Desert Desertion – Phoenix Magazine, July 2018

Stranded in the desert near Crown King, Mick Ohman had no cell service and no water. What he did have: bagel chips and a full bladder.

Navigating the rugged path down the mountain, Mick Ohman felt his Honda CR-V sputter and go slack. The engine was still running, but not delivering power to the wheels. He pulled to a stop.

Stepping out of the vehicle onto a rocky desert decline in the Bradshaw Mountains about 20 miles north of Lake Pleasant, Ohman was instantly enveloped by the searing summer heat. It was late in the afternoon on July 27, 2017 – a Thursday – and temperatures smoldered at more than 100 degrees.

Stooping down to check underneath his usually reliable compact SUV, he saw fluid pouring from the undercarriage, leaving a trail up the mountain. The rocky, undulating road had shredded the Honda’s transmission.

The 56-year-old retired Phoenix contractor gazed across the vast high desert and saw nothing but sparse desert trees, shrubs and rocks. Waving around his cellphone, he tried to get a signal but found no reception.

Ohman was stranded in vast, open wilderness in the middle of summer with few supplies and no cellphone service. Worst of all, he hadn’t told anyone where he was going.

“I knew I was in a lot of trouble,” Ohman says, a year after he was rescued. “I couldn’t call 911 and I couldn’t text. There was no way to get help.”

photo by Andrew Austin; Passing dirt bikers found an ominous scene left by Ohman

photo by Andrew Austin; Passing dirt bikers found an ominous scene left by Ohman

Minnesota native Ohman was new to Phoenix and looking for an adventure in the summer of 2017. Clean adventure, preferably. Burly with deeply tanned skin contrasting a mop of sun-bleached blond hair, Ohman moved to Phoenix in 2016 after the death of his parents in a car accident, a tragedy that inspired him to both explore Christianity and distance himself from the habits of his wild younger years. Unmarried and without kids, he thought the desert was a perfect place to retire.

When he heard about the shuttered mining town of Crown King, roughly 80 miles north of Phoenix off the I-17, he thought it would be the perfect way to spend a Thursday afternoon. He packed a cooler of bottled drinks and snacks and set off for the tourist town around 10 a.m.

“I went up there to have lunch on a whim,” says Ohman, seated in the library of the Phoenix retirement community where he lives. “And that’s where all of this trouble started.”

After exploring Crown King and having lunch at a local café, Ohman turned back toward Phoenix. Hoping for a scenic drive, he entered his home address into Google maps and checked the “avoid highways” setting.

Those directions led him to Fire Road 192, marked with a yellow sign denoting it as a primitive road.

Following the route, he had no idea he had just accessed Crown King’s notorious “back route” – a boulder-strewn road so narrow, uneven and steep, even skilled off-roaders have trouble navigating it. As he inched downhill, he glimpsed over the sheer edge – the drop was more than 300 feet down. Instinctually, Ohman gripped the steering wheel tighter.

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘One wrong move and I’m a goner,’” Ohman says. “I started getting nervous… It just went from bad to worse.”

By the time he’d determined his car wasn’t equipped for the drive, Ohman had traveled too far to reverse course. So he pressed on, navigating around deep ruts in the road and stopping frequently to move basketball-size boulders by hand.

During one of the stops, he noticed transmission fluid leaking from under his car. Minutes later, the new, blue 2016 Honda came to a dead stop on a flat section of the road in the middle of the Bradshaw Mountains. Although he still had gas and the tires were inflated, the transmission was wrecked and the car wouldn’t budge.

photo by Andrew Austin; Ohman’s abandoned SUV

photo by Andrew Austin; Ohman’s abandoned SUV

“My first reaction was to get a phone signal. So I went way up this hill – that was a really tough climb,” Ohman says. “I got up to the top of that ridge and it just broke my heart. There was one tiny bar, but it wouldn’t let me do anything.”

After an hour trying unsuccessfully to get reception, he hiked back down the ridge to his car. The light teal polo shirt and polyester shorts he was wearing were drenched in sweat. The prickly bushes cut and scratched his arms and legs; blood seeped down his calves.

Feeling dehydrated, Ohman sat down and guzzled the last of his small, 16.9-ounce plastic bottle of water. For the rest of the afternoon, he gathered rocks and arranged them into a big letter H for help, in hopes of signaling a passing plane. Because the engine in his Honda still ran, he turned it on periodically to cool off and keep his cellphone charged.

Ohman also inventoried his remaining supplies. He had a lighter, two old flares, a copy of the Bible, some pens and paper, a turkey submarine sandwich, two large cans of beer and four cans of alcoholic beverages he initially thought were sparkling water. When he rummaged through the cooler he realized the only beverage left was alcoholic, which he knew would only further dehydrate him.

Though deprived of a cellphone signal, he had downloaded an offline version of the GPS map that he could consult. He was more than 20 miles away from a main road – too far to walk for help.

photo by Andrew Austin; an “H” rock formation to signal passing aircraft for help

photo by Andrew Austin; an “H” rock formation to signal passing aircraft for help

The last of the day disappeared over the Hieroglyphic Mountains and the twinkling stars illuminated the black sky. “That night I decided I didn’t have many choices,” he says. “I can’t drink alcohol out here – that’s just going to compound the problem and make it worse… I’m starting to panic.”

The thirst was agonizing. When he tried to swallow, his throat was so dry he gagged. Dizzy and disoriented, Ohman realized he would have to make a desperate choice. He had heard on survival shows that people could drink their own urine to slow dehydration. In desperation, he peed into an empty plastic cup and quickly downed it. While the temperature was “hard to get over,” he says the taste wasn’t as vile as the thought.

“It wasn’t concentrated yet – it wasn’t dark yellow,” he says. “By the time I drank that I felt so much better.”

Later that night he “recycled” the urine through his body once more.

Unbeknownst to Ohman, he had just made a potentially deadly mistake. While survival shows often feature people drinking urine, Arizona survival expert Cody Lundin says pee contains high levels of sodium and can cause vomiting and diarrhea.

“It dehydrates you more, similar to alcohol,” says Lundin, founder of the Aboriginal Living Skills School in Prescott. “This man survived in spite of drinking his urine, not because he drank his urine.”

That night Ohman slept fitfully in the reclined front seat of his car, his mind racing. He knew there would be no one back in Phoenix to miss him.

“I never told anyone I was leaving. I never mentioned it to anybody,” he says, shaking his head. “There would be no missing persons report for me. And that really started to scare me, too.”

photo courtesy Mick Ohman; Troy Haverland with the dirt bike he used to carry Ohman to safety

photo courtesy Mick Ohman; Troy Haverland with the dirt bike he used to carry Ohman to safety

The mayonnaise on the sandwich he saved had rotted overnight; the odor was so repulsive he threw it in the weeds. The bagel chips were too salty to eat. He tried to fill the cup a third time with his urine but it was too yellow and concentrated to swallow. “The sun started to come up and I knew I needed to do something,” he says. “So I wandered away from the truck.”

Hauling his cooler with him, Ohman hiked downhill for nearly a mile before he discovered a small creek with water trickling through the rocks and vanishing under the sand. Dumping out the alcohol, he refilled the cans with water and drank as much as he could.

That afternoon, after returning to his vehicle, he decided to try and light a fire to signal for help. Using his lighter, he ignited a pine tree, but the flame wouldn’t spread and soon extinguished.

Around 3 p.m. Friday, he had been stranded more than 24 hours and was down to one can of water. He hiked back to the stream, but was deflated when he discovered it had dried up and sunk beneath the earth’s surface.

Without water, Ohman contemplated what would happen to his family if he didn’t survive. How would they find out about his death?

Using his cellphone, he recorded a short video message to his two younger sisters and nieces and nephews. “If you find this phone and I didn’t do so well, please tell my sisters how much I love them,” he says, looking into the camera. In the video, Ohman paused for a moment, choking back tears. “Tell my niece and nephew how much I love them. I’ve been praying all night. I’m terrified. I’m terrified. I love you guys. I hope this isn’t the end. Goodbye.”

That night, Ohman read the Bible. He was new to Christianity, having embraced the religion just a few years prior. In the summer of 2016, he spent a week in Israel and was baptized in the Jordan River.

“That’s when I really started praying,” he says, his eyes welling with tears at the memory. “I really had time to be alone with our father in heaven… I felt reassured that I really wasn’t alone, and everything was somehow going to be OK.” As he prayed, he heard a sudden clap of thunder and it began to rain. Ohman believed it was a sign from God.

“I’m out there literally dancing in the rain,” he says. “I was so relieved because I had fresh water again… My prayers were answered.”

photo by Mirelle Inglefield; Ohman explaining how his Christian faith helped him cope during his ordeal

photo by Mirelle Inglefield; Ohman explaining how his Christian faith helped him cope during his ordeal

Ohman did the math in his head. He could stay by his inoperative vehicle, but there was no guarantee help would arrive. If he wandered away, he could die of heat stroke in the desert. There weren’t any good choices. But by the time the sun rose on Saturday morning, he decided to roll the dice – he was going to walk down the mountain.

His plan was to head toward Castle Hot Springs Road and eventually Lake Pleasant, 19 miles away. In most cases, it is a mistake to walk away from a stranded vehicle to find help because it’s much easier to spot a car than a person, according to Lundin. But at that point, Ohman was desperate.

“He’s in a tough spot because he already screwed up,” Lundin says. “It’s scary. It’s a life-threatening situation, and that makes it even harder to have good judgment when there’s fear and adrenaline running through the body.”

Before Ohman left, he scribbled some notes, which he left inside and outside of the windshield, with his name, address, phone number and a request for anyone who found his note to call 911. “I left Saturday at 7:30 a.m.,” the note read. “Please come and find me. Notify 911. God bless you.”

Carrying rainwater in his cooler, Ohman left the Honda and started hiking down the path. About five hours passed, and his legs throbbed. He began to wonder how much longer he could continue.

“At this point my legs are lead,” Ohman says. “I’m shuffling my feet. I’m really thinking to myself, ‘I have to lie down for a minute.’ But I just kept trudging along.”

Just then, the miracle he was praying for came around the corner.

It was Friday’s heavy rainfall that spurred Phoenix resident Troy Haverland to ride his dirt bike to Crown King that weekend. Haverland, who had been exploring the area since 1991, knew the roads would be clean from the rain, making for a smooth ride.

Around 11:30 a.m., he stumbled upon a man walking alone on the fire road. Ohman waved his arms wildly and formed his hands into a prayer.

“He was disheveled. His legs were cut up. He looked like he had been out there for a few days,” Haverland, 53, says. “He broke down pretty quickly and let me know he had been drinking his own urine.” The motorcyclist gave Ohman his half-bottle of water and invited him onto his one-person dirt bike. They rode for more than an hour – about 20 miles – weaving their way down the mountain. On the drive, Ohman shared his story.

“You can tell people you saved a life today,” Ohman told Haverland. “You’re my guardian angel.” Haverland brought Ohman to the Castle Creek area of Lake Pleasant and connected him with a Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputy at 12:28 p.m. Saturday.

photo by Mirelle Inglefield; Ohman and Haverland revisit the spot where they met, about 22 miles northwest of the north entry station of Lake Pleasant Regional Park

photo by Mirelle Inglefield; Ohman and Haverland revisit the spot where they met, about 22 miles northwest of the north entry station of Lake Pleasant Regional Park

Firefighters from the Peoria Fire Department evaluated Ohman’s condition, but he declined further medical attention. A deputy gave Ohman a banana from his lunchbox and drove him home to Phoenix so he could feed his three cats.

“They took my vitals, checked my temperature – I was fine,” Ohman says. “At this point, I was all scratched up. I didn’t smell that great. I was exhausted and I just wanted to get home.”

On Sunday, one day after Ohman was rescued, three motorcyclists, Andrew Austin, Jesse Stanton and Taylor Jordon, stumbled upon his abandoned Honda. With his cellphone, Austin took photos of the car, the notes and the “H” made of rocks.

The three friends spent two hours crisscrossing miles of desert in hopes of finding Ohman.

When they made it back to an area with cell service and called the number, Ohman picked up. “When I answered the phone he said he was hugely relieved to hear my voice,” Ohman says. “They were happy to hear I made it out safe.”

When Austin later posted the photos on the image-sharing site Imgur, the story got picked up by the local and national media and was featured in The Arizona Republic and ABC News.

Being new to Arizona, Ohman had gone into the desert completely unprepared – a not-uncommon phenomenon, Lundin says. “The main thing you do before you leave is you tell people where you’re going, when you’ll be back and what you’re driving. Had he done that he obviously would have been self-rescued because someone would have known he was missing.”
By the time Ohman had returned from his ordeal – 45 hours after being stranded – he had lost 14 pounds. His car remained in the desert for another few weeks before his insurance company paid to recover it. The Honda was totaled, and Ohman purchased a new car with the insurance settlement.

Through this experience he’s found a friend in Haverland. The two have become close, and Ohman still calls his buddy his “guardian angel.”

The experience hasn’t stopped Ohman from being adventurous. Just weeks after his rescue, he traveled to Mexico and became a certified scuba diver. “I certainly have more respect for the desert,” Ohman says. “And I hope other people learn from my mistakes.”

H2O Rules
Stranded in the desert without water? Our condolences! Make the best of your predicament with these water-sourcing survival tips.

“Ration sweat, not water”
When you’re down to your last few sips of Dasani, the common human instinct is to ration sips while looking for a water source. Not the best strategy, according to Arizona survival expert Tony Nester, noting that lost hikers have been known to succumb to heatstroke with water in hand. More importantly, find shade during the day and save activity for cooler nighttime hours. “The human body can go about 48 hours without water in the heat, if you’re smart with your existing [internal] water.”

Mapquest it
A map can help you find water. Look for sloping, north-facing canyons, which may retain waterholes after rain; steep canyons, which retain rivers; and archaeological sites, which were invariably built near water.

Look to the trees
Find high ground and look for cottonwoods and sycamores, which grow near water.

Look for little wings
Hummingbirds and wasp swarms tend to congregate near water; if you see either zipping in and out of a canyon, they may be heading to or from a watering hole.

Don’t get any crazy ideas with cacti
The viscous gel inside barrel cacti is spiked with alkaloids, so don’t drink it, Nester says. “You’re ingesting a toxin into your body, which is already heat-stressed. It’s possible to go from heat exhaustion into heatstroke because you’ve just taxed your body even more by adding that.

Grit your teeth to strain out the crud
Once you find water, it’s unlikely to be crystal clear. Deal. “If you’re lost and you’re dehydrated, you’ve got to get it [inside] you,” Nester says. “Even if there’s a cowpie in the waterhole, you’ve still gotta drink so you can be alive when the rescuers get to you.” There’s a cure for giardia, he notes, but not for death.