September 17, 2019

Miracle in the Mojave

Ed Rosenthal didn’t mince words when he told members of the press about his rescue after spending six days in the Mojave Desert without food or water.

“It was a miracle,” he said. “I’m much more religious now than I was.”

The 64-year-old recreational hiker took off on a two-hour hike in Joshua Tree National Park on Sept. 24 but lost his way on a trail he’d done several times before. When he was found alive and relatively healthy by a sheriff’s helicopter on Sept. 30, his story quickly made national and international news.

On Oct. 5, after being rehydrated and checked over in the hospital, Rosenthal addressed a downtown Los Angeles press conference. Sitting at a table covered in microphones, he told his harrowing story, almost without emotion. His deep, Brooklyn-accented voice is perfectly suited to deadpanning, and he cracked a few jokes that morning, including one about making friends with a horsefly.

Rosenthal dropped his “miracle” comment in toward the end of his remarks, and more than one reporter in the room laughed. (You can hear it on an audio recording made by KPCC.) But Rosenthal wasn’t kidding about his spiritual reaction to this experience.

“Seriously,” Rosenthal told them, “I prayed for rain, and it rained.”

Every Chanukah, Jews celebrate miracles that happened thousands of miles away, thousands of years ago. Ed Rosenthal’s miracle happened only a few hundred miles away, only a few months back. This is his story.

Rosenthal describes himself as a “poet-broker,” as in the unlikely mixing of poetry and real estate. Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and raised in Queens, Rosenthal has been writing poetry since the sixth grade. Over the last few decades, living in Culver City, he has also brokered sales of many historic buildings in downtown Los Angeles.

He’d gone to Joshua Tree to celebrate the completion of his latest deal. Rosenthal regularly hiked alone, and he was familiar with the route from Black Rock Campground to Warren Peak, having done it five or six times before without incident.

“You can see the Mojave, Palm Springs, and San Gorgonio and San Jacinto,” Rosenthal said, describing the view. “It was beautiful. I was relaxed, I had a nice lunch, and I felt great. I had just done two deals downtown, and I was going to go back to the hotel and relax, like I always do,” he said.

“Then I lost the trail.”

Rosenthal has no idea why, but he ended up going down through a chute and into a series of canyons. “Each canyon was more difficult to get into,” he said. “Each level had a bigger and bigger drop.” He often found himself holding onto trees and rocks to keep from falling. He kept going until he reached a drop that he could not descend. “There was no turning around,” he said, so he climbed up and over a hill. On maps, the hill is labeled Burnt Hill, and Rosenthal remembers it being bleak, dusty and brown — completely befitting its name.

He didn’t have a map or a watch. “I had a compass, but when you don’t know your point of origin, it doesn’t matter,” he said. So he climbed the hill. “The first day I wanted to get back to something. I kept looking for signs, and I kept seeing mirages of signs that weren’t there.”

The temperature hit 93 degrees in Joshua Tree on Sept. 24. Rosenthal kept walking, eventually finding a trail that led him into another set of canyons. Park rangers would later show Rosenthal a map of where he had walked on that first day. “It turns out these were unexplored canyons,” Rosenthal said. “They told me that I walked, like, 20 miles, which is just unheard of,” he added. “I never walked that far in my life.”

As he went, Rosenthal named the canyons, perhaps the first names they had ever had. The one he remembers most vividly is the canyon he passed through near the end of that first day, Friday, just before reaching the Mojave Desert.

“This Hard Rock Canyon, which I went through, was this gorgeous purple canyon that came up out of nowhere,” Rosenthal said, “and you didn’t have a choice of whether you went through it or not … there was no turnoff.”

Its walls rose to a height the equivalent of about seven stories above his head. “I remember the whole thing,” he said. “The slate shooting up, the different-colored slate, had all kinds of random angles. It was brown and purple, a little pinkish.”

When he thinks back on his ordeal, Rosenthal feels a great deal of affinity for a number of the spaces he walked through, including Burnt Hill, and especially Hard Rock Canyon. “It was majestic; it was just gorgeous,” he said.

Nevertheless, there was danger in the beauty. “It was really a gateway to hell, because after I went through it, I soon saw within a few miles, everything was turning browner, the walls of the canyons were drying out, all the plants on the hillside were brown; there was no longer a mixture of green and brown. So, really, it was a gateway to hell. But somehow I was so attracted to it.

“And I was thinking,” Rosenthal said, “that’s where I would die. It wouldn’t be bad to die in this Hard Rock Canyon. I wouldn’t care. I only cared about my wife and daughter. As a 64-year-old, I felt, ‘What do I care if I drop dead? I’m already a poet-broker. I’ve sold all these historic buildings. I have a wonderful family. So what if I drop dead?’ And that’s where I would’ve wanted it to happen.”

‘Hard Rock Canyon’

by Poet-broker Ed Rosenthal

When the sky was a torch
I trusted in murky mirages
That rose from the wash
You follow from Burnt Hill
Down to the purple mystery
That I call Hard Rock Canyon

She doesn’t ask you: ”Would
You like to turn here or there?”
You follow her like mother’s skirt
Clinging to her pleated sides
Of purple and mauve plates
As she motions to the Mojave

When the sky torches you
And plays on the prickly pear
Turning limbs to ghostly signs
Your heart rises to see her
Thrust up like flowered yucca
Turning the wash to a wisp of light

Behind you. Or was she
An organ played by the sun
The slates purple keyboards
Was I his tiny congregation
Trudging her turning bottom
Lifting my eyes to heaven?

Looking back at burnt Mojave
It’s not lying like a lifeless log
On the pebbled furnace surface
The pilot’s arms lifting me upwards
Or tears of my wife and daughter

That brings tears to my eyes.
But bursting slates of hard rock
Broken from the bound of earth
Rising in random rose striations
Riding the sky in a winding line.