Death in the desert


Updated 6/24/13

Two weekends ago I traveled to Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado to do some reporting for a future story on diversity in the parks system. On Monday morning, the 10th, I was waiting in the administration office for my appointment with Cliff Spencer, the park's black superintendent, to begin. I heard bursts coming over the radio:  "last seen ... search team found some tracks ... helicopter coming … "   Cliff told me that a hiker had disappeared the previous afternoon; he'd told his wife he was going to walk down to Spruce Tree House, a ruin just a quarter-mile away down a paved trail. But he'd never returned, and now the park was mounting a full search and rescue effort.

It didn't sound promising. Daytime highs were over 100 in the park's rocky canyons. The 51-year-old was carrying no water, no extra gear. He was on vacation with his family from Goliad, Texas, a city near sea level, while much of the park is over 7,000 feet in elevation. So park staff mounted a full-scale search effort, with searchers on foot, dog teams, horses, even a helicopter that clattered low over the canyons all day.

Late that afternoon, despite the 102-degree heat, I decided to hike the 3-mile-long Petroglyph Point trail, which splits off from the Spruce Tree House trail and leads upward along the east wall of Spruce Canyon. Steep and rugged, it sidles along ledges and alcoves, squeezes between tall rocks, and ascends rough stairsteps hewn from sandstone blocks. Just after I passed the panel of petroglyphs for which the trail was named, I heard a man's voice from somewhere up ahead. "I need some help," he called, sounding gravelly, weary. I couldn't pinpoint the location, and I thought whoever I'd heard was probably talking to some companions. I kept walking. But when I reached the point where the trail climbs out of the canyon, perhaps ten minutes later, I realized that I hadn't seen or heard any other hikers, ahead or behind.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

Then I suddenly thought of the missing man. Perhaps after visiting Spruce Tree House, he'd decided to go up this trail to see the petroglyphs, tried to take a shortcut back down the canyon wall, and had fallen. I went back to where I'd heard the voice and called out several times, but got no response. I thought about going off trail to look, but figured I'd become Victim #2 if I tried to scramble down the ledges and cliffs. My cell phone had no signal. Hiking back quickly to find a ranger seemed to be about all I could do. Sweating and a little shaky, I reached the museum an hour later, and told the woman behind the counter what I'd heard. "The chief ranger is going to want to talk to you," she exclaimed, excited. Leading me to his office, she said, "We don't like it when things like this happen."

The chief ranger was excited too. Cautious relief washed over his face. "We thought we heard a call for help in that area yesterday," said one of the other rangers in his office. He had me tell my story again to the leader of the search teams, who immediately began planning to bring dogs and more searchers into that area. I felt hopeful that what I'd heard would help them find the man, who probably wouldn't last much longer without water.

I left the ranger station and stood looking at the opposite side of the canyon, where I'd heard the call. I said a silent prayer.

When I got back to Paonia, Colo., HCN’s home base, last Tuesday afternoon, I checked the news, thinking I'd read that the hiker been found, was dehydrated and maybe injured but would be okay. Instead, I read that Mitchell Dale Stehling was still missing, and 60 to 70 people were now searching for him. His family remained optimistic, reported the Cortez Journal.

Mitchell Dale Stehling, missing in Mesa Verde National Park

The National Park Service mounts about 3,300 such search-and-rescue operations per year, at a total cost of about $4.5 million; most occur in Western parks, because of their high number of visitors and rugged backcountry environments. Parks like Yosemite sometimes have more than 200 rescue attempts per year.

Now, it's been more than a week since Stehling vanished. The search has been scaled down, and the odds of him being found alive are close to zero. Perhaps he fell between big rocks in a place where searchers can't see him; perhaps wind shifts made the dogs miss his scent. The park's press release on June 15 conveys the searchers' frustration:

On Friday, the trail where Stehling was last seen and nearby canyons were again searched. Rangers used the park's helicopter to search the canyons and mesas of the park while ground-based teams thoroughly searched nearby canyons and trails. The saturation of this area by searchers, dog teams, a helicopter, and horse patrol provided a great deal of coverage, but resulted in no clues.

Saturday, search managers plan to scale back to a continuous, but limited mode in which a small team of rangers will continue to focus their search in the areas where Mr. Stehling was last seen. Flyers with Mr. Stehling's picture and description remain posted throughout the park.

I think of Edward Abbey's thoughts on a similar situation, in "Dead Man at Grandview Point" (a chapter of Desert Solitaire):

Looking out on this panorama of light, space, rock and silence I am inclined to congratulate the dead man on his choice of jumping-off place; he had good taste. He had good luck – I envy him the manner of his going: to die alone, on a rock under sun at the brink of the unknown, like a wolf, like a great bird, seems to me very good fortune indeed. To die in the open, under the sky, far from the insolent interference of leech and priest, before this desert vastness opening like a window onto eternity – that surely was an overwhelming stroke of rare good luck.

Rugged canyons in Mesa Verde National Park

But was it really, Ed? Yeah, it sounds like a free and romantic way to exit this earth, and along with many of my outdoor friends, I've talked about wanting to die alone outside when the time comes. "Like Lawrence Oates," I say, a member of Scott's ill-fated 1911 polar expedition who walked out into a blizzard to die. "On some freezing cold night, I'll say what he did: 'I'm just going outside, and may be some time.' " My friend Albert imagines another sort of ending: "My last moment will be at 12,000' in a thunderstorm. There'll be a big flash and all that'll be left is my flask and my hiking boots." And Joe has already picked out which of his sleeping bags will be his coffin.

But is that truly how any of us wants to die, alone in the wilderness, unattended except by beetles and vultures? I recall also the wise and gentle words of Ana Maria Spagna, a counterpoint to old Macho Ed, writing about how gladly she took care of her dying mother in the hospital in her essay "Natural Comfort":

When I die, I'd just as soon die surrounded by those I love. And while I live, I'd just as soon live like my fellow springtime travelers, all those familiar faces bleary-eyed in the elevators of the cancer hospital, those who face the gentle night with agonized patience and those brave enough to usher them through, rather than champion one quick cold night in the forest. I'll offer comfort. And, when the time comes, I'll take it.

I have no idea if Mitchell Dale Stehling was the man I heard calling for help among the cliffs on that hot Monday afternoon. I don't know anything about him, really, or about his family. But I think  that, given the choice, his wife and daughters would have wanted to offer comfort too. And I think he would have taken it.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's Managing Editor.

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