"She obviously had a very strong will to survive," a source said of Dianna Bedwell, whose husband died in the ordeal

By Christine Pelisek
Updated May 27, 2015 06:00 PM
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A wrong turn on the way to their son’s house on Mother’s Day left a couple stranded for two weeks in Southern California’s bleak high desert – a punishing ordeal that proved fatal for a 79-year-old man, but proved his surviving bride is “one tough cookie.”

Cecil Knutson and his wife, Dianna Bedwell, 68, spent part of Mother’s Day at a San Diego-area casino playing the nickel slots. Their next stop was supposed to be to their son’s home near Palm Springs for a family barbecue.

But a day that was supposed to be celebratory turned into a nightmare when the retired bus driver took a wrong turn on a dirt road after leaving the casino, eventually ending up along a dried riverbed only traversed by off-roaders.

Two weeks later, adventurers discovered the couple’s car this past Sunday. Knutson, a onetime Marine, had died sometime during the two-week ordeal, his body laying near their white Hyundai. But Bedwell, an insulin-dependent diabetic, was discovered inside the vehicle, miraculously alive.

“She is in stable condition,” Victoria Sanchez, a private investigator working with the family, tells PEOPLE. “She was treated for dehydration and was actually able to talk to her son the same day. She is one tough cookie.”

Police are shocked that Bedwell survived the off-road nightmare – subsisting on oranges and a pie they had with them – especially in an area known for scorching heat during the day and frigid temperatures at night.

“She obviously had a very strong will to survive,” Lt. Kenn Nelson of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department tells PEOPLE. “It would be difficult to last two weeks in good health, and if you are elderly and have a preexisting health condition and you didn’t come prepared for a two-week stay in the wilderness, the odds are against you – especially in a place with extreme conditions like this.”

Deadly Wrong Turn

The elderly couple was last seen at 2 p.m. on May 10 by surveillance video leaving the Valley View Casino, near San Diego, heading to their son’s house about two hours away in La Quinta, near Palm Springs, according to the Orange County Register.

Nelson says Knutson must have turned off Highway 79 in an effort to save time.

“They thought they knew a short cut,” says Nelson. “I don’t think they ever intended to take the dirt road. We were stunned the Hyundai could drive where they were ultimately found. Our four-wheel drive vehicles had a difficult time getting out there. It is impossible to think that type of vehicle could make it that far.”

Nelson says the Hyundai eventually became stuck in the sand, dirt and rocks within the Los Coyotes Reservation, about 20 miles from the casino.

“If they stayed on the road and didn’t turn off they would have ended up at a private camp that caters to camping organizations,” he says. “At least there would have been buildings or shelter. It is tragic.”

Trying to Survive

During their time missing, Nelson says the area was battered by spring storms, which was “fortuitous for them because it provided them with rainwater.”

“They knew enough to set up containers for rain water to help them stay hydrated,” he says.

As they tried to stay alive, family members as well as a private investigator and search and rescue team searched the area, but couldn’t find the lost couple. Helicopters conducting aerial searches also fell short.

“It is literally like finding a needle in a haystack,” says Nelson. “People don’t realize the size of the county and how much is wilderness. The vehicle was in an area where no one would suspect people could get there.”

Once they were discovered, Nelson says he was stunned to learn Bedwell survived the harrowing ordeal at her age and with no real supplies.

“To them, they are leaving the casino for a two-hour drive,” he says. “There is no thought in their mind they are going to have to survive for two weeks in the wilderness. They weren’t planning to go out and get stuck.”