Tucson Woman Describes How She Survived Nine Days in Arizona Wilderness: Exclusive

Stranded with her dog on a remote plateau in the Fort Apache Indian Reservation after her vehicle ran out of fuel, 72-year-old Ann Rodgers realized she'd need every survival technique she knew.

It turns out she knows quite a few.

The lithe, blond Tucson resident ate desert plants, drank from a creek, built shelters, and carried burning embers wrapped in moss throughout her nine-day survival ordeal. Following an intense, multi-day search and rescue effort, she was finally found by an Arizona Department of Public Safety air unit on Saturday.

Rodgers told her tale of survival to New Times this week after the DPS released initial details about the successful rescue effort.

Rodgers said she's been in love with the desert since she and her ex-husband, a retired Air Force officer, moved to Tucson in 1982. An artist by trade, she paints and sculpts, and is CEO of her own studio, Gemstone Galleries, LLC. The former Iowan is also a horse trainer, a "seer and energy healer," and an adventurer who enjoys exploring the state.

A yoga lover, she's in great shape, physically. But she admits she's been dogged over the years by mental-health problems, and has been in and out of jail several times for failing to adhere to court-ordered psychiatric plans and medications.

On March 31, she was driving to visit friends in Cave Creek in her 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid when she "got off track" on the Loop 202. Rolling eventually onto the U.S. 60 east, she saw a sign for Show Low — a town about 200 miles from Cave Creek — and took the turn. She couldn't explain why. She certainly wasn't prepared for an adventure, but she followed her urge to keep driving. She found herself off the highway on a rural road.

"All of a sudden, it turns to dirt," she said. She stopped and pulled out a map she had in the car. Her cell phone rang — it was her employee, Todd.

"I told him, you're going to need to let somebody know, and do something, because I don't have enough gas," she said. She texted one of her Cave Creek friends her approximate location. Then she lost her cell signal. Although the hybrid was out of gas, she was able to drive it a little further until it ran out electrical charge.

For the next two days, Rodgers remained in that location on the lonely plateau, huddling under a blanket with her dog in the car as temperatures plummeted below freezing. No other cars came by. The area didn't have so much as a power line, she observed.

Rodger had brought two gallons of water with her, but it was starting to run low. She knew dehydration was a risk and that she had to find more water. Without a canteen, she poured some water in Nutella jar and took it with her as she and the dog hiked to the highest ridge she could find. She still wasn't able to get a cell-phone signal, but while scanning the terrain with her binoculars, Rodgers spotted running water in the distance. She began making her way back to the car, camping overnight about halfway down the ridge.

Once back at the car, she took everything she thought she'd need and set out for the flowing water. One thing she didn't have a much was food. 

Hungry and cold, she'd found Canyon Creek, a rugged stream that flows mostly north-south for many miles near the west edge of the Indian reservation, in Gila County. It's a "very, very deep canyon, and very difficult terrain to traverse." 

She saw a helicopter fly over, but the searchers missed her. Rodgers came across a large, weather-bleached elk skeleton, and used the bones and white rocks to spell the word "HELP!" She left her business card at the site, writing on the back that she needed food as soon as possible, that she planned to continue walking down the canyon, and that she "can't last much longer."

Her hunger grew intense. Fortunately, Rodgers had studied the works of herbalist Charles Kane, who writes books on edible plants of the southwest.

Rodgers ate "dandelion greens," clover and "spring onions." The latter are "very tiny, but if you put a bunch of them together, it's onion-ish," she said.

Utilizing her cigarette lighter, she was able to make a fire every night for warmth and cooking. A lifelong smoker, Rodgers said people often criticize her when they see her lighting up — but in this case, being a smoker "helped keep me alive."

But she didn't trust that the lighter would keep working, so she used the ancient practice of wrapping up burning embers in moss to take with her. That way, she said, she'd always be assured she could make a new campfire.

On her birthday, April 4, she received a "gift" in the form of an old homestead. The year "1903" was scrawled on part of the old foundation, which was the only thing left of the place except for some decrepit horse corrals. She camped there for two nights before moving down the canyon in search of more plants to eat.

She felt herself getting weaker from lack of nutrition, but then found her second gift. It was a "mud turtle" trying to scramble up a side of the creek embankment. She took off her boots and jacket and jumped into the cold creek, but couldn't reach the turtle. Just as it looked like it would get away, she managed to push it with a foot over the side of the embankment, where she caught it. Soon, she had another fire going and cooked the turtle.

"That was the only protein I had, except for the bugs in the water," she said.

Meanwhile, Rodgers had been reported missing, but no one knew where in the state she was. On April 3, her Ford was found on the Indian reservation, "prompting an exhaustive search over the next two days," a DPS statement says. Two DPS helicopters scoured the area but couldn't spot her.

The break in the search-and-rescue case didn't come until April 9, when a White River Tribal Game and Fish officer found her dog wandering through the canyon. The DPS found Rodgers' "help" sign after another aerial search, then spotted one of her shelters further downstream.

When the helicopter "rounded a bend in the canyon, Rodgers was located standing next to a signal fire and waving," the DPS stated.

Rodgers said she broke down and cried when "Tiffany," a rescuer from the helicopter, found her.

"She's a Wonder Woman," Rodgers said, giving kudos to the pilot, too. "Full accolades" should also go to the Apache tribal members and their dog teams who helped conduct the ground search while she was missing, she said.

Rodgers was suffering slightly from exposure after nine days, but got onto the helicopter with "little assistance," the DPS said. She was taken to a Payson hospital for examination, then released.

"Motorists are always encouraged to know their route, plan their vehicle fuel accordingly and when appropriate, ensure others know their route of travel," said DPS Aviation Manager Terence Miyauchi.

Rodgers next adventure will be getting her Ford Fusion back. It's still where she left it, and Rodgers and her friends had to "go through several layers of hierarchy" in the tribe before receiving permission to retrieve it from the reservation. Although she was lost, Rodgers technically was trespassing on the reservation.

She's scheduled to give media interviews in Tucson at 8:30 a.m. this morning.

On the Gila County Sheriff's Office Facebook page, Sheriff J. Adam Shepherd thanked a number of organizations for helping with the rescue effort, including the White Mountain Apache Rangers, Gila County Search and Rescue, Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, and the DPS.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.