Ann Rodgers celebrated her 72nd birthday while lost in the Arizona desert between Tucson and Phoenix. After nine days, she and her dog were rescued when a helicopter spotted her "HELP" message. (KOLD)

 

Last Monday, on the day she turned 72, Ann Rodgers awoke to a hummingbird flitting its wings in her face. The sun was just starting to come up over the ridge, and she watched as the bird flapped about before zipping away.

The joyful encounter allowed her to forget, briefly, where she was. Or rather, that she had little clue where she was.

This much Rodgers knew: She and her 2-year-old rescue dog, a Queensland terrier mix named Queenie, had spent the previous night huddled around a fire she’d lit on the site of an abandoned homestead. They took turns sleeping on the red satchel that contained everything Rodgers had with her — everything that she was able to take after she left her blue Ford Fusion on the side of a path leading to who-knows-where.

It had been four days since Rodgers left her home in Tucson bound for her daughter’s home in Phoenix, four days since she took a “waaaay wrong turn” and ran out of gas, four days since she last saw another human being.

But that was just half of the journey.

(Courtesy of Ann Rodgers) (Courtesy of Ann Rodgers)

It would be five days still until Rodgers was found, five days until she heard a small rescue chopper make its slow way around the canyon’s serpentine walls, five days until she was taken to the hospital, where the doctors discovered that she was suffering from exposure, but otherwise — miraculously — in fine condition.

Rodgers recounted this in a phone interview Tuesday night, from the comfort and warmth of a friend’s home in Tucson.

A week before, though, as the hummingbird faded into the distance, human contact and medical treatment had felt a world away. Rodgers was supposed to spend her birthday with her grandson, but now she had gone terribly astray.

Rodgers shouted her frustration at the canyon walls, which only echoed her weary voice back to her.

“Why the hell am I still here?”

Here, here, here.

“Why hasn’t anybody come down and found me yet, dammit?”

Dammit, dammit, dammit.

High hopes and low expectations

Unknown to Rodgers, there were at the time several teams scouring the White Mountains for her, but they had little idea of where to look. The last person who spoke to Rodgers before she lost cellphone reception was her friend Bruce Trees, whom she texted to say her car broke down somewhere between Mile Markers 12 and 13.

Trees, a retired Marine, became worried when Rodgers stopped communicating with him on April 1. He called and called her and got no response.

Then he started calling local authorities. Trees asked to speak to anyone who could issue a missing-person report. When he got a dispatcher on the line, he told them: “Hear me, and hear me well. Either you put out a missing-person report immediately, or I’m going to come over and rip your hair out. Immediately.”

On April 3, Detective Johnny Holmes of the Gila County sheriff’s office received a call from the White Mountain Apache Forest Rangers. They said that they heard a woman was lost in the area around the Fort Apache Reservation and that they needed help looking for her. Some people found her car, and inside her car was a hungry cat. It appeared that the car was abandoned a few days ago.

The following morning, Rodgers’s birthday, Holmes’s team began a quick search of the area, with people looking through the bushes and following tracks — anything that would give them a sign of the direction she was taking on foot.

It was a team effort, Holmes said in a phone interview Tuesday night. The rangers and the Arizona Department of Public Safety were working together with search-and-rescue teams out of Gila County and Payson, Ariz.

But even with all these resources, they found themselves at a loss.

“By the end of the first day, we had no clues on which way she was traveling or whether she got a ride out,” Holmes said. “She hadn’t even contacted her family beforehand saying she was headed to Phoenix.”


(Gila County sheriff’s office)

Indeed, Rodgers admitted over the phone, the visit to her daughter’s was going to be a surprise. She hadn’t seen her daughter and grandchildren for almost a year, so Rodgers decided to just make the drive herself.

She wanted to arrive in time for her own birthday and her grandson’s, which happened to fall on the same day.

Rodgers was on the road to Phoenix on March 31, she said, when she noticed her car was running out of gas. She asked someone for directions to the gas station in the nearby community of Cibecue, but following those directions, Rodgers somehow found herself 21 miles away with no gas station in sight.

Her car, a hybrid vehicle that runs on both gas and electricity, then ran out of fuel.

Rodgers, Queenie and her cat, Nike, spent the first chilly night huddled beneath layers of clothing and blankets. At first, Rodgers felt well-equipped to weather the time before anyone found her by simply remaining in her car. She had cans of fruit, chicken, nuts and protein bars, as well as clothing to keep her warm.

Except on the third day, the only water she had left was contained in a small Nutella jar that she shared with her dog. Rodgers hiked to the top of a hill and used binoculars to scan her surroundings. She located a canyon with a creek running through it.

“I knew very well that you’re never supposed to abandon your vehicle,” Rodgers said, “but the choice was either leave it or go without water. And how long can you do that in the desert?”


(Gila County sheriff’s office)

Queenie the dog. (Gila County sheriff’s office)

Accompanied by Queenie but leaving Nike behind, Rodgers set out in fur-lined hiking boots for the creek. She brought along a red satchel stuffed with drawing papers, journaling papers, a sketchbook, a pen, a lighter, some matches, a pocket knife — all the supplies, usually used to make art, that she would now use to make campfires.

Woman and dog forged on until they reached Canyon Creek, filling the Nutella jar to the brim with its waters. Of course Rodgers didn’t know its name at the time, so she instead dubbed her surroundings “Endless Creek” and “Endless Canyon.”

“They seemed to go on and on and on forever,” she recalled. For days, Rodgers and Queenie traveled vaguely in a southwest direction in the hopes of reaching warmer locales. They made campsites out of the canyon’s many crevices, and at one point curled up inside a cave as thunderstorms rolled in.

“Queenie became my pathfinder,” Rodgers said. “She was the one who would range ahead of me to find the game trail, or cowpath or place to cross a river safely.”

Rodgers was as prepared as anyone could be for the journey ahead in the mountains. An artist and practitioner of Reiki therapy, a form of spiritual healing, Rodgers grew up surrounded by nature. Her father owned a yacht that their family took up the Mississippi River, through the Hennepin Canal, where they would stop somewhere to fish.

They traveled to all of the states but Alaska and Hawaii, which weren’t states during Rodgers’s childhood. They spent all of their time outdoors, hiking and exploring. Rodgers learned how to discern edible plants from poisonous ones.


On a different wilderness encounter. (Courtesy of Ann Rodgers)

These lessons saved her when wild plants were all she had to eat. Queenie dove into fields of clovers and subsisted on those. On Rodgers’s birthday, she was given the gift of a turtle that she sighted swimming in the creek. The turtle was moving slowly because the water was so cold, so she scooped it up with her foot, used her knife to kill it and cooked it inside the shell.

“That was my one protein,” she said.

Though Rodgers knew she had the skills to survive, she feared that she was running out of energy. Her faith — she was raised as a Congregationalist — prevented Rodgers from succumbing to despair.

Meanwhile, the detective, Holmes, and the rest of the search-and-rescue teams were also getting desperate. By the eighth day, they were joined by cadaver-sniffing canines.

“You start getting more days into it, and your probability of finding her starts dropping,” Holmes said. “We were expecting the worst but hoping for the best.”

‘Help’

On Sunday, the searchers finally found tracks for the first time, figuring sporadically along Canyon Creek and Oak Creek. Using them as a guide, helicopters circled the area and noticed something peculiar: The word “HELP” formed by bones from the bleached carcass of an elk.

Searchers descended on the sign and found a handwritten note nearby. It was dated April 2, an entire week prior. “Am lost,” it read, “trying to find people or ranch — Hiking on downstream. No food for 3 days! Ann.” This and the bones were laid out after persistent smoke signals failed to draw the attention of any planes passing overhead.


(Gila County Sheriff’s Office)

Now they were close, Holmes knew. But would they like what they found?

They found the dog first. “That made me think a little worse,” the detective said. “I thought, ‘If the dog is loose and out, she’s probably down.'”

Fifteen minutes later, they saw Rodgers.

She was dehydrated, suffering from exposure and five pounds lighter, but she was alive. They airlifted her to the paramedics, and then to the hospital in Payson. When Rodgers entered the emergency room, it was her turn to be surprised.

There were her son, Jeff, and her daughter, Erin, whom she had intended to see all along.

“I grabbed them and we cried and hugged,” Rodgers said. “Then they moved away a bit because I stunk so bad like campfire smoke.”

On Tuesday night, the resilient 72-year-old said she felt “great, physically.” In all, she had been lost in the White Mountains for nine days. If nothing else, the ordeal offered endless fodder for future art projects.

“I could definitely paint for the next 20 years all the incredibly beautiful canyons, trees, rivers and rocks that I saw,” Rodgers said. “It’s like being in Sedona, Ariz., only multilayered, over and over again. Those incredibly wonderful geological scenes all around me.”

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