This is a vibrantly physical book. Nelson’s body is central in its horrifying pain and immobility. Her thirst is ferocious, but her appetite leaves her in peace. “Hunger felt like an entirely fictional concept to me now ... My body had shut off my appetite like an electrician turning off the mains power, cravings and fancies shut down, taste’s sensory synapses still, everything faded to black.”
It is difficult not to warm to Nelson, and I waited anxiously for her rescue. She isn’t always the most lyrical or stylish of writers, but she is genuine: determined that she will survive, “because this is not how my story ends”. In fact it is her internet habit that saves Nelson: her absence from Facebook and Instagram is noted and triggers an alarm that leads to her rescue that leads to hospital and a can of Diet Coke that she has dreamed of constantly for the four days in the gully. “For once in my life I didn’t have the capacity to squirm about kindness being offered to me – instead I welcomed it in, and realised how good it felt to do so.”
When Claire Nelson set out on a hike in California in 2018, she was exhilarated at the chance to worship at the only altar she knew: the great outdoors. Nelson, then 35, had spent years working in London at a food magazine.
Worn out by depression and insomnia, she sought solace in the Joshua Tree national park.
After setting off for the trail, she doubled back to get a hiking stick just in case. That decision almost certainly saved her life, as Nelson describes in her nail-biting memoir.
Her book reveals the raw agony of her long, lost four days and three nights. The daytime heat. The night-time cold. Picturing her friends and family hearing of her death. Cursing her stupidity for not telling anyone what she was doing or when to expect her back.
She dreamed relentlessly of cold cans of Coke, as commercial airliners cut through the sky above her. She visualised the manicured nails of flight attendants on the ring pulls, the ice in the plastic cups.
She lived in constant fear of coyotes and rattlesnakes, which, she happened to know, bit around 200 people a year in the region.
But there were strangely calm and happy moments, too.