VERN AND DONELLE KERSEY aren’t the type of parents satisfied with hauling their kids to a national park and pitching a tent beneath the floodlights of someone’s motor home. Native Montanans both, when they go to the great outdoors they get all the way there. In the summer of 2010, when Vern’s only week of vacation was pushed into September, the couple were not cowed by the threat of early snow. Along with their two youngest kids, 16-year-old Shelby and 11-year-old Trevor, they set out to hike 30 miles to the Chinese Wall, one of the most magnificent and remote features in the country, a 1,000-foot-high, 26-mile-long spine splitting the Rockies of western Montana.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex—known in these parts as the Bob—is 30 miles wide by 80 miles tall, accessible only by foot and horse (and, in dire circumstances, plane), population zero during winter, then inhabited July through September by five fire lookouts perched like lightning rods on isolated vantage points. At night the lookouts find their only human conversation over the airwaves, their tiny voices crackling in static beneath black skies and swirls of clouds close enough to touch.
The Kerseys bought mummy bags, raingear, and overnight packs, as well as a four-person tent, rain tarp, lightweight stove, and water filter. They weighed out nine days’ worth of freeze-dried food. The Bob is one of the few places in the lower 48 with a robust population of grizzly bears, so the Kerseys packed pepper spray and a 9mm handgun. With no cell coverage, a minor injury like a sprained ankle or hypothermia could be serious.
And that’s why it was strange when, on the fifth evening, shortly after setting up camp and heading off to collect wood, Vern and Trevor came across a man who looked simply unprepared. He wore army fatigues with a nylon poncho over his backpack. He knelt on the trail, filling a plastic milk jug where water trickled through the rocks, pouring it straight into his mouth. The men exchanged hellos. Vern sensed that the stranger wanted to be left alone, so he kept moving, but just to be safe, as the man entered the Kerseys’ camp, where Donelle and Shelby were firing up the stove, Vern lingered on the rocks and listened.
“How you doing?” Donelle sang out. She was vivacious and fit, with a hint of country in her throaty voice.
The man smiled and made a motion to the holster on his hip. “Just to let you know, ma’am, I’m packin’. ”
Big man! Donelle thought to herself. Her own 9mm lay on the log in plain view. But as she studied the man’s face, he looked less dangerous than hungry, thin in the cheeks, maybe as young as her 22-year-old son.
“How long you been on the trail?” she asked.