So much for another boring dinner. I grab a second flashlight and start the engine to make sure Daniel’s truck has fuel enough for the excursion. I leave the truck running after I confirm at least three-quarters of a tank. I snag an apple off the counter, plus I know there are some snacks in the cab from when I picked up granola bars on my way into the forest the previous week.
I’m glad Aaron knows I’m out here, even though I did not tell Daniel when we spoke this weekend that I was staying in the mountains. When I checked the weather yesterday the forecast indicated there might be a few inches of snow on Friday, and even then, I would be in the forest working anyway, so I planned to just head back on late Saturday morning. That will give me time to winterize the cabin and also one night to straighten up the house before Daniel comes home.
For now, though, my focus will be on the two people in the forest. I’d been in the loop, albeit peripherally, with a search and rescue during my second summer in Wyoming. But from the office, the involvement is mostly about passing along information. This time, I am nearly the first responder. Since the bulk of the crew won’t deploy for another twelve hours, this first check is all on me.
Daniel and I have driven this road several times from our cabin. The road winds a little farther through private land like ours before it weaves back onto Forest Service land and eventually up to the reservoir. We’ve also hiked the same distance once, but that is not something I would want to try on my own, much less at night. The risk of tripping and falling, especially for a klutz like me, far outweighs the likelihood of encountering wildlife in the road, but of the two, I trust the wildlife more than I trust myself.
It takes me about twenty minutes to get underway, which as my adrenaline flows in moments like this – in fact I could feel it while still on the radio with Aaron – I think it would have been better if I could have been underway in ten minutes. If these two were missing for more than a day, the ten minutes would not be a huge difference. It’s better to be prepared with the right gear then to wander off without something I might need. I bring the radio from the house, for example, especially since Daniel’s truck does not have any such equipment.
I turn on my high beams before I even pull away from the cabin and make the right turn. Ultimately, this road winds southward, but it twists and turns so many times, the road itself barely points true south. I pass a few vehicles, primarily on the private land, a couple of which have always been in the same location since we built the cabin.
“Brown Dodge truck,” as if it matters what these nearly abandoned vehicles look like. You never know. I could be asked what I did see and how far I drove.
About another five miles ahead, “Flatbed trailer with missing wheel.” It certainly wasn’t going anywhere.
Being parked close to the edge of the road helps with these two, but beyond that, I really can only see as far as my high beams shine. The moon rose early, but its half light from the west only occasionally illuminates the scenery. Besides watching for any vehicles, the possibility of random appearances of wildlife keep my speed around a couple dozen miles per hour. I expect finding a black truck, perhaps farther back off the road, or down an alternate narrow drive, might be an impossible task, even if it is out here. I drive onward, scanning for anything that moves, but mostly just in the complete silence of the forest.
As I start out, I keep my windows down to look into the side roads or trails without the reflection of interior lights. I dim the dash illumination to keep the interior as dark as the exterior. I’m thankful for the clear night, knowing fog or any precipitation will not only make the search more challenging, but could possibly endanger individuals out of their element. Hopefully, if these two are out here, they’ve at least stayed with their vehicle and brought adequate supplies to last longer than a day or two.
I see mice scurry across the road, but the rocks often hide their movement until I am nearly upon them. After about five miles of driving, I cannot guarantee I have avoided all of them. Certainly, a full-size vehicle would be easier to spot than the small forest life, but the movement catches in the light far more than the mouse itself. A dark truck could easily be just out of range of the light, and completely hidden if not likewise moving.
The more challenging part of a search, I wager with myself, is knowing when to stop looking. If I get all the way to the reservoir, do I just turn around, or do I wander down nearby roads? If so, how many little roads? After all, tomorrow a full search crew will be available to assist and be far more experienced and equipped than me.
I realize most, perhaps all, of my nights in the forest have been spent sitting outside the cabin, or tucked inside a tent, or gazing into the popping glow of a fire. As I drive, I cannot recall any specific memories of driving into the woods in this darkness. I have always loved the way the forest falls asleep with the sun. With the exception of a rowdy campground or a group of families gathered around a fire allowing their kids to enjoy extra hours of twilight in the summer far beyond their normal bedtimes, roads like these, hiking trails, roadside picnic tables, lodges and restaurants, even forest service workers all take advantage of the darkness to rejuvenate and begin again early the next day in bringing the forest back to life. The sun dictates the unofficial hours of operation.
Now seven miles into the trek and I see no more vehicles, little wildlife, and definitely not the two for whom I am looking. I decide to pull over and look at my map and see how far I am from Shell Reservoir. The harder part isn’t finding the reservoir, it’s figuring out where I am. GPS doesn’t happen here. The idea that I am looking for other people when I am not certain where I am myself strikes me as funny, of course, were it not such a frightening unknown as to where they might be for the family who reported them missing.
I recall seeing the turn off to Forest Road 338 about a mile back, so it occurs to me that I missed the turn off to the reservoir even farther north of that. Admittedly, I did not pay close enough attention when Daniel and I drove this road. Perhaps its coincidental that the times I have been to the reservoir we reached by foot and I probably don’t really know where I’m going. For a moment I think it might be more helpful if it were daylight and were on foot up the trail. I immediately follow up the thought that if it were daylight, I would not be the only person looking for the father and son.
I find a wide spot in the road, if it can be considered as such, and consider it’s just closer to level without steep slopes on the edges. If this is my only option, I accept this location as my end point on this stretch and slowly take the time to turn around, even if it takes close to five minutes to make the multi-point, overly cautious reversal in the darkness.
Even though I just traveled this stretch, I still opt to take it slow rather than hurry, despite the anxious, internal tug I feel to keep going and get to the reservoir. I’m realize I am so concerned with getting where I am going, that I forget that this drive isn’t about getting somewhere at all. It’s just the end point I’ve set for myself to stop looking.
Once I retreat the distance to Forest Road 271, I see the sign for the reservoir in my headlights. I certainly don’t recall seeing such a sign on the way here, but it isn’t surprising that I simply missed it. And yet, I am being entrusted to the task of looking for something – anything – that might provide the location of a truck and its occupants. I remind myself to go slower, look harder, and focus more intently on the reason I am out here. This isn’t a typical patrol or errand. This journey has meaning for others. I slow my speed down to just twenty miles per hour. From what I saw on the map when I stopped, the reservoir should be just a few miles from here, so within fifteen minutes, I should arrive at the end of my search.
I continue along, surprised I don’t see more deer, but even now they are probably bunked down for the night. They are usually most active after sunset, but they are by no means nocturnal. I watch for bats swooping into the road, but I don’t see them either; perhaps they have already begun their hibernation or migration. This is such a small fraction of the forest, that I wonder how I might be able to find anything here. Or anyone.
It’s not surprising that here the number of downed trees impacted by the bark beetle are visible off the roadway. Being able to look through the gaps between the live trees out the windows still doesn’t offer me much of a view and I don’t even realize I’ve arrived at the reservoir until I look out the passenger window into the flat darkness.