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Jewish Journal

Miracle in the Mojave

by Jonah Lowenfeld

November 23, 2010 | 6:47 pm

Ed Rosenthal got lost for six days while hiking in the desert. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Ed Rosenthal got lost for six days while hiking in the desert. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

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.”

Nevertheless, Rosenthal’s survival instinct kicked in, if only for the sake of his wife, Nicole Kaplan, and his 21-year-old daughter, Hilary. “If every Jewish holiday, you know, for the rest of their lives, they remember — because it was Sept. 24 when I was lost — they’d remember, ‘This is when my father dropped dead in the desert,’ or, ‘This is when my husband was never found, out somewhere lying in the desert,’ ” Rosenthal said, his voice unwavering. “I wanted to avoid that.”

Rosenthal left Hard Rock Canyon as night fell on Friday. “I saw I was going into the Mojave, so I turned around, and I found a little place I was comfortable to sleep for the night.”

He called it Baby Canyon.

By the next day, Rosenthal was out of water.

“It was stupid,” he said of his preparations; he knew it wasn’t safe to go out with so little water, even for the short hike he’d expected to take. “I was in a rush, knowing that it was going to be hot, and I didn’t bring the water. That’s the main thing. It still would’ve run out, but I could’ve dragged it out. This way, by Saturday morning, I had no water.” And although he had some snacks — dates and Clif Bars — he couldn’t eat. “I tried to eat one, on Saturday,” Rosenthal said, but, without water, “it got stuck on the roof of my mouth. You can’t swallow or anything.”

He knew he was in trouble, he admits. “I just ended up on a hill, and I found a tree, and I stayed under it all day.”

Back home, nobody realized Rosenthal was missing until Saturday, and the search only started on Sunday. “I saw helicopters every day, from the beginning,” he remembers. “There were helicopters around, but they weren’t looking for me.” He tried signaling with his emergency blanket, his headlamp, his high-powered emergency whistle. He built fires and even tried making shadows on the hillside. But, he said, “I never got a response.”

On Monday, he came closest to despair, and that was when he started writing on his hat: “Dear Nicole and Hilary,” he scratched onto the fabric. “I love you. I’m not sure I’ll get out of this alive. I want you to know what to do.”

Rosenthal started by outlining his finances, telling his wife which of his friends she could trust to advise her on money matters. “That was one of the first things. Then I told her to use the insurance to pay off the house,” he said. “Very Jewish, right?”

Rosenthal added notes about what kind of funeral he wanted to have, who the pallbearers should be, which charities his wife and daughter should give money to.

After his rescue, his hat became a big part of the story: “People seem so fascinated by that hat,” he said, genuinely baffled by the intense interest. “I just used it because I didn’t have paper. I had a pen. A writer should have a pen, but I didn’t have any paper.”

Rosenthal kept writing on the floppy white material up until he was found. “As the days went on, I put more stuff on the hat,” he said. “It pretty much got filled up on the front and back.”

While he was in the desert, Rosenthal didn’t hear any sounds or see many animals, but he didn’t let the feeling that he had been abandoned take over.

“I think the sky helped me a lot, the unfolding, because it stayed constant,” he said. Rosenthal is a member of Makom Ohr Shalom, a Jewish Renewal synagogue in West Hills, though he did not consider himself very religious. Still, with little else to sustain him, he kept coming back to Jewish liturgy — like the evening prayer: “That’s about God bringing on day and night, and it’s a constant process,” he said. “By Monday night, I was extremely reassured when I saw the giant Orion [constellation] come up in the morning, because I knew the morning was coming and the night was over. So I was reassured by the larger universe and the larger things around me. That helped me a lot.”

Starting Monday night and until he was rescued on Wednesday, Rosenthal said the Shema prayer, and not just at night. “I did it throughout,” he said, adding that he sometimes felt he was close to death. “I saw that [white] tunnel, and then I heard that rabbi from downtown say, ‘Are you ready for this?’ ” The rabbi, Rosenthal explained, was Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, who runs the Chabad of Historic Core, in downtown Los Angeles. “And I said ‘no,’ and I just snapped out of that. I can’t be sure about that experience, if that was really a projection, because I’ve heard about these things,” he said, “but it seemed real.”

One miracle Rosenthal is sure of, though, came when, on Wednesday, he prayed for rain. “You know, all of them start out the same: ‘Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam,’ ” he said, quickly rattling off the standard beginning to most Hebrew blessings. “And you get to the end, and I didn’t know what words to say, so, for some reason, I kept saying ha’adamah, which, I don’t know — that relates to earth somehow?”

Ha’adamah means “the earth” in Hebrew, and it is the last word in the blessing that is traditionally recited before eating vegetables that grow in the ground. Alone in the desert, Rosenthal attached the blessing’s preamble to that one word — ha’adamah — at the end. “I kept repeating it,” Rosenthal said, “and I remembered at that time the word for heaven — ha’shamayim.”

“So I tied together what I thought were the two words, and I repeated it. It was all in Hebrew,” Rosenthal said.

Ten seconds later, it began to rain.

“That was, like, oh my God,” Rosenthal said. “What an incredible thing.”

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s helicopter found Rosenthal on Wednesday, Sept. 30. The hiker remembers his rescuer calling out, “Hey, are you that Rosenthal guy?”

He was lying in the small canyon, as he had been since Sunday. Even before he was found, he thought of the place as Salvation Canyon because some part of it was in the shade at every point during the day. Rosenthal used his walking stick to push himself across from one side to the other. “Every now and again, I would get up and go sit against the rock in the shade,” Rosenthal said.

“Then I saw, by Wednesday, I could not sit up against a rock,” Rosenthal said, enunciating each syllable. “I didn’t have the strength to sit up. I just had to stay laid down.”

“They found me probably half a day before I was dead,” he said.

The trauma of the experience has led him to write more poetry, and he’s still coming to grips with what he went through. “After the incident,” he said, “when I came back, I would think about that canyon and start crying. I would not cry about surviving, or my wife and daughter, what they went through, or what I went through. … I got wasted away. I lost 15 pounds, I watched my legs shrink, and by the end of it, I couldn’t even stand up. But none of that made me cry. It’s only that canyon, because it was so beautiful. And it’s strange. …Why should I be so enamored with this canyon? ... That’s a mystery to me, this beautiful canyon that I’m so attracted to. I don’t really understand what it’s about.”

Rosenthal sees his entire experience as miraculous — the prayer for rain, finding Salvation Canyon, making it over Burnt Hill, the helicopter’s just-in-time arrival. He still has a lot of questions he can’t answer, though. Those six days in the Mojave deepened Rosenthal’s faith in God and miracles, but they did not add much to his understanding of God, or of why he was saved.

“Why should 50 million people die in World War II, including 6 million Jews, if God is interested in Ed Rosenthal? There’s no way,”  he said.

“But I know I was saved.”

The litany of tragedies offered up in The New York Times every day don’t make it easier for Rosenthal to understand his own experience. “Look, just in today’s paper, there were 60 more people who died from the volcano in Indonesia,” he said. “The Iraqis blew up a few more, right? So what is that about? And the answer is: I have no idea. I have no idea, and I don’t care. I have no understanding, and I don’t care about the understanding. But I have faith.”

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‘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?

Regardless
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.