In the desert, no service, and your partner's late to the rendezvous. What now?

Feb 16, 2023 · 885 words · 5 minutes read

Let’s say, purely hypothetically, that you’re in Joshua Tree National Park. Your partner dropped you off in the morning, and you’ve spent the day hiking and scrambling in pretty populated areas of the park. You arranged to meet your partner at 4:45PM at the place where they dropped you off. You’re currently in possession of a cell phone (though without any service), some snacks and water left over from your day, a notebook, and a pen. You’re 7 miles from the entrance of the park, and there’s a decent number of other visitors around.

You’re standing at the meeting spot, and you glance at your watch. It’s 5:02. What now?

At that moment, you realize how much you’ve taken cell phone service for granted. You also realize you hadn’t discussed any contingency plans in case anything goes wrong. You had let them know which rocks you’d be scrambling on, but you hadn’t discussed worst case scenarios in case they couldn’t get to you.

The good news is you have options. The bad news is that none of them are great.

Do you wait indefinitely? You don’t really have enough gear to spend the night comfortably, though you’ve got plenty of warm layers thanks to a layering habit from growing up in a colder climate. You’d also likely want to hitchhike out before it gets too dark, especially as your likelihood of being picked up for a ride will probably drop as it gets darker — the long beard probably won’t help. How long do you wait? Maybe another 30 minutes? If it’s something calamitous and they’re at urgent care or something, thirty minutes won’t make much of a difference. But what if you hitchhike but then pass them on the way out? Do you ask your kind ride-sharer to drop you off, then you walk back to the spot? Maybe we pair that with some frantic waving?

Ah, we have our notebook. Maybe we can leave a note under a rock on a little signpost here. Not exactly leaving no trace though, and it could easily blow away (or be picked up as litter by another visitor). They’re not very big pages though, and would they even see it? Maybe it’s worth it anyways, and when you do meet up with your partner, you can come back and pick it up.

What if you hitchhike out but miss them as you pass them? Then you’d be at the park entrance, and they’d be waiting at the meeting point. Their not being there on time brings to mind images of a flat tire, but you not being there an hour after the meeting time hints at a broken leg. Would they try to walk out to the rocks you told them you’d be near? You remember that you have the newly purchased family headlamp, and it’s probably not great for them to be out there with just their phone flashlights looking for you, especially if you’re not even out there. Maybe you should leave that note.

This feels like an interview problem. “What’s the best strategy to ensure you rendezvous with your partner?” The clear answer is that you arrange a plan if things go wrong ahead of time and stick to that plan, but that’s not what they want to hear. They just want to see how you think through a problem, though it would be nice if it compiled and passed some tests at the end.


It does all feel very game theory-ish, though. If I had to assign things values, I’d say that the worst case would be them spending the night out here looking for me. Let’s call that value -99. If I had to spend the night, it wouldn’t be terrible, but it would be uncomfortable and they’d worry about me. Let’s call that -5. Walking 7 miles in the waning light is also unideal, especially since I don’t have that much water left. Let’s say that’s an additional -3. Leaving the note is a slight hit to the ethic, so let’s call that -0.5.

So the worst case would be if I walked 7 miles, still slept out here, and they missed me and spent the night searching, for a whopping value of -107. Let’s leave that note, though it pains me. Maybe what I can do is hitchhike out to the entrance (skipping the 7 mile walk) while keeping a very diligent eye out for their rental car — I think it was a gray Toyota Corolla — and I wave out the window or something to catch their eye. I hope I can see their car in the evening light.

If I make it to the park entrance and still haven’t seen them, at least I’ll have cell service and can call them, and if I still can’t reach them, I’ll hope that they’re back at the rental and not out looking for me (hopefully they saw the note in the dark). It’s getting pretty cold, and I’m not sure they would have brought their heavier jacket to pick me up. But what action do I think they’ll take?

You glance at your watch. It’s now 5:07. As you look up, you see your partner’s car pull into the parking lot.

They were just a little late.