Las Vegas, the most famous city in the 47,877 square mile Mojave Desert, is 88 miles south west of Amargosa Valley, the city in which I work as an emergency dispatcher. Not much happens in "The Jewel of Nye County," but sometimes, between getting crank calls, complaints from visitors to the Alien Cathouse (the local brothel), and cheaters caught at the only casino before tourists get to Vegas, something memorable happens.
When the phone rang at 11:52pm on January 14th, 2012, I kicked into gear and jammed the 'Line 1' button on my desk phone as I flipped my headset's microphone down in front of my mouth. I waited for the line to connect before I fired off my identification and shot a concerned and – since I'd been practicing the same 3 words for almost 8 years – rehearsed "What's your emergency?"
I didn't get an immediate response, so I repeated my question to the caller. A moment passed and then the man on the other end sprung into an excited jumble of words that spilled out of my earpiece.
"Oh thank God! I haven’t had signal for hours!" And then, slightly muffled as if he withdrew the phone from his head, “Al, I got through to someone!” Pulling the phone back to his head, his voice boomed “we were riding our ATVs and ran outta gas and now we’re stuck in the desert!”
To say that statement was troubling is a massive understatement. The Mojave Desert is not a forgiving place after the sun goes down. Once the temperature drops to near freezing and you attempt to seek shelter, you have to worry about the coyotes and other predators coming out to hunt.
“Sir, I’m going to need to ask you a few questions so I can get emergency personnel on their way to you, ok? How many people are in your party?”
“2. Just me and my buddy Al” he replied.
“What city did you start in?”
“Do you know which direction you were driving before you ran out of gas?”
“I dunno. We were going west or maybe north, I think.”
His lack of confidence was unsettling, but since he was in range of our cell towers, I knew he couldn’t be more than 20 miles north of where I was sitting at my desk.
“Sir, can you describe your surroundings?” I wasn’t expecting much, because out in the desert everything is covered in sand and all the rocks look the same.
“I dunno. I mean, it’s a frickin’ desert, man. There are mountains behind us and I think we’re walking south.”
As I’d guessed, his response wasn’t very helpful but confirmed his general location, so I prompted him to be a bit more descriptive.
“Do you see any landmarks that can help me pin down your location? Are you near anything large or see anything that can help lead us to you?”
I waited as he audibly pondered my questions, hemming and hawing as he likely twirled around in the darkness, searching for something – anything – to give me as a bearing on which I could send the cavalry. I was ready to punch the autodialer for our search & rescue squad (which wasn’t much of a “squad” as it was 3 guys that also volunteered at the fire house) and feed them any scraps of information my lost caller could give me. He cleared his throat and what he said next was unmistakable.
“Uh, anything large?” He mused, almost rhetorically. “Hell yeah! We are directly under the moon.”