As an air ambulance flies over the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon, its crew desperately scan the ground for signs of life. A young woman has been lost in the desert for five days, and the situation is looking grim. Suddenly, however, they spot something strange below; could it be the clue that they’ve been searching for?
Amber VanHecke was born and raised in Plano, a city in northern Texas. As a youngster, she spent time as a Girl Scout, learning the skills needed to be able to survive in the great outdoors. Of course, back then she had no way of predicting how her knowledge would one day be put to the test.
In any event, as she grew older, VanHecke developed a love of adventure. Over the years, she explored several of the United States’ national parks, including Yellowstone, Sequoias, Yosemite and Redwoods. Impressively, moreover, she often traveled alone.
Then in March 2017 the 24-year-old VanHecke was studying at the University of North Texas in Denton, TX, when she began planning her Spring Break. Unlike many other students, she decided on a cheap option, and her plan seemed simple: to drive some 1,000 miles west to the Grand Canyon.
There, VanHecke intended to visit Havasu Falls, a popular waterfall accessible only by a 20-mile round hike to the canyon floor. So on March 11 she posted her plans online, packed some water and non-perishable food and set off on what she thought would be just another adventure.
After spending the night in Carlsbad, New Mexico, VanHecke left the following day to drive to the Grand Canyon. In order to navigate, she entered Havasu Falls Trail Head in Google Maps and began traveling down the highway. But at some point in the Havasupai Reservation, the GPS apparently instructed her to turn right onto a dirt road.
Although VanHecke’s vehicle only had around 70 miles’ worth of fuel left in the tank, she believed that the route would take her back to a highway long before this became a problem. However, after 35 miles she found herself instructed to turn onto a road that did not exist. And that was when things really began to go wrong.
Thinking that the road may have been partially washed away, VanHecke decided to trust the directions and duly turned off from her course. However, with darkness falling, she found herself in the desert with no roads in sight; and to make matters even worse, her GPS was no longer working.
As night drew in, VanHecke began to panic. Finally, she managed to find her way back to the road – only to discover that she was out of gas. And with her reserve tank also empty, she had no choice but to wait until dawn. Unfortunately, though, daylight did little to help her predicament.
Realizing that she was lost, VanHecke tried to call 911 for help. However, without much cellphone signal available in the desert, the call didn’t go through. And when she found herself still stranded on the second day, VanHecke’s survival skills kicked into action.
Believing that a search party would be looking for her, VanHecke lit a fire and built an SOS sign. She hoped that any helicopters or small planes flying overhead would spot the markings and be able to find her. Tragically, however, nobody had even realized that the young woman was missing.
Throughout her ordeal, VanHecke survived by eating the snacks that she had carried in her car, including almonds, dried fruit and pumpkin seeds. For something more substantial, meanwhile, she cooked Ramen noodles in the sun on the dashboard of her vehicle.
Over time, VanHecke befriended a family of prairie dogs. In fact, eventually she became so close to the animals that they would allow her to hand-feed them. At night she even protected her new companions by honking her car horn to scare prowling coyotes away.
On the third day, VanHecke decided that her SOS sign wasn’t working and replaced it with a 30-foot-tall “HELP” message constructed from rocks. Then, the following day, she was elated to hear the sound of a truck approaching. But although she tried to get the driver’s attention, the vehicle sped past. Despairing, she returned to her car – and began to fear that she might not make it out alive.
As she faced her own mortality, VanHecke began recording video messages saying goodbye to her family and friends. Yet still she did not give up hope. Instead, she built a barricade across the road to prevent any vehicle from being able to pass her by again.
Having rationed her food and water, VanHecke estimated that she could survive in the desert for around 18 more days. However, on the fifth day of her ordeal, she decided that she was bored of waiting for rescuers to find her. Instead, she left a note on her car explaining her intentions and began to hike east, hoping to pick up a cellphone signal.
After 11 miles, VanHecke finally got through to 911. But when the call dropped after less than a minute, she had little choice but to hope that it had been enough. Thankfully, as she started the trek back to her vehicle, helicopter crews were dispatched to begin a search.
As VanHecke neared the end of her hike, rescuers spotted her abandoned car. Then, following the note left on the vehicle, they finally located the lost woman a few miles away. She was immediately given treatment for exposure before being flown to hospital in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Miraculously, VanHecke survived her ordeal pretty much unscathed. And, speaking after the event, first responder Jonah Nieves said that he was impressed by the young woman’s resourcefulness. “She did a lot of things that helped her survive,” he stated in a March 2017 interview with ABC News. “Those notes were clues, and those clues led us to where she was.”
Today, VanHecke is fully recovered and raising money to cover her medical bills through a GoFundMe account. What’s more, although she found the experience frightening, she says that her hopes for the future kept her going through the difficult times. Or, as she told ABC News, “I had stuff to do.”