Special to Valley News
In an ironic twist, Temecula living trust attorney Paul Hanks survived a harrowing near-death hiking accident and four days in the desert. He said, “I felt death!”
He told his story with conviction, fear, pain, excitement and the will to live. He survived five days in Joshua Tree National Park with no water, a prickly pear cactus and a serious head injury.
Hanks has hiked most of his adult life.
“I like to get remote,” he said. “Get out there alone. I chose Joshua Tree to hike for my 54th birthday (March 11, 2018), and it all just backfired.”
Located just north of Palm Springs, Joshua Tree straddles the Riverside/San Bernardino County line and encompasses almost 800,000 acres. The area has been inhabited by humans for at least 5,000 years.
With nearly 1 million visitors in 2019, the park has had its share of injuries and deaths. The national park has well over 1,600 deaths in recordable years, including missing hikers, bodies found and shallow graves. Hanks said he could have been a part of those records.
“After my Joshua Tree hike, I was going to head to the Mojave Desert and then meet Patty in Vegas for my birthday. But Joshua Tree is where I started,” he said.
He never made it to Las Vegas.
Hanks started his journey in a higher area of the park with 24 ounces of water. There didn’t appear to be many hikers there recently, he said. He saw only two single hikers on that Sunday afternoon.
He said he climbed up some rocks to what he thought was maybe 50 to 60 feet high.
“I picked out this rock section that made me traverse through different and higher sections of the rocks,” Hanks said. “As I got to the highest point, a small flake of rock chipped off, and if you’ve ever heard that rock-on-rock scrape, I knew I was in trouble. First thing in my mind was ‘I’m dead.’”
The rock loosening was the start of five days of hell, he said. As the rock gave way, his body started its descent down a rock cliff.
“I felt nothing but death, and my mind went totally blank,” Hanks said. “As I’m falling, I see the ground coming up fast from about what I think is maybe 15 feet.”
The entire drop, which he and the doctors discussed, could have been between 40 feet and 60 feet, however, his final landing was a platform sticking out several feet from the mountain rocks. He was alive, but he said he did not know what was wrong or if he was even going to live much longer. It was a day-by-day, methodical approach to survival.
“If I was going to die, it may be later, but not right now,” Hanks said. “The most horrific shot of pain came from my left side.”
He checked to see what was working and what was broken, he said, knowing it was not going to be good. The first thing was to see if he could stand up.
“I started checking my body and the left side felt worse,” Hanks said. “I felt from head to toe. I did know right away that I had lost some teeth. I kept feeling my head because something did not feel right. I started feeling my upper head. I didn’t feel any holes, but it was crusty and flakey in my upper forehead and I started picking at it.”
He said his bottle of water went missing in the fall. Along with a heel shattered in seven places, he had a broken bone in the left pelvic area and a compression fracture in the lumbar region. Hanks was later diagnosed with compartment syndrome, a condition that restricts blood flow to certain parts of the body, and in his case, it seemed to reside in his entire body, his doctor said. He was bloated, blue and without food and water for five days. One doctor told him he looked like the Pillsbury Dough Boy.
Nevertheless, there was no one to help him; he could barely move and the only thing he could do was yell for help. He was miles from anyone or anything.
March is cold in the high desert mountains of Southern California with temperatures dropping into the 30s at night. Hanks was lying at 4,200-foot elevation, wearing shorts, hiking shoes and two T-shirts and dragging himself along the rock-hard desert floor. He said he could see lights way off in the distance, so he kept trying to sleep and survive until the next day.
“I couldn’t sleep because it was too cold, but I needed to find a tree. I also figured maybe I could dig a hole like an animal and burrow into the hole, but it was just too cold. Maybe I can just die in my sleep,” he said.
At the end of the first day, Hanks worked his way to a rock perch where he could see a drop-off and a valley below to where he might find his way out of the park, but then, Hanks blacked out.
In the middle of the night, Hanks woke up in the pitch black at the bottom of the little valley below the perch of rocks he was on, near a rock in some soft sand. When he came to, he said he climbed back up to that perch.
“Somehow, I went over the rock perch, and I free-fell headfirst to the bottom about 15 feet,” Hanks said. “I had to research further, so I crawled back down to where I woke up freezing in the dark where I saw a 3-foot rock right next to where I woke up. The first thing I noticed were three unmistakable large fresh blood spots on that rock. It looked like an animal had been eaten there.”
It was not animal blood though; It was his blood from a quarter-sized hole in his head. Now on top of all his injuries from the first day, Hanks had multiple orbital bone fractures and a hole in his head.
Several days before Paul Hank’s birthday, he invited his Patty Hanks to join him in Las Vegas to celebrate.
“I arrived on Tuesday at the hotel Paul had reserved for his birthday,” Patty Hanks said.
That day was Day Three of Paul Hanks’s ordeal.
“I asked the clerk at the front desk for Paul Hanks room number,” Patty Hanks said.
She said the front desk clerk Paul Hanks never arrived, and they had no idea what happened.
“I thought maybe he had a change of plans,” Patty Hanks said.
She called their son to see if he checked into another hotel before she arrived,but he had not.
“I didn’t want to panic and thought he was on his way (to Vegas), but it was now three days after he was supposed to arrive,” she said.
She asked her son to call the police and file a missing person’s report, which he did.
“I definitely started to worry because Paul knew how much this trip meant to me,” Patty Hanks said. “I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to admit it.”
With calls made to Las Vegas Metro Police Department and all the hospitals, there was no sign of him, she said.
“I started to call the family, but I didn’t call his mother until the next morning because I couldn’t tell her that her son was missing. Not knowing what happened and where he was, was the scariest, scariest feeling,” she said.
On Wednesday, March 14, the Hanks’ son Michael went to the park’s ranger station and asked them to start looking for their father. The search found no sign of Paul Hanks. Search and rescue teams went out through the park with dogs to look all night, Patty Hanks said.
“It was the most horrible two and half days of my life not knowing if we were ever going to find him,” Patty Hanks said.
On Thursday afternoon, she and the rest of his family were gathered at the ranger’s station in Joshua Tree, and a park official walked into the room.
“The first words the ranger said were ‘We have news; we found Paul,’ and no one said a word, not knowing what the next words were going to be,” Patty Hanks said with a quivering voice, three years after the incident. “The next words from the ranger were, ‘He’s alive; he’s alert and he’s talking.’”
Paul Hanks had been found.
While waiting for help that he never knew was coming, Hanks said he saw a prickly pear cactus. He decided to eat it, not knowing if it was poisonous.
“My first bite, I gulped it down and waited to see if I was going to convulse if it was poisonous,” he said. “But I had an immediate fusion and rush of energy because my body was so starved.”
He decided not to eat any more, however.
“I started to realize that the local animals eat these pods for their survival and nutrients, and I didn’t want to take the food from these animals,” he said. “With just that pod from the cactus, I had a huge energy rush that made me feel that I could continue to live on for the next few days.”
He thought about the following days, recalling night after night of hallucinations. Hanks said he thought he was seeing someone there in the distance, looking for him during the week.
Spending some energy Thursday night, March 15, Hanks said he decided to yell for help a few more times before falling asleep.
He said he heard a return voice, but he was unsure, thinking that the return voice was his own voice.
“I think it’s my voice I am hearing, or my echo,” Hanks said. “I’m saying to myself; I can play this game. I’ll call out, and I’ll answer myself back. I finally heard a different voice than mine, and I picked it up and froze.”
A team of three had found Hanks after deciding to take a strange off-trail route to see if he was there.
The first thing one of the rescuers asked him was: “What can I get you?”
He said he answered, “A Gatorade.”
From behind his backpack, the rescuer pulled out a bottle of Gatorade, Hanks said.
“All I could think about was like a commercial when someone drinks Gatorade and it’s dripping down from their chin,” he said.
They airlifted him to a hospital. Patty Hanks was one of the first family members to see him. He was purple, bloated and had a unique wound in his upper forehead. Patty said she asked the nurse about it, and the nurse told Patty Hanks, “That’s his brain.”
Another nurse caught her as she started to faint, Patty Hanks said.
For four days, Paul Hanks had survived with brain matter outside of his skull.
The prickly pear cactus carries very strong antioxidants, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties, he said, adding that it undoubtedly helped in his survival.
Three years later, Hanks has recovered, spending his spare time educating people on the prickly pear cactus and many other survival tools. He survived five days in extreme conditions, only to do it again.
Paul Hanks owns Ironclad Living Trusts, 28581 Old Town Front St., in Temecula. For more information, visit https://santeelegalcenter.com/.