Claire Nelson, author of Things I Learned from Falling, talks with Joanna Mathers about her staggering new book of adventure and survival in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park
Video, day one:
"I did a dumb thing. I was scrambling and I fell down into this hole, and I think I've shattered my pelvis, and I can't get signal, and I'm screaming for help and – oh f***, I'm so scared . . . "
The boulders are monoliths, barricades around a tiny clearing. Claire Nelson didn't hit them when she fell, which is why she's still alive. Instead, she landed on a small, sandy patch of ground, littered with rocks. This will be her bed for the next four days.
The fall shattered her pelvis, the bone fragments emitting a horrifying snap, crackle and pop when she moves. Moving isn't a good idea. The pain is a bomb blast of agony.
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She's alone. There's no phone coverage in the depths of Joshua Tree National Park. Just rocks, big sky, and silence. Rattlesnakes and coyotes.
Nelson had come here in search of reconnection. Living in London, the New Zealander worked as a subeditor for a food magazine, but she'd lost her way. The endless swirl of deadlines, the constant motion of the big city, the drawing together and scattering of friends leaving her dizzy.
In 2018, after 13 years, she packed up. Staying with a friend in Canada, she found work as a travel writer, traversing Canada one writing gig at a time. Then there was an offer to house-sit for friends at Joshua Tree National Park, California.
She agreed, excitedly. It would almost be the end of her.
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"I felt an instant connection to Joshua Tree. Deserts are very special."
It's early 2020 and Nelson is back in London. Her pelvis has healed, but there's an ache in her leg, an echo of the fall. It's been less than two years since she toppled from a high tower of rocks on her way to Lost Palms Oasis, a large group of trees in the midst of the desert.
She says that physically, she's "very well". She's still waiting for the rest to kick in.
"Psychologically, I don't think it's really hit me yet. I naturally bury my emotions. I think with trauma, the memory can be clear, but the feelings are put away. I've been on a high that I'm still alive, but talking, like we are now, brings it back."
On May 22, 2018, Nelson started a hike that was meant to take less than a day. She'd been on a few short practice hikes since she began her house-sitting stint; her friends had recommended the longer, more distant trail.
At 9am on the day of the hike, she dropped into the Cottonwood Visitor Centre, having driven south from her home base. The ranger on duty pointed her to the start of the trail, warning her the heat was "pretty serious at this time of year". He also told her of the "scramble" needed to traverse rocks over a valley and take her back to the trail.
As an experienced and confident hiker, she wasn't fazed (she hadn't even told anyone where she was going that day). She had five litres of water, a hiking stick lent by a friend, a bagel with avocado, and sunscreen. She felt prepared.
A few hours through the hike, she was in her "happy place", surrounded by untamed desert. Then ahead, a looming stack of boulders, almost 4m high, blocked her path.
"Ah, it's the 'scramble'," she reasoned. There were no warning bells, no fear.
Assuming the path would continue on the other side, she started to climb. Having successfully made it to the top, she paused for a drink, before starting the clamber down rocks to a trail below. She picked her way carefully, sure of her sturdy hiking boots. They failed her. She fell 6m.
Isolated, unable to connect with the outside world, unable to move, she realised this was serious. People had died out here. She could die out here.
Video, day two: "No one came. It's so hot – I've half a litre of water left, I've been rationing it... If I go through one more hot day like this, I'm a goner..."
Nelson's fall, the build-up and aftermath, have been documented in a book called Things I Learned from Falling. It moves between a life of sadness and disconnection in London, and falling at Joshua Tree, outlining the parallels, creating connections.
It took her just three months to write, while recovering in Joshua Tree – she returned to help with the healing. Writing, recovering and documenting what she learned. Where she held fear, where she was vulnerable. A lesson in letting others in.
The four days she spent injured, lost and alone, were harrowing. During the day, she was tormented by the endless sun, 40C temperatures searing her skin. At night, the blackness gave rise to terrors; every scratch and scurry a potential predator.
One of the most moving aspects of Things I Learned from Falling is the transcripts of the video recordings she made while lost. As a way to ward off the terror, and an attempt at some form of connection, she started recording her thoughts and feelings, the terror and pain she was experiencing.
"It was almost like talking to someone else," she explains. "You might assume that I would have left messages for the important people in my life, but instead I used it to feel some sense of connection."
During the days, she screamed and screamed, passing in and out of consciousness. The stick she brought on a strange whim became an extra arm, with it she applied sunscreen. Her hopes rose and fell, rose and fell. She had no water, she had to make do.
Video, day three: "I hate trying to collect urine. I hate drinking urine, I hate the fact that I'm shouting and shouting for hours and there's no one around to listen. There are no other walkers out here, no one's come looking for me . . . "
By the close of day three, she was slipping towards oblivion.
"I'd faced up to the reality that there was nothing more I could do. It was very peaceful, very calm. There was no fear or sadness anymore – this was the way I'd die. I would become part of the desert."
The next day, the helicopter spotted her. They were broadcasting over a loudspeaker, calling her name. She was in a fever dream when she heard them. The first time, the helicopter came and then left. "It was just shattering, when it left," she said.
But they came back. "That moment is burned into my brain, I will never forget it," says Nelson.
Things I Learned from Falling is in turns gruesome, shocking, and heart-melting. Its depictions of shattered bones, clattering in the pelvis as she moved, and the collection and drinking of discoloured, blood-filled urine are painful.
But there is also light, moments when the gentle and inquisitive creatures of the desert came courting. A lizard doing press-ups on a rock, mice eating the remains of a bagel, reminders that life is everywhere, even in the sizzle of the desert.
"I was so scared of the dangerous animals that might come but only gentle, harmless creatures came near me. They made me laugh, and this gave me hope."
The lessons from falling are many. Nelson has learned she needs to ask for help; to allow herself to be vulnerable. That she had confidence in the wrong places, which led her to make decisions based on the idea of her physical invulnerability.
I ask if she thinks most people would have felt confident scaling the rock tower, or if this physical confidence was what made her take such a crazy risk.
"Would a regular person have done this? I don't know. Maybe they would have stopped and looked at the map, realised they were off the trail. I was reckless, and I was used to figuring things out myself. I made the wrong decision."
Things I Learned from Falling by Claire Nelson is out now (Hachette New Zealand, $35RRP)