How 1,600 People Went Missing from Our Public Lands Without a Trace
When 18-year-old Joe Keller vanished from a dude ranch in Colorado's Rio Grande National Forest, he joined the ranks of those missing on public land. No official tally exists, but their numbers are growing. And when an initial search turns up nothing, who'll keep looking?
July 23, 2015 was the eve of Joseph Lloyd Keller's 19th birthday. The Cleveland, Tennessee, native had been spending the summer between his freshman and sophomore years at Cleveland State Community College on a western road trip with buddies Collin Gwaltney and Christian Fetzner in Gwaltney’s old Subaru. The boys had seen Las Vegas, San Francisco, and the Grand Canyon before heading to Joe’s aunt and uncle’s dude ranch, the Rainbow Trout Ranch, in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado.
The ranch is in Conejos County, which is bigger than Rhode Island, with 8,000 residents and no stoplights. Sheep graze in the sunshine; potatoes and barley are grown here and trucked north to Denver. Three new marijuana dispensaries in the tiny town of Antonito lure New Mexicans across the nearby state line.
Conejos—Spanish for “rabbits”—is one of the poorest counties in Colorado. It’s also a helluva place to get lost. While its eastern plains stretch across the agricultural San Luis Valley, its western third rises into the 1.8-million-acre Rio Grande National Forest, which sprawls over parts of nine counties. Go missing out here and your fate relies, in no small part, on which of those nine counties you were in when you disappeared.
Joe, a competitive runner, open-water swimmer, and obstacle-course racer, and Collin, a member of the varsity cross-country team at Division I Tennessee Tech, had been running together often during their trip. Neither was totally acclimatized to the altitude—the ranch sits just below 9,000 feet. Joe was a bit slower than his friend. He suffered from asthma as a three-year-old but had kicked it by age 12. The workout would be routine: an hourlong run, likely along Forest Road 250, which bisects the ranch and continues into the national forest, following the Conejos River upstream.
Joe left his phone and wallet at the ranch house. He wore only red running shorts, blue trail shoes, and an Ironman watch. Shirtless, with blond anime hair and ripped muscles, he looked more like a California lifeguard than a Tennessee farm kid.
4:30 p.m. The friends started out together. Neither runner knew the area, but old-timers will tell you that even a blind man could find his way out of Conejos Canyon: on the south side, runner’s left, cattle graze in open meadows along the river. On the north side, ponderosa pines birthday-candle the steep tuff until they hit sheer basalt cliffs, a massive canyon wall rising 2,000 feet above the gravel road toward 11,210-foot Black Mountain.
As the two young men jogged by the corral, one of the female wranglers yelled, “Pick it up!” They smiled and Joe sprinted up the road before the two settled into their respective paces, with Collin surging ahead.
The GPS track on Collin’s watch shows him turning right off Forest Road 250 onto the ranch drive and snaking up behind the lodge, trying to check out three geologic outcroppings—Faith, Hope, and Charity—that loom over the ranch. But the run became a scramble, so he cut back down toward the road and headed upriver. A fly-fisherman says he saw Collin 2.5 miles up the road but not Joe. Collin never encountered his friend; he timed out his run at a pace that led to puking due to the altitude.
No Joe. Collin moseyed back to the ranch house and waited. An hour later, he started to worry.
When Joe didn’t show up to get ready for dinner, Collin and Christian drove up the road, honking and waiting for Joe to come limping toward the road like a lost steer. At 7:30, a small patrol of ranch hands hiked up the rocks toward Faith, the closest formation. By 9:30 there were 35 people out looking. “If he was hurt, he would have heard us,” recalled Joe’s uncle, David Van Berkum, 47. “He was either not conscious or not there.”
“The first 24 hours are key,” says Robert Koester, a.k.a. Professor Rescue, author of the search and rescue guidebook Lost Person Behavior. Koester was consulted on the Keller case and noted that, like most missing runners, Joe wasn’t dressed for a night outside. Plus, he says, it wouldn’t have been unusual for a young athlete like Joe to switch from run to scramble mode. “Heading for higher ground is a known strategy for a lost person,” he says. “Maybe you can get a better vista. And based on his age, it might just have been a fun thing to do.”
Around 10 p.m., the Van Berkums called the Conejos County Sheriff’s Department, and sheriff Howard Galvez and two deputies showed up around midnight. It was now Joe’s birthday. At this point, the effort was still what pros call a hasty search—quick and dirty, focusing on the most logical areas.
It was a warm night, and everyone still expected Joe to find his way back at daybreak, wild story in tow. That morning, as ranch employees and guests continued the search, Jane Van Berkum, 48, alerted Joe’s parents—Zoe, 56, and Neal, 59. Zoe and Jane are sisters, originally from Kenya; their family, British expats, left the country in the 1970s. It took the Kellers and their 17-year-old daughter, Hannah, less than 24 hours to get to the ranch from Tennessee, flying into Albuquerque, New Mexico, and renting a car for the three-and-a-half-hour drive north.
The family arrived at 2 a.m. In the morning, at 6 a.m., the professional search began: starting at what searchers call the point last seen, the ranch’s big ponderosa pine gate, a deputy fire chief from La Plata County named Roy Vreeland, 64, and his Belgian malinois scent dog, Cayenne, picked up a direction of travel, which pointed up Forest Road 250. More dogs arrived from Albuquerque—and identified different directions of travel or none at all. Additional firefighters drove over from La Plata County. Everyone on the ground—as is largely the case with search and rescue—were volunteers.
There was nothing to go on. In that first week, the search engaged about 15 dogs and 200 people on foot, horseback, and ATV. An infrared-equipped airplane from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control flew over the area. Collin’s brother Tanner set up a GoFundMe site that paid for a helicopter to search for five hours, and a volunteer flew his fixed-wing aircraft in the canyon multiple times. A guy with a drone buzzed the steep embankments along Highway 17, the closest paved road, and the rock formation Faith, which has a cross on top. A $10,000 reward was posted for information. How far could a shirtless kid in running shoes get?
But after several days, volunteers began going home, pulled by other obligations. The few who remained did interviews, followed up on leads, and worked teams and dogs. But the search was already winding down. “We had a very limited number of people,” one volunteer told me. “That’s fairly typical in Colorado. You put out calls and people say, ‘Well, if he hasn’t been found in that time, I have to go to work.’ ”
The absence of clues left a vacuum that quickly filled with anger, resentment, false hopes, and conspiracy theories. A tourist with a time-stamped receipt from a little gift shop in nearby Horca swore she saw two men on the road but later changed her story. A psychic reached out on Facebook to report a vision that Joe was west of Sedona, Arizona. There was even a theory that he’d been kidnapped in order to have his organs harvested and sold on the black market. “We feel like he’s not in that area, he’s been taken from there,” Neal Keller would tell me months later.
“I’m a scientist,” Koester says. “I’m fond of Occam’s razor.” That’s the principle that the simplest explanation usually holds true. “You could have a band of terrorists tie him to a tree and interrogate him. Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? No.”
Joe Keller had just joined the foggy stratum of the hundreds or maybe thousands of people who’ve gone missing on our federal public lands. Thing is, nobody knows how many. The National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice, calls unidentified remains and missing persons “the nation’s silent mass disaster,” estimating that on any given day there are between 80,000 and 90,000 people actively listed with law enforcement as missing. The majority of those, of course, disappear in populated areas.
What I wanted to know was how many people are missing in our wild places, the roughly 640 million acres of federal lands—including national parks, national forests, and Bureau of Land Management property. Cases like 51-year-old Dale Stehling, who, in 2013, vanished from a short petroglyph-viewing trail near the gift shop at Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. Morgan Heimer, a 22-year-old rafting guide, who was wearing a professional-grade personal flotation device when he disappeared in 2015 in Grand Canyon National Park during a hike after setting up camp. Ohioan Kris Fowler, who vanished from the Pacific Crest Trail last fall. At least two people have recently gone missing outside the national forest where I live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There are scores more stories like this.
The Department of the Interior knows how many wolves and grizzly bears roam its wilds—can’t it keep track of visitors who disappear? But the government does not actively aggregate such statistics. The Department of Justice keeps a database, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, but reporting missing persons is voluntary in all but ten states, and law-enforcement and coroner participation is voluntary as well. So a lot of the missing are also missing from the database.
After the September 11 attacks, Interior tried to build its own database to track law-enforcement actions across lands managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. (The Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture.) The result, the Incident Management Analysis and Reporting System, is a $50 million Database to Nowhere—last year, only 14 percent of the several hundred reportable incidents were entered into it. The system is so flawed that Fish and Wildlife has said no thanks and refuses to use it.
That leaves the only estimates to civilians and conspiracy theorists. Aficionados of the vanished believe that at least 1,600 people, and perhaps many times that number, remain missing on public lands under circumstances that defy easy explanation.
Numbers aside, it matters tremendously where you happen to disappear. If you vanish in a municipality, the local police department is likely to look for you. The police can obtain assistance from the county sheriff or, in other cases, state police or university law enforcement. If foul play is suspected, your state’s bureau of investigation can decide to get involved. Atop that is the FBI. With the exception of the sheriff, however, these organizations don’t tend to go rifling through the woods unless your case turns into a criminal one.
But all those bets are off when you disappear in the wild. While big national parks like Yosemite operate almost as sovereign states, with their own crack search and rescue teams, go missing in most western states and, with the exception of New Mexico and Alaska, statutes that date back to the Old West stipulate that you’re now the responsibility of the county sheriff.
“There are no federal standards for terrestrial search and rescue,” Koester says. “Very few states have standards. A missing person is a local problem. It’s a historical institution from when the sheriff was the only organized government.” And when it comes to the locals riding to your rescue, Koester says, “There’s a vast spectrum of capability.”
Take Rio Grande National Forest: it has just one full-time law-enforcement officer, who wasn’t given clearance to talk to Outside. Ranger Andrea Jones of the 377,314-acre Conejos Peak district, where Joe disappeared, did lament to me that sometimes she discovers cases in the weekly newspaper. “On occasions when we initially learn about a search and rescue in the forest from the local media,” she explained, “it’s difficult for us to properly engage, communicate, and offer available knowledge or resources.”
But wherever you are, once a search goes from rescue to recovery, most of those resources dry up.
On August 4, 2015, after Joe had been missing for 13 days, Sheriff Galvez pulled the plug on the official search. What had begun as a barnyard musical was now a ghost story. The river—already dropping quickly—had been searched and ruled out. Dog teams had scratched up nothing. Abandoned cabins had been searched and searched again. “I mean, we checked the pit toilets at the campgrounds—we did everything,” Galvez said. “We even collected bear crap. We still have it in the evidence freezer.”
Galvez had been elected sheriff only nine months earlier, and while he had years of law-enforcement experience, he had no background leading search and rescue operations. One responder told me that by the time he arrived on the second day of searching, tension was already rising between Keller and Sheriff Galvez. Keller felt that Galvez wasn’t doing enough; Galvez felt that Keller was in the way, barking orders and criticizing his crew.
When dogs and volunteers start to go back to their lives and the aircraft return to the hangar, a missing-persons search can look eerily quiet. “For a lost person, the response is limited to five days on average,” Keller told me. “There needs to be a plan for applying resources for a little bit longer.”
The Keller family hired two private investigators, who turned up nothing. Zoe Keller told me that it was a waste of $800 a day; one of the investigators told me he’d never had a case with less to go on. The reward was raised from $10,000 to $25,000 and then to $50,000, but as David Van Berkum said, “There just isn’t a sniff of anything.”
Two weeks after Joe’s cold vanish, Alamosa County undersheriff Shawn Woods, who had been called in to assist by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, told Keller about a tracker he knew named Alan Duffy. A 71-year-old surgical assistant, Duffy became interested in bloodhounds when his 21-year-old brother, David, disappeared in the San Gabriel Mountains in 1978; he was found dead of gunshot wounds six weeks later. Duffy has since taken his dogs to search JonBenét Ramsey’s neighborhood and to track stolen horses in Wyoming. Calling in Duffy was a wild card, as are so many things in a case like this.
On August 15, Duffy loaded three-year-old R.C.—named after Royal Crown Cola, on account of his black and tan coat—into his Jeep and drove 300 miles from Broomfield, Colorado, to the Rainbow Trout Ranch. A deputy gave him a scent item, one of Joe’s used sock liners. “That’s as good as underwear,” Duffy said.
Duffy will tell you that bloodhounds are out of fashion. “They fart and they drool,” he said. They’re susceptible to disease, they die young, and you can’t let them off a lead under any circumstances. “Everybody wants a shepherd,” he says. But going old-school has its advantages. “Who’s gonna find you? It’s not a shepherd. It’s not a Mexican Chihuahua. It’s not a pig. You know how they say a great white shark can smell a drop of blood in water five miles away? That’s a bloodhound.”
R.C.’s trigger word to sniff for a living person, as opposed to human remains, is find. For search and rescue assignments, R.C. wears his orange harness, with Duffy holding the lead. After four hours of searching, Duffy switched R.C.’s harness to his black collar and told him, “We’re gonna go gizmo,” the dog’s cue for cadaver mode.
Four and a half miles up Forest Road 250, at Spectacle Lake—a murky pond, really—R.C. circled, tugged at vegetation on the bank, bit at the water, then jumped in and sat in the shallows. “He wouldn’t leave,” Duffy said.
Duffy wasn’t convinced, necessarily, that a body was in the lake, and he explained that scent is drawn toward water and believed that there was a corpse somewhere nearby. Rain or critters could have deposited cadaver material in the lake, enough to set off alarms in R.C.’s snout. But at four and a half miles from Joe’s point last seen, the lake was at the far end of the ground game’s probabilities. Duffy offered up a few more scenarios, some of which upset the Van Berkums—such as when he told them that R.C. had picked up human-remains scents under buildings on the ranch. But with few other sources of help, desperation had led to Duffy. “At least he was trying,” Joe’s mom, Zoe, told me. “He could have been right.”
Continued searches in August turned up nothing. Neal Keller was commuting back and forth between Tennessee and Conejos County, searching every moment he could. In October 2015, when he and the sheriff were no longer on speaking terms, he urged the county commissioners for more help, including a dive team to search Spectacle Lake. “I, as the father of a missing boy—my only son, actually—would like to have as much resources as could possibly be made available,” he told the officials.
Keller was feeling the stress. He lost 15 pounds from hiking and scrambling in the altitude. Just before Thanksgiving, he, David Van Berkum, and a small posse spent two days searching the snow-covered scree west of the ranch. It was the area that seemed most logical, but it’s mean terrain. “We went in there because that area was likely the least searched,” he told me. No Joe. Keller would have to spend the long Colorado winter still not knowing.
The canyon now belonged to the snowmobilers and coyotes. Next season’s fly-fishers and ranch guests wouldn’t show up in any numbers until the snow melted in spring.
I first stepped through the missing-persons portal back in 1997, when researching updates on Amy Wroe Bechtel, a runner who’d vanished in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, where I lived.
My intrigue only grew. I tend toward insomnia and the analog, and each night in bed I listen with earbuds to Coast to Coast AM on a tiny radio. The program, which explores all sorts of mysteries of the paranormal, airs from 1 to 5 a.m. in my time zone. It’s syndicated on over 600 stations and boasts nearly three million listeners each week. Most of the time, the talk of space aliens and ghosts lulls me to sleep, but not when my favorite guest, David Paulides, is at the mic.
Paulides, an ex-cop from San Jose, California, is the founder of the North America Bigfoot Search. His obsession shifted from Sasquatch to missing persons when, he says, he was visited at his motel near an unnamed national park by two out-of-uniform rangers who claimed that something strange was going on with the number of people missing in America’s national parks. (He wouldn’t tell me the place or even the year, “for fear the Park Service will try to put the pieces together and ID them.”) So in 2011, Paulides launched the CanAm Missing Project, which catalogs cases of people who disappear—or are found—on wildlands across North America under what he calls mysterious circumstances. He has self-published six volumes in his popular Missing 411 series, most recently Missing 411 Hunters: Unexplained Disappearances. Paulides expects Missing 411: The Movie, a documentary codirected by his son, Ben, and featuring Survivorman Les Stroud, to be released this year.
Last May, I met him at a pizza joint in downtown Golden. The gym-fit Paulides, who moved from California to Colorado in part for the skiing, is right out of central casting for a detective film.
“I don’t put any theories in the books—I just connect facts,” he told me. Under “unique factors of disappearances,” he lists such recurring characteristics as dogs unable to track scents, the time (late afternoon is a popular window to vanish), and that many victims are found with clothing and footwear removed. Bodies are also discovered in previously searched areas with odd frequency, sometimes right along the trail. Children—and remains—are occasionally found improbable distances from the point last seen, in improbable terrain.
It’s tempting to dismiss Paulides as a crypto-kook—and some search and rescue professionals do—but his books are extensively researched. On a large map of North America on his office wall,
Paulides has identified 59 clusters of people missing on federal wildlands in the U.S. and southern Canada. To qualify as a cluster, there must be at least four cases; according to his pins, you want to watch your step in Yosemite, Crater Lake, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Rocky Mountain National Parks. But then, it would seem you want to watch your step everywhere in the wild. The map resembles a game of pin the tail on the donkey at an amphetamine-fueled birthday party.
Paulides has spent hundreds of hours writing letters and Freedom of Information Act requests in an attempt to break through National Park Service red tape. He believes the Park Service in particular knows exactly how many people are missing but won’t release the information for fear that the sheer numbers—and the ways in which people went missing—would shock the public so badly that visitor numbers would go down.
Paulides brought along a missing-persons activist named Heidi Streetman, an affiliate faculty member at Denver’s Regis University who teaches research methods. After reading the Missing 411 series, she became frustrated that there was no searchable database for families of the disappeared. In 2014, she floated a petition titled “Make the Department of the Interior Accountable for Persons Missing in Our National Parks and Forests.” It now has over 7,000 signers, with a goal of 10,000.
Streetman, a spirited 56-year-old who spent her childhood camping all over Colorado, is beset with the case of Dale Stehling, a 51-year-old Texan who vanished on Mesa Verde’s Petroglyph Point Trail on a 100-degree Sunday afternoon in June 2013. The trail is rated moderate, but it was hot and Stehling didn’t have water. At the petroglyphs, where he was last seen, there is an intersection with an old access trail, where his wife, Denean, believes he may have left the main trail. “If there was a way to get lost, Dale would find it,” she says.
But even if Stehling had taken the wrong, overgrown path, he surely would have realized his mistake and backtracked. Maybe he collapsed in the heat. But rangers searched that area extensively on foot, with dogs, and in helicopters with firefighting crews. They sent climbers rappelling down cliffy areas and collected a whole trunk’s worth of knapsacks, cameras, purses, wallets, water bottles, and binoculars—none of them Stehling’s. The park superintendent, Cliff Spencer, a 32-year Park Service veteran, still holds search and rescue training exercises in the area, just in case they come across a clue. “The thing that gets me,” he told me, “is in all my years with the Park Service, I don’t recall five cases like this.”
It’s not likely that legislation would help the Stehling family, but an amendment to an existing law recently made it easier for volunteer search and rescue outfits to access federal wildlands with less red tape. The issue of permit approval is largely one of liability insurance, but the Good Samaritan Search and Recovery Act of 2013 expedited access for qualified volunteers to national parks and forests, and now they can search within 48 hours of filing the paperwork. More such laws would make things easier for experts like Michael Neiger, 63, a retired Michigan State Police detective who now specializes in backcountry search and recovery. Neiger lauds Streetman’s database and wants to take it further. He’d like to see a searchable resource that gives volunteers like himself the same information that government officials have—including case profiles, topo maps, dog tracks, and weather.
On February 4, 2016, Keller went to Denver to attend a ceremony for the inaugural Colorado Missing Persons Day. With families of the missing gathered around them, legislators passed resolutions creating the annual event. Keller stood in the capitol, listening as his son’s name was read aloud. It was one of 300.
In late May 2016, I visited Conejos County. A month earlier, two Antonito men had been reported overdue from a camping trip to Duck Lake, less than three miles southwest of the Rainbow Trout Ranch, during a spring storm that dumped two feet of wet snow. Teams were called in from Mineral and Archuleta Counties, along with the Wolf Creek Ski Area ski patrol, based 100 miles west on Highway 17. One of the men managed to struggle back to Horca; the ski patrol eventually found the frozen remains of the other.
The search had also resumed for Joe. Earlier in May, more than 30 volunteers, including Keller, Collin, and 11 dogs from the nonprofit Colorado Forensic Canines, had spent about a week crisscrossing Conejos Canyon. The mission was to either find a needle in a haystack or to significantly reduce the probability that the youth was in a 2.9-mile radius of the point last seen.
The search was organized by the Jon Francis Foundation, a Minnesota nonprofit that, since 2007, has helped more than 40 families with loved ones missing on public land. It was created by David Francis, a retired Naval Reserve captain, after his 24-year-old son, Jon, disappeared in Idaho’s Custer County in 2006. Jon’s body was found in a deep ravine the next year by paid members of the Sawtooth Mountain Guides. “Custer County is the size of Connecticut,” Francis says. “The search and rescue budget was $5,000. If you go missing in a poor county, you’re gonna get a short, somewhat sloppy search. In my mind, that’s the national disgrace. Everybody knows someone with cancer. But it’s a minority who know someone gone missing.”
The May search for Joe turned up no sign. But bushwacking off the Duck Lake Trail, about three and a half miles southwest of the ranch, Keller and Gwaltney came upon a sleeping bag, a cook pot, a tarp, and some bug spray—the gear of the lost campers.
One sunny afternoon, I went looking for Sheriff Galvez and found him outside the Conejos County Jail, on the north side of Antonito, directing inmates in orange jumpsuits as they planted flowers. He wore jeans and a gray canvas shirt, with a pistol on his belt and reading glasses propped on thick salt-and-pepper hair. It was clear that he’d rather orchestrate landscaping details than talk with the press, but who can blame him? The department has taken a beating on Facebook, Websleuths.com, Dateline, and the Chattanooga Times Free Press. It would be one of our only conversations—as this article went to press, Galvez didn’t return repeated calls and e-mails from Outside.
“It’s been a rough year and a half,” he told me. After the Keller search and the hunt for the Duck Lake campers, he said, “I don’t agree that I should be in charge of search and rescue on federal lands. I’m thinking of going to the state senators and saying I’d like to be backed out of that, because I don’t have a $90 million budget.” The starting salary for his five deputies is $27,000. “It’d be more effective, I think,” he said. “We’re a small department, a small community. I hear stuff like, ‘I can’t go, my equipment broke down.’ ”
Frustration between Galvez and Keller had continued to roil. “We had dogs, hikers, aircraft,” the sheriff said. “Horseback, drones, scent dogs, cadaver dogs. We had so many resources, it was unreal. When searchers took a break, he criticized all the resources. Cut everybody down.”
“This is an ongoing investigation for a missing person,” he continued. “We have no evidence—he’s just missing. It looks more like that than anything else. Over 18, you can run away all you want. If Joe was to call us, show me some proof he’s OK, I’d close it up.”
Before I left Conejos County, I took a run up Forest Road 250. I parked at a turnout in front of a massive ponderosa pine with Joe’s missing-person poster stapled to it, then jogged down to the point last seen and tried to retrace his run. Based on the varying sniffer-dog evidence, some figure that he ran up the road a ways, rounded the first or second bend, then got into trouble. I slowly shuffled upriver. A truck or SUV passed every three minutes or so. Locals told me that in July, the traffic on Forest Road 250 is even heavier. Wouldn’t someone have recalled seeing Joe if he’d stayed on the road? After my run, I rinsed my face in Spectacle Lake; according to Duffy, R.C. could tell him I’d been here.
On Wednesday, July 6, John Rienstra, 54, a search and rescue hobbyist and endurance runner—and a former offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers—discovered Joe’s body in a boulder field below the cliff band.
“I heard there had been a lot of searching for two and a half miles,” Rienstra said. “I started looking for rapids, caves—cliffs, of course—and right at two and half miles, there is a place to pull off the road, and there were cliffs close by. It took me about an hour to get up there to the base of the cliff, and I went left until I ran out of room. Then I turned around and went back toward the ranch on the base of the cliffs and found him.” The area was too rugged for horses or dog teams. When the Colorado Bureau of Investigations came to retrieve the remains, they packed horses in as far as they could, then had to reach Keller on foot.
Joe’s body was 1.7 miles as the crow flies from the ranch. Searchers had been close. In November 2015, Keller and David Van Berkum had come within several hundred yards. “I regret not searching there on the 25th of July,” Keller told me. “That’s where I wish I’d started. What part of here would take a life? It’s not the meadow on top; it’s the cliff.”
“Hindsight is always 20/20,” Jane Van Berkum wrote me recently. “But since there was a blanket of snow, I am not sure they would have found him even if they had chosen to go higher. But it is painful to think that they were that close.” Every day, she said, she and her husband had searched for Joe as part of their ranch activities. “I have sat on the cliffs many times since he went missing and scanned below over and over, and I never saw him,” she said. “That tortures me.”
The preliminary cause of death, according to David Francis, was “blunt force trauma to the head.” Jane told me he also suffered a broken ankle. It appears that Joe scrambled up and then fell—perhaps the lost-person behavior laid out by Professor Rescue, Robert Koester. Occam’s razor wasn’t as dull as it had seemed for most of a year.
Still, Joe’s death remains a mystery to his mother. “The events do not fit for a one-hour run before dinner,” Zoe says, “after they had just driven 24 hours straight to get to Rainbow Trout Ranch.” The boys hadn’t slept in over a day. Joe had just split wood with his uncle David’s 75-year-old father, Doug Van Berkum. She can’t see her son running up to the canyon rim—she insists that he did not like heights and was not a climber. “There is something we still do not know about what happened, is how I feel about it.”
It’s hard to put your hunches and suspicions to rest. We’ll never know for certain what happened to Joe Keller. We’ll know even less about what happened to a lot of other people missing in the wild.
One question I had early on was, Are you better or worse off going missing in a national forest than from a Walmart parking lot? I thought I knew the answer. You can see an aerial view of my firewood pile from space on your smartphone. I thought that in the wild, someone would send in the National Guard, the Army Rangers, the A-Team, and that they wouldn’t rest until they found you. Now I’m not so sure.