Lost? Eventually Your Brain May Help
March 30, 2018 6:23 PM   Subscribe

Mahood's account of his search for the "Death Valley Germans" is one of the best series on the internet. It seems to me like he takes it as a personal failure that he has not located Ewasko's remains.
posted by muddgirl at 8:01 PM on March 30, 2018 [13 favorites]

So... I read this article and is it weird that the first thing I thought was... he faked his own death? The detailed itinerary with his car eventually discovered far far away, the weird distance on the cell phone ping? TO me this reads as a man who wanted to get away from his life and his girlfriend, who sets up that he's going on this big hike- and like day one abandons his car and goes to whatever his new life is, making sure to use his cellphone in an odd spot to throw off people. Like they're never going to find his remains- he's in Mexico.

Maybe I'm just really suspicious but... it's plausible right?
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 9:41 PM on March 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

Maybe I'm just really suspicious but... it's plausible right?

I thought the same thing, but then I looked at some of the park photographs. The entire area looks like a boulder maze.

I bet if he's ever found, it's going to be with a civilian owned drone. They just keep getting cheaper and better every year. Unless, of course, animals got to his remains. If so, it's going to be a miracle if anyone even finds a boot.

PS, mental note. If I ever go hiking in the desert, wear red.
posted by Beholder at 10:06 PM on March 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

It always looks suspicious when someone completely disappears. Beholder is right… the photos of the Joshua Tree area look like it would be easy to fall into a crevice and disappear. Out in the West… there are wide areas to search, fewer resources to do it and lots of critters who will carry off remains.

Here in New Mexico… folks get lost, even local experienced hunters and hikers.

I think the lesson is to hike in groups of 2 or more, carry plenty of water and rain gear and let someone know where you are going.
posted by jabo at 10:34 PM on March 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

My initial instinct is that he sounds like someone who walked off the grid for whatever reason.

People do some very intense things to avoid confronting difficult things like relationship problems or even repressed identities.

There's also the option that a lot of people lead double lives or false lives - the bigamist who somehow manages to keep two complete families and households, or even actual spies who manage to use an unwitting spouse as deep cover, who might vanish and leave them without any closure. Because, sadly, they really don't care.

Or it doesn't even have to be complicated. Sometimes people are fucked up and stop caring in really profound ways and it's shitty, like a switch is flipped and the only thing that matters to them is getting away.

Putting aside weird plots and theories like that, even as busy as Joshua Tree is, it's not at all a stretch to think that someone could get lost there, even someone experienced.

And if anything, someone who felt experienced but didn't know Joshua Tree might get themselves into trouble.

I've been to Joshua Tree a bunch of times and it has some uniquely dangerous features - namely that a lot of those rock piles are extremely porous and that it's so close to civilization and cities.

I've seen small, unassuming rock piles that look like they're maybe 40 feet tall on the outside, and they look mainly solid even as you're climbing on them. But then you might come around a corner or shimmy through a crack and discover it's part of a buried rock complex and there's scary crap like 100 foot deep chimneys or cracks lurking in the pitch black shadows.

I've also seen stuff where it looks like you might be crawling into the small gaps between a couple of large boulders and there's a bit of a false floor or pocket, and then beyond that it's just hollow and could be 40-100 feet of free and clear drop to rocks and crevices. If you crawl into one of these feet first and aren't aware it can be really easy to get into a lot of trouble.

These rocks are so intense I still sometimes have weird dreams and mild nightmares about some of the really unsafe and confusing ad-hoc rock scrambling and caving I did out there as a kid with Boy Scouts - because we did intense stuff like get into rock fights while chasing each other all over and through some of these rock piles with little regard to safety, or even physics.

It's taken me visiting a lot of other different kinds of rocks and terrain to realize that Joshua tree is pretty unique in the kind of rock formation it is and how absurdly porous and riddled with caves much of it is. I've been to Bryce and Zion and Monument Valley and all over the SW, and Joshua Tree is just weird and spongy - even often absurdly illogical or ungeological. A lot of the formations and piles just don't make sense because they're geologically tortured from tectonics and erosion.

And besides the caves and gaps, and the mines, there's all kinds of places to simply fall off the rocks. I've made those mistakes and fallen off some rocks and thankfully have survived with just a few bruises and scratches - but it's really scary how quickly it happens. Just a missed step or a sandy patch - or in one of my real cases, getting startled by a snake and panicking.

I, err, fell due to letting go because of the surprise dangernoodle, then bounced off a boulder on my butt about 15 feet down, then fell/tumbled another 15-20 or so beyond that into a bunch of creosote brush and grass, and, err, possibly more snakes, which was the exact first thing I thought about as I thoughtlessly flailed out of there like I was covered in spiders. Which might have also been true. Anyway.

Yeah, there's a lot of weird holes, slots and gaps someone could fall down and not be found, and scavengers would definitely take you apart quickly, and it'd probably start in the first few hours with flies and other sweat/moisture sensing insects.

All that being said - Joshua Tree is unlike Death Valley in that it's higher altitudes, generally cooler temps and much more heavily traveled and populated.

People get lost (and found) there probably on the order of several times a month, of not per week during the busy season. It gets absolutely cruddy with car campers and people that are inexperienced with the deserts.

There are many, many more inexperienced tourists and campers that crawl pretty much all over that park and we don't have a huge list of missing people to map to that.

Something about this is fishy and it's not Joshua Tree.
posted by loquacious at 11:02 PM on March 30, 2018 [40 favorites]

I wondered if the first link was going to be Tom Mahood's site and his search for Bill Ewasko, then on hover I realized it wasn't... until I clicked on the link and saw it was about Bill. I reread the Death Valley Germans story about once a year, and check in on Bill periodically. Tom Mahood seems like a stand-up guy, and I love reading about his evolving thought processes as searches continue. Still bummed that no one has found Bill yet.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:05 PM on March 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

PS, mental note. If I ever go hiking in the desert, wear red.

Bright blue stands out the best on the ground, red tends to bleed into the brown.

Even better is day glow lime/yellow. Signal mirrors were also pretty much made for the desert. My pack and desert kit always had a signal mirror in it.
posted by loquacious at 11:06 PM on March 30, 2018 [12 favorites]

... and I have been hiking in Joshua Tree a tiny bit, and it would be entirely plausible that someone could disappear there. Even the "gentle" terrain is full of little areas where if you sat down to get out of the sun you'd be near impossible to find.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:07 PM on March 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Humans are too optimistic. Oh, if I just go up this hill I'm sure I'll see It. I'm just going to climb this tree. Oh, it must be over thataway. And so on until they are hopelessly lost and very hot and flustered (or cold and dopey).

In contrast, that mefite cat that escaped at a rest stop (something devil maybe?) seemed extremely sensible in comparison. Kitty settled down early and made a nice life with warm rocks and presumably little creatures to eat and did quite well until it decided that the magic refilling crunchy bowl and sofas with soft throws were really worth having and it decided to be rescued.

If kitty had been lost with a human I've no doubt that we'd find a nice plump kitty next to a pile of bones.
posted by kitten magic at 3:13 AM on March 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

that mefite cat that escaped at a rest stop (something devil maybe?)

k8t's cat adventures at Devil's Tower.
posted by zamboni at 3:21 AM on March 31, 2018 [10 favorites]

Joshua Tree is about the same size as the White Mountains, which people routinely manage to get lost and die in. Possibly he got hurt, crawled off into some hole for shelter, and never came out again. It's sad, but that kind of thing happens. Especially to solo hikers, since there's nobody who can go summon help if you get immobilized in some off-the-beaten-track location.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:53 AM on March 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Would an emergency beacon work down a mine shaft?
posted by Thella at 5:25 AM on March 31, 2018

And now I’m reading about the cat rescue and I’m crying. Love u mefi
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:46 AM on March 31, 2018 [6 favorites]

Joshua Tree is about the same size as the White Mountains, which people routinely manage to get lost and die in.

Which again I note that Joshua Tree has had very few deaths compared to other desert parks like Death Valley or even other rugged wilderness parks. Likely due in no small part to JOSAR, Joshua Tree Search and Rescue.

I'm actually having trouble finding any reliable sources about any deaths that aren't the one in the article or the more recent (and suspicious) murder-suicide of a hiking couple. If anyone can find any statistics for deaths or missing hikers for after, say, 1980 or post JOSAR - post it. Either my google-fu is slipping or it's not readily available.

Joshua Tree is very, very heavily visited and patrolled. Yes, it's definitely big enough to get lost in but in practice this hasn't led to a lot of fatalities or missing persons.

Fatalities in Joshua Tree or missing people that aren't found are actually rare in Joshua Tree because it's so heavily visited and patrolled.

Note my usual stance about the desert is a lot more energetically "This is dangerous. Stay out if you're not prepared." and Joshua Tree barely registers on this scale because it's so touristy and heavily traveled.

Bill Ewasko's case is pretty unusual.
posted by loquacious at 8:18 AM on March 31, 2018

Would an emergency beacon work down a mine shaft?

It's not likely but it's possible. The satellite emergency beacon system is designed to work with very faint/obscured transmission signals, with very sensitive receivers and the bulk of the work being done by the satellite's antennae and receivers.

So let's say there's an activated beacon inside a relatively straight mine shaft or narrow cave.

No, the beacon won't be able to transmit through rock, much less an entire mountain overhead.

But if you can see a patch of sky from where the beacon is, eventually a detecting satellite will theoretically pass into view.

There's also the possibility that a beacon signal could bounce out of a shaft or cave through one bounce or so.

Will a GPS enable beacon be able to get a good GPS fix inside a mine or cave? Heck no. But it should transmit last known fix, anyway.
posted by loquacious at 8:26 AM on March 31, 2018

Ugh, is that really the understanding law enforcement and SAR have about how distance from a cell tower can be determined? If so, it's a miracle they ever find anyone based on cell location unless there's a microcell involved.

cdma2000, like GSM, requires the path length be known and compensated for rather accurately. In GSM it's only good to a couple hundred feet because the guard intervals between timeslots are big enough to deal with some slop in the timing advance value. With CDMA, you can't do that, for things go all to hell when chips arrive at the wrong time since the entire system relies upon the power levels from each phone as seen by the cell site be very close to identical and if you slip chips, it doesn't work.

In both cases, the phone has to know how far (in radio terms, so reflections add to the distance) it is away from the site so that it can compensate for the delay caused by the speed of light and avoid transmitting at the wrong time or transmitting the wrong thing at the wrong time. Point is, it's been a long time since RSSI had anything to do with it, and in fact in cdma2000 is completely meaningless in the uplink direction.
posted by wierdo at 9:03 AM on March 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Grand Canyon is very heavily visited and patrolled. However, there are still missing people there. They still have a hiker missing after being swept in Tapeats Creek and that’s been about a year. There’s the river guide who went missing at Pumpkin Creek in 2015. A hiker who was separated from his companion for a brief moment out in the western area of the park in 2016 hasn’t been found. There’s others as well. And these are cases in which they knew exactly where to look and they started large-scale searches. Even the ones who are found are often not found quickly, and again, they usually know where to look and don’t find them. Last year a 70+ year old man never showed up at Phantom Ranch when he was supposed to, and NPS got a report that he was sighted out west on the Tonto Trail, about 20 miles west of where he should have been. This was in June and temps were spiking. A full scale search was launched. They found his body several months later within the search area. A young woman went missing in 2016. A massive search was started but they couldn’t find her. They finally found her several months later several hundred feet below a popular west rim viewpoint. This was one where they had a couple of faint clues to go off of from a cell signal, and they still couldn’t find her for months. While JOSAR does what they can, getting lost out in the desert happens and it isn’t always easy to find people even when you know where you should be looking. (As a side note, try not to hike alone and follow the rules about things like telling someone where you’re going and when you’re expected to be back. SAR teams do great work, but let’s do our best to not make them go out there and put them at risk.)
posted by azpenguin at 8:13 AM on April 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Whites are also very heavily visited—they get as many visitors per year as Yosimite and Yellowstone combined, four times as many as Joshua Tree—and very thoroughly mapped and explored. There are several trails that I simply won't hike except at really off times, due to the crowds. They have a very active S&R community, as well.

People still manage to die in them, though. If the weather is bad and you find yourself injured and immobilized somewhere out of the way (and despite over six million visitors per year, there are still plenty of places like that) your lifespan is probably measured in hours. In the Whites that usually means cold and wet, but hot and dry can be just as dangerous.

Just because somewhere sees a lot of visitors does not make it safe. I've been to Joshua Tree and you're absolutely right that it's rife with all kinds of nooks and crannies. It would not be hard to disappear into one of those, never come out, and not be found. Run out of water on a trek in one of the remoter areas of the park (people make mistakes), break an ankle trying to get back to your car (just takes an instant of bad luck), crawl into a nearby cave to take shelter from the sun, and that's probably it for you.

It's good that not many people die in Joshua Tree, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be easy to do.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:11 PM on April 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Geoff Manaugh has a brief post on his blog (the MeFi favourite BLDGBLOG) about writing the NYT article.
As with all stories of this kind, of course, there is so much more to tell, so many more details that only add to the mystery of Ewasko’s disappearance and to the depth of character of the people involved in searching for him, but there was not enough space to get into it all. This includes questioning the very idea of wilderness, and how we define it, when a step beyond the boundaries of civilized space can occur mere yards from the edge of a popular trail.
posted by zamboni at 3:39 PM on April 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, that's pretty much the crux of the issue right there. In a popular place like the White Mountains or Joshua Tree, you're relatively safe as long as you stick to the trails. If something happens, either other hikers will be along shortly or at worst you'll be findable by anyone who knows approximately what your plan was.

Step off the trail though and all bets are off. Right away you'll be in places that don't see other humans for months, maybe years at a time. The terrain will get much harder to traverse, you'll be much harder to see, and anyone searching for you will have to hunt in a three-dimensional landscape rather than along a one-dimensional path. It's about a thousand times harder to find someone off-trail than on it.

I'm not saying that nobody should ever go off-trail (unless the local rules prohibit it, of course) or even that they should never go off-trail alone. But it's a big risk, even if it doesn't feel like it. It's kind of like doing an untethered EVA; the trail is your lifeline back to civilization, and once you leave that behind you're drifting, unmoored, and profoundly alone in a way that most of us simply never are. It's not a decision to make lightly, and you need to think not only about yourself but about those who will have to search for you if you don't come back again.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:20 PM on April 1, 2018

I'm not saying that nobody should ever go off-trail (unless the local rules prohibit it, of course) or even that they should never go off-trail alone.

I often think of the death of Geraldine Largay.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:16 PM on April 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Largay was a backpacker. Backpackers have to go off-trail to use the bathroom, which is what Largay was doing when she got lost.
posted by muddgirl at 8:19 PM on April 1, 2018

And by that I mean, I agree that Largay did not seem to have the tools or skills for long-distance backpacking, but I think if you told the majority of people hiking the Appalachian Trail that it was dangerous to step off trail 200 feet to take a shit, they would disagree.
posted by muddgirl at 9:18 PM on April 1, 2018

The neuroscience article came as rather a surprise to me in terms of the history it tells. Coming from linguistics, where "language community that uses absolute (compass) directions instead of relative positional references in everyday speech" is unusual enough to be highlighted as an interesting case, I certainly wouldn't have expected the neuroscientists to have all thought the contrary. That being said, now that the neuroscientists are coming around, I wonder whether the brains of the speakers of the heavily absolute-location languages might operate a bit differently from speakers of more relative-location languages.
posted by inconstant at 8:33 AM on April 2, 2018

« Older A society of optimists   |   ⧩ Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments