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The Upside To Getting Stranded: Alone In the Desert And Locked Out of My Car

It was just after summer in 2011, and I had spent months traveling solo throughout the Southwest USA. For weeks I’d been camping in all the best national parks—Zion, Valley of Fire, Death Valley—hiking and exploring, meeting interesting people, and enjoying the peacefulness of the expansive desert. After more than 7,000 miles on the road, my trip was winding down. I descended back into civilization, checking into a hotel in downtown Las Vegas.

Civilization is a strong word. Sin City can be a sensory shock after spending many quiet days in solitude. Blackout curtains offer a mild respite from infiltrating light. But the constant thump thump thump of popstar loops and live tribute acts blast through the air and permeate the thickest of hotel walls. 2AM? 4? The party stops around the blue hour. Visitors are loud and outrageous—typically eager to recreate a night from The Hangover.

The Fremont Experience, Las Vegas

Over the years, I’ve seen it all in downtown Las Vegas. I’ve encountered wild-eyed contortionists and Elvis impersonators. I’ve stumbled over drunks in a city blackout and escaped a high rise during a 3AM fire alarm. I’ve been propositioned for sex and drugs, groped by strangers, and hugged by a homeless double-amputee. All beneath the giddy screams of tourists ziplining overhead (at twenty bucks a pop) through a strange vortex of blinking lights. Ah, the Fremont Experience.

I spent a few nights in this oddly invigorating chaos, shooting everything that sparkled beyond the doorstep of my favorite casino under the reign of a giant neon cowboy. Before long, I needed a break from The Strip. Back to the mountains. It was a beautiful morning in the Mojave Desert, so I geared up for a day of bouldering, hopped in the car and headed westward.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada

Just beyond the outskirts of Las Vegas, about a twenty-minute drive from the boulevard, is a national conservation area known as Red Rock Canyon. Nestled within the Spring Mountain Range near the Nevada-California border, Red Rock’s Keystone Thrust Fault is a geological wonder that reflects fiery red hues if you’re lucky enough to be there when the sun is just right. The park is comprised of a 13-mile one-way scenic loop with various overlooks and intense hiking trails throughout. I consider it the heart of the Mojave Desert—a highlight of the many thousands of square miles of raw Nevada desert with limited services and poor cellular reception.

The Calico Hills, Red Rock, Nevada

I showed my park pass to the attendant and entered the loop. Cruising alongside the Calico Hills, I became aware of how perfect the moment was. After months of traveling throughout the country, I was in my favorite park on a beautiful day.

No crowds, no noise, no chaos.

Just desert vistas and mountains and cacti and the occasional amphibian perched on a rock. The whole day ahead.

I reached for the Radiohead CD I had set aside weeks ago and unpeeled the plastic wrapper. It was high time I listened to the new album from my all-time favorite band—music so good, I save it only for the best of occasions.

Red Rock Canyon Vista

With just a taste of Thom Yorke’s latest lyrics, I arrived at Ice Box trailhead, a challenging hike along the periphery of Red Rock. It was early afternoon.

Ready to tackle some boulders, I prepared for the day, loading plenty of water and energy bars into my pack along with my camera and smartphone.

Leaving one door open, I locked my car, zipped my keys into the pack, and set it on the back seat while I changed my shoes.

Bad idea.

I had only just slipped off a sandal and grabbed a sock when, somehow, the door clicked shut.

Oh. Crap.

It took a moment to register. I tried the handle. Did this really just happen?

I was locked out of my car, several miles deep into a remote national park with no water or phone. I considered breaking a window and wondered how much force was required.

Too drastic. This wasn’t an emergency, was it? I looked around me. No one in sight.

Stranded in the Mojave Desert

With luck, I didn’t wait long before a friendly couple passed by and offered a lift back to the main entrance, after they too tried unsuccessfully to break into my car. Easy enough—I imagined borrowing a park ranger who would jimmy my lock and send me on my way. Surely anyone who works in a rugged wilderness frequented by tourists in rental cars would be a lockout guru. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Six or seven miles back at the visitor center, I was offered little help besides a thick yellow book and use of a phone. In the age of petrochemicals and polyethylene, even a wire coat hanger was impossible to come by.

It took three calls before reaching a tow company still in service and willing to drive so far outside Las Vegas. I was reassured by a receptionist on the line that I was in the queue: Two hours for a service truck to arrive. I was dropped off at the entrance booths near the highway and waited.

Sunset at Red Rock Canyon, Nevada

Hours passed. Two. Three. I sat at a lone picnic table and watched tiny chipmunks dance and play at my feet, while admiring the changing spectrum of light that shifted the colors of the scenery.

The golden hour came and went. Blue Hour. Dusk.

The park was closing for the day. Follow-up phone calls yielded nothing. Apparently, the service truck couldn’t find the park and had moved on. What now?

It was Julie who came to my rescue. A kind and bright veteran park attendant working the entrance, she tended to me on her own accord, offering snacks and water and even a seat in a heated toll booth when the night brought a chill. She made a call (and follow-up calls) using her own AAA account and summoned a tow truck which arrived, finally, well after dark.

It turns out the average Las Vegas local has no idea this park exists.

My young tow truck driver, accustomed to routine jobs in the city and suburbs, was bewildered by the unfamiliar rural landscape. I sat beside him as we hustled through miles of blackened desert, with headlights bleaching our immediate path ahead and nothing more. Darkness, everywhere.

We found my car, just as I left it. He opened the door in under ten seconds. I tipped him well and offered directions back to the city and he headed off.

His tail lights disappeared around a bend, and then, silence.

A Long Exposure near Red Rock Canyon, Nevada

Red Rock closes before nightfall because it’s not equipped for dark. True to its nature there are no streetlights, no reflectors, few guardrails. Security had already swept the park at closing time and I knew I was the last one to leave.

This, I realized, was the upside to a day spent stranded in the desert.

Turning the ignition, Lotus Flower suddenly came from the speakers.

I rolled down all the windows and pulled onto the road, turning up the music to full volume—Radiohead reverberating in my own natural amphitheatre.

Cruising faster and faster through the night, this was my chance to treat Red Rock like a racetrack, hugging the smooth curves of the desert road in the moonlight with my own soundtrack echoing off the mountains.

A once in a lifetime moment, and so worth the wait.

3 Comments

  • Michael PA on Feb 09, 2015 Reply

    One of my fave parks, and wow, what an adventure mate!

  • Philip Mallouk on Jun 05, 2013 Reply

    You describe quite an adventure, Hillary, and your photos are amazing; but I’m not sure I’d like to share the lockout. You’ve whet my appetite for some scenic travel with this account of your travel.

    • Hillary Fox on Jun 06, 2013 Reply

      It turned out great in the end, but I’d definitely like to avoid another lockout as well. Ironically, my car was broken into in Las Vegas about two weeks later, so the window was eventually smashed anyhow. Go figure!

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