About a disappearance in a national park

by Jodi Peterson

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.

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