A late-summer road trip in an RV across California’s Northern Reach. That is all Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré, her mother Stephanie Swain, and Swain’s fiancé Shawn Flowers sought. Departing from Corning on August 8, their GPS suggested they avoid Highway 20 and instead use backroads through the Mendocino National Forest to reach Fort Bragg, their intended destination.
As their RV gained elevation, alongside their cat Velvet and their dog Max, DeMeré snapped a picture of the brutal, charred landscape ravaged by last year’s August Complex Fires. Little did the trio know, in the coming days, every ounce of their grit would be needed to survive their ordeal in the Mendocino National Forest.
In a stirring interview, the trio told their tale of survival after their RV crashed leaving them to wander the wilds of the woods for 72 hours before being rescued.
From Corning, Swain said they decided to take Highway 162 to Covelo. Driving a 33-foot motorhome pulling a trailer, they ascended the mountains, “the roads got really bad” and there were no obvious warning signs or turn around points. The trio drove eight hours before night fell and they passed an ominous sign warning of “Sudden Oak Death.”
In the deep dark of the remote Mendocino hills, the trio continued, hoping to come to civilization, but finding nothing but empty space. Sometime after midnight, some sort of catastrophic failure beset their RV. Flowers told us the brakes gave out, and the vehicle began descending a roadway with no way to stop.
Swain said her vision became a flickering reel of stars, treetops, and silhouettes of her daughter and Flowers bouncing up in the air.
Flowers said he tried desperately to slow down the vehicle as it gathered speed. He rammed it into an adjacent hillside, manically pumped the brakes, yanked on the emergency brake, but to no avail. Bracing for what could be the end, Flowers shouted “This is it!”
DeMeré told us there was no obvious impact; the RV just seemed to come to a stop. In the darkness, they assessed the damage. Flowers was hanging upside down, ejected from the RV through the windshield. DeMeré’s foot was pinned between the engine block and the RV’s dashboard. Flowers was able to extricate himself then proceeding to release DeMeré’s foot from the grip of the wreckage. Flowers said it took nearly an hour to unpin DeMeré and afterward the trio “laid there in the dark and cried.”
In the aftermath, in the liminal space between midnight and dawn, they drifted, and as the sun rose they found the RV had come rest against trees and boulders. Not knowing where they were, on the morning of August 8, Flowers adrenaline ebbed and his injuries began to immobilize him. DeMeré wandered around the crash site seeking signs of civilization, and Swain was able to find a nearby spring for water.
At one point, DeMeré became overheated and cooled herself off in the mountainside spring. Flowers attempted to navigate the terrain despite his injuries and almost impaled himself on before Swain and DeMeré caught him.
In a mirthless irony that only Mother Nature can employ, California Highway Patrol Officer Rick Fowler told us the RV had come to rest approximately two miles from Hammerhorn Lake, replete with a campground and amenities.
As the sunset on August 8, the trio took refuge in the wreckage of the RV. That night, as they drifted in and out of consciousness, a bear attacked their camper, Swain said. They awoke to blowing and scraping against the metal of the RV. The three huddled together, as the predator stomped outside their ramshackle shelter, and finally, they screamed, in unison “[G]o away bear!” which seemed to scare it off. Once again, they waited for daylight.
As the sun rose on August 9, a tough but necessary decision was made: Swain and DeMeré would leave Flowers at the RV and hike for help. Swain and DeMeré filled 12 water bottles in the mountain spring, left the majority of the food and water with Flowers, and departed the crash site on foot carrying little but two knives, a mirror, some water, an apple, and a lemon.
Swain and DeMeré left Flowers behind with their dog and cat, determined to find help in the wilds of the Mendocino National Forest.
Flowers described the feeling of watching Swain and DeMeré head out on foot to seek rescue as horrifying. “I was so scared for them. I thought they might get down the road and come back, but they didn’t.”
Swain and DeMeré soon found the terrain to be slick shale, complicating their travels and exhausting their bodies. Hoping to simplify their trek, they chose to descend to a water source, where the pair navigated boulders, trees, and waterfalls. Swain said they “walked along the river for hours.” As their bodies fatigued and their minds grew desperate for help, hallucinations began which DeMeré described as “seeing structures that weren’t there.”
Throughout the day the pair relied upon each other for support as they combated the creeping fog of hopelessness with the burning desire to survive. One would tell the other, “I can’t do it,” the other would provide reassurance. The memory of Flowers, alone and injured back at the RV, compelled them onward.
As the sun set, Swain and DeMeré bedded down next to water and lit a fire to “keep the animals away” by peeling bark off nearby trees with their knives. DeMeré, intoxicated by hunger and exhaustion, said that night she saw UFOs in the sky.
Back at the crash site, Flowers waited and as the hours clicked by, and a night passed, his desperation grew. At one point, he said he even considered lighting the RV on fire to get someone’s, anyone’s attention.
When the sun rose, Swain and DeMeré trudged on, stumbling on a road with tire tracks and culverts. In the first obvious sign of civilization, the pair stuck to the road, hiking miles before succumbing to exhaustion and lying down in the roadway. DeMeré lit a fire for both comfort and signaling. While they hoped for help, the wind played tricks on them sounding like tires on gravel or the roaring engine of a vehicle.
Then, seemingly out of thin air, a white truck came down the roadway. The truck pulled up to the pair, occupied by a man and woman, and initially, the woman told them “We cannot help you.” DeMeré said the woman’s husband said he was a retired firefighter and recognized the extremity of the situation and “was on the phone immediately.”
Firefighters were soon on the scene and their rescue became a blur of helicopters and medical personnel.
Officer Fowler said a Reach air ambulance spotted the RV from above.
Flowers described hearing the helicopter from his location near the crash site. He tied a fluorescent orange shirt on a stick and flagged the helicopter down. Rescuers had to send a vehicle to the location where they picked Flowers up and whisked him quickly to the landing zone to be transported.
Flowers and DeMeré were life-flighted to Howard Memorial while Swain was transported via ground to meet them there.
As Swain was being transported out of the wilderness, she saw a “vast nothing, no one for hundreds of miles.”
DeMeré described the nearly 72 hours in the wilderness as a condensed period of time saturated with momentary life and death decisions.
Flowers simply said, “I don’t know how we came out of there alive.”
When we spoke with the trio, they were in Santa Rosa, hunkering down in a hotel, healing from the wounds and gaming out their next steps. Their dog had been successfully rescued and is currently in the Ukiah Animal Shelter, but their tuxedo cat Velvet was not successfully recovered from the crash site after remaining by Flowers’ side during his long wait. Hoping to recover Velvet, the trio is working to return to the crash site to reunite with their beloved cat. If anyone who reads this is willing to offer a ride into the wilds of Mendocino National Forest to help locate Velvet, please reach out to DeMeré at firstname.lastname@example.org to make arrangements.
Swain told us she was thankful for the first responders, the personnel at Howard Memorial Hospital, and a social worker there named Tony.
In the aftermath of their trials and tribulations, Swain provided a learning lesson that should be considered by all who intend on wandering into the wilderness: “If we all hadn’t worked together, we wouldn’t have survived.”
- In an Epic Tale of Survival, Two Women Walk 36 Hours After Their Motorhome Wrecks Deep in the Mendocino National Forest