Salvation Canyon: A True Story of Desert Survival in Joshua Tree

Salvation Canyon: A True Story of Desert Survival in Joshua Tree

by Ed Rosenthal


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Ed Rosenthal was Jewish kid from the mean streets of Rockaway, Queens who became a real estate broker in Downtown Los Angeles. His passion is poetry, writing about the historic buildings he sells and advocates to preserve. He hates slumlords, is fed up with his buyers, but finally closes The Big Deal and saves a century’s-old icon: Clifton’s Cafeteria. It is fall of 2010 and he’s ready to not to talk to anyone for a week. After the ribbon cutting he skips town and makes his way toward the Mojave to bathe at a natural spring and take his favorite hiking trip in Joshua Tree National Park. But his vacation soon turns into a nightmare. Over six grueling days without water, food, or hope, he discovers a well of perseverance in the snippets of his life that play over the deadly but inspiring landscape, in which he finds himself utterly and inexplicably lost. The God of Random Chance has, despite his best efforts his whole life, finally caught up to him. He describes his ordeal and its setting in intimate, vivid detail: surreal visions mix with wayfinding and intuitive wisdom in a poet’s-eye view of the life-lessons and magic that the desert can hold.

Rosenthal’s shocking ordeal was covered on The Outdoor Channel, local broadcast, The Weather Channel, in Los Angeles Magazine, and interviewed by Dick Gordon for “The Story” on National Public Radio. In 2014 he was the subject of an episode of “Fight to Survive” with Bear Grylls on The Outdoor Channel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781733957977
Publisher: DoppelHouse Press
Publication date: 06/23/2020
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Ed Rosenthal is a poet and real estate broker in Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) who has been at the epicenter of a decades-long revitalization effort of the historic area. Combining issues as diverse as real estate deals, minority contractors and homelessness, his socially-oriented poetry has been published in venues from large to small to unusual. In 2002 the Wall Street Journal published a series of his rhyming couplets in which he admonished short-sighted developers. A 2003 LA Times feature covered Rosenthal’s “Poetic Request for an Extension of Escrow,” citing the poetry which helped foster DTLA redevelopment. Rosenthal is the only poet to be published in the magazine of the prestigious Urban Land Institute in Washington D.C., Urban Land.
Rosenthal also performs his poetry publicly, including at Beyond Baroque, events with the LA Community Redevelopment Agency and in old Downtown theaters like The Orpheum. In 2013, he published his collection The Desert Hat (Moonrise Press) based on his near-death experience in the Mojave Desert in 2010. Most recently his poems have been published in various California journals and with the Sierra Club.

He lives in Culver City, California with his wife, Nicole.

Read an Excerpt

I could tell immediately that it was a safe place: a three-sided rock outcrop about fifty yards square with walls twenty feet high on two sides. A ten-foot tall acacia stood in the center, its red bark and green leaves stood out from the ground of small grey stones and sand. I limped into the patch of shade the cat claw leaves threw off and sat down. Out of the sun’s clutches, my mind shifted to my scratchy throat, which felt like it was tightening inside itself. I remembered the choice Yucca stalks from Tree Canyon that I had stuffed in my pack that morning. My orange pack was beside me on the sands, and I opened it up to pull out the stems. But the heat of my morning search had dried them to pointed brown crisps. Exasperated, I tossed the burnt stalks to the ground, put my head on the pack and fell asleep.

I was back at my desk and pushing papers around the desk. I couldn’t find the document I needed. Remembering it was in the file cabinet behind me, I leaned on the desk to get up. But I was unable to stand. Opening my eyes, I saw my hand on sandy gravel. I was facing a rocky wall. I remembered where I was. The shadow of the Acacia had pulled back, and the canyon was a radiator. The sun burned. I couldn’t stand, I reached for my hiking stick, propped myself up, grabbed my orange pack, dragged it twenty feet and shoved it into a black stripe of shade along the cliff wall. I laid down with my neck on the black waist pad and feel asleep.

Sunday Afternoon

The friendly old camper noticed that the day hiker who’d parked nearby on Friday had not returned and became concerned. He flagged down a Park Ranger's car, and the Ranger, Melanie Lloyd, informed Ranger Dan Messaros, the head of the Park Rangers' criminal investigations unit. Melanie notified my wife that my car had been found and that it was in Black Rock Canyon Campground. According to witnesses, I had left it there on Friday afternoon, and had not returned. Rangers asked for a picture of me to be e-mailed, so they could post it on bulletin boards in Black Rock Canyon.

Ms. Lloyd sought Nicole’s help to begin an extensive series of interviews with anyone who might know my habits and whereabouts; Melanie also requested phone numbers of hiking buddies. She needed proof of ownership of my car and approval to search it in order to determine whether I had been a victim of foul play or to find a clue to my destination, such as a map. From pings on my phone, rangers would contact the last people I had spoken to, in case I might have told them where I was.

Ranger Jeffrey Ohlfs was Incident Commander in charge of the rescue effort. He authorized a “hasty search” of the area by members of his staff and all the trails in Black Rock Canyon closed so that his people could comb the pathways issuing from the parking lot.

At a large table downtown, men were arguing about money. It was late afternoon. I wanted to change my seat because sunlight was hitting my face over the shoulder of the guy in front of me. There were no seats available on the other side of the table. “This owner is too cheap to put in blinds.” The sunlight got brighter and hotter. I squirmed around in my chair and rubbed my shoulder against a rough surface. I woke up in pebbled sand against a rock cliff, with my chest and shoulders covered by a merciful black shade. I would have gladly returned to the table.

The canyon was lit by mid-day sun, the grey ground had turned white hot, and a wall of amber stone shone at me from forty yards away. My boots were five yards from me, spread apart, turned over on their laces. They sat on small runnels in the sand a few inches deep, tiny tracks of my sliding feet. I shoved my orange pack behind me and grabbed my stick. Without lifting my body, I pushed against the stick, and slid into the shifted shadow as my eyelids closed.

The sky weighed on my chest but I struggled to my elbows and searched for my place in the landscape. I’d slid from where I’d been, chasing the shade. Miles of scorched landscape surrounded me. Black pebbles, blackened creosote plants and yellowed scrub grass. The sun had moved the cliff’s shadow. I dragged myself along and feel asleep. In the projects on the Lower East Side, my Dad was lying on the couch and light came through the window. I was happy to see him there because he usually wasn’t around. It was warm, and he didn’t need a cover. A breeze from the East river moved the curtains. His bald head was on the pillow. His big hairy chest moved up and down. He looked like a happy bear. I had never seen him like that. I decided to leave the couch I was on and lie down next to him. I walked over and laid down alongside him. He was much bigger than me, and I didn’t take up much room. I fit into the space away from the window; he was on the rest of the couch, closer to the breeze. My legs only went to his waist. He kept sleeping. I looked over his chest out the window and saw the daylight. The room was cozy. I started to fall asleep. His snoring did not bother me. As I was falling asleep, I moved closer, resting on his arm, and putting my head on his hairy chest. Just above the rim of his T-shirt. He jostled around and without opening his eyes said, “Get out of here.” He lifted me in the arm I was on and threw me in the air. As I sailed across the room, I knew he didn’t care where I landed.

I woke in the canyon. The white heat was gone. I tried to get up but my right leg buckled, so I held my stick and pushed down, using my left leg to stand, dragged my right alongside. Limping, but I had not lost my legs on an open arroyo. I limped in my stocking feet to a flat rock twenty yards away in the middle of the enclosure and sat on the two-foot high perch. From there, I could see the wide basin. From that perch, again I surveyed my situation. I’d be found one day, dead or alive. Out of the elements I could survive several days. My phone was long dead. The clip of a ballpoint hung on the pocket of my short sleeve shirt. I searched for paper in my pack. I took off my hat and tested my pen on the inner lid and it worked, so I began a letter to my wife and daughter. “Dear Hilary and Nicole I love both of you not sure if I can make it out of here. I made a wrong turn and didn’t take enough water. Collect the $75,000 from Andrew and the life insurance.” Encouraged by my ability to communicate, I expanded my instructions: Give my love to Gary, Jerry, Jeff, John Kaji, Harold, Mark Moniz, Tyson, Rabbi Debra, My Brother, Sister, Chris Cooney, Steven and Felisa.

Writing the names of my friends, I felt better. As each name brought a different memory, my mind separated from the alone-ness of my body on the rock. Many of my friends had never met each other, and I began to plan. “My funeral will be a wake. Have the downtown poet Richard McDowell recite a poem.”

Now, I became encouraged there might be a tomorrow. With the nylon hat turned over, the inside lid was perfect to setup a calendar chart, I put some straight lines across the inside of the rim and listed what had happened so far leaving spaces for future days. On the top line,

“Friday, I got lost in the wilderness and slept in a cute little canyon.”

“Saturday, couldn’t get back and slept under a fir tree

“Sunday, I found this place

A horse fly sat watching as I wrote. He had found me under the clam shell rock, and followed me across the fifty yards to this outcrop. He had attached himself to my shoulder beneath the acacia. Each time I dragged my body into the shadow during the long afternoon, he lifted off my chest a few inches, buzzed a small loop in the air and landed again on my chest. When I had gotten up from my last dream, he followed me over to the flat rock and sat there while I wrote messages to my wife and daughter. Most flies I would brush off, but I didn’t feel like flicking my wrist at this fly.

I lifted my pen and clicked the release. The point withdrew. I placed the pen in my shirt pocket and stared at the fly sitting next to me. I’d come back to my friends later. The sky changed again. The sun disappeared behind the sheltering walls. I put the hat on my head, and leaned on my stick to lift myself off the rock. My companion took off and stayed in the air behind me. My legs buckled worse than before.

Mom stood between my brother Joe and me, with her cane supporting her. We were on the wooden piers where trawlers brought in their hauls. The black wall of a ship with slimy seaweed stuck in the wooden planks of its bow, slid in as sailors threw ropes down to tie to the posts. The East River was green and choppy. The place smelled like salt and rotten fish. We were above the boarded stalls where she bought the whitefish and pike that Russian Jews used to make Gefilte Fish.

We turned away from the boat and went across the pier. My brother held one of Mom’s hands, and she moved her cane with the other. We turned sharp left onto a slippery gangplank to the fishmonger stalls, when I heard her scream and saw her lose the grip of my brother’s hand. Her black coat lifted and her bad leg buckled out from under her. In a few seconds, she’d slid ten feet below us.

“I can’t get up. Go get somebody,” she told my brother. I was so afraid for her, and I sat next to her, repeating, “Are you okay Mommy?” People streamed past us from the stalls carrying fish wrapped in newspaper. I explained to them, “My Mom fell. My brother went to get somebody.” A lady turned her head, made a sad face and said, “Someone will be here soon,” but then she walked away, up the slippery plank, like the rest of the people. I sat a long time with the river gurgling into the posts above me. My brother returned with a strong man in a navy-blue pea jacket. He lifted my Mom, carried her back to the street and hailed a cab.

I stuck my ear inside the door jamb of my parent’s room that night when the doctor came. He told Dad, “Your wife doesn’t listen too easy. She has to give up that cane before something worse happens. We have to get her fitted for a full metal brace. You tell her what I said.”

By the time we moved to Rockaway Beach, she was used to the steel and leather brace. Every summer day, she loaded her shopping cart with drinks and sandwiches and took my brother Joe, my sister Ann and me a mile to the beach. She leaned against her the cart and dragged her braced leg behind. We passed ten six-story red-brick buildings, with children who might look out the window. Their mothers didn’t limp and bob all over the place.

We rolled by the busted up, bleached bungalows lining the last blocks to the beach. This stretch of relics from Rockaway’s glory days was filled with broken glass. Skirting around the worst patches, we would reach the Boardwalk. She grabbed the rusty railing and pulled herself up the steps to the long wooden planks.

Another set of stairs descended to the beach. She threw off her brace and beach dress. She dragged her weak leg to the water’s edge. Free of land, she dove in under the green foam. She found the strong ropes and propelled herself along the string of orange barrels. The skirt of her black suit filled with ocean and bounced like a whale in the water.

Now, I dragged my leg through the sand to the wall. The fly followed behind. I pulled my pack from the wall to the foot of the Acacia, positioning the black pad to face the moon. With my stick beside me, I lay down and watched the moon grow and light the floor of my last refuge. The blur of the fly buzzed, scouting the circumference of the tree. Then, absolute silence. The cliffs protected the place from wind but also blocked any view to either side of me. I saw faint red and amber lights of a desert community a few miles away. I could not move my legs to reach them. The blue star Vega came up to meet the ever-present moon over the canyon. The white giant Altair flashed alongside. The cradle toy of a diamond pendent and a white ball was back. I had found a protected alcove in the great basin. The walls shut out everything but the distant lights, the giant cross and my friend the moon. The fly settled down on the pack. We fell asleep.

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From the Publisher

Broker Ed Rosenthal, 64, had just closed a lucrative deal on a Los Angeles landmark, Clifton’s Cafeteria, and decided to celebrate by taking what he thought would be an afternoon hike in the Joshua Tree National Park desert. But the afternoon hike turned into a six-day nightmare when Rosenthal got lost. Search teams on horseback and in helicopters combed the area, but, as time dragged on, did not expect to find Rosenthal alive. Rosenthal was missing during one of California’s worst heat waves in years. It reached 120 degrees in the desert

—ABC News

What he did next was inspired and most probably saved his life.... He began to write…
—Bear Grylls, “Escape From Hell” on The Discovery Channel

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