Air Force to the Rescue

A “Lost in the Woods” story with a happy ending, thanks to the U.S. Air Force. No photo credit or byline on the dramatic picture and story in the Mojave News, although both deserved one. What’s really impressive is the amount of government resources from county sheriff, NPS and Air Force put at the disposal of some young woman with an injured ankle. I’m amazed at the tech advances of recent years and the accompanying cultural changes. Back when I was in my 20s, if one of us had injured an ankle while hiking with three buddies it would never have occurred to us to call for government assistance and wait for rescue. The casualty would have been expected to cowboy up and make it back to the trailhead with the help of his friends.

Fenn’s Fabulous Hoard

According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, a disgruntled treasure hunter is suing the estate of the late Santa Fe art dealer Forrest Fenn, alleging Fenn cheated him of the treasure Fenn claimed to have buried somewhere in the Rockies by moving the hoard after the hunter advised Fenn he had solved the clues Fenn included in his book The Thrill of the Chase. The alleged treasure was then allegedly discovered by another individual, who is also named in the lawsuit, together with Fenn’s grandson and a third man who has written a book about the decade-long search for the hidden hoard.

I keep inserting “alleged’s” in this story because as far as I know no independent, objective observer has ever actually seen the fabulous treasure. Fenn released photos of the chest and its contents, but I know of no expert who has ever examined or appraised the hoard. For all I know, the gems were cheap costume jewelry and the ‘gold’ coins chocolate.

I was surprised at the way not just feather-headed TV personalities but serious news outlets took Fenn’s story at face value, despite his dubious reputation in the Santa Fe art and antiquities community. What might have been considered a harmless and amusing hoax took on a darker aspect when people began dying in the search.

The Cold Vanish

I’ve occasionally posted what I think of as “Lost in the Woods” stories here for reasons already explained. Beyond that I think survival stories, whether successful or not, hold a certain fascination for anyone who even occasionally wanders off pavement.

In pondering these sad tales my focus has always been on the hapless adventurer and his or her struggles. But intertwined with that story are the experiences and emotions of a whole cast of rescuers, relatives and loved ones whose lives are affected by the event.

When the lost is never found quick or dead, an element of eerie mystery is added to the appeal.

The Cold Vanish is built around the narrative of one man’s search for his missing son. It’s no accident this heroic quest began in Washington’s Olympic National Park. With author Jon Billam riding shotgun as his Sancho Panza, Randy Gray’s obsessive determination to find his 22-year-old son Jacob takes him from the frigid depths of a snow-fed stream to the surfing beaches of central California and on to the secluded retreats of religious cults in the San Juan Islands. He meets a man who trains bloodhounds, a woman who feeds powdered donuts to a family of Sasquatch (or are they raccoons?), and a host of other colorful characters.

Along the way Billam digresses into other disappearances and the frustrating searches that follow, providing a basic education in the art and science of Search and Rescue.

RIP Barbara

In sorting through the debris of the past year, I want to belatedly note the passing of Barbara Thomas, a 69-year-old woman swallowed by the Mojave desert in July 2019 while hiking with her husband. Her mortal remains were found last November.

The sheriff’s office released no information on cause of death, but given that she was lying exposed in the desert for more than a year it’s likely that only a bullet wound or the most brutal blunt force trauma could be forensically identified at this point. The desert’s scavengers quickly recycle the dead.

However she passed, it’s worth reiterating for back country adventurers that the Mojave is dangerous country, especially in high summer. Heat exhaustion can cause one to faint or become dizzy, sweat excessively, have cool, pale, clammy skin and muscle cramps. Heat stroke victims do not perspire but experience a throbbing headache with a body temperature above 103 degrees, red hot skin and loss of consciousness. Both heat illnesses can cause nausea or vomiting and rapid pulse.  However, heat exhaustion comes with a weak pulse while heat stroke causes one’s pulse to be strong. Untreated, heat exhaustion is debilitating while heat stroke can lead to death within hours.


Escape from Alcatraz

Off topic but well worth recalling when the going gets tough: June 11 marks the 58th anniversary of the only successful escape from Alcatraz federal prison. I say “successful” because whatever happened to them, Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers were never returned to federal custody, and as far as I know the feds are still looking for them. Whether the three men survived the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay remains an open question, forever muddied by the FBI’s prevarications in the initial investigation. In the years since, the story, like that of Butch and Sundance, has grown barnacles of speculation, rumor and tantalizing but unverifiable clues. Whatever their ultimate fate, the tale of their escape remains an epic of determination, clever improvisation and desperate courage.



Bad Day at Battle Ax

To add a further cautionary note to the previous post on desert travel, here’s another piece from Desert USA that demonstrates how quickly a casual day’s expedition into the back country can turn into a life-or-death adventure. The story is more striking because the author, Jim Hatt, was no inexperienced tourist but a seasoned desert rat who had spent years exploring the Superstitions.  In this case, familiarity bred not contempt for the terrain but feckless overconfidence, leading him to make several mistakes that combined with bad luck (not one but two flat tires!) to cost him a rough 24 hours.

Human Remains

Readers with more vivid imaginations may want to skip this post, but it’s kind of a necessary bookend to my previous post on the risks of White Sands. In re-checking some of the links in that piece, I turned up a recent Park Service release on a body found out near 49 Palms in Joshua Tree National Monument. Identity unknown, and I wondered whether the deceased might be the woman who disappeared out in Mohave Nat’l Preserve last summer. More likely the dead person will prove to be a 51-year-old hiker who disappeared in that area in July of 2018. But I was interested to note the Joshua Tree remains were discovered in steep, rocky terrain well away from the nearest hiking trail by an un-named “cooperating agency” examining aerial photos taken this past summer. Curious to know more about that mysterious agency and why it would be conducting a detailed aerial survey of the desert back country, I tried a web search for “human remains” and instead turned up a couple of equally interesting stories on an unrelated subject.

Most recent of these is that of the three mountain lions recently put down by Arizona Game and Fish rangers who caught the cats dining on a recently deceased human about 50 yards off a popular Tucson hiking trail. The rangers don’t believe the lions killed the dead person, but it’s somehow more disturbing they were feeding on the body, since mountain lions are predators, not scavengers. More ominous, the cats “repeatedly showed no fear” in the presence of the officers.


The backcountry search for Barbara Thomas, who disappeared in the Mohave National Preserve 11 days ago, has been suspended,  S&R teams working with K9 units, members certified in cave searches, rope climbing and desert terrain combed the area yesterday but found no trace of the missing woman. “Detectives from the Specialized Investigations Division have assumed the investigation,”  according to the Sheriff’s Department.


Still Missing

The search for Barbara Thomas, missing since the afternoon of July 12, is still underway, but chances she is still alive somewhere out in the Mojave are now vanishingly small. Another strange story, this one from the California mountains, offers a sinister alternative template to her disappearance. Found after missing for four days, the woman claims she got lost fleeing from a man brandishing a knife. I’ve been wandering the mountains and deserts of the Southwest for better than 50 years, more often alone than not, and I’ve had some unsettling encounters with strangers. While I can’t say I ever felt seriously threatened, the world (and esp California) seems to get crazier by the day. Personally, I feel more comfortable carrying a pistol when I hike (more for snakes, feral dogs and rabid animals than for two-legged predators). Unfortunately, that’s not a legal option in CA, with its restrictive gun laws.