Michael Ohman became stranded when his vehicle got stuck near Crown King. Luckily, after a couple nights, Ohman ran into a dirt biker who rescued him.
After a touristy morning and a leisurely lunch in the historic Arizona mining town of Crown King, Michael Ohman punched his home address into Google Maps and selected the “avoid highways” option hoping to find a scenic route home.
That was his first mistake.
He took off in his two-wheel drive Honda CR-V, unwittingly heading toward a path so rugged that off-roading websites describe it as rutted and steep with tight switchbacks that require skilled drivers with vehicles designed to cross boulders.
Undaunted, he pressed on.
That was his second mistake.
After just a few miles, his transmission succumbed in the middle of some of Arizona’s most rugged wilderness, miles from any cell service.
A leisurely afternoon spirals out of control
Ohman, who is 55 and goes by the nickname “Mick,” is relatively new to Phoenix.
Originally from Minnesota, he spent most of his life as a “homebody” and has become more adventurous since he moved to Arizona in January 2016.
He describes himself as “new to Christianity,” and was baptized in the Jordan River in Israel last summer. A couple of weeks ago he became scuba-certified in Cozumel, Mexico.
And it was that adventurous spirit that took him to Crown King, roughly 80 miles north of Phoenix, on July 27.
Shortly after starting toward home, Ohman said he knew something was wrong. At times the rocky path had him driving right next to a steep drop-off.
He looked for a place to turn around but once he found one, the CR-V couldn’t make it back up the steep road. So he kept driving, navigating around 2- and 3-feet-deep ruts, or stopping completely to get out and move basketball-size boulders.
During one of the stops, he noticed fluid dripping from under his car. He had gas, the tires were inflated, but it wouldn’t move. The transmission was shredded.
Left with an immobile car and little else
He surveyed his situation: No phone signal, but he did save an offline map of the route home. He had a lighter and two old flares he wasn’t sure would work. One bottle of water, a slushie, a sandwich, some bagel chips, a few beers and what he thought were a few cans of sparkling water. On second look he realized the seltzer was alcoholic, too.
In hopes of finding cell service, he hiked up a nearby mountain.
“That was excruciatingly hard,” he said. “There’s not a friendly bush out there.”
After finding no service, he hiked back to his car, disappointed and parched from the afternoon sun. By 5 p.m. he was out of water, and “alcohol tasted like saltwater.”
He arranged rocks into a big letter H next to his car and put his spare tire on his windshield, anything to signal to someone overhead that he needed help.
Eventually he fell asleep in his car, waking up often out of thirst.
Day 2: Surprises bring tears of joy
Sunrise woke him up around 5 a.m. The sandwich he saved had rotted overnight, the smell so repulsive he threw it in the weeds. The bagel chips were too dry to choke down.
He took the cooler with the few beers to explore, eventually finding a small stream a few inches wide at most, trickling through rocks and disappearing under sand about a mile away from his car.
“I found these tiny little puddles and that water, oh my goodness, it was so refreshing, so clear, so sweet,” he said, beginning to cry. “I kind of knew everything was going to be OK if I could just keep that water going.”
He dumped the alcohol and refilled the cans with water, drinking as much as he could.
Not a single plane, vehicle, or sign of life passed nearby. So he decided to try something else: Set the hill on fire.
He ignited a pine tree, but the flame didn’t spread. He took a break in his car to cool down and charge his phone. Then he filled shopping bags with brush, sticks and animal poop, trying to collect enough to set a bigger fire.
‘I’m terrified. I love you guys. I hope this isn’t the end.’
Around 3 p.m. Friday, 24 hours after he got stuck in the desert, he was down to one can of water, so he headed the mile back to the stream.
“When I got down there, my gorgeous little creek was gone.”
He eventually found a small puddle where he could scoop up a few tablespoons of water at a time.
“I knew that this was going to be my last opportunity,” he said. He decided to save the fire for Saturday when there might be more people around.
Before sunset, he recorded a video on his phone, a sort of final statement in case he didn’t make it out.
“If you find this phone and I didn’t do so well, please tell my sisters how much I love them,” he says in the video, pausing as he gets choked up.
“Tell my niece and nephew how much I love them. I’ve been praying all night. I’m terrified. I’m terrified. I love you guys. I hope this isn’t the end. Goodbye.”
Nature changes his plan
As the sun set Friday, thunder cracked and it began to rain.
“I stood there, soaking it up and oh, now I had water again,” he said, tearing up again. He had “the windows rolled up and everything’s clammy and foggy in there, but I was the happiest.
“I knew that little creek would be going again. That’s what made me actually able to sleep with all the stress.”
He woke up early Saturday morning knowing his idea to light a fire was ruined because of the rain. He was starving, and he hadn’t told anyone he was leaving Phoenix, so he knew no one would be reporting him missing.
“It’s not like I have a wife waiting at home with a cold dinner,” he said.
He looked at his map and decided it was time to leave.
He wrote notes to leave on the inside and outside of his windshield with his name and address, his plan to head toward Castle Hot Springs Road and eventually Lake Pleasant, 19 miles away. He also left a request for whoever found the notes to call 911.
Leaving everything behind in a last effort
Ohman walked for two hours, never seeing a cabin or tracks from another vehicle.
“It felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, and then I came to a fork in the road and I had to go right or left. I took a right and it was all uphill. I’m just shaking my head,” he said.
“I don’t know how much more of this I can do,” he thought, and that’s when the miracle he’d been praying for came around the corner.
Troy Haverland lives in Phoenix and has been riding up to Crown King regularly since 1991 and knew he wanted to go Saturday morning because heavy rain washes the roads, making for a nice ride.
“It didn’t take long to assess. I could see he was heat exhausted, emotionally broke down. As I was rolling up to him, you see his hands waving, they went into a prayer.”
Haverland, 52, gave Ohman his half-bottle of water and invited him onto his one-person dirt bike. They rode for an hour, weaving their way to the lake.
“It turned out Troy was my guardian angel,” Ohman said.
A Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office spokesman confirmed that a man on a motorcycle brought Ohman to the pay station in the Castle Creek area of Lake Pleasant and found a deputy at 12:28 p.m. Saturday.
Peoria Fire Department officials evaluated Ohman, who turned down further assistance, MCSO spokesman Sgt. Calbert Gillett said. Ohman said he just wanted to go home and feed his cats, so the deputy drove him home.
Groups finds Ohman’s chilling notes
Andrew Austin and two of his friends took their motocross bikes off-roading to Crown King on Sunday morning and on the route back stumbled upon Ohman’s car.
Austin, 28, took photos of the car, the notes and the “H” made of rocks before he, Jesse Stanton and Taylor Jordon spent two hours tracing Ohman’s planned route to the lake, criss-crossing the 19 miles in hopes of finding him.
The men are in the military and are trained for emergencies like this. They were ready to help Ohman and felt “huge relief” when they made it back to an area with cell service near the lake, called the number and Ohman picked up.
“I just think it’s a prime learning experience for anyone that wants to get into the off-road world Arizona has to offer because it’s not nearly as friendly as it may seem,” Austin said.
He posted the photos on Imgur, where they have been viewed more than 139,000 times.
“Even though he managed to get in way over his head and get in a desperate situation, he managed to get himself out of it, which I think is really impressive.”
A cautionary tale for others
Ohman said he hopes his story of spending more than 45 hours stranded in high desert can help others know they need to plan when visiting remote areas.
“Mistakes can happen, and the small little mistakes all lined up to make that perfect storm.”
He said he believes he survived thanks only to help from God.
“I know for a fact that God’s love was with me out there and I know because those rains came at the perfect time,” Ohman said, getting choked up.
“I really feel that there was something special going on out there and maybe my story can help somebody else.”
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