“MISSING,” the headline at the top of the poster reads. The laminated black and white photocopy is nailed to a stump at a fork in the trail. Below this headline are snapshots of a middle-aged guy in a baseball cap and his black lab. It’s mid-July, and we’re miles from the camp where the man was last seen the previous fall. My dad and I scan through the information on the sign.
The man was last seen “wearing a green t-shirt, blue ball cap and has a 50lb camo backpack with two cans of chicken, Lipton rice & beans, a Bic lighter, chewy bars and three jugs of water and a 15° bright red sleeping bag.” With the information on the sign, my mind forms an eerily vivid image of the missing man and his belongings.
I cling to the details about the man as my dad and I turn from the poster back to the one-track trail, trodden to a snaking path of dense dirt by boots and hooves. We continue through the meadow, one of the few flat stretches we’ve traversed in the past two days. The sun is high overhead, and my dad has already pulled off his t-shirt and stuffed it into his moss-green pack. We’re on our way to Sheep Lake, one of the largest lakes nestled among the peaks of the Seven Devils.
“What do you think happened to him?” I ask as casually as possible.
“Oh, prolly fell off a cliff or starved,” my dad says. “Dog prolly got eaten. Maybe he took off and is living incognito halfway around the world.”
As we continue walking, I picture the man and his dog. In the photo on the poster is the grinning face of a husband and father. The brim of a baseball cap and short, dark hair frame an oval face with smiling eyes and a dark mustache and beard. I consider the description on the sign. It explains that he and his hiking partner split up on the fourth day of their five-day trip because he had a sore knee. They made plans to meet at a cabin, and he never made it.
I picture a scenario: The man decides to take a detour from the designated route. He believes it will be a shortcut, or maybe a whim of exploration outweighs the prospect of waiting alone at the cabin. Perhaps he’s still determined to find the bucks he’s been scouting for. As he shuffles along the rocky ledge of a steep drop-off, his bad knee stumbles and the footing falls away. Amid the rocky ledges and steep slopes of the Seven Devils, where the western edge of the range descends to Hells Canyon and the Snake River, falling off a mountain seems like a fairly plausible cause of death for an adventurous hiker with an unsteady leg.
Rattlesnakes, black widows, and cactus call the steep mountainsides of Hells Canyon home. By June, the canyon’s green cloak is exchanged for brown, the grasses sizzling in heat that often reaches above 100 degrees. Once you enter the canyon, either by boat or on the single-track trail that threads along just above the Snake River’s shore, there are limited routes out. Few roads and trails have been cut through the difficult terrain to connect Hells Canyon with towns and roads to the east and west. Before white settlers came to the area, the Nez Perce inhabited the canyon, where winters are mild and fish and game are abundant. Now, historic ranch sites dot the shores, where a handful of adventurous ranchers made a go of raising livestock in the 1800’s and early 1900’s.
Rising above Hells Canyon are the Wallowa Mountains to the west and the Seven Devils to the east. The spectacular peaks of the Devils were bestowed with daunting titles—the She Devil, the He Devil, The Ogre, The Goblin, the Tower of Babel, Mount Belial, and the Devils Throne. To early travelers and inhabitants, the steep mountainsides and jagged peaks must have seemed like treacherous creations indeed devised by a devilish power.
One story tells that the Seven Devils were named for the seven dancing devils that a lost Indian saw as he made his way through the area. Another story, told by the Nez Perce, describes seven giants who lived in the Blue Mountains and traveled east each year, devouring all the children they could find. Tribal leaders asked Coyote to help them. Unsure of how to defeat the giants, Coyote asked Fox for advice. Fox suggested they dig seven deep holes in the path of the giants and fill them with boiling liquid. Coyote called all the clawed animals, and together they dug holes to trap the giants. When the giants passed, they fell into the holes and thrashed their arms, spraying liquid copper miles in every direction. Coyote then turned the giants into the peaks that are known as the Seven Devils. He cut a deep gorge in the earth next to them to stop other giants from travelling east and terrorizing the people. The Snake River flows through this canyon, known as Hells Canyon, and copper ore is still found in the surrounding areas.
My dad and I stop beside the edge of a lake. The water is cold and clear, unlike the lake where we stayed the night before, where the rocks beneath the smooth surface were covered in fine silt that muddied the water. A pile of snow rests along the southern shore, amid a smoky haze that has persistently haloed Idaho’s mountains for the last month. We’re in the midst of fire season, and much of the state is aflame or smoldering.
The edge of the lake reveals a steep, stony drop-off. The water is bottomless. It is beautiful, and it makes me nervous. There is no telling how deep it goes, what lives, or doesn’t live, beneath the placid surface. If the peaks we are hiking towards meet the heavens, if they are the top of the world, then these waters sink into a dark, underworld abyss.
My dad’s tall frame stoops, and he dips his hand into the water. “Not too bad,”
he declares. I do the same and am surprised that the water is not as cold as I expected. The icy runoff of spring has absorbed some of the summer’s warmth.
“Still, it’d be a quick bath,” my dad says, implying that it isn’t nearly warm enough for a leisurely soak.
In the shade of the pines, my sweat-soaked t-shirt is icy against my back, and my arms grow goose bumps. As I look at the water, I wonder about the missing man. Did he meet death in chilly waters? Perhaps he unlaced his heavy boots and eased them off of his tired feet. He might have slid his feet into the cool water, searching for a foothold, but instead slipping farther into the water. Maybe he jumped in, and the pain in his leg prevented him from returning to the shore. He could have hit his head, or suffered a heart attack, and sunk deep below the surface.
I convince myself of the impossibility of such an accident. The search party would have found his pack by the edge of the lake. They would have seen boot prints in the dirt.
After peering at the water, watching for signs of fish, it’s time to continue. I’ve left my backpack on a log. I squat down, loop my arms through the straps and lurch up against the weight.
When we top the ridge overlooking Sheep Lake, we are met by a great alpine basin, dipping beneath the mountaintops. Sparse trees and shrubbery speckle the valley, and a rocky outcropping in the center of the lake rises above the surface, forming a bare island. We’ve reached the point where the top of the earth meets the heavens, and there’s nowhere else to go but down the other side.
We descend the slope and lay our belongings on a knoll overlooking the western edge of the lake. It’s shaded by bunches of pine trees interspersed among the rocks. The grey crags of the peaks silhouette the skyline, and the occasional clatter of rocks echoes down from above as we pitch our tents.
My dad scans the ridges for spots of white among the rocks. He looks for the smooth, worn lines of game trails, particularly in the saddles between the peaks. He keeps an eye out for dark piles of droppings, nests of flattened grass, hoof prints in the dirt, and soft wads of white fuzz that snagged on branches or shed off into the grass and soil.
Stout and fluffy, mountain goats look more cuddly than tough. Yet, these masters of the mountains are more equipped than most other creatures to survive in the alpine landscapes where they reside. Like deer, elk, and big horn sheep, mountain goats walk atop cloven hooves. But, unlike the rest, mountain goat hooves are lined on the bottoms with rough pads that provide traction on smooth rocks and slick ice. Mountain goats’ toes can also spread away from each other, providing a greater base upon which to stand when the footing is precarious.
Like their hooves, mountain goats’ furry, white hair could also be an adaptation to life amid the mountaintops. Intrigued by hunters’ claims that dragging a mountain goat carcass is particularly difficult, Doug Chadwick explains in A Beast the Color of Winter that his research led him to study individual hairs under a microscope. When he peered through the eyepiece, he saw tiny, overlapping scales covering the surface of each hair. Compared to deer hair, he explains, mountain goat hair appears more fringed and frayed. This texture may provide additional traction if a goat slips on an icy slope and helps keep a goat from sliding when it presses its side or rump into a sharp incline.
My dad is always the first to spot the movement of a creature in the distance or the outline of a form that isn’t a rock or a tree. But as we watch the mountainside, there is nothing but the quiet of settled rocks.
Even in late summer, nights among these mountaintops are chilly. As the sun inches lower and dusky shadows descend over our camp, I put on a fleece and windbreaker to shield my skin from the crisp, sudden chill. At night, I bundle up in long underwear and socks before burrowing into my sleeping bag. I wouldn’t survive a winter in these mountains, and I ponder how long the missing man could have survived with the gear and supplies he had with him.
The Seven Devils host a world much different from the temperate valleys below, especially once winter has settled in. In mid-October, fresh, feathery snow drifts from the clouds, settling on tree limbs and rocks. Then, the snow falls thick, with large flakes that blow to the ground and build layer upon layer, day after day. Feet upon feet accumulate, and at the Windy Saddle parking lot, where we parked the pickup, fierce gusts spit icy flakes sideways. Once, I hiked up the snowy road to the Windy Saddle in November and stood in the vacant parking lot as the wind blew snow uphill, pounding against the steep slopes, creating bare patches and great drifts.
Mountain winters push animals down into lowlands and valleys where the climate isn’t as harsh. Even mountain goats, despite how well adapted they are to the alpine regions, migrate down to the tree line, or even the forest, where they will settle on south-facing slopes. If the mountaintops become uninhabitable even for goats, then the possibility that a human could survive there in the winter is unfathomable.
The road to the Windy Saddle trailhead is a winding, sixteen-mile grade that departs from Highway 95 in Riggins, Idaho. It is quite narrow in places, and beyond the first few miles, the road is dirt. Large trailers are not advised, and the upper parts are usually only accessible by vehicle from June through October. After that, the road is buried deep in snow.
The bottom of this road, however, rarely sees snow. Rising only 1,821 feet above sea level, Riggins is over seven thousand vertical feet below the peaks of the Devils. In the winter, the treeless hillsides around Riggins are dressed in brown and grey. The bed of the Salmon River, along which Riggins sprawls, looks naked as the water level recedes, exposing sandbanks and smooth stones.
Riggins is tucked into a bend in the river where I imagine the oddballs and fugitives of the old West might have sought isolation and refuge. It consists of few more than four hundred permanent residents, but in the summer this number swells as rafters and fishermen head to the river. The valley is hot and dry, and the surrounding hills are brown by early summer.
Riggins also holds a claim to fame for being the town where Annie Laurie Williams ended up spending most of her 16 years as a fugitive before being arrested, at the age of 75, in 1997. Sixteen years earlier, she had fled to California, and then Riggins, to escape the rest of her time on parole for the murders of her seven and nine-year-old sons in Pasadena, Texas, in 1955. Her arrest occurred only after her location was made known when she applied for Social Security.
Newspaper articles from 1955 quote Williams, a dime store worker, as saying that she killed her sons because her husband was incarcerated, and she was in ill health. According to various reports, Williams medicated the boys with seconal she got in Mexico, and then she strangled them. She spent twenty-five years in prison before being released to a halfway house on parole. Then, in September of 1981, less than nine months before her parole would have ended, she was granted permission to go out to dinner with a friend and never returned. Instead, she ran away to California, and then moved to Idaho with the man who became her second husband. She built a life in Riggins, which, in the 1980s, was even more isolated from the rest of the world than it is now. No one would have owned a cell phone or a computer. Here, Williams began her life in Idaho, safe from Texas law enforcement.
As I continue pondering scenarios for the missing man, I can’t help but think about the promise of a fresh start. If everyone had given up the search, would it be possible to build a new life somewhere else? Although technology is quickly connecting the crannies of Idaho to the rest of the world, I wonder how difficult it would be to find refuge tucked away in the mountains. Nowadays, Riggins might not be far enough removed as there are certainly more remote places that someone could escape to and never be detected.
If the missing man perished in the wilderness, with no intention of disappearing, I’d like to think that vanishing without a trace would have been impossible. To die with all of your belongings, without leaving tracks, debris, or any clues that you built a fire or set up camp is unfathomably eerie. Is it possible that he intended to disappear, I wonder?
It’s mid-afternoon, and my dad naps on his unrolled sleeping pad. I walk into a shallow cove of the lake until the water reaches my chest. Holding my breath, I submerge then quickly jolt to the surface, chest tight against the chill of the water. I repeat the process then return to the shore and stretch across a flat rock to lie in the sun. After a while, milky-grey clouds begin to block the warmth, so I return to our camp.
My dad is scanning the ridge above with binoculars, and I begin watching for moving white dots. A nearly vertical trail extends from the saddle in front of us and gradually disappears as it descends the slope. If you watch that spot long enough, my dad says, you’re sure to see a goat come across. It isn’t long before he spots one nibbling at a bit of vegetation among the rocks and hands the binoculars to me. I watch the mountain goat as it meanders down the mountainside between rugged, brown boulders. It continues to feed, stopping to browse on bits of greenery, and eventually begins to wander back up the hillside. Despite its short legs and stout body, the goat makes steady progress. It walks up the mountain as if it were flat ground. For a minute, it disappears from view, and I think that is all we will see of it. But then it remerges from behind an outcropping of rocks twenty feet up the hill, and I watch the goat as it reaches the ridge and descends on the other side.
Three weeks after the man’s disappearance, his black lab was found by hunters on the eastern side of the Seven Devils range—the opposite side of the range from where he was last seen. Although dehydrated, she was unharmed and healthy. The search had been suspended, but a new search effort began on the eastern side of the mountain range when the dog was found. Searchers hoped she would lead them to the man, but the new search revealed no more about his disappearance than had the previous one.
Even in a place as vast as the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, the chances of being lost without a trace seem improbable. Hikers and hunters traverse the landscape every year, and the Forest Service oversees and maintains the area. Eventually, someone would see your boot print or find a dropped wrapper. Someone would stumble upon your remains at the bottom of a cliff, or your baseball cap would be spotted floating in a lake or washed up on the bank of a stream. A dog would sniff out your abandoned pack. If you split up with a friend and planned to meet at a designated cabin, you, or at least a clue, would show up somewhere in-between where you split and where you were supposed to arrive. Or at least this is what I would like to believe.
What makes this man’s disappearance all the more unnerving, then, is the extensive effort that went into searching for him. A local newspaper in Riggins reported that the search was “conducted on the ground and in the air utilizing resources including: Idaho County Sheriff’s Deputies, Idaho County Sheriff’s Posse, Idaho County Search and Rescue, Clearwater County Search and Rescue, Valley County Search and Rescue, Dog Teams, Thermal Imaging equipment, Horse teams, Clearwater County Back Country Helicopters, Fairchild Air Force Helicopters, Fish and Game, and many concerned family, friends, neighbors and community members.” Yet, the search that began in late September of 2010 has not yet found closure.
Even after my dad and I return from our backpacking trip, I continue to wonder how likely it is that a man—or a body—could simply vanish. The possibility is disconcerting, and it leads me to wonder what the chances are that someone who ventures into the wilderness will disappear forever.
The image of a stoic man sitting astride a horse with a gun slung over his lap and a magnificent landscape in the background has become synonymous with the west. He embodies a spirit of exploration, determination, and courage. He inspires legends, campfire stories, books, and movies. According to this tradition, a man can survive by himself in the wilderness with only a few provisions. The mountainous expanses of the west are not always merciful, though. For centuries, explorers and adventurers lived and died alone amid rocky ridges, glassy lakes, and sudden canyon walls.
For weeks after reading the sign on the stump, I consider the possibilities. After pondering the ways in which a person can die in the mountains—falling from a cliff, drowning in a lake, freezing to death, being struck by lightning or squashed beneath a falling tree, buried in an avalanche, preyed upon by a cougar, mauled by a bear, eaten by wolves, and so on—the other possibilities, that people take each other’s lives and that sometimes a person’s disappearance is a conscious decision, do not seem impossible either.
When he set out on his trip, the missing man was neither inexperienced nor ill prepared. He left with sturdy boots on his feet. He had packed food, water, a sleeping bag, a lighter, and a loaded pistol with extra ammo. Only his dog, and anyone who might have been with him out there in the wilderness, will ever know if he used his gun in self-defense, to avoid starvation, or to end his own life. Whether he met his fate in the mountains, or the mountains became a route of escape, the secret of what happened to the missing man is now forever guarded by the Devils.