almost always brought a bag of apples and oranges to cut up. Sometimes people would set up stoves and the next thing you knew there was a full pancake breakfast with hot coffee and bacon and eggs.

Oddly enough the Dune parties were actually a reaction to the Moontribe parties. Mainly because of how difficult it was to get directions to the Moontribe parties. Moontribe had at the time a very strict "no FAX, no email, no email lists" policy where you were supposed to only get the directions via word of mouth, even if that meant copying them from a verbal phone call. So a lot of times you were all packed up and ready to go but you were still waiting for directions that may or may not come with a 6 or more hour drive ahead of you. Sometimes people ended up never getting directions, but the point was to try to keep the crowd size low and at manageable levels.

So, Dune.

In SoCal there's a little old mailing list called SoCal-Raves or SCR. It's been in operation since... 1989? 1990? It still exists. It originally resided on UCSD email servers, and eventually UCI email servers under the auspices of UCI's radio station - KUCI, and then eventually it had its own domain and listserv.

The first Dune party was being organized on the SCR mailing list. It didn't have a name, yet. I basically opened my fat mouth and said "Comon', we can throw our own parties. We already throw little renegade parties here in the city. We can get sound. We know we can get DJs. All we really need is a generator and a location." and it started snowballing from there, because, yeah, it's not that hard. The hardest part is finding a good location that's off the beaten path enough to avoid the authorities, but accessible enough that people didn't get their cars stuck and there was enough room to park. Bonus points if the location is also pretty and interesting and not just some flat pitch of sand and creosote. Rock features or vistas or large trees are all favored for the shade and visual interest.

And in the space of a few days or a week it rapidly grew into something that was more elaborate and complicated than I was willing to deal with or have any major role in, so I bowed out and let the self-organizing and much more capable people take over. In retrospect I'm actually more proud that I had the wisdom back then to bow out and let more detail-oriented people deal with it then the fact I helped get it started.

The first Dune party happened north of Lancaster in the Antelope Valley area just east of Highway 14. I think there are actually housing developments at that location, now. Most of that valley has filled in with real streets and houses. It wasn't as pretty as the Moontribe locations deep in BLM lands - just a flat piece of sandy plain - but it was our location.

There's a now famous DJ named Christopher Lawrence. This party was basically his debut performance. He took off like a rocket after this party and eventually started touring the world. (Another "famous" DJ from Moontribe include John Kelly and his "Desert Breaks" mixes that became pretty popular in the mid-to-late 90s.)

On the way out to the party we stopped at a truck stop. I remember finding a cheap plastic kite and string and glowsticks all on the same rack of toys. And so I bought a kite, some extra string and some glowsticks. It was basically the best idea I've ever had for one of these kinds of parties and set the tone for future Dune parties. The wind was barely strong enough to keep the kite and glowstick aloft, but I was able to park the kite and glowstick basically right over the dance floor from about a half mile away where my friends had parked.

And people were freaking the fuck out over it. I remember hearing people walking up the long, narrow road where dozens or hundreds of cars had pulled to one shoulder and parked. "Dude, do you see that!? That star is moving! Dude, WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT!? That's a fucking UFO! That's the real deal, man, look at how it's moving all over the place! OH MY GOD WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING!?" and then they'd make it to where I was standing at my friend's car holding the kite string and just trying to keep the damn thing coaxed into in the air and they'd just go "Ohhh, man."

And that still wasn't my favorite moment of that party. There were the hunters/shooters who came through in a camo-painted pickup truck, wearing desert fatigues with a proper gun rack in the back windoow. They were bewildered, asking "Uh, what exactly is going on out here?" and one of my friends is rolling for maybe the second time in his life and he just naturally replies as he's bobbing his head to the quiet sound of the speakers off in the distance while he's cramming orange slices in his dirty face and grinning too much. "We're ravin'! Wanna join us? We're dancin' and having breakfast! What're you guys doing?" "Uh, we're going shooting and hunting." "Yeah, you might not want to do that around here. Lots and lots of people are out in those bushes walking around." "Yeah, uh, that's good advice. We'll keep going so we're nice and far away from you guys."

Then the farm girl with the pickup truck full of carrots came through on her way to go feed some horses somewhere. Same lines, basically. "What the heck is going on out here?" "We're having a party! Wanna join us?" "Uh, hell yeah! You guys want some carrots? Grab a few bunches to share with people and I'll be right back after I drop these off for the horses!" and so we did, and suddenly there were a bunch of dirty-faced ravers walking around the high desert gnawing on deliciously cold carrots in the bright pink dawn.

The Dune parties became a yearly festival thing. There was even a record label that spun off of these parties called Fragrant Records. Most of the parties after that first one were held on private land near Indio.

Every Dune party after that, though, had some kind of light-based art piece or event. I think it was the 2nd one where someone scored several thousand about to expire glowsticks from the US Navy through what sounded like less than official channels. As in probably free, not surplus. It took a team of 10-12 people huddled in a tent around plastic buckets a good 20-30 minutes to open and crack all of those.

I remember roaming the edge of the dance floor and seeing this big tent getting brighter and brighter so I went and investigated the tent, and the people inside were just like "SHHH it's a secret! Either get in here and close the door and start cracking glow sticks or go away!" so I went in and started cracking glowsticks and filling buckets full of light. At midnight or something e went out with these dozens of buckets of glowsticks and started throwing them up in the sky over the dance floor. Thousands and thousand of them with people on the dance floor just freaking out at the falling stars and free toys.

Today in the age of huge commercial megafestivals like Electric Daisy Carnival where a few hundred thousand people will happily buy a bunch of cheap, plastic "raver gear" online or at stands at the festival this doesn't seem like such a big deal, but in 95 or 96 it was pretty big deal, especially since they were free. I'd never seen so many glowsticks in one place in my life before or since.

Anyway. The desert is dangerous, but much of it is quite habitable and outright pleasant to be in if you know what you're doing and you have plenty of water.

I should point out that as far as I know and saw - none of these parties ever actually happened in Death Valley. For one - it was totally illegal to do in a National Park, and for good reasons because it deserves protection. For two - it's Death Valley!

There's another reason why these parties mainly happened on BLM lands, and it wasn't just because it was legal to assemble and camp on BLM lands. Many of the parties happened in OHV areas on BLM lands where the desert was already pretty torn up so we didn't stomp all over virgin desert.

But many of these parties happened around or near Death Valley, just at higher, cooler altitudes. Trona rocks, China Lake, Lone Pine, Jawbone Canyon, Inyokern along the western rim and many other places I could point to on a map around the southern rim of Death Valley, north of Yermo and Barstow or even Henderson. Some places close enough for a very long hike or short drive to reach the boundary to Death Valley. But never actually in Death Valley.
posted by loquacious at 9:28 PM on January 3, 2013 [75 favorites]


Horrifying and sad. Four dots .... in memory of our German brothers and sisters; RIP.
posted by Guy Smiley at 9:42 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've lived in the desert all my life. Even took survival classes. It's easy to get lost in the desert, even for natives.
posted by _paegan_ at 11:18 PM on January 3, 2013


In what I found to be an appropriately eerie coincidence, one of the later installments ("The craziest day hike, ever, 3/23/2010") begins with him looking for an alternative approach to the site of the first body. He decides on hiking from Barker Ranch.

Barker Ranch, of course, is where Charles Manson was arrested.

(No significance, obviously; but I do like when creepy things harmonize like this...)
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 11:37 PM on January 3, 2013


And when the last Dune was cancelled, some friends of mine threw a party called Caladan in the forested mountains near LA, and we kept doing it for 10 years.
posted by flaterik at 12:01 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


and me and loq still argue about silly shit on SCR sometimes
posted by flaterik at 12:03 AM on January 4, 2013


My family made numerous desert crossings when I was younger than age 4. My younger sister was e maven younger. We generally had desert water bags lashed to the car, lots of food, cans of soda and beer in a cooler... It was not that unusual to camp in the desert either, but we did not go far off road.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 1:05 AM on January 4, 2013


What strikes me about all the sat photos of the desert is that there are signs of water all around. Sitting on an alluvial fan dying of thirst; isn't that ironic?
posted by brokkr at 4:36 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


loquacious, we probably went to some of the same parties. I didn't drive so I'm not sure where they were, but we called them "full moon raves." I went to a few mostly in 1994 and early 1995 before moving out of the area.
posted by exogenous at 5:11 AM on January 4, 2013


The third installment: I get sucked in

That pretty much describes my reaction to the story; it's a nice counterpoint to the earlier post on freezing to death. And has convinced me to never leave civilization if I can help it.

I look forward to reading about the search for 928
posted by TedW at 6:11 AM on January 4, 2013


Sad story and so easy to get into that sort of trouble in the desert if you don't really heed the warnings. Am actually in Death Valley now and even in the dead of winter it's an unforgiving place. Plenty of side roads labeled with warnings about only high clearance 4 wheel drive vehicles should even attempt this road and yet- yesterday we drove down one such to the trailhead (in a 4 wheel drive high clearance jeep) only to find a rental RV parked at the trailhead. Not a road I would have taken a regular car on let alone an over-sized camper. And yes, they were gone when we got back from hiking so guess it worked out. It's incredibly rugged terrain and distances are both enormous and very hard to judge.
posted by leslies at 6:53 AM on January 4, 2013


Gut wrenching. I share the opinion of those up-thread that the children surely died first, and they were laid to rest somewhere secluded.
My broader take on what happened here is that it was probably a trap I often fall into when playing games. They made a serious of decisions that turned out to be wrong, and in their heads were attributing them to "luck" (or lack thereof). Rather than making their next decision on sound rational logic, they made it on the basis that surely their "luck" would turn. And when it didn't, surely then on their *next* move their luck would turn. And it didn't. And so on, until they ran out of turns before ever rolling a double.
For the length of the article, it was a small incidental part about him passing a spot where a women and her six year old had got stuck in their car that I found the saddest. Imagine the guilt of getting your child into that position and then watching them die, and then being rescued. Or actually don't, because it's fucking horrible.
posted by chill at 7:11 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm curious as to how much mobile phone coverage there is in the area now. How far can one go into the area and still have some method of calling for help? The story mentions one particular spot that got three bars of coverage, and that the author was able to use this on his initial expedition to phone in their discovery ahead of time, but have they added any cell towers since then?
posted by Dr. Zira at 7:54 AM on January 4, 2013


Very interesting post! I couldn't get it out of my head all evening--quite haunting. Based on my experience with family car camping trips, I kept wondering if they were confident and joyful as they were camping and sightseeing, or if they were worried as they bumped around on the those hot, dusty roads. My dad was pretty adventurous when went camping, but I doubt my mom would have let him go down those terrible roads. I can remember a few hair-raising trips over snowy passes, with my mom in a panic. Plus, my nephews are the same age as the boys in the story.
posted by feste at 7:58 AM on January 4, 2013


To asnwer the cell phone question - it's spotty - from 3 bars to none. Huge elevation changes mean you can be shadowed and out of coverage, go round a bend and suddenly have cell. None in narrow canyons. Clearly more coverage than in past but the terrain will limit its effectiveness.
posted by leslies at 8:11 AM on January 4, 2013


Here is my favorite piece of writing about this part of the world, by Barry Lopez in his book Desert Notes:

"I know you are tired. I am tired too. Will you walk along the edge of the desert with me? I would like to show you what lies before us.

All my life I have wanted to trick blood from a rock. I have dreamed about raising the devil and cutting him in half. I have thought too about never being afraid of anything at all. This is where you come to do those things.

I know what they tell you about the desert but you mustn't believe them. This is no deathbed. Dig down, the earth is moist. Boulders have turned to dust here, the dust feels like graphite. You can hear a man breathe at a distance of twenty yards. You can see out there to the edge where the desert stops and the mountains begin. You think it is perhaps ten miles. It is more than a hundred. Just before the sun sets all the colors will change. Green will turn to blue, red to gold.

I have been told there is very little time left, that we must get all these things about time and place straight. If we don't, we will only have passed on and have changed nothing. That is why we are here I think, to change things. It is why I came to the desert. Here things are sharp, elemental. There is no one to look over your shoulder to find out what you're doing with your hands, or to ask if you have considered the number of people dying daily of malnutrition. If you've been listening you must suspect that a knife will be very useful out here ~ not to use, just to look at.

There is something else here, too, even more important: explanations will occur to you, seeming to clarify; but they can be a kind of trick. You will think you will have hold of an idea when you only have hold of its clothing.

Feel how still it is. You can become impatient here, willing to accept any explanation in order to move on. This appears to be nothing at all, but it is a wall between you and what you are after. Be sure you are not tricked into thinking there is nothing to fear. Moving on is not important. You must wait. You must take things down to the core. You must be careful with everything, even with what I tell you."
posted by colfax at 8:30 AM on January 4, 2013 [15 favorites]


Can someone point me to the installment where they found the husband/father? I read the whole thing but somehow missed that.
posted by lunasol at 8:36 AM on January 4, 2013


Yeah, me too. The last paragraph of "The Big Search" seems to be the first time he mentions it.
posted by mahershalal at 8:42 AM on January 4, 2013


Google maps says 1900 km from Toronto to the Manitoba border, which is almost exactly the same distance, by car, as it is from Glasgow (where her friend lived) to Kiev

Not quite. You're confusing kilometres with miles. Still, it's about the distance from Glasgow to Milan - a very long way.
posted by Dasein at 8:42 AM on January 4, 2013


The husband's remains were among those found with Cornelia's cards & papers. Same site, at the south end of the plateau. The author didn't mention them before because they didn't know until the forensics people said there were male and female bones there.
posted by echo target at 8:46 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nineteen miles of hiking in one day on that topography with that pack is fit.

(for at least a few miles, we would both be carrying about 40 pounds of water each)
posted by bukvich at 9:01 AM on January 4, 2013


I'd like to point out how classy this guy is. No photos of bones or even any personal belongings. Nothing ghoulish in either the photos or the writing. Lots of respect for the victims: never once does he call them stupid, and he (modestly) suggests they made it farther than he would have.

If I ever die in a remote wilderness area, I hope Tom Mahood finds me, instead of some punk-ass who'll call me an idiot and make my fingerbones into a necklace.
posted by echo target at 9:13 AM on January 4, 2013 [35 favorites]


In discussing this in another conference, I happened to search for how many people are lost in Death Valley every year. I didn't find a satisfactory answer, but did come across this article which mentions Mahood and his search for Rimkus, Meyer, and their children.

'Death by GPS' in desert, Tom Knudson, The Sacramento Bee, 30 January 2011
posted by ob1quixote at 10:12 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, it occurred to me that perhaps it would make sense to have the less than 600 miles of roads deemed safe for all vehicles flanked by cable guardrails. You could allow cuts for the trails and 4WD roads and block them with obstacles surmountable only by vehicles capable of navigating them. There's already a road, so it's not as if you'd be spoiling untouched wilderness.

It wouldn't be free, of course. I estimate the cost would be between $20M and $30M, but how much does combing the wilderness for misguided souls who've wandered off the safe roads cost? You could reduce the cost by only putting them where they'd do the most good. Or perhaps even just putting 8 in. curbs at the intersections between "all vehicles" roads and 4WD roads would work at a greatly reduced cost.

The point being, try a little harder to keep the tourists from driving normal road cars where they shouldn't ought to be.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:49 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


What a great thread. Loquacious, thanks for your contributions.

Question: Did one of the later chapters in Mahood's story have a resolution to question of the German canteens?

Early on writes this about the canteens: "Further, Harder later found out there was a food/water cache placed in the same general area for a group of long distance hiker/survivalists traveling from Battle Mountain, Nevada to the Salton Sea."

That's a lot more cross-country desert hiking than I can comfortably imagine. The fact that he doesn't write more about these hikers is probably a good indication that they are more intrepid than foolhardy.
posted by compartment at 10:50 AM on January 4, 2013


A very moving story, been thinking about it since yesterday. I'm in awe of Mahood, take a look at his current search, 578 miles and counting, logged searching for a 65 year old man missing in Joshua Tree National Park since June 2010.

578 miles. On foot. In that terrain. As a volunteer. Damn.
posted by jamaro at 11:38 AM on January 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


compartment: "Question: Did one of the later chapters in Mahood's story have a resolution to question of the German canteens?"

He said he was never able to get a response from the guy that found them. Since that guy was motorcycling in a wilderness he was probably a little reticent to discuss things...
posted by notsnot at 11:46 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm curious as to how much mobile phone coverage there is in the area now.

Not much once you get off the highways, especially around Death Valley. But this is also true for most of the Mojave.

Just a few years ago when I was in LA a friend threw herself a nice, quiet little desert party for her own birthday and a few friends. We weren't that far from a major paved road just west of the Chocolate Mountains and north of Johnson Valley. As soon as we came around the spur and ridge that surrounded the lakebed all phones in our group lost signal. And we were barely 20-30 minutes of slow offroad driving away from the main road. Just a couple of miles, really, a walkable distance if you know where you're going.

This actually became an issue at one point. I can't remember if it was because either our directions were slightly wrong and they needed updating or we needed something that we forgot or what - but it was a not life-threatening issue. But to get cell access you had to drive out of the valley or climb the 1000 foot ridge surrounding the valley.

There are a number of problems with cell access in the Mojave.

One issue is population density. Cell companies don't really want to put up a tower somewhere that might see a few emergency calls per year. You can see this by looking at detailed coverage maps in the Mojave - they follow the major roads and population areas.

Another issue is remoteness. Cell towers need maintenance and power. Putting up a tower in a remote area and getting power to it is extremely expensive. Sending a truck out to a remote location is dangerous and expensive. Telecom workers rates are pricey, and there's probably justifiable hazard pay for deep desert work.

Another issue is that the Mojave is a massive patchwork of privately owned land, military land, parkland, BLM land, mining stakes or claims and whatever else. Parks, BLM and military lands are likely all no-go zones for a cell tower. Same is probably true for mining claims due to the archaic and weird laws for mining.

Finding both a suitable, accessible location on lease-able land that also has power is going to be extremely difficult. Running a power line is not only expensive but also ends up facing the issues above for right-of-way to run the power line over a patchwork of different ownerships.

This doesn't even begin to address the issues of geography, so now find a location that meets all of these requirements and still has a good high vantage point for coverage. The Mojave is a crazy quilt of mountain ranges, canyons, valleys and otherwise topologically tortured land. It has more nooks and crannies than an English muffin.

Even if you can get a cell tower up on a nice peak somewhere, it's only going to cover as far as the next peaks which usually aren't that far away, and there will still be dead zones in the shadows of canyons and valleys. (These are all problems they face in cities, too, but they have the luxuries of access, easily leased buildings and pre-existing electrical power, so they can put up towers all over the place, and would need to anyway to cover the population density to provide sufficient call capacity.)

Now you have to secure the site from vandals, tweaker-scavengers and people who will shoot at anything just for target practice. Putting up a remote cell tower where someone might pass by once a week or month is just asking for some copper scavenger to come in and take away all that shiny copper.

It's not a trivial problem that can be easily solved by just throwing more towers up in the area. The terrain is extremely rugged and inhospitable. As you can see from the linked articles in the post you can't just drive to the tops of a given peak - there aren't even roads there. Building roads there is expensive and runs into right of way issues.

Sure, this may be putting a cost on human lives but when have you ever known a cellular provider to be generous? They probably even list in your service contract that they're not responsible for death, injury or financial loss due to lack of access just for these reasons, because they know they can't provide 100% coverage everywhere, all the time.

In short: You really, really shouldn't rely on your cellphone if you're going away from any paved roads, especially in the Mojave. But this is true for almost any wilderness area, National Park or any backcountry area at all especially in the West. Coverage may end within as short as a mile or three off of a major paved road depending on geography.

If you're planning on going any further than you're willing and able to walk and self-rescue you should be carrying a PLB (personal locator beacon) or SPOT system. If you're not carrying those you should be carrying and know how to use a signal mirror, a radio, a whistle or other emergency signaling devices.
posted by loquacious at 12:36 PM on January 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


Also, I have two disturbing and morbid theories about where the kids might have ended up. (You may not want to read this if you're sensitive.)

One: Small children or their remains are small enough to be carried off by scavengers. Coyotes or vultures would be able to drag them off to locations that wouldn't be easy or intuitive to find. There are still lots and lots of coyotes and vultures and other larger birds in the Mojave.

We also shouldn't assume that the kids would be less mobile than the parents. I remember when I used to go out to the deserts with my dad and my brother we'd go on some pretty hefty 10-20 mile hikes and we'd always have more energy than the adults at the end of the hike. Kids are extremely resilient and they have a lot of energy. The adults just wanted to sit down and we were like "That was fun, can we go ride bikes or skateboards now?"

So don't underestimate how much land even a small child could cover on their own.


Two, more disturbing, but much less likely considering their location deep inside DVNP:

The Mojave Desert is populated with some seriously, deeply nutty weirdos. There are actual known cults out there in those canyons. There are tweakers and compounds where people are living their own real life Mad Max realities and growing weed and/or manufacturing meth.

On the more benign side of things it's entirely possible that the children were found by some well meaning but confused person or couple and "adopted" as their own. I have met plenty of deep desert dwellers that would think that this was morally justifiable because they're still living under some kind of fucked up frontier law, mindset or philosophy.

I could totally see this happening with justifications like "Why should we turn them over to the police? They're just going to end up wards of the state, and the state is bad, and all the police are bad. We're good people - better than the state, and better than city-folk - and we're doing them a favor by raising them as our own."

Some of these people that I've met displayed highly questionable, flexible ethics by "scavenging" abandoned cars or other materials that might have not been as abandoned as they were convincing themselves. People who live in the deep desert tend to collect a lot of vehicles like tow trucks or RVs and stuff. For some of these people its like petty theft and crime didn't even exist - stealing gas or anything metallic that wasn't bolted down was just part of life and survival to them.

They also tended to collect stragglers, grifters and people living outside of the laws of the land.

There are homesteads and compounds out there where the Law has never, ever set foot. There are places out there where you can live for years without seeing anyone else at all except for resupply missions into town. There are places out there where people only head into town once or twice a year to pick up bulk food supplies.

I know this sounds like ancient wild west stuff, but parts of that lawless west still exist in the deep canyons and remote areas of the high desert. Take a drive through the Salton Sea or Slab City, or Johnson Valley, or try a day trip through California City. There are some seriously whacked out weirdos out there.

Look for the weird compounds that you can see off of the main roads like the 395 or Highway 18 - you can see huge compounds of RVs, buses, shipping containers and ramshackle buildings or houses. And these are just the ones you can see from the roads. There are larger and more elaborate compounds up in some of those canyons

It's a long shot, but it is not inconceivable to me that the kids were either rescued/adopted or abducted, either benignly or malevolently.
posted by loquacious at 1:20 PM on January 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


To asnwer the cell phone question - it's spotty - from 3 bars to none. Huge elevation changes mean you can be shadowed and out of coverage, go round a bend and suddenly have cell. None in narrow canyons. Clearly more coverage than in past but the terrain will limit its effectiveness.

The ham radio operator in me is now wondering if I should be packing a a kite and an old cell phone with a miniBNC jack they next time I'm out doing things in the Mojave or Sierra. Or, for that matter, some kind of small HF transceiver. Altough I guess PLBs and other such sat based devices are the way to go these days.
posted by snuffleupagus at 1:29 PM on January 4, 2013


colfax, thanks for posting that. It more elegantly states how I always feel in the desert. Like everything is magnified: every thought, image, sensation. The desert is a very intense place to be, and the people that live out in it all the time seem either to be slightly more insensate than the average human or slightly more crazy (in good or bad ways). It's like a blank slate where once you start writing, the words and images immediately start to glow with a life of their own, slightly out of your control.

Out by Fly hotsprings on the Hualapi Playa in Nevada someone had built a little lecturn and placed a journal on it. Beside it was a pencil for visitors to write in the book. They had also pasted in pages of pioneer's diaries here and there throughout the journal. One that I read told of a little girl and her family crossing the desert with a small group of wagons on the way to California. The girl and her friend were playing together in one of the wagons as it rolled on. They found the first girl's mother's "tonic" and took some sips of it to taste. Her four year old sibling saw then do it and wanted a taste too, but they wouldn't let her and put the tonic up on a shelf.
Later on, they found the four year old unconscious. She had climbed up on a trunk and retrieved the bottle, which was empty next to her. The tonic was laudanum, and the child died the next day and was buried somewhere out on the desert.
I was out there with a group of people helping out on the ranch that was to host Burning Man in 1997. People were relaxing and soaking after a long day of pulling up rusty barbed wire and tearing down outbuildings, and I wandered over to read this story as the sun was setting on the springs. I can remember vividly what it felt like to stand there barefoot in pink light reading those dusty pages, and how immediate the sense of dread and loss was, conveyed in that old pioneer, matter of fact language. I feel like every desert adventure I've ever had always has an element of "in the midst of life, we are in death". It is an awesome place.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:51 PM on January 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


People who live in the deep desert tend to collect a lot of vehicles like tow trucks or RVs and stuff. For some of these people its like petty theft and crime didn't even exist - stealing gas or anything metallic that wasn't bolted down was just part of life and survival to them.

Yes, yes, yes. On the same work trip I mentioned above, the 14 year nephew (?) of the ranch owner spent his time all day, every day dragging a tractor tire behind a ATV. When Burning Man happened months later, he spent the night time hot wiring emergency vehicles, like fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars (there were tons, because in 1996 there were serious injuries and one death), driving them out into the desert, abandoning them and walking back to do it again.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:01 PM on January 4, 2013


oneirodynia, perhaps I am dense, but I cannot fathom the purpose of either of the two activities that you mention the 14 year old doing. Can you explain them for me? Please!
posted by Seamus at 2:14 PM on January 4, 2013


Relieving boredom as a 14 year old on a remote 100 acre ranch in the middle of a gritty waste is most likely the primary reason for such activities. Mostly I was just supporting loquacious' point that desert people are accustomed to taking care of* things themselves, and my own point that they can be slightly to mostly bonkers.




*For various interpretations of "taking care of", including "taking possession of".
posted by oneirodynia at 2:19 PM on January 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


When we drove through Death Valley, it was 1996 or 1997. [...] The heat was eerie, to someone raised in the humid muck of DC-- it doesn't even feel that hot, until you realize your skin is radiating, and your lips are all parched.

This was explained to me (as a warning) as the most dangerous thing about the heat in Death Valley and its desert. It's so hot that your sweat just vaporizes off your skin, so your skin stays dry. And your think "It's not really that hot, I'm not even sweating, I don't need to stop/drink water/turn back yet"—until it's too late, you're already a dessicated sun-bleached thing dying of heat stroke.
posted by nicebookrack at 5:39 PM on January 4, 2013


I only had a brief experience with the Mojave. It was late September and I was driving a moving van on I40 en route to the bay area on a frantic pseudoephedrine-fueled cross county move. I stopped along the side of the road in the late afternoon to piss and opened the door and was hit with the most overwhelming heat I'd ever experienced. I had my cat with me in the van during this 2800 mile odyssey and was anxious about breaking down or overheating, and so very little time was spent dillydallying before getting back on the road and getting the hell out of there. I wish I could have spent more time there, but it was not the time for sight seeing.

I can't get the image out of my head of this desperate father realizing that stopping the minivan while on a soft sandy bed will result in it becoming permanently stuck, but at the same time knowing that the path he was following was leading nowhere and it was essential to turn around. He must have been hoping that there would eventually be solid ground if he could just hold on for a while, but it never happened. And I can't imagine which would be worse -- for the kids to die first or for the adults. Either way, the idea of being huddled down at the face of a bluff in the most inhospitable place on earth as night falls and the wind picks up and you're only wearing street clothes and you're too tired to move and your skin is chapped to hell and you realize that you did this to yourself all because you took a shortcut so that you wouldn't miss your flight and your family back home are never going to know what happened to you for years, if ever, and if only you'd only had money for a hotel and oh god I can't go on.

The article and this thread really were compelling reads. Thanks for posting and sharing. I think I'm going to have to watch Gus Van Sant's Gerry again.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:58 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I watched our cell coverage today and we went from none to decent about 5 miles south of Furnace Creek on the main road.

THe idea of cable barriers on the road wouldn't keep people safe though. There will always be people who don't follow the sensible precautions or just get unlucky with car trouble, being more succeptable to heat or being wilfully ignorant. We saw one car left after an accident last night and the aftermath of a bad car vs bikes accident today that resulted in one poor biker being airlifted out of the park and another transported by ambulance and that was without the additional complication of summer heat. It often seems to me that people don't use normal sense in national parks - as if being on vacation is a good reason to ignore what one would normally be careful of. (not saying that was the case with either bikers or motorist who hit them - didn't witness the accident, just some of the aftermath). One could guess that the people who died in the article would not have made their fatal choices in their normal environment but somehow Vacation! And national park turned that sense off to fatal result, aside from clearly not realizing just how unforgiving an environment it is here.
posted by leslies at 6:59 PM on January 4, 2013


Extrapolating from the evidence, I strongly suspect that the adults gambled away their hotel/campsite money in Vegas, hence Egbert Rimkus wiring his former partner for additional funds. Had she sent the money, maybe her son and the others would have made it home alive. If that's what happened, it might explain why the pink note was not publicized after its discovery. Such a narrative is all just a pathetic tragedy that's not really anyone's business but the survivors'.

Also--damn, they had a lot of booze in that van. It can't have helped in the making of prudent decisions once they were down to light beers and bottles of wine.

I don't have a lot of warm feelings for adults who place children in such dire situations, and I don't understand why County resources were expended on locating the remains of anyone, but particularly foreign nationals. If hobbyists want to go looking on their own dime, that's neat--and this story is a very impressive, if often tedious, tale of how that all went down--but the multiple posthumous search parties seem a poor use of man and machine hours to me.
posted by Scram at 9:20 PM on January 4, 2013


Apparently Germany paid for some of the recovery effort, and the Navy helicopter was on secondment to the FBI -- not the County. If anything, Mahood is critical of Inyo for not assembling more resources.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:35 PM on January 4, 2013


Rhomboid: "I can't get the image out of my head of this desperate father realizing that stopping the minivan while on a soft sandy bed will result in it becoming permanently stuck, but at the same time knowing that the path he was following was leading nowhere and it was essential to turn around. He must have been hoping that there would eventually be solid ground if he could just hold on for a while, but it never happened. And I can't imagine which would be worse -- for the kids to die first or for the adults. Either way, the idea of being huddled down at the face of a bluff in the most inhospitable place on earth as night falls and the wind picks up and you're only wearing street clothes and you're too tired to move and your skin is chapped to hell and you realize that you did this to yourself all because you took a shortcut so that you wouldn't miss your flight and your family back home are never going to know what happened to you for years, if ever, and if only you'd only had money for a hotel and oh god I can't go on."

After reading Mr. Mahood's article (last night) and the thread (this evening) and having thoughts similar to the quote above, this story will be haunting me for quite a while.

Thank you to all who participated especially Mr. Mahood.
posted by deborah at 10:31 PM on January 4, 2013


I don't understand why County resources were expended on locating the remains of anyone, but particularly foreign nationals.

Who cares if they were foreign nationals? Human suffering and the need for answers are universal.

Besides, without investigating how can you know that there was no crime committed? It's a long shot, but it's been established that this location is a magnet for nutjobs and without investigating you can't rule out the idea that they made it back to the valley on foot and ran into someone who took them to their favorite murder arroyo. Even if there was no crime, perhaps there is some public good that can come of an investigation, such as determining why on earth they were in backcountry with a minivan -- perhaps maps could be amended and corrected, perhaps signposts could be erected, perhaps additional translations can be provided. You just don't know what you're dealing with if you don't investigate.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:54 AM on January 5, 2013 [14 favorites]


I wonder if, in the future, parks will just give out satellite locator beacons on entry to the park and collect them upon exit. They only cost a couple hundred bucks, and they're inherently rather difficult to steal.
posted by miyabo at 11:43 AM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I like the way Mahood portrays it as a series of bad-but-understandable decisions. It's so easy to Monday-morning-quarterback these kinds of things - me and mr. desjardins like to screentalk while watching I Shouldn't Be Alive - but you never know how you're really going to react until you're in a life-or-death struggle. Especially when you don't know that the decision you make now will lead to a life-or-death struggle later.

We were on vacation in California a couple of years ago (in October) and we'd rented a Dodge Charger, which was a fun car but didn't have the handling we're used to (we drive BMWs at home so we're spoiled on that front). After a daytrip from the Redwoods to the Lost Coast, my (paper) map showed a shortcut back to our campsite. It looked a little twisty and narrow, but not appreciably worse than the roads we'd been on.

It was paved for the first few hundred feet. Okay, great. It turned to gravel - well, less great considering it was a rental, but okay, maybe it's paved again further along. Nope, turned to dirt. Okay, how far have we come? How much farther forward until we get back to a main road? There was no cell signal and we didn't have a proper GPS. There was NOTHING on the road; no houses, no other cars - we saw exactly one dude on a mountain bike in several hours.

It was at that point we probably should have turned around. Except the road was really narrow with lots of switchbacks and a steep dropoff on one side. A Y-turn would have been dangerous-to-impossible. We pressed on - surely it got wider? We'd been travelling for awhile, surely the main road was not too far? The sun was going down and we had a major sense of urgency to get out of there before dark. The road was so twisty that our top speed was maybe 5 mph.

Then the road became full of deep ruts. mr. desjardins had to get out, survey the road ahead and determine the best path so we didn't bottom out the rental car or otherwise get stuck.* (I didn't mention yet that we'd been having intermittent electrical problems with it the whole trip - dash lights flashing, alerts beeping.) We really couldn't turn around here. The road split; there was no indication of this on the map and I basically guessed which way to go.

My main concerns were that we'd wreck the car and we'd be stuck out there overnight with the bears and the cold. We had water and soda and I think some snacks in the trunk, and we were on a road (of sorts) so we couldn't get completely lost, but there was no way in hell I was walking back to the main road in the dark. I think we'd left the flashlights back at camp. We were dressed in long-sleeved fleeces and jeans (maybe shorts for him). It was surprisingly cold.

We eventually got to a spot where it was just wide enough to turn around. So we had to do the whole harrowing experience again. We made it to the paved road shortly after sunset, and to our campsite a couple hours later, but it could have gone so wrong at so many points. Lessons: know your road conditions, take a real GPS, carry warm clothes, take flashlights.

* Making it out of there was 90% due to my husband's driving skills and 10% luck. The car was fine after a thorough wash.
posted by desjardins at 12:21 PM on January 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


Metafilter: favorite murder arroyo.

One of the axioms of backcountry exploring is that you're most in danger from humans in the first few miles of a trailhead. Basically, the farther out you go the more likely you're going to meet principled, ethical people who aren't going to murder you, and that you're more likely to get in trouble from fellow city slickers on the edges and interface between developed and rural and wilderness.

The more I think about this and reflect the more I question if this holds true for the Mojave. I want to point out that despite my ominous warnings above that the people out there are by and large nice people just like anywhere - if potentially weird and desert-mad - but it's just one of those things where you really don't want to meet the wrong person that far out in the wilderness.
posted by loquacious at 12:30 PM on January 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I wonder if, in the future, parks will just give out satellite locator beacons on entry to the park and collect them upon exit. They only cost a couple hundred bucks, and they're inherently rather difficult to steal.

PLBs aren't actively providing a fix until you hit the panic button, so they can be easily stolen. A mandatory deposit would help fix that, but our National Parks are massively underfunded and budget constrained as it is. (This is also why installing cable barriers in DVNP is a non-starter. The cost would be incredible to get work crews out there to install hundreds of miles of barriers in one of the hottest, deadliest places in North America. The environmental impact studies alone for such a project would likely bankrupt DVNP. It's amazing that they even have paved roads out there.)

As I understand it many PLBs don't even have an active battery until you break a seal or something to energize them before hitting the button, so they can be stored for long periods and preserve the battery and/or prevent accidental activation.

There's also a whole lot of legal liability issues for National Parks if they issue mandatory PLBs, and it can give tourists a false sense of security or instill a lack of personal responsibility, especially if they get some idea into their head that help is just minutes away after hitting the panic button. When in reality help could still be days away even with a PLB.

Who gets sued when DVNP issues PLBs and fails at rescuing someone? The park? The county? The search and rescue squads?

Back country search and rescue squads are already overwhelmed with the popularity and misuse of PLBs. There have been a lot of incidents of tourists using them as a free ride out of the area after getting in too deep, and as such many counties are now billing tourists/explorers who activate and abuse PLBs in non-life threatening situations.

Frankly I wouldn't be opposed to requiring desert survival classes to enter DVNP. I wouldn't be opposed to them gating the whole park off and limiting access. Or painting huge skull-and-cross bone warning signs all over the first few miles of every road into the area, with dire warnings of horrible deaths in every major language on earth.

Or maybe they should publish casualties and fatalities on large signs at all the entrances to really drive the point home.

If anything it would limit access to the park and help protect it, and it might keep casual tourists from wandering off the roads like this and ending up carrion for vultures.
posted by loquacious at 12:51 PM on January 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wonder if, in the future, parks will just give out satellite locator beacons on entry to the park and collect them upon exit.

Areas designated as a national park don't necessarily have controlled entrances, like, say Yellowstone does. They can be massive areas with countless roads leading in, let alone the ability to just pull off a highway and drive across the dirt.
posted by The Deej at 12:52 PM on January 5, 2013


"Frankly I wouldn't be opposed to requiring desert survival classes to enter DVNP. I wouldn't be opposed to them gating the whole park off and limiting access. Or painting huge skull-and-cross bone warning signs all over the first few miles of every road into the area, with dire warnings of horrible deaths in every major language on earth.

Or maybe they should publish casualties and fatalities on large signs at all the entrances to really drive the point home."


Or, hand out printed copies of Mayhood's excellent "The Hunt for the Death Valley Germans".
posted by ourroute at 3:23 PM on January 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Here are some pictures from a hiker's webpage of a day walk from Squaw Spring, up though Anvil Canyon, and around Striped Butte. The road the Germans turned down is now blocked off, though it doesn't sound like this hiker knew why that was. Striped Butte day-hike
posted by feste at 6:55 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I dreamed I went out to this place with some friends. We tried to find the remains of the children. Our dog found a buro trail and we followed it to a hidden cave and spring. There we found bones and some children's clothes. It was late in the day and we decided to make camp not far away, instead of heading back to our vehicles. At night as we ate our dinner a boy came out of the brush looking very pale, scared and emancipated. The dog got super anxious and had to be taken off for a walk by one of my friends, just to get him to stop snarling. He took an energy bar from me. When I felt his touch I knew he was a ghost. As he stuffed his mouth with the energy bar, he told us how he and his older brother found this cave. They tried to wait for help and signal aircraft, but none came. After three days his brother hit him on his head woth a rock and ate him. His brother survived two more weeks and in the end was totally mad from hunger and horror. Now every time the moon is full first the little boy "wakes" up and hides until a little later his big brother finds him, murders him and eats him. Of course his little ghost body is never enough to sustain his brother's spirit for long, so the older brothers ghost is fated to always repeat those last two weeks of terror. The boy called it a fitting penance. Then the boy said, "of course now that you are here my brother will finally have enough to eat." I heard the whimpering of the dog and the screaming if my friend from the bushes. At that point I woke up.
posted by humanfont at 7:05 PM on January 5, 2013 [15 favorites]


In July 1999 I traveled the Southwest with two of my friends from Germany, and among other places we spent a day and a night in Death Valley. A couple of things I remember about that trip: Overall, it was a fun trip, but I can totally see how a group of Germans could quickly get in over their heads there. The heat took a toll on my companions surprisingly quickly, and they proved to be incredibly bad judges of what was doable when it concerned things like day hikes.
posted by moonbiter at 10:22 PM on January 5, 2013


On the other hand, two is a pretty small sample size ...
posted by moonbiter at 10:47 PM on January 5, 2013


loquacious, thanks for contributing all of your firsthand desert experiences to this thread, they've been really interesting to read. My experience in the mojave is limited to driving through on routes 15 and 40, but even without going off those big highways I definitely saw hints of the deeply nutty weirdo population you describe... hand-painted billboards with bible verses, bible verses spelled out in shingles on shed roofs, and just that intense dusty sun-baked quality permeating everything. I've sometimes wondered if my impression wasn't more due to just not being used to the desert in general, so it's kind of nice to have some confirmation that no, desert-crazy is a thing.
posted by usonian at 8:12 AM on January 6, 2013


One of the NPS Death Valley newsletters mentioned something to the effect that the only people who usually visited the place during the summer

I went because I loved being by myself and when it's 117F it's only you a few of the more intrepid lizards. But I stayed near my car, and because I lived in Riverside with no air conditioning, but heat didn't affect me the way it did most people, or the way it would now. Now I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and any day that gets over 85F is a scorcher, I tell you- a scorcher!!
posted by small_ruminant at 9:51 PM on January 6, 2013


As if I needed more nightmare fuel from this thread.
posted by bq at 2:57 PM on January 7, 2013


I really appreciate the perspective that loquacious has given here. My only thing to add is that I've visited the area once for two days during March and it was surreal then. March is possibly the tamest time of the year, I'm told, to be there, but I still felt like I could get myself killed if I wasn't careful.

The distance perspective issue isn't limited to Europeans. An East-coaster like myself is accustomed to seeing nothing that isn't within hiking distance and even on the Appalachian mountains the visible distances can be reckoned pretty reliably. In Death Valley I took my road bike, which kept me to the paved section. I am, and was, a fit person who could ride for many hours but I was astonished at how "that damn mountain in the distance hasn't moved for 3 hours" as I rode along. I was so used to the backdrop of my Eastern terrain that changes so rapidly with my movements.

Death Valley is some serious mental stuff. I got my fill of it after two days and know enough about it to know that I'm not cut out for the desert.
posted by dgran at 8:26 AM on January 9, 2013


Death Valley is some serious mental stuff.

This is why I love the desert. It makes perfect sense that so many religions are spawned by a desert experience.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:58 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


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