Artist who sought solace in Death Valley hops to safety after losing key to shackles

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Trevor Corneliusen, a 26-year-old musician and amateur painter, can surely now understand what it means to be a slave to his art. How better to describe his ordeal this week when he shackled his ankles then realised he had lost the key? This might have been merely a minor inconvenience but for one detail. Mr Corneliusen was in a California desert at the time. In fact, he was in an abandoned silver-mine in Death Valley, which has claimed many lives.

If Mr Corneliusen, a violinist from Washington state, considers himself a private man, his more eccentric exploits are now in the public glare. Every winter, he makes a month-long pilgrimage to the high desert west of Las Vegas to meditate and paint. Usually, he pitches his tent in empty mine-shafts.

His nirvana was interrupted on Tuesday after he bound his ankles together with a thick metal chain and a padlock, a thoroughly uncomfortable position he wanted to sketch. The drawing done, he discovered his predicament. The key was missing. With no option, the artist - sympathetically described by his mother, Marie, as "very absent-minded" - set out for help. The nearest town, Baker, was five miles away. For 12 hours, he hopped through sand and scrub with the help of an old miner's stick until, at midnight, he reached a petrol station. Ryan Ford, a county sheriff's deputy, was alerted. "I went out to there to make sure it was a real call," he said. When he found the exhausted artist, he called paramedics and the fire department. After three attempts they managed to pry off the chains.

They may have wondered if Mr Corneliusen had escaped from a prison chain-gang. But he had the forethought to bring the sketch of his bound legs with him in case of such confusion.

Its quality appears uncertain. "It was a pretty good depiction of how a chain would look wrapped around your legs," Deputy Ford said flatly.

The artist, bruised and scraped, thanked his rescuers, and walked back to the cave. He has no mobile phone, and could not be reached for comment.

Mrs Corneliusen said her son is a born-again Christian. "It's somewhat a religious experience what he does there. He meditates. He communes with God in the desert." She does hope he does not continue exploring suffering for his art. "It's funny-sad," she said of his marathon hop. "He really could have gotten hurt."