I live in a land where people come to die.
Some intentionally. Some not.
Take Phillip Barnes, for example. He drove his ‘95 Jeep Wrangler Sahara away from the city on August 29th. He was bipolar. Had a gun. Left his wallet home.
Traffic cams showed him heading our way.
No one’s seen him since.
Which isn’t surprising given that vast, uncharted lands lie between our coastal village and the city. It may only be sixty miles, but it’s forest and mountains all the way.
You question its immensity?
Then pull to the side of the road at night. Where pines breathe deep and stars wink. Now turn off your car. Step out. Walk into trees until stars disappear.
Listen now. To wind. To branches clacking. Sticks cracking. To howls. To your heartbeat.
You may not want to admit it, but you are alone. Vulnerable. A whisper or scream away from never being seen again.
Run back to your car now with its light, heat, and radio. Gratefully crawl in, lock the door, and exhale. You’re okay. Home awaits. You can drive away.
But some people can’t. Or don’t.
And I’m paid to find them.
Day and night, I trek into these woods looking for the dead. Into mud flats, rock-stabbed beaches, and moss-cloaked shacks.
I go where others won’t. To remind myself that we’re never safe. That we’re on our own. That Nature, however tamed or explained we think we’ve made it, is still Mystery.
I go to pray. To ask Nature for her secrets: like where she’s hidden Phillip Barnes.
It’s been five weeks since he disappeared. Our Indian summer set, leaving us shivering in October rain. So if he’s alive, he’s having a tough time of it.
I’ve walked one thousand and sixteen forestry roads, peeled back brush ten yards either side, and searched every secret surfer’s beach and hidden homeless camp. He could be a corpse in a car. Or predator-ravaged rags. I haven’t found him yet.
Last fall, a priest and lifelong female friend disappeared along the ribbon of death that connects us to the city. It’s called the ‘Most Dangerous’ road in the country. Not by us. By papers and websites: outsiders.
Part of it is the twists and turns, they say. The sixteen hundred foot rise in elevation from sea to summit. The lack of police presence. The lack of light.
I agree on that last point; there’s not enough stars.
Family and friends afar grew concerned about the priest and his friend. They visited. Retraced steps. Drove the ‘Most Dangerous’ road. Searched the forests foot by foot.
They left disappointed. Months passed. Everyone forgot.
One hundred sixty seven days into my search, I saw a red flash in a ravine off the road. Hidden in brush. Thought it might be a bird. But it didn’t move.
So I scrambled down the embankment. Peeled back branches. Found their red car. They were slumped in the front seat. Holding hands. Belts still buckled.
Guess they missed a turn. Crashed too far into the woods to be seen. Almost too far to be found. I still think about them sitting there. Sharing a joke or memory. Praying to be found.
How can this be a land of death when waterfalls gush, spruce trees praise blue sky, and green lies like a warm comforter over all?
Corey Hoffman drove from New Jersey last fall. They found his truck parked by the bay, belongings locked inside. The tide was out, mud spiked with black posts to the horizon where his footprints ended. Where had he gone? Embraced a rising tide? Surrendered to numbness?
Shock is immediate in our waters at that time of year. Cold stabs bone. It can take fifteen minutes to numb. And those minutes scream. But was that any different than the life Corey Hoffman drove three thousand miles to escape?
Maybe the numbness was inviting. Maybe he gladly floated away. We’ll never know because they never found his body: they never called me.
They did call me about Steven Grier. I found his body a day after sneaker waves swept him off a rock. He had come to measure his bravery against the winter waves, his fiancée said. She was next to him when the white surge grabbed him. She couldn’t hold him; he couldn’t swim.
Michael Stevens could swim. What he couldn’t do was survive a hundred foot fall from a cliff when his wife — allegedly — pushed him.
Then there was Alan Marshall. Or his teeth. That’s all I found at the base of logging hills three years after he left the city to find peace.
Peace at the beach. Or death at the coast.
Don’t hear that ad from the Chamber of Commerce — gives new meaning to life on the edge.
I’m nothing special. Not a cop or anything. I just find the dead. I know the lay of the land, so to speak. The physical land. But I’m not sure I know anymore the way of the land, the spiritual way.
For the authorities, finding bodies answers most questions. For me, it only raises them. Why does Death stalk our shores? By what power does it draw and seduce?
Weren’t we young once and immortal? Immune? Born here, I ignored the stories about death in my youth. Thought I had an extra lease on life.
Now, I’m not sure.
Death shadows me, too. Sometimes I hear his cold breath behind me in the woods.
Eventually, he’ll catch me. And my body will decay like every other one I’ve ever found.
But until then, my breath is resistance. My search protest.
When storms block sun, search parties disband, and bodies wash onto rocks, I go to work. I find the dead. And to each I pose the same question.
Why must we live in a land where people come to die?