About a disappearance in a national park

 

This happens all too often in the rugged backcountry of the West: A hiker goes out for a day, or an afternoon, and never returns. A search is launched, and eventually the person is found safe -- or it ends less happily, and a body is recovered. This time it happened at Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado.

On a scorching Sunday afternoon in early June, a man vanished; he'd told his wife he was walking down to Spruce Tree House, a ruin just a quarter-mile away on a paved trail. But he never returned, and by Monday morning the park had organized a search.

It didn't sound promising. Daytime highs were over 100 degrees. The 51-year-old carried no water, no extra gear; he was from Goliad, Texas, near sea level, while much of the park is over 7,000 feet high. So the park sent out searchers on foot, dog teams and horses, and a helicopter clattered low over the rocky canyons all day.

I was visiting the park that Monday afternoon, and I decided to hike the 3-mile-long Petroglyph Point trail, which splits off from the Spruce Tree House trail. Steep and rugged, it sidles along ledges and alcoves, squeezes between tall rocks, and ascends rough stair steps hewn from sandstone blocks. After an hour of walking, I suddenly heard a weary male voice call "I need some help."

I thought of the missing hiker. Perhaps after visiting Spruce Tree House, he'd attempted this trail and run into trouble. I 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 those ledges and cliffs. My cellphone had no signal.

I hiked back down the trail as fast as I could, and when I found the chief ranger, I told him what I'd heard. Relief washed over his face as another staffer said, "We thought we heard a call for help in that area yesterday." They quickly began planning to bring in dogs and more searchers. 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 my western Colorado home the following day, I checked the news, thinking I'd read that the hiker been found. Instead, I learned that Mitchell Dale Stehling was still missing, and now, 70 people were looking for him.

As I write this, it's been almost two weeks since Stehling vanished, and the search has been scaled down. "A group of us think he's still somewhere in the park," said chief ranger Jessie Farias. "We've all heard of planned disappearances, but it doesn't smell that way."

The odds of him being found alive are basically zero, though. Perhaps he fell between big rocks in a place where searchers can't see him; perhaps wind shifts made the dogs miss his scent.

Dying alone in the wild sounds like a free and romantic way to exit this earth, and many of my outdoor friends say they’d prefer to perish outside. "Like Lawrence Oates," I’ve told them in agreement, remembering the 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 feet 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 a sleeping bag to be buried in.

But is that really how any of us wants to die, alone in the wilderness, unattended except by beetles and vultures? Better, I think, to be with those you love.

The writer Ana Maria Spagna applauds 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." When it comes to facing death, she writes, "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 his family. But I think that, given the choice, his wife and daughters would have wanted the chance to offer him comfort before he died. And I think he would have wanted the chance to receive it.

Jodi Peterson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op-ed syndicate of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the managing editor of the magazine in Paonia, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.