Sometimes we could see only a few yards through the heavy timber. If a plane were down, we could walk within thirty yards of it without seeing it. Thirty yards was a tiny distance in the immensity of those mountains. Also, I could imagine vectors through the woods all around me that would allow a plane to reach the ground without being visible from the sky.
To add to the problem, nobody had any idea what direction the plane had been flying. Lila and Bev, preoccupied with their conversation, hadn’t noticed where it left their sight. To the east, the Mission Mountain Wilderness where we were stretched through miles of forest and rugged peaks. Farther south, past the Jocko and Big Knife Drainages, it flowed into the Rattlesnake, where the mountains were gentler but the forests no less thick. The forests of the Ninemile area to the south and west were more heavily logged with many clearcuts, but it was a huge region of rolling hills and patches of timber.
Larry and Bev had flown from Boise into the tiny airport in their private plane to visit Lila Fayler and her four children. When they landed at the airport, Larry agreed to take the three children up for a quick look at the mountain valley from the sky. Bev was his fiance. She got out of the plane to wait on the runway with Lila, his sister. Larry, with his two nieces and his nephew aboard, taxied into the quiet evening, climbed quickly into the air then circled toward the snowcovered peaks east of town.
Lila and Bev chatted on the airport runway, sitting on the hood of the car for a half hour. The plane didn’t return. The engine’s hood cooled. Time dragged on. After an hour they went into town to check on supper, which Lila had put in the oven before leaving for the airport. When they went back to the airport, light was nearly gone over the western hills but the plane hadn’t returned.
They admitted their fears. The drive back to town felt unreal. They called Alan Mikkelsen, a local pilot. He contacted the state aviation agency before rushing to the airport. He prepped his plane then flew into the night sky. Hour after hour all night long he circled over the mountains, looking for any sign.
The next morning, aircraft from the state were in the valley, flying grids over the rugged country, looking for broken trees, oil slicks in lakes. I spent that morning moving lilacs from an abandoned homestead on the southern rim of the valley, planting a two hundred foot long hedge along my drive.
The sun was mild, and I struggled to pay attention only to what I was doing, ignoring the world beyond my gardens as completely as I could. But now that world droned insistently overhead, as plane after plane flew over or cruised along the mountains. Like others, I went about my work, expecting the search planes to find the children soon, waiting for good news.
When nothing had been found by evening, I drove out to the airport, one hangar beside one airstrip, to see if I could help. Though the county search and rescue van was parked beside the runway as a command center, there was nothing to command. “We need a sighting,” the search coordinator said. “We don’t have any idea where to start.” The searchers tried to pick up a signal from the emergency locator transmitter, but since the pilot was just going up for a brief jaunt he may not have turned it on.
I wore shorts and a t-shirt. Lila said the kids had also been dressed lightly. Night came as I waited out at the airport talking to the search and rescue people and people from town who dropped by to see if there was any news. I began to shiver hard from the chilly breeze. Winter had not yet left the nearby peaks. If the kids were alive, and if they were at a higher elevation than the valley, this night, their second in the wild, was going to be long and cold.
When I went home, I sat in my warm living room, and talked a little with my own children, asking them for information about Angela, the ten-year-old, the only one of the three kids I didn’t know. They told me she was a bubbly, happy girl, full of physical affection. She liked to hug people. Sierra was a senior at the school where, until a few months before I’d been principal. She was a beautiful young woman. Everyone noticed her. Jesse was only six, the same age as my youngest boy, and he rode his bike to our house often.
I went outside and stood in the dark, feeling the chill. Somewhere, one plane was still flying, looking for a signal or a fire. If my kids were up those mountains, maybe hurt, maybe waiting, I wouldn’t hang around until I knew where to start looking. It might be rational to depend on the air search, but they’d looked all day and found nothing. It would take outrageous luck to stumble onto the plane on foot in the vastness of the wilderness that surrounded us. But if luck was all we had, then we had to try. When you need a miracle, I believe, you have to step forward and expect one.
I connected with Bill Ferril, a local doctor, and Gary Steele, a professional wilderness guide. They were going to search a quadrant on the map of Mount Harding that a psychic had suggested. I placed no faith in psychics, but since I didn’t have a plan of my own, it didn’t matter to me where I started.
Before dawn the next moring we loaded packs to stay overnight and left. The terrain was rugged and the brush was thick, without trails. We fought through cedar thickets, crawled through deadfall and tore through underbrush. I found an easy logging road and followed it for almost a mile until ten-year-old growth reduced it to a trail, winding through lupine, paintbrush, clematis, wild rose, and gooseberries—all in bloom. The blossoms had attracted thousands of butterflies, and they fluttered among the leaves like delicate confetti. Hundreds of neotropical birds had returned from their migration, and the forest’s winter silence had given way to singing.
I walked slowly, overwhelmed, trying to memorize and to make meaning of finding the aromatic blossoms, the spectacle of butterflies, the chorus of birds. I had not coming looking for this, and I felt ambushed, torn between exhilaration and dismay to have wandered into such beauty on such a grim mission.
Toward dark, we broke out of thick brush onto a rocky outcrop. We made camp, built a small fire and fixed supper. We’d spent the day spread out, trying to see as much ground as possible, so we hadn’t talked much. Though I knew Bill well, I hadn’t met Gary before.
He’d guided groups through the Missions, though most of his business was in Arizona during the winter. “Not many people want hikes this strenuous,” he said, laughing.
He’d built a house up the Jocko Canyon, away from electricity and running water. He’d done all the work with hand tools. During the off season, when he wasn’t hiking and kayaking, he did contract sheetrock work. “I like the world the way it is,” he said.
He had met Edward Abbey, and though he wasn’t an avid reader, he had read all his books. He told personal stories about him, what had gone on among his friends in the desert during the days he was dying. The literary talk was an unexpected treat for me.
He had heard a little about me, and he asked questions about what had gone on at the school. “People told me that after they went to that board meeting they were sick. It made them want to move away,” he said.
Bill laughed. “The guy I rent my office from told me that the real problem was that the principal was trying to make this the best school in America. He said we couldn’t have something like that.” Bill was from out of state, and he enjoyed local eccentricities.
I didn’t want to talk about it, since it was a story and not one that everyone could hear. Throughout the conflict at the school, I had avoided saying much about the superintendent to anyone except the school board trustees. I provided formal documentation for my allegations. If he and I began fighting publicly, the school and community would be completely divided.
It was clear that he intended to fire me, using false allegations as the basis. If the board didn’t fire him, I was finished. It was the board’s decision.
During the weeks the story was unfolding, my job became more and more stressful. Every disagreement and every decision could become ammunition against me. A student swore at a teacher and she kicked him out of class. The kid swore at me and said that I was picking on him because I was a racist. The superintendent pounced on it, taking the student’s side. Such things were happening daily.
In the evenings, I took longer and longer walks, many miles, far into the mountains, into the night. When I was high above the valley in the wintry woods things seemed to fall into place. The town was a shabby little clutter in a huge and beautiful world, and the earth was a tiny planet in a vast cosmos.
I moved through chill wind, the near sounds of owls, coyotes yipping on the ridge above me. I climbed a path through dark to watch the moon rise over Goat Rock. If a person could truly see the big picture, I was sure, he would see that all the news was good. I thought hard about what I really wanted out of the situation. I thought about where I had started and what it had come to. I’d come home from Vietnam an angry young man, unstable and full of questions. I was drawn to classrooms because they are one of the few places that people gather to take life seriously, to ask questions in earnest. I was drawn toward poetry because it helped me live my life. Wallace Steven had taught me that it was the nobility expressed in poems that helped. He said that the poet’s nobility was a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination, pressing back against reality. The sound of it, he said, helps us live our lives.
Unable to make out what lay ahead, I returned to such beginnings.
After a dinner of macaroni, I left Bill and Gary to sit on the rocks beside the small fire, listening to the forest and the incessant drone of aircraft. A National Guard chopper flew directly over us. They were in a different world, in voice contact with the search command post and with state headquarters. I tried to talk to them, but our radio batteries had gone dead. I didn’t think the crew saw me, sitting in a more or less open spot beside a small fire. Their powerful technology kept them too far away. Our primitive hiking and looking was too slow, and the world was too big. The children were lost between two approaches that were not working.
We got up early the next morning, mixed cereal with yogurt for breakfast, tore down camp, and pulled on our packs. We hiked steadily all day. We went places and reached heights we would never have gone just for fun. On that day and the days that followed I became good friends with Gary. We were facing a tragic event, but we kept encountering earth’s many goodnesses.
When we got back to town, tired and footsore, scratched and cut from fighting underbrush, we learned that two dozen possible sightings were being investigated. Aircraft were coming from around the state, and both the Forest Service and the National Guard had loaned helicopters. Eleven fixed wing aircraft and three helicopters flew grids over the area, looking for broken tree tops or other clues. The constant roar of engines overhead droned through the day, gnawing like anxiety.
Psychics who had heard the news reports on television phoned in with suggestions. One flew to town, and friends of the family picked her up and drove her around the foothills as she tried to sense the children’s whereabouts. None of the leads they gave panned out.
The county sheriff said that the search was in the hands of the state aviators until there was a sighting. He said he couldn’t authorize a ground search until there was a place to search. People grumbled about this, and began organizing themselves. The next day, 120 people were in the mountains, hiking without much of a plan, following whims and intuition.
When again the day ended without success, people realized they needed to be more systematic. They gathered huge contour maps, tables and bulletin boards. Others lashed tarps together to form an ad hoc command center. They gathered reports and organized plans. People began marking off areas that had been searched, and others began checking to see what areas were likely. An organization was forming, spontaneously.
A woman who had led a petition drive a few months before, spending hour after hour taking a message of hate door to door through town, now set up a food pantry in the airport hangar. She gave hours to the effort. She cooked casseroles and got contributions. Soon, a field commissary was in full operation. Chile, stew, roast beef, hundreds of sandwiches, cookies, soft drinks were brought in and put on the tables. Searchers going out dropped in and put fruit and sandwiches in their packs. Searchers coming back hung around and ate dinner off paper plates.
The following day, nearly five hundred people were out searching. People called their jobs to say they couldn’t come in, and spent days climbing the rugged mountains.
Leaders arose. People who knew the area began assigning crews to search specific areas, having them check out before they left and report in when they returned. Local horsemen searched areas that horses could reach, and a bicycle club from Missoula arranged rode miles of logging roads. Volunteers directed traffic and established a huge parking lot in the hayfield beside the runway. Delivery trucks stopped on their routes to grocery stores and restaurants and to leave cases of fruit and soda at the hangar commissary. The search gained momentum and organized and reorganized itself quickly as people saw what they could do and did it.
People mentioned repeatedly that in some way this was connected to the mob that the superintendent had brought down upon the school. He had acted quickly. He identified enemies of the current board and offered them a chance to settle old scores. He found former board members whose dreams for the school had failed, and appealed to their resentment at being left out, offered them a way back to power. He found people who were hungry to be taken seriously, and praised them. Those who weren’t motivated by bribes or flattery were simply threatened. There was nothing unusual about his strategy. What was unusual was that he pursued it so wholeheartedly, so shamelessly.
Since people on his side felt their own importance threatened by those who attacked him, and those he attacked felt endangered by his support, the town was quickly polarized. People not involved in what was happening were astonished and perplexed by how suddenly and how passionately various people in town were mobilized to hatred for various other people. The two groups were not seeing the same thing, and they were furious at each other.
An old man who’d lived in town all his life came to me, asking what was happening. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” he said. He mentioned one of the superintendent’s strongest supporters. “That man has never stood up for anybody in his life,” he said. “I’m the only friend he’s ever had. But he kicked me out of his house because I don’t think the superintendent is doing the right things. What’s happening?”
The board chairman went to the superintendent privately and told him he didn’t like it. The superintendent said he was sad for any misunderstandings and promised to fix things. But the chairman had been in office long enough to have enemies, so the superintendent went to them and cultivated their friendship. Soon, he was campaigning underground against his board.
One of the chairman’s old foes, a businessman who had recently been on the school board, bought radio ads and called his own town meeting. Hundreds of people showed up to find out what the hubbub was about. Nobody knew. The businessman accused the chairman of having an agenda. He didn’t say it was a bad agenda, just that he had one. A newcomer to town tried to speak reasonably about the fact that nobody seemed to have any real information. The businessman yelled at him to shut up. The real message was simple: something was going on!
The search was bringing up powerful feelings, like those that at the mass meetings at the school. Everywhere I went, people tried to make connections between what was happening now and what had happened at the school just a few months before. They were heartened that the community could pull itself together to do good things as well as bad things.
“Isn’t this amazing?” a friend commented, gesturing at the crowd buzzing around the airport.
“It’s amazing, yes.” I was still distrustful of the town. But I also knew that if we so often find that what seemed right was, under the respectable clothes, rotten and cankered, it’s tempting to decide that nothing is good. This is the worst deception of all. When we give up on goodness, we are only a small step from hating it when it comes, because when it comes it will restore us to our guilt.
There had been no reports about the kids. It was eerie. They had simply vanished, without a trace.
People couldn’t fight back the realization that it was taking too long. There was hope. It was possible that the kids were out there somewhere still alive, unable to get out. But the odds were getting worse hour by hour.
Each evening when it was too dark to search, folk gathered at Lila’s hotel. The inside was nearly finished. Her art work was everywhere, large paintings of women with children and of buffalo. Her favorite medium was sculpture, and clay figures graced every corner and shelf. Folks brought food, and dozens of people wandered through, talking to each other, telling stories about their day, working out their plans for the next day.
Some folks brought guitars and flutes, and we sang and waited. Overhead the monotonous drone of aircraft went on. People knew that they were experiencing something profound and this was part of the sense of tragedy. One evening I sat on the floor talking to Lila, who was lying on pillows. She was exhausted, physically and emotionally. She hadn’t slept well since the search began, and she was torn continually between hope and grief, since the outcome of the story wasn’t unknown.
She was a beautiful woman, and she held herself through the tragedy with astonishing strength and dignity. People were drawn to her, partly because of her beauty and her gift for intimacy, but partly, I think, because they wanted to touch something real. Whatever was going on, it felt much more real than usual life. Folks crave contact with reality. Always, someone was with her and others were waiting to talk to her. At one point, she reached over and gave me a hug. “Let’s stay together when this is over,” she whispered.
One night I talked with two businessmen outside the hotel. We were all fatigued by the long days of climbing and the short nights of sleep. Most people had been ignoring the daily business of life, neglecting all the routines that ordinarily occupy us. One of the men commented on all the people that were still there, though it was late. “This is incredible,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to keep this spirit, to keep alive whatever it is that’s happening.”
Over and over folks called what was happening a miracle. People who had lived in the same valley all their lives but hadn’t got to know one another found themselves on search parties together, climbing and struggling through the hard terrain, helping one another, getting to know one another. People who had lived at the foot of the mountains all their lives without hiking into them found themselves spending hour after hour climbing through flowered meadows, reaching vistas from which they could see for miles, finding themselves stunned by the raw beauty they had been too busy to notice. Getting out into nature has a curative effect on most people. People were coming out of their isolating pursuit of wealth, of security, of importance into community, into nature, and in spite of the circumstances they found themselves being made glad.
I received a phone call late at night after I’d got back from hiking all day. A different search party coming out of the mountains at dusk had thought they saw a plane door floating in a lake. Someone knew that I had a canoe and I was asked if I could check the lake in the morning. Before daylight, I had my canoe in the lake, and I spent two hours paddling its perimeter. I wondered why I hadn’t got up before dawn and paddled other lakes. It was lovely and peaceful, watching the sun come up while I was out on the water, the mountains and forests all around. I found debris but none of it was from an airplane.
Over and over, people related what was happening to the vicious passions that had erupted on the fight over the school. Only a few months before, people had put a similar energy into hatred and fighting. They had gathered in cliques on the street outside board meetings, plotting strategies and imagining conspiracies, and then they had retreated into their hatreds and their resentments. The search felt like being let out of prison.
By the time of the board meeting to evaluate the superintendent and to decide whether to hire him for another year, the entire town was in an uproar. So many people showed up that the meeting had to be moved to the gymnasium. Three of the five board members were incensed at him. They could see what he was doing and they were furious.
“He’s attacking the school board!” one of them told me incredulously. They had documented evidence that, among other things, he had ignored board directives and violated board policies. He wasn’t any longer working for them.
The meeting had the atmosphere of a football game or a rowdy church revival meeting. The superintendent’s supporters were out in force and having a good time. Every time the superintendent spoke, no matter how silly or innocuous his comments, the room cheered. Every time one of the board members asked him a hard question, the crowd booed. The crowd quickly hooted down attempts by the chairman to run the meeting, and they wildly cheered the superintendent’s threats against me and the chairman. The lay board faced a gym full of true believers.
The board members easily read the passions of the crowd, and two of them began playing for popularity. Fans of the superintendent stood up and gave testimonials of support. The state senator, who was running for re-election, stood up and gave a speech in favor of democracy. The crowd became more and more hostile, feeling their power.
When I became convinced that I no longer had any formal role in the town’s life, I stood up to leave. I’d been sitting at the bottom of the bleachers in the center of the gym where I could answer questions from the board as needed. As I stood up, a woman came down the bleachers behind me and began beating on me with her fists. I turned to see what was happening, and looked into her face. It was twisted with hatred, and she was yelling something at me that I couldn’t hear over the roar of the crowd. She was too weak to hurt me, but she wanted to. We’d never met.
It was no ending I had imagined for my teaching career.
Most of the people in the gym were strangers. I hadn’t seen them at the school or at school activities. Neither I nor the board members who told me they supported me had tried to lobby people to get to the meeting. Those who had the authority—nobody else could do it—needed to examine the evidence and act on what they honestly found. Only five people would get to vote. I still believe it needs to be that way.
The superintendent spoke in a grand manner, sure now of his support. He was here to save the children. Evil people were trying to stop him. Whenever the chairman tried to address specific actions by the superintendent, the crowd booed him down. He was unable to get his evidence in front of the crowd, who clearly hadn’t come to listen anyway. The question people kept asking was, “What’s your problem with the superintendent?” They left without hearing an answer. They were a righteous mob, out to save the town. It can give pleasure, destroying enemies. The desire to destroy evil is evil’s favored tool.
The board lost its nerve. They voted unanimously to rehire the superintendent. After the meeting one of them told me, “If we’d done anything else, we wouldn’t have gotten out of there alive.”
I thanked each of the five board members for their public service, recognizing that they were in a hard place. I didn’t bother saying that I’d watched, that night in that gym in a little town, almost nowhere, the law vanish, replaced by the will of the people, aimed and focused by a man who, in Auden’s phrase, “knew human folly like the back of his hand.”
It was my turn to make a decision. Every strategy I could think of involved imitating the people whose methods I thought were wrong. I could launch a political campaign against my boss, persuading as many supporters as possible that he was evil. I could join his little war. Or he would fire me.
I thought about the times I’d already lashed out at people who threatened me, passing on a story that I wasn’t sure was true, making accusations that were partly based on suppositions. Driven by fear of defeat or humiliation it becomes easy to spread a little hatred of your enemies. In fact, nobody in town was doing anything that, to some degree, I hadn’t done before. I didn’t want to do it any more.
On the sixth day of the search I left early one morning to search the Mike’s Creek drainage that extended up Sonielem Ridge. Since looking mattered more than covering ground, the hike wasn’t hard though the way was steep. I moved upward through groves and clearings, through pine and fir. Occasionally, I met other hikers and had short conversations. These woods had more people in them than ever in history, but they were still peaceful. The meetings were welcome, not at all intrusions.
I kept going until I reached timberline, thousands of feet above the valley. In the aspen draws below me, I could see search parties fanning out, moving through thickets, stopping for sandwiches beside the alpine creeks. I stayed for a long time, no longer looking, really. When forests reach climax, fire or disease sets the biological clock back. Every five hundred years the giant cedar groves burn, as though the world is designed to remain in a state short of fulfillment, a place of striving toward. But whenever catastrophe strikes, leaving the earth scorched and barren, pioneering plants spring up from the ashes or sand, and slowly at first and then suddenly the barrenness turns green, as though the world is designed to thwart any final failure. Hence the need for hope and also its grounds.
That afternoon, I met Valerie and we loaded our van with kids and drove to a ridge above Twin Lakes, where we assigned each person a swath, moving up the hill in a sweep. Near the end of it, Valerie and I fell in together, walking through the lupines and paint brush. The beautiful woods around us were noisy with the exuberant efforts of our children, who were safe.
After a week, the official air search was called off. In the words of the officials, the resources needed to move on. Aircraft and the crews on loan needed to be returned. Searchers had stopped looking for signal fires and had begun looking for gatherings of bear, ravens, and other scavengers. There was no longer any rational hope that the children were alive, and there was nowhere else to look. The entire area had been flown over repeatedly. It was sensible to give up. The desire to save the children crashed into the raw immensity of the wilderness.
A few nights later a weary band of searchers, heartbroken and out of resources, out of energy, out of time, out of money, gathered hours after sunset to pray and to tell stories: those of us who knew the children told the others stories about our dealings with them. We talked about Sierra’s friendliness and charm, her love of nature, her acceptance of others. We talked about Angela’s enthusiasm, her giggling love of being alive, being with folks. We talked of Jesse’s wide network of friends, and his passion for his bicycle, which let him keep in touch with all the important folk he knew.
The psychics were gone, with their histrionic proclamations. The news people were gone, with their flat-footed questions. Most of the search planes were gone, with their aching roar. But we were still here, and we did not know what to do. So we planned to go on searching and without pride or pretense, together, we prayed.
The next day, the tenth day of the search, Ken Scott spotted the plane from a helicopter. Larry had gone up a broad canyon and far into it found it rising too quickly for the small plane, heavily loaded, to climb out. By the time he tried to turn the canyon walls were too close. His plane crashed into a cliff then fell upside down on a glacier. The craft’s beige underside was nearly invisible on the vast expanse of rugged ice.
All the passengers had died on impact.
We could not help them.
In the world’s terrible way, though, they had helped us, those of us who were looking for help.
That search ended but many of us lived on in this age of emergencies, an age full of commotion. Faith in old orders and old institutions is being eroded by people of words, and after the people of words come people of action to forge the discontent into something new. Our survival requires us to remember that if there are deceptions wrapped in righteous images to gain power, it is because at some level the deceivers know that goodness is the only game in the universe. Bad things are always parodies of good things.
For the space of ten days, folk in the valley moved through a holy place. The work they attempted came to failure, but in the working they glimpsed something else they had lost. In trying to find the lost children—and there are still many out there—a few hundred souls united for a moment in time against their only real enemy, human suffering, and in momentary glimpses and brilliant fragments, they found themselves.