Claire Nelson thinks it was her hiking experience, not inexperience, that very nearly got her killed at Joshua Tree National Park.
The New Zealand journalist had hiked there before, and this walk was only designated “moderately hard”, so she was feeling confident about it.
She didn’t worry about sharing her itinerary with anyone, and didn’t leave any notes telling people where they might find her if she didn’t come home.
But a few hours into the hike, Claire lost her footing and fell about eight meters into a small clearing, not much bigger than she is.
“I’d landed in amongst these large boulders and I couldn’t move,” she tells RN’s Life Matters.
“I couldn’t sit up, I couldn’t stand up. [It was] indescribably painful. “
She’d shattered her pelvis in the fall. She had no phone service, only enough water for about a day and very little food – a bagel, a hard-boiled egg, a chocolate bar.
She was facing sweltering Californian desert heat, not to mention patrolling coyotes and rattlesnakes in seasonal peak numbers.
“I felt more vulnerable than I could have ever imagined being in my life,” Claire says.
In the four days and three nights that followed, fearing she’d die alone there, Claire experienced delirium and adrenaline rushes, terror and determination.
And between it all came a realization: she’d been isolating herself from people well before Joshua Tree forced that upon her. This was just another kind of alone.
If she made it out alive, she wanted things to change.
‘I don’t know if I’ll wake up again’
Almost from the start of desert ordeal, she began recording videos on her phone.
“I wanted to record a message to my family so that if they ever did find me dead, they would know what had happened,” she says.
The videos make for harrowing listening.
In one, Claire describes trying to move and hearing the “click, click, click, crunch, crunch, crunch” of her broken bones.
“Oh, the noise that came out of me, I swear to God,” she recounts in the video.
“I nearly passed out. But I don’t want to pass out in the sun, or ever. I don’t know if I’ll wake up again.”
She’s ashamed to admit it, but this hike wasn’t the first time she’d headed off without telling people her plans.
“I know better, I know the rules: always tell someone where you’re going,” says Claire, who has written about her experience in Things I Learned from Falling.
“I think what happens is that after a while you do something enough and you get so comfortable doing it that you actually stop thinking about the risks, which means that you stop preparing for them.
“People would describe me as independent. I’m very stubbornly determined to just rely on myself, which I think is actually, in hindsight, a very dangerous kind of mindset to get locked into.”
Claire says in a way, that fierce independence helped her survive her ordeal.
“But in the other way, what saved me was other people. I don’t know how resilient we can be on our own forever,” she says.
Those other people included friends she’d been house-sitting for nearby, who were away in Scotland. They’d tried to contact Claire after noticing her social media accounts sleeping for a few days.
“When they couldn’t get in touch with me, they felt something wasn’t right,” Claire says.
“They had some mates go around the house to check on me and I wasn’t there, and the car wasn’t there, so then they had to call search and rescue.”
When Claire’s car was found at the desert park’s trailhead, a helicopter search began. It very nearly didn’t find her.
“I was too small a thing in too large a place. It was a needle in a haystack,” Claire says.
It was only on the helicopter’s third and final flyover that the rescuers noticed something.
“I had made a sunshade out of my hiking stick and I was waving it, and they just caught the tiniest little glimpse of something that made them go back,” Claire says.
“That’s what saved my life.”
Learning to stop ‘pretending’
In another of Claire’s videos, she’s emotional and fighting with the heat.
“I’m not letting it win. But, boy oh boy, I don’t want to have to do that again tomorrow, please,” she says into her phone.
“This is the first time I’ve actually cried because I’m getting really freaked out now, and I just think of all of you guys, my friends and my family, and I’d do anything to see you guys.”
Two years on, she feels “disconnected and distanced” from her video footage when she sees it.
But she’s adamant she won’t ignore it.
“I’m connecting with it more now, and I’m glad for it, in a way, because it does remind me of what the elements were like. It’s very easy to forget when you’re safe at home,” she says.
The footage also reminds her of the questions she asked herself while she was stuck and alone in the desert.
“There were definitely moments when I would think back to my life and think, ‘well, did I live it well? And could I have done more? What would I have wished I had done differently?'”
The answers to these questions mostly came down to human connections.
Claire says prior to her fall, she spent a lot of time posting things on social media and “pretending” to connect with people.
“But I really wasn’t,” she says.
“I really wish that I hadn’t put up so many walls around me to try and keep people out and just be that self-reliant person all the time.
“I realized it had just left me as this isolated island. And no man is an island.”
Since her recovery, she has turned those achievements into change.
“I have learned to ask for help when I need it and to open up with people,” Claire says.
“In that way, I have made more connections with people, and the connections I already had are so much stronger now.”
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