P.C.T. - Please Call Them
Unlike the national parks, Ansel Adams Wilderness doesn’t draw a lot of tourists or day hikers. It’s a long walk, six miles, up several thousand feet. The visitors there are committed woodsmen, backpackers, and fishermen who want to see places others can’t. It’s terrain for people who don’t mind suffering. Yet when one of them appeared at my wilderness station saying he’d found a body, I doubted him. Rangers hear a lot of hysterical reports—everything from rabid beavers to Sasquatches—but my source wore the clothes and scruff of a die-hard, so I followed him to his discovery.
The shelter hid behind a stand of Lodgepole pines and several large granite slabs, a primitive camp above Thousand Island Lake. As I drew closer, I saw a lean-to tarp, under it, a young man wrapped in a sleeping bag. His hair was scraggly and long, his beard overgrown, his face deeply tanned and dirty. I protect thousands like him every summer, and typically they blaze through my stretch of woods so quickly I never get to check their permits, leaving only footprints and feces.
When I spoke, he didn’t move. When I sniffed the air, he smelled unwell. When I shook his arm, it felt stiff. Definitely dead, but I couldn’t tell from what. No blood or visible injuries on him—thank God. Although rangers enforce the law in the forest, we aren’t adapted to homicide investigations. Yet that left a host of other causes: poison, parasite, allergy, heart attack, and lightning strike. His build suggested starvation, his dress exposure.
Aside from his body, my victim didn’t leave many clues: two dehydrated meals in his bear can, some rain gear in his backpack, and a wilderness permit in his front pocket with the name Daniel Heymann.
I turned to my guide—a young fellow who spoke little English. He overused a toothy smile that he overused to disguise nervousness.
“You a thru-hiker?”
He smiled and gave an uncertain nod, making me uncertain if he understood.
“North or south?” I said.
“Up,” he said and pointed north.
“Ever see him before?”
I took the guy’s vitals and shooed him back to his tent, then clicked on my radio. Static replied. Most of the Sierra got no reception, and Thousand Island Lake was no exception. The nearest landline required six miles of hiking and double that in driving, which would take till dark. Three thousand feet above loomed Mount Ritter and Banner, which Ansel Adams made famous in his photos. From a few hikers, I’d heard about a sweet spot with a cell phone signal near the top. The climb would waste half a day if it failed but save as much if I found a window to the world.
The ravine heading out of the lake bed held pure volcanic rock, pocked and pointy. Higher up came a snow field tinged pink with algae. We called it watermelon snow, but eating it would kill your appetite. It had softened in the midday sun so that several times I sank to my hips, and once I fell to all fours to stop myself from sliding. From there, I scrambled over boulders and scree devoid of life. I chose to call this adventure purposeful, but I took any excuse for an excursion. Nothing compared to the high of mountain air and a clear view.
Halfway up, I checked my radio and reached an intern at the main station who’d never heard of me or my mountain. When I requested a copter evac, she put me on hold, so I looked to the sun, which sat only a few ticks above setting. No way they’d send in a chopper this late. Even daylight landings are risky in the bush, and at night, pilots won’t attempt it. They’d wait till the next morning. In the meantime, I needed to guard the body.
Before descending, I thought of phoning my wife, who hadn’t heard from me in a week, but I saw only one bar on my cell phone. Instead, I glissaded down the snow bank, sliding like a carefree child while soaking my pants.
Two hours later, as alpenglow tinged the mountain, I found a flat slab near Daniel’s body and unrolled my down bag. Camping so close to the dead did little for my sleep, and during the night, the wind picked up, sending the trees creaking against each other. I dreamt of Daniel’s spirit struggling to escape—with me guarding the exit. Then I imagined strangulation and toxic mushrooms and awoke twisted in my sleep sack. By the time the helicopter arrived shortly after dawn, I felt like a bear coming out of hibernation: groggy, hungry, and irritable.
When the pilot and I lifted Daniel from one body bag to another, he weighed even less than I expected, no more than my Labrador. His fingers were so emaciated a silver ring slipped off one and fell into the dirt. Long-haul hikers get gaunt after months in the woods. It’s near impossible for them to carry enough food to counterbalance the calories they burn. Except instant meals sat within his grasp. Why hadn’t he eaten any?
Before zipping him away, I photographed his face with my cell phone—one of the few uses for one so far from civilization. Then, as the copter disappeared above me, I packed up his campsite and looked for clues, but his bag, pack, and tent all contained the minimal supplies you’d expect: water tablets, bug repellant, a map of the Sierra, well-worn boots.
Based on how thin and exposed Daniel looked, I pegged him for a thru-hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail, which bifurcated my wilderness. To complete all 2,600 miles, people had to cover twenty per day, starting in Mexico around March so they could hit the mountains as soon as the snow subsided, then tunnel through the forests of NorCal and Oregon to reach the Washington border before winter. They formed a mobile community, yet the guy who found him claimed not to have seen him prior, even though they had walked the same trails.
Then I looked below. The helicopter’s turbulence had awoken everybody within a mile. Dozens of backpackers stood outside their tents, most still wearing their long underwear, watching where I stood. That gave me half an hour to interview people before they broke camp.
I didn’t want to lose too much daylight, so I looked for the most grizzled visitors in hopes of tagging more PCTers. I found a trio of women warriors attired in the gear of their college crew team.
“How far you going?” I asked.
“All the way,” said the sturdiest of the three in a flirtatious tone.
“So you’ve met some other thru-hikers?”
“Unfortunately,” said a second, who had the same height and strength without the bulk. She stepped closer to speak in confidence, brushing my shoulder. “They’re mostly weirdos.”
“What about this guy?” I showed them Daniel’s picture as they gathered close enough that my wife would disapprove.
“He was the worst,” said the third, who looked pretty despite a grimy face. “The one time we tried to talk to him, he grunted.”
“Totally antisocial,” said the second. “Wouldn’t even show us his map.”
“Muir Pass,” said the first. “We all got trapped in that hut during a storm, but he just stared.”
“Gave off a Donner Party vibe,” said the second.
If those three couldn’t draw him out, it said something about Daniel’s personality. Loners liked it up here. You could go days without speaking to anyone. However, Daniel acted unusually antisocial.
I questioned a few other campers, but none claimed to know the hermit of the hillside. Since even preliminary autopsy results would take a couple days, I had little to go on besides a name. In the backcountry, investigative methods are less scientific than organic. We used what nature gave us. I could spend the day interviewing every hiker who tramped through, or I could scale Banner again for outside sources.
The second time up proved both easier and chancier since the snow fields had frosted overnight—the kind of trek that usually required ice axes and crampons. I told myself I had good reason to risk hiking there alone, and that experience would guide me through, but I knew better. No one is immune to nature’s hazards. Still, I enjoyed the sun’s warmth and the way it glinted off the lake like God beams. At the prior sweet spot, my phone showed no bars, so I kept going, checking every quarter mile till just below the summit, I got a signal.
Daniel’s permit listed a phone number, but directory assistance said the line had been disconnected. His address included a #3B after the street name, so I called the county recorders, who got me the number of his landlord.
“He moved out three months back,” the guy said.
“He leave a forwarding address?”
“Some p.o. box in—.”
The call dropped before I heard the name, so I angled the phone toward the sky until I got a signal again and called him back.
“Where?” I said.
“ILLINOIS,” the guy said, annoyed.
“What about relatives? Anybody ever visit him?”
“I wouldn’t know or care.”
“You didn’t like him?”
“He left without giving notice.”
“So you don’t have an emergency contact?”
He sighed and rustled some papers. “His mother. You want the number?”
I didn’t, but I took it anyway. Notifying relatives is part of the job, but the worst part, especially in cases of fatal injury. About once a season, I had to make such a call, but usually for accidents: hikers and climbers who took a step too far. I couldn’t think of any such explanation for Daniel’s mom. Instead, I told her the news quick and cold.
“No, no, no, no, no,” she said.
“Did Daniel have any medical conditions?”
“No, no, nothing.”
“How about allergies?”
“Did he hike often?”
“Always. When he was a boy, I had to leash him to keep him from wandering off.”
“So he had experience in the outdoors?”
“It’s all he cared about. Two months ago, he quit his job so he could walk the West Coast.”
“When did you last hear from him?”
“He sent one note midway. Said he was learning a lot about himself. That’s how he put it, ‘learning a lot about himself.’ I wanted to scream, ‘What do you need to know? I’ll tell you.’ But you can’t scream in a letter, so I said, ‘Come back when you find it.’ ”
She started crying, gasping, choking, which, combined with the static, made it tough to understand her. I got the locations of those drop boxes before she became incomprehensible, then I used bad reception as an excuse and promised to call back in a few days.
I’ve often said that P.C.T. really stands for Please Call Them. At least once a week, I got a message from some relative of a thru-hiker asking about their progress, as though I were a field biologist tracking animal migration. They didn’t get how wild and remote the trail is and that it offered few spots with a landline to check in.
That high up, the Sierras appeared endless, wave upon wave of mountains and valleys limited only by human vision. The Thousand Islands for which the lake was named looked like mere dimples. Somewhere in that vastness, someone might know him, but I could spend the rest of the season searching for them. I’d eliminated most unnatural causes, but that left a lot unexplained. Instinct said to backtrack to where he’d been and talk to slower hikers he’d passed. If necessary, I could keep going to Lake Edison, the closest way station Daniel had given his mother, forty miles south along the P.C.T.
I thought again of calling my wife to let her know I’d be out of range, but I hadn’t time to spare for conversation, so I returned to my wilderness station and packed a light bag. I left behind a tent and stove, opting to travel fast and light, despite the warning that Daniel’s death provided.
The trip proved to be a snipe hunt, filled with bewildered backpackers—who added nothing but wanted me to recount the details of the death—until I met the hippie. He worked trail crew, clearing the way by rolling away boulders, sectioning fallen limbs, restoring rock walls and stair steps. His hair lay on his shoulders, limp and dirty, except for one thin braid that hung rigid by his face. He smelled of wood smoke and wild fish, and his body had leaned to sinewy muscles. Even his movements were economical, refined of everything non-essential.
“Dude didn’t know how to live,” he said.
“Minute by minute. Like eating. No way you can get by on three squares out here. Your body needs hourly reinforcements, something to burn.”
“You told him this?”
“Tried. He wouldn’t listen. Too caught up in where he was going to see where he was.”
“Because he started late?”
“Not that. What I think? Kept his mind busy.” He nodded to affirm his own wisdom. “Monkey mind. Can’t stop moving. What I think? He didn’t know how to stop.”
I thanked him for his insights and jotted a few notes, mostly about where and when they’d met. This sage of the sticks offered more speculation than facts. I discounted his philosophy, which paraphrased the Doobie Brothers, but I accepted his insight about coming to a cliff on life’s trek. Hadn’t we all hit such an impasse? Lately, my back ached every morning, and my knees ached every night. How much longer could I keep the pace? Twenty summers I’d spent as a seasonal ranger, long enough to navigate the trails without a map, yet during my winters teaching biology to tech-obsessed teens, I daydreamed about returning to the woods.
The rest of the trek offered no enlightenment but a few good moments interspersed: a patch of Western Columbine in full bloom, their red dragon heads breathing fiery stamen; the song of a lonely pica; the lava stacks of Devils Postpile. I’ve always used the wilderness as my antidepressant, a check on self-absorption, a focus on the essentials: eating, sleeping, and moving. By the time I arrived at Lake Edison two days later, my mood had lifted.
John, aka Scree, ran a neat little operation, the world’s most remote trailer park, selling supplies and soft beds to backpackers at inflated prices. He also held their mail, knowing that it would lure them in like hungry wolves to a fresh kill. I found him behind the bar that functioned as his office. He kept a spartan saloon, a mix and match of furniture handmade from desiccated wood and walls decorated with found objects (antlers, pelts, pine cones). He looked the same as always, chunky, out of shape, pale, the antithesis of the hikers he served.
“Look who the dog dragged in,” he said.
We exchanged mountain gossip until I asked if he remembered my victim. He held my cell phone at arm’s length as though it offended him. “After a month outside, they all look alike,” he said. “What’d he do to draw your attention?”
Without a word, Scree set up two shots of homemade whisky, then finished his in a swallow. “That we should all pass away in the woods.”
“You think he stayed with you?”
“I don’t keep records. You know the rules: first one with cash gets the bed.”
“What about packages or letters?”
“If he picked it up, then it’s gone. The U.S. government doesn’t take kindly to me tracking their business.”
The way he snatched out the mail—at random, whatever caught his eye—I knew he’d given up alphabetizing. The patient and persistent travelers got their messages. The rest didn’t care enough. Finally, after surveying nearly every parcel, he extracted an envelope. Red ink across the front read “return to sender,” although the postmark dated a month old.
“Mail carriers refused to take it back,” Scree said. “Seems the government wants more money after it’s been opened.”
“And you didn’t have any?”
He shrugged and poured himself another drink.
A letter contained the loopy script of a woman and, behind that, a preliminary order from a divorce court. The note started: “Since you’ve run off, I have no other way to tell you….” The rest cataloged all the ways Daniel had failed to satisfy his wife’s needs while tending to his own: too caught up in hunting, fishing, and camping to notice her discontentment. Halfway through, I quit reading. If I got a letter like that, I’d also want to walk a thousand miles away.
“So, how’d he die?” Scree asked.
I parsed all I’d learned about him: his sudden departure from home, his disinterest in society, his self-imposed starvation, his evasions of his mother. “I think he gave up.”
“On his trip?”
“On other people.”
Scree toasted me again, but the whiskey burned my throat even as the taste lingered on my tongue.
“So where to from here?” he said.
I thought of my wife, who hadn’t seen me in two months or spoken to me in as many weeks. I possessed the same urge to wander as Daniel, except with less cause. Unlike his spouse, mine awaited my return. Only a woman at forty won’t accept the same life she did at twenty. She indulged my wilderness wanderlust but deserved better than a three-quarters commitment.
“Home,” I said.
About the Author
David Hagerty is the author of the Duncan Cochrane mystery series, which chronicles crime and dirty politics in Chicago during his childhood. Real events inspired all four novels, including the murder of a politician’s daughter six weeks before election day (They Tell Me You Are Wicked), a series of sniper killings in the city’s most notorious housing project (They Tell Me You Are Crooked), the Tylenol poisonings (They Tell Me You Are Brutal), and the false convictions of ten men on Illinois’ death row (They Tell Me You Are Cunning). David has also published more than 30 short stories online and in print, including three prior in Lowestoft Chronicle.