I haven't thought about Stephanie in years, but lately she has been on my mind. I don't know why; maybe it is because I was recently near the place where she disappeared.
In 1993 I was a wilderness ranger, and because we were a source of cheap labor, we not only ranged in the wilderness but fought fires, patrolled hunter camps and carried injured people out of the woods. On this day I was sent with one of the law enforcement seasonals to look for a missing girl.
Stephanie vanished from Challis, Idaho, into thin air. She was nine years old. If anyone has seen her since, they are not talking. In 2002, a man who had kidnapped a fourteen year old girl who escaped from his apartment died by his own hand while being chased by police. He was known to have been hunting near Challis when Stephanie disappeared. A truck matching his was seen in the area. If this man took Stephanie, what he did with her died with him.
We drove the back roads, all the places that we knew about, stopping and looking in culverts and down steep slopes. We didn't talk much. We were still young enough to be amazed by the world's brutality.
With each dark, scary place I looked, I was both afraid and hopeful. If we didn't find her, that meant that there was a chance she was still alive. But as the days went on and turned into weeks, months, years, Stephanie never came home.
That is the dark side of living in places where I have spent my life. People sometimes wonder how it is possible for a person to simply disappear. But I know differently. It is easy. There are so many places to be hidden. Old hunter trails, desolate high country, rivers, the places nobody goes. There are so many lost girls whose bones lie in some beautiful, lonely wilderness.
It's been almost twenty years since Stephanie walked away to some unknown fate. As I drove the back roads near Challis a month ago, I wondered what secrets the mountains still hold, and how such beauty can also be so terrible. For some reason, I can't stop thinking about Stephanie.