Lost in the Desert – Times Publications, September 2013

Lost In Desert - HEADER

The searing summer sun bore down on Roger Sargeant as he staggered along the dusty path in the barren southern Arizona desert. He had been wandering alone for hours without water or shade, the intense heat leaving him weak and severely dehydrated. His skin was burnt and emaciated, his lips shriveled and white.

Consumed with worry and dread, Roger trudged forward, desperate to save his family. Miles behind him on the trail his girlfriend, Shelly Hubbard, and her two young daughters were stranded in the harsh terrain. After taking a wrong turn their pickup had become stuck in a deep desert wash, marooning them all in the middle of nowhere.

With no hope of salvation, Roger went ahead to find help. But as he baked in the 110-degree August heat, he worried he may never see them again.

Approaching a fork in the road, Roger stopped in his tracks. Squinting, he examined the two meandering paths ahead of him. He had a choice to make—a potentially life or death decision. One way led toward home, the other would take him deeper into the desert. Veering right, Roger headed down the more well-worn trail.

It was the wrong way.

Just one day earlier Roger, Shelly and her daughters, 9-year-old Tiffany and 5-year-old Michaela, were enjoying a leisurely Saturday afternoon target shooting and picnicking in the desert near the Ironwood National Forest in Pinal County. As the sun was setting, they packed their truck and prepared to return home, about 50 miles away in Arizona City. Shelly, an Arizona native who was familiar with the terrain, drove the two-wheel drive truck, with Roger in the passenger seat and girls in the back.

Traveling south, Shelly turned onto a dirt road, passing through a desert swath littered with trash and empty bottles. On the side of the trail, a broken-down Ford Bronco sat on its rims.

As the sky darkened, Shelly realized she no longer recognized her surroundings. “Somehow I completely missed my turn,” she recalled. “And we weren’t where I thought we were.”

They would later learn they had crossed into a section of land in the Tohono O’odham Reservation.

It was close to 9 p.m. when they came upon a deep, dry wash. Shelly stopped the car. “I don’t think we can make it,” she told Roger. “We need to turn around.”

Roger got out of the truck and peered down into the wash. The darkness cast a shadow, masking the depth of the dry creek bed.

“I think I can get us through it,” he said.

Switching places with Shelly, Roger got behind the wheel and slowly descended the deep bank. The truck lurched forward and jostled to an abrupt halt. The bumper had wedged on the banks, the back tires suspended a few feet from the desert floor.  

When their truck became stuck in a deep wash, Roger Sargeant led his family to this broken down Ford Bronco. Inside they found no car jack or any supplies they could use.

When their truck became stuck in a deep wash, Roger Sargeant led his family to this broken down Ford Bronco. Inside they found no car jack or any supplies they could use.

They were stuck.

Roger quickly realized their predicament was dire. The battery on their only cellphone was dead and they had little water and few supplies.

“I knew I had gotten us into a huge mess,” Roger said later. “I didn’t want Shelly and the girls to know how severe I thought our situation was.”

For the next four hours they tried in vain to dislodge the truck. The children collected rocks and sticks to place under the tires, while Shelly dug the front bumper out with a piece of dead mesquite.

For a moment Roger was able to get the truck lifted on the jack, but it slipped, burying the jack between the ground and the back bumper.

“Oh my God,” Roger muttered under his breath. “We are in trouble now.”

The tension rising, Roger and Shelly bickered.

“How are we supposed to get home?” Shelly shouted. “What are we going to do?”

“I don’t know!” Roger said. “I’ll figure out something.”

Later that night they started three small fires to signal for help, but by 1:30 a.m., exhausted and left with few options, they decided to get some rest.

“We’ll try again at daylight,” Roger said.

With the girls curled up in the back of the truck, Shelly and Roger lay on the hood, watching for wildlife or more menacing dangers. At their sides they kept a firm grip on their weapons—a 12-gauge shotgun and a .38 revolver.

About a hundred miles from the Mexican border, southern Arizona’s deserts were a sinister place at night. Violent gangs and smugglers transferring trucks full of illegal immigrants regularly patrolled the area.

That night, however, passed without incident.

At daybreak, Shelly gazed across the horizon to the mountains to the east. “When the sun came up, I looked and realized where we were,” she recalled. “I didn’t know anything out here. I knew we were in the middle of the desert, the middle of nowhere.”

In the distance Shelly pointed out Kitt Peak, a mountain close to Tucson. Roger, who was raised in New Jersey and had only lived in Arizona a few years, didn’t recognize the area, but by the look on Shelly’s face, he knew they were far from home.

No one would be venturing this far to rescue them. If they were to make it out alive, they would need to walk.

Gathering what few supplies they had left—two half-full bottles of water and the guns—they left the truck, heading toward the Bronco they had passed by on the road.

“Maybe it has a jack,” Roger said.

Roger carried Michaela on his shoulders, while Shelly held an umbrella above Tiffany’s head. The four shared the mostly empty water bottles, taking small sips and trying to conserve the liquid.

They stopped several times for shade and made slow progress—taking five hours to walk three miles. Once they reached the Bronco, they rummaged around inside, finding no jack, water or anything they could use.

It was noon and the grinding sun was high in the sky.

“What now?” Shelly asked.

With almost no water, Roger knew he had to take drastic action. “I’m going to get help,” he said. “Stay here in the shade, and I’ll be back.”

He kissed Shelly and the girls. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back soon. I promise.”

But as he turned and walked away, Roger knew he had little chance of keeping his word.

“I honest to God wanted to cry, but I couldn’t let anyone know how worried I was,” Roger recalled. “I knew our only chance at this point was for me to find help.”

Consumed with guilt, Roger took off at a slow jog, soon disappearing into the desert.

As the afternoon passed, Shelly began to question the wisdom of sitting idle near the Bronco. If something happened to Roger she knew she and her children would die. They decided to begin walking, slowly following in Roger’s tracks.

Their desert nightmare was just beginning.


Standing at the edge of the fork in the road, Roger peered across the seemingly endless terrain. Squatty bushes and barrel cacti dotted the landscape, and towering saguaro cast tall shadows on the desert floor.

The unrelenting Arizona desert covers more than 120,000 square miles, and each year its harsh conditions claim about 200 lives.

Without water, Roger could quickly perish from dehydration or heat stroke. And just a few miles into his journey, with no point of reference, he was lost.

Choosing the path to the right, he gathered some rocks and trash, setting them in the trees to mark the way back to his family.

“I made a conscious decision to keep moving,” Roger recalled. “You have to keep going. If you stop you die.”  

As he staggered down the desert path desperate for water, Roger came across this cattle trough. When he peered inside he was devastated to discover it was bone dry.

As he staggered down the desert path desperate for water, Roger came across this cattle trough. When he peered inside he was devastated to discover it was bone dry.

While his pace was swift at first, soon he slowed. Ascending the hills and knolls was grueling. Every breath he felt the hot air filling his lungs. Stopping occasionally for shade, he crouched under wispy creosote bushes.

“I was so hot, tired and thirsty, so thirsty,” Roger recalled. “I knew Shelly and the girls were feeling the same. We were all in trouble. I was so worried about them.”

Pointing his pistol in the air, he fired off three rounds hoping to alert someone for help, but no one was around for miles.

In the distance he saw a concrete basin—a cattle trough. Fueled with hope, he sprinted toward it, but when he looked inside, he discovered it was bone dry.

Sliding down the side of the trough, he sobbed, “No. No. No.”

His vision beginning to blur, Roger blinked hard and forced himself to his feet.

“I was crying, crawling, and I felt so alone,” he recalled. “I knew I must continue. I was our only hope for survival.”


The thirst was unbearable.

As Shelly led her daughters down the trail, she checked every water bottle and jug they came across on the ground. Not one had a single drop.

“Mom,” Tiffany cried, her face crimson. “I can’t do it. Just shoot me. Please just shoot me.”

Shelly tried her best to reassure her oldest child. “It’s going to be OK. We’re going to get out of here.”

Approaching the fork in the road, Shelly looked to her left—and suddenly recognized the mountains—the way home. Peering to her right, her heart sank. She saw the bottles and rocks in the bushes, marking the path she knew Roger had taken.

She contemplated her next move. Could the kids survive the trip over the mountains? Would Roger come back first?

Shelly decided to follow Roger, praying she was making the right decision.

“I realized he went the wrong way,” Shelly said later. “But I knew Roger—I knew he would either get us help or he would die trying.”

As the afternoon crept by, they all grew more dehydrated.

“Mom, I’m thirsty!” Michaela cried.

“Don’t talk, baby,” Shelly said. “Conserve your moisture.”

They passed by some cattle troughs, which sat beside a water tank and an open well. Tossing a rock down the top of the well Shelly heard a splash. She looked down the well disheartened—it was at least a hundred feet deep and there was no way of reaching the water.

Tiffany and Michaela collapsed in the shade of the basin, shaky and weak.

Shelly adjusted the valves on the water tank, hoping to fill the troughs. But the end of the pipe was sealed with a rusty bolt. Aiming the shotgun at the pipe she fired three times, the bullets ricocheting off the metal.

Disoriented, Shelly began to feel ill. She knew how desperately they needed moisture. Remembering that some cacti contain water, she fired a hole in a saguaro. Digging in the bullet hole, the insides disintegrated in her fingers like sawdust. Splitting open a hedgehog cactus with her hands, she found moisture inside. She scooped it out and brought it back for the girls.

By then her daughters could barely talk, much less walk. Tiffany’s eyes were sunk into her skull, encircled with brown rings. Michaela appeared gaunt; her shrunken lips sticking to her teeth.

As the girls tried to consume small pieces of the cactus, Shelly collected debris and started a small fire, hoping the smoke with signal for help.  

About 100 miles from the Mexican border, the southern Arizona desert can be a sinister place at night. People smugglers, known as coyotes, regularly patrol the desert where the family was stranded.

About 100 miles from the Mexican border, the southern Arizona desert can be a sinister place at night. People smugglers, known as coyotes, regularly patrol the desert where the family was stranded.

She screamed toward the horizon. “Help! Help! Water, please.”

In complete desperation, Shelly knew their only resort was to drink her own urine. Using the Gatorade bottle she’d brought from the truck, Shelly peed as much as possible. Although the liquid was sickening, she and her girls and drank small sips.

“The realization that we may not make it out of here alive was very real,” she recalled. “I began thinking possibly Roger might have already not made it alive. I started thinking of news reports that have said a human being cannot last over eight hours without water in the desert heat. We had already been walking without water for more than 10 hours.”

Farther up the road, Shelly cleared the ground at the base of an Ironwood tree and placed the umbrella in the branches to create shade.

Drained, she collapsed on the ground beside her kids.

Where’s Roger? she wondered.

His pace sluggish, Roger had crept from the mountain terrain and finally reached flat land.

Like Shelly, he was in critical need of water. Using the butt of his gun, he beat in the sides of a barrel cactus, scooping out the damp insides. Cactus needles pierced his fingers, leaving his hands scraped and bloody.

Squeezing the cactus above his mouth, he sucked out each drop of moisture. He took off his shirt and filled it with pieces of cactus flesh.

As the sun began to set for a second night, Roger could see a faint twinkling light in the distance. He traced an arrow on the ground, which he planned to follow the next day.

Digging a hole in the dirt, he laid his bruised and bloodied body on the ground, crying out to Shelly. “Don’t give up. I am coming for you. I’m going to get us out.”

A few miles away Shelly and her daughters huddled together, facing a second night in the desert without water. Hours passed and they slept little.

Suddenly, the silence was broken.

“Mom!” Tiffany shot up at attention. “I think I hear a car.”

In the distance Shelly heard the rumble, growing louder with each passing second. She ran toward the path, waving her arms wildly in the air.

“Help! Help! Please help us!” she shouted.

The truck sped by without stopping. Shelly fell to her knees. “No! Please stop. Please help.”

Minutes later she heard another vehicle pass.

As the headlights flashed on Shelly and her girls, the car accelerated and suddenly swerved, heading directly toward them. Shelly felt a rush of breeze as the truck nearly grazed her.

“All we want is water!” Shelly screamed.

Driving 50 feet up the road, the pickup turned and faced them. It suddenly dawned on Shelly that so far from rescue, the driver was likely a member of a gang from the Mexican border.

The engine roared.

“Run!” Shelly screamed to her girls. Tiffany and Michaela scattered as Shelly picked up her shotgun and aimed it at the driver.

The truck accelerated toward them; Shelly’s finger tightened on the trigger. The driver sped past them, at the last minute veering away. Shelly dropped her weapon.

Gathering the girls, Shelly lay back on the ground and closed her eyes, picturing her family back in the air-conditioned coolness of home. When she opened her eyes she saw the sun breaking over the mountains.

She shook her head in defeat, knowing they wouldn’t survive another day.

“We considered this the day of despair,” Shelly recalled. “For all hope of a rescue was gone.”

At dawn, Roger began walking briskly down the road, with renewed determination to find help.

Unexpectedly, noise and dust filled the air. A pickup was coming down the path ahead of him.

Frantically, Roger waved it down. The truck pulled to the side of the road. Roger—haggard and covered in dirt, sweat and cactus needles—approached the driver. “Water. Water,” he squawked, his throat dry. “Agua. Agua.”

“I’m trying to tell him my family, my girls are out there,” he later said. “And I couldn’t talk.”

The driver looked Roger up and down in disgust.

“Don’t worry,” he said, spitting in Roger’s face. “Someone will find your bleached bones out here.”

The man drove off leaving Roger in a cloud of dust.

Just two days in the desert had changed Roger’s appearance so drastically he realized he was mistaken for an illegal immigrant.

His legs rickety, Roger stumbled further down the road when once again he heard the noise of a passing vehicle.

Wobbling unsteadily, he struggled to focus on the truck.

The driver rolled down his window.

“Roger?” the man asked. “Is that you?”

A wave of emotions washed over Roger—it was one of his customers from work.

“Water,” Roger mumbled. “I need water.”

The driver got out of the truck, giving Roger two bottles of water and a Pepsi, which Roger quickly gulped down.

The driver called 9-1-1 on his cell and soon the desert was swarming with ambulances and crews from the Bureau of Land Management search and rescue.

In the back of an ambulance, Roger’s dehydration was treated with IV fluids, and he explained to investigators what had happened.

“We need to take you to the hospital,” one of the emergency medical technicians told him.

“You’re not taking me to any damn hospital,” Roger said gruffly. “I’m getting my family out. I’ll show you where they are. We got to find them!”

At daybreak, Shelly and the girls had sought shade in a nearby wash, about two feet deep. Digging a hole with her feet, Shelly found the sand was cooler. Michaela stripped off her clothes, and Shelly buried both her girls in the sand up to their necks to cool their bodies.

“I knew at that point death was a matter of time,” Shelly recalled. “I had to try my best to sustain my children’s lives and mine as long as possible.”

Around 7:30 a.m., she heard two vehicles pass by the road. Climbing up the embankment and peering over, she saw the pickup from the night before. She hid, lying flat on her back, careful not to reveal herself.

Crawling back into the wash, she collapsed on her stomach.  

A year after their ordeal in the desert, Roger and Shelly were married. They posed here with Michaela and Tiffany at their oldest daughter’s high school graduation.

A year after their ordeal in the desert, Roger and Shelly were married. They posed here with Michaela and Tiffany at their oldest daughter’s high school graduation.

Hours later she heard another vehicle. Clambering over the hill, she saw a different truck. Summoning every ounce of strength, Shelly ran after the vehicle, waving her arms.

The car stopped along the side of the road. It was a ranger from the Bureau of Land Management.

“We have help!” Shelly yelled at the girls. “We’ve been saved!”


Roger was reunited with Shelly, Tiffany and Michaela back at the main road.

“I’m so sorry,” Roger cried, reaching out to Shelly, rubbing her hair. “I love you guys.”

A helicopter airlifted them to a hospital in Tucson, where they were treated for severe dehydration. At the hospital, the doctors couldn’t get Michaela to wake. Her tiny body hadn’t been able to handle the conditions, and her kidneys had begun to shut down. For a while it was uncertain if she would make it, but after four days in the hospital, Michaela made a full recovery along with the rest of the family.

As for Roger and Shelly, the ordeal that could have split them apart ultimately brought them closer together. A year later they were married.

Today, 10 years since surviving the desert, the whole family says the experience has changed them.

“I think I have a greater appreciation for life,” Shelly says, sitting in the backyard of her home alongside Roger. “We live every day to the fullest.”

They still venture out to the desert, only now they are prepared, bringing water, cellphones and supplies.

“We still love the desert,” Roger says. “But we respect the desert a lot more now. We really do.”