I just read the story of Kaitlin, who disappeared Friday night on a Grand Canyon river trip. By all accounts it was a bitterly cold night, an easy night to wander, disoriented, into the river or over a cliff. I've been by the river several times, enough to know that it flows like a muscle, deep and chilly and swift. I suppose someday we will know what happened to her, or maybe not. The wilderness is full of stories like these.
Whenever I read about someone, vanishing, I feel lucky. Lucky because no matter all the precautions you take, one little wrong step can trip you up. Things add up, inconsquential things, to a final ending. I've always been careful to bring the right stuff, think things over, bail when I had to, but there is no denying that luck has played a role. Because of my chosen profession and by choice I've spent more time in the wilderness than most people ever will, and I've dodged a lot of figurative bullets.
When I worked in the Grand Canyon for a short time, fishing people out of rapids and off the trails, people who may have died after we sent them on to the hospital in Flag, it was always sobering how quickly a trip can turn bad.
When you are at the bottom of the canyon, looking up, you only see a slice of sky. You can't see the rim, only the bottom layers of a geological cake that was created long ago. You feel completely separate from the world because the canyon is its own world. It is a magical place.
Thomas has surely disappeared for good in an equally haunting place, somewhere near the Ambler River in remote Alaska. Far more people die in car crashes, by the gun, and from cancer. Why is it that death in the wilderness holds us in its spell?