Ann Rodgers set out from her Tuscon home to spend her 72nd birthday in Phoenix with her grandson, but she never made it. She got lost and ran out of gas, and was stranded in the desert with her dog and cat. She says she survived partly because of her dog, who sniffed out trails.
The trip to see her daughter and grandson was meant to be a surprise. It had been nearly a year since she had seen them, and she and her grandson share a birthday. So she packed up Queenie, her Queensland terrier mix, and Nike, her cat, and began her journey on March 31st.
Rodgers mistakenly turned north on Highway 60. She tried to find gas but was unsuccessful, and eventually she ran out of both fuel and electric charge for her hybrid. Somehow, she managed to wind up over 150 miles away from either Phoenix or Tuscon.
She thought she had enough provisions in her car to last until someone found them. They spent three days in the car, subsisting on nuts, protein bars, and canned fruit and chicken. She had a Nutella jar full of water, but when that ran out, she knew she’d have to find more.
“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?”
She hiked to the top of a hill, and using binoculars, spotted a canyon with a creek running through it. She had spent a great deal of time outdoors as a child, hiking and learning about which plants were safe to eat.
Nike was left behind in the car so she would not become prey for coyotes, and Rodgers and Queenie went in search of water. She brought a bag containing paper, a pen, matches, and a pocket knife.
At some point, Rodgers became disoriented, and didn’t know which direction to go to get back to her car. Temperatures at night hovered around freezing, and daytime temperatures were in the 50s – a blessing, considering how dangerously high they are known to get in that area. Rodgers and Queenie rode out the thunderstorms in a cave.
“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.”
The little dog survived by eating clovers, and on Rodgers’ birthday, she saw a turtle moving slowly in some very cold water. She used her knife to kill it so she and Queenie could have some protein. But she didn’t know how much longer they could survive.
Thankfully, help was on the way. Before she lost reception, Rodgers had texted her friend Bruce Trees to tell him that her car had broken down. When her messages stopped on April 1st, he called local police.
“Hear me, and hear me well,” he told the dispatcher. “Either you put out a missing person report immediately, or I’m going to come over and rip your hair out. Immediately.”
On April 3rd, Detective Johnny Holmes of the Gila County Sheriff’s Office was contacted by the White Mountain Apache Forest Rangers. They had been told a woman was lost on the Fort Apache Reservation. People had found her car and rescued a very hungry Nike.
The next morning, Rodgers’ birthday, Holmes and his team began scouring the area.
“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.”
They had no luck for a week, and by the eighth day, they brought cadaver dogs with them.
“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.”
But then, a beacon of hope. They spotted footprints, and using a helicopter, scanned the area. They found the word “HELP” spelled out with sticks, rocks, the sun-bleached bones of an elk. Accompanying them was a note from Ann, stating that she hadn’t had food for three days.
But how long ago was that? Then they found Queenie on her own.
“That made me think a little worse,” the detective said. “I thought, ‘If the dog is loose and out, she’s probably down.’”
But only 15 minutes later, they found Rodgers. She was dehydrated, suffering from exposure, and had lost five pounds, but was in remarkably good shape.
She was airlifted to a hospital for treatment. When she arrived, she was in for a surprise. Her daughter Erin and her son Jeff were waiting for her.
“I grabbed them and we cried and hugged,” Rodgers said. “Then they moved away a bit because I stunk so bad like campfire smoke.”
Nike and Queenie are doing just fine, and Rodgers has a wonderful outlook on her ordeal.
“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, Arizona, only multilayered, over and over again. Those incredibly wonderful geological scenes all around me.”