In my last post, I started telling the story of a hiker discovering a skull in the desert near Canyonlands National Park in Utah, and how my family quickly became sure that it was part of the mystery of my father’s disappearance five years ago. This is the continuation…
After getting my moment to hold the skull, Jason T. took it back and placed it where the hiker had found it, for photographs. Then we started up the little canyon and right away Braden and I found new bones just lying on the surface amongst the scrub brush, which were then photographed and placed in evidence bags. The deputies had marked many spots where they had previously identified bones and artifacts, including pieces of shirt fabric, a baseball cap with a Marine Corps patch from the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Okinawa (Dad had made the trip to Okinawa with my brother Loren in 1995 for that event), and a watch with a metal stretch band, the same style he had worn all his life. After taking pictures, they patiently showed us each spot and answered our questions. The watch was what really got to me; of course it was an amazing privilege to hold the skull of my father after all those years of not knowing what had happened to him, but it was hard to really take in that the skull was him. But the watch was instantly recognizable as part of him, and the thought of how his time had run out was little too much for me.
That was just the beginning; major surprises were about to hit in the next few hours. First, JJ found my dad’s wallet and it was a bit of a shock seeing his name, still legible on the driver’s license that had probably been under that same tree for years. Then later, Jason T tried to pick up a shirt fragment only to discover that it was connected to a largely intact skeleton. The five of us mostly just watched as the deputies careful excavated first one bone and then another and then even more, placing them in a body bag for delivery to a forensics unit in Salt Lake City. We saw the metal splint screwed into his hip from a surgery a few years before. We saw the leather belt, with no buckle left, around his midsection. We even saw the elastic band of his underwear, but no sign of fabric from pants, inner or outer. I guess that wrinkle-resistant shirt fabric was pretty resistant to decomposing too.
Before arriving at the site, I had prepared myself for disappointment about making any new findings this day, and then was amazed at how much was discovered early on in our hike up the canyon. But to also find his wallet and uncover most of his skeleton was really unbelievable good fortune. Then a couple final surprises awaited us. With the skeleton, we also found the badly deteriorated cardstock back and metal spiral of a small notebook, which he was known to always carry around in a shirt pocket for writing notes about his observations. And finally, (my) Jason found a second little wallet that contained Ken’s Seattle library card, his VA identification, and a UC Berkeley alumni card from 1952.
JJ and Jason T. gave us some alone-time with Ken’s remains before zipping up the body bag. The five of us created a tight circle of intertwined arms. Cousin Ken Hostetter asked for God’s blessing in the Mormon tradition, followed by Jason and me reciting the Kaddish (or, at least Jason did; I limped along with major gaps in my memorization). My dad was an agnostic Unitarian, but I know he would have approved of our makeshift multi-cultural ritual.
On our way back, we detoured to see the site where he had abandoned his car after getting stuck. We checked on the hidden cache that my siblings and I made five years ago—a pile of rocks that protects one of his books, some of his Beautyway post cards, and notes we made to him. Then Ken and Sally split off and went on into Canyonlands National Park, having already decided to spend a second night in Monticello. Jason, Braden and I started the long drive back to Salt Lake City. We were in a motel by midnight and on an 8:30am flight back to Seattle the next morning. Hardly 48 hours had passed since leaving our hometown, and yet five years and a lifetime of memories had rushed in to seemingly stretch that time into a surreal dimension of its own.
Since my posting of Part 1, my dad’s cousin Sally called me wondering why she hadn’t yet seen any newspaper article about the discovery of the skeletal remains. That triggered me to search for the name of the reporter who had helped us five years ago to publicize our search effort for my dad. Nate Carlisle of the Salt Lake Tribune turned the story around quickly, but the print article was bumped a day due to the overwhelming coverage of the news about Osama bin Laden. The online article debuted ahead of that event, however, and I was amazed at how fast the comments appeared. This one was particularly beautiful:
“Reading this, I find myself solemnly contemplating the environment of those remains during that five year period: five complete cycles of fall, winter, spring, summer, sun, moon, stars, light, dark, wind, stillness, all in total, continuous isolation. Good for him that he at last will have his wish for cremation and good for his relatives for the opportunity they took to be fully engaged in this resolution.”
A complete stranger captured the long loneliness of Ken’s remains waiting to be discovered yet quietly fading into the desert year after year. Was it inevitable that he would have been found sooner or later? Or was that hiker beating all the odds to come across and then recognize that white lump in the landscape as something to investigate? The story of his death and its delayed discovery is truly amazing. But so was the story of his life, and it really should be told. In the meantime, his hands, feet, and jaw are still missing. I’m sure we will go back for more searching, but it is fitting that some of him will always remain in the desert.
(BTW, If you want to see pictures of bones, there are lots. And some movies too, thanks to Jason’s phone. It’s an unusual experience for us in this fortunate part of the world, but I don’t believe that it dishonors him for his remains to be seen. Go to http://www.findingdad.shutterfly.com.)