F&S Classics: The Vanishing
In October 2016, a father and son set out into the Oregon wilderness, stalking blacktail deer. After they split up, only one of them made it out of the woods. This is what happens when a hunter disappears
To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Field & Stream, we’re going to share some of our favorite stories from the history of the magazine. Every day for the rest of the year, we’ll republish a new F&S Classic on the website. Today’s entry, “The Vanishing” by JR Sullivan, was published in November 2017. You can find the complete F&S Classics series here.
Trevor Higgins was starting to panic. Even if his dad had shot a deer, he should have reached the trailhead by now. Or, if he’d fallen and broken a leg, Trevor was sure his dad would have belly-crawled to the road. He wasn’t the kind of guy to depend on someone else for help, to sit and wait for rescue. But two and a half hours had passed since his dad, Shawn Higgins, had entered the woods. Maybe more. Trevor wasn’t sure anymore. But he knew that his dad should have come back to the truck already.
Their plan was simple: Shawn, 41, would hike down the narrow footpath, looking for a blacktail. Meanwhile, Trevor, 21—who had killed a buck the day before—would wait with the truck at the next trailhead, 2 miles up Burnt Ridge Road in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon. After a couple of hours, they’d meet and drive to get Will Chandler, Trevor’s uncle, whom they’d dropped off earlier. They did this sort of thing often. There was no reason for Shawn to have taken more than an hour or so to make the hike. Now, a storm began to bear down on the mountain, which further unsettled Trevor. He watched as the October sky grayed. He could see a darkness coming.
First, Panic Builds
At 2:30 p.m., Will Chandler showed up at the truck. Trevor, his nephew, and Shawn, his brother-in-law, were supposed to pick him up three hours ago, but they never showed, so he had to walk 7 miles down the mountain by himself. Cold and irritated, he yanked open the truck door. “Trevor, what the hell is going on?” he said. But the moment he saw Trevor’s face, he knew something had gone wrong.
“My dad hasn’t come out yet,” Trevor said. For as long as Will had known Shawn, he’d never once failed to show up like this. Will and Trevor agreed that they needed to look for Shawn before the weather worsened, but even now the conditions weren’t conducive to a search. The wind was blowing hard enough to shake the pickup, and tree limbs crashed down around them; it wouldn’t take long for the rain to erase any boot track from the trail. With nightfall just hours away, Will and Trevor split up in hopes of finding Shawn quickly. Trevor would start at the far trailhead, where he’d dropped off his dad that morning, while Will hiked in from where the truck was parked. They’d meet in the middle, after one of them had found Shawn.
Trevor drove his four-wheeler north to the far trailhead, but the narrow path forced him to hike from there. As he struck off down the trail, he could see far through the old-growth timber and rock outcroppings. Trevor had grown up hunting this piece of wilderness, but his dad knew it even better—another reason why his failure to show was so unnerving. Shawn knew the mountains and ridges about as well as anyone and was an expert in pursuing deer in the timber; he jokingly referred to himself as Dr. Blacktail.
The wilderness that surrounded Trevor lies within the 1.7-million-acre Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forest. It is unforgiving country, with high, sharp ridges and dense stands of cedar and fir. The area where Trevor and Shawn were hunting, in particular, has seen its share of close calls and tragedies. Most notably, in Nov. 2006, a family from San Francisco made a wrong turn off the one-lane road that traverses the mountains—the same road Trevor and Shawn had taken that morning—and ended up 21 miles back in the woods. Snow enveloped their station wagon. After seven days of waiting for rescue, the father, James Kim, left his family in search of help. His body was found four days later in an icy creek. His wife and two daughters survived. About a decade before that, a camper salesman, new to the area, endured nine weeks in his snowbound pickup, stranded deep in the backcountry, before he starved to death. He kept record of his experience on a legal notepad, writing toward the end, “I have no control over my life. It’s all in His hands.” These men are far from the only ones who have perished or gone missing in this wilderness. Each year in Oregon, about 1,100 people require rescue from the wild, 99 percent of whom make it home alive. From 1997 to 2016, however, 80 lost persons were confirmed dead in the backcountry, and another 76 stepped into the woods and have not been seen since.
Ribbon marked the path through the timber, and Trevor followed it away from the trailhead. Wind whipped through the trees, and rain puddled on the ground. “I started to freak out,” he recalls. “The only thing that was really going through my mind was, I need to find my dad.”
Trevor followed the trail for nearly an hour and a half, until he reached a clearing atop a ridgeline. He had no idea if Will had found his dad; he’d been in such a rush to get on the track and search that he’d neglected to bring a cellphone, much less a compass or GPS. He had only his Remington 700, a knife, a lighter, and the clothes he was wearing. From the clearing, the trail split, and though the ribbon stopped, Trevor decided to head right, believing that way led back toward the road.
The trees that engulfed him made it difficult to gauge where he was going, and with darkness falling and the rain intensifying, he became desperate to find his way back. “I just wanted to get to the pickup,” he says. “I wanted to see if my uncle found my dad.”
The underbrush grew thick, and Trevor pushed his way through as fast as he could. After another mile or so, he stumbled upon a deep draw with a creek at the bottom. He could barely see as he eased down the slope. Suddenly, his feet kicked out from under him, and he tumbled to the bottom. After a moment, he managed to stand and collect himself; he was shaken but uninjured. He looked up toward the ridges that surrounded him—walls of blackness. He was lost, but he knew that he’d be worse off continuing blind than he would be making camp. He tried not to imagine his dad somewhere out there, alone. “I kept telling myself, over and over, that my dad had made it out, that he was with my uncle.”
An Official Search Begins
At 5 a.m. Saturday morning, Stephanie Higgins woke to knocking on the door. It was her father, David Petitt, who lived a house over. That night, Will, after failing to reconnect with Trevor, had phoned his wife back in Coos Bay, a small community on the Oregon coast where they all lived, who had then called Petitt to deliver the news. “He told me about Shawn first, and I flipped out,” Stephanie says. “It took him a minute to tell me about Trevor.”
Stephanie’s father and sister got her in the car, and they set out for the Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forest, about three hours away. Thunder boomed through the hills and canyons as they weaved up the back roads into the hills. Stephanie and Shawn had been together since they were teenagers, often skipping class to hunt and fish along the Rogue River. Shawn’s father had died when he was in grade school, and he’d grown up with his grandmother; Stephanie joked that he had married her for her family. He and Stephanie had Trevor young and another son, Garrett, seven and a half years later. Trevor now had a job unloading log trucks and lived nearby with his girlfriend, so they still saw him regularly. During the drive, Stephanie told herself again and again that Shawn and Trevor were together. “I was praying to God that it just got dark and they had to stay the night in there,” she says.
They arrived at the trailhead about an hour before rescuers. Stephanie waited and watched, hoping Shawn and Trevor would come out at any moment, but no one would let her join the search, fearing, she assumed, that she might see something she’d never forget. “I felt helpless,” she says. If she were the one who had vanished, there was no way that Shawn and Trevor wouldn’t be out looking for her. “We are not sit-around-and-wait-for-shit-to-happen kind of people.”
As the morning wore on, more people came to help: guys Shawn had worked construction jobs with, and friends from Coos Bay. Search parties were formed. Dogs dispatched. Reinforcements called.
• • •
About 3 miles away, Trevor woke cold and wet at dawn Saturday. In the night, he’d made a shelter from downed limbs and dead bark, leaning them against a tree. He’d tried to start a fire with wood shavings and small strips of clothing, but he couldn’t get his lighter to work and everything was damp or soaked.
By midmorning, lightning cracked the sky as Trevor gathered his gear and set out into the storm. He headed toward where he thought the road might be, but just 40 yards from the shelter, something told him to stop. “My dad had plenty of friends who had hunted that area with him for years,” he says. They could be looking for him. Plus, he trusted that his uncle had found his dad and that together they would be searching. “I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, so I figured I’d try to set myself up to where I could survive as long as possible.”
He spent the rest of the day rebuilding his shelter, using an extra raincoat to better insulate the structure and to collect rainwater. He tried to make a fire again, but it was useless. There was little to do but wait.
One Hunter Is Found
People kept coming back from searches with nothing to show for their efforts. A day passed, then two. Friends took off work to scour the woods, some staying out for 12 hours at a time in the heavy, freezing rain. Stephanie couldn’t make herself leave the mountain. She slept in her car, replaying in her mind her conversation with Shawn before he and Trevor had left that weekend. The forecast had called for thunderstorms. “If you and Will want to be idiots, then fine, but don’t take my baby,” she’d told him, referring to Trevor. But Shawn had insisted upon hunting because the deer would be moving as the storm approached. They’d be out of the woods before it got bad, he promised.
“You know what?” Shawn had added. “If I die, and I’m up in the woods doing something I love, then I’m happy.”
• • •
Trevor passed his time in the shelter listening for noises in the distance. It rained on and off, day and night, but whenever there was a break, he’d walk a little, call out, and wait for a response.
Late on his fourth day in the woods, he hiked up a hill and heard dogs barking. He blew a whistle he’d made from an empty shell casing, hoping to get their attention. Then came the sound of people talking. He yelled and blew the whistle more, but soon the woods fell silent. Maybe rescuers are narrowing in, he thought. At midmorning came another sign of hope: A helicopter appeared, flying within 100 yards of his shelter. He ran into a nearby clearing and waved frantically. He signaled by firing his rifle into the air three times, but the chopper moved on. “That was honestly the worst part,” Trevor says.
He was hungry and cold, and his feet had gone numb, making it hard to walk. He had steeled himself to survive for as long as he could, but he knew his situation was dire. It was surreal, he says, coming to terms with the thought that this might be the end, that he might die before his parents and grandparents. “You want to at least be able to say goodbye to everybody,” he says. Still, he tried to stay calm. He had to make it back for his dad. “It would destroy him if I had gotten lost out there and had never been found.”
On Trevor’s fifth day in the wilderness, the weather broke and sunlight poured through the trees. At 10 a.m. he stripped off his damp clothes and hung them up to dry. He was sitting in the dirt when he heard another helicopter circling nearby. It came within view, and he tried to flag it down, waving a yellow bag tied to his rifle barrel, but the chopper quickly disappeared. He was devastated. He wondered whether that was his last shot at rescue. With winter coming, the mountain would soon be impassable. They couldn’t keep searching forever.
At 2:30 p.m., though, he heard voices far off through the trees. He yelled and yelled. And got an answer. Two men appeared in the clearing. They’d been looking for him, they said.“What took so long?” Trevor asked, joking.
Every emotion that Trevor had restrained over the past five days seized him. He started to laugh, then he wept. A few moments later, for reasons he couldn’t explain, he began to laugh again. The release was immense, but an uneasiness still lingered, one he hesitated to address. The men had a fire built within 10 minutes, by which point Trevor worked up the nerve to ask the question.
“Are you searching for one lost person or two?”
They confirmed his worst fear: His father had never made it back to the truck. He thought he was going to vomit. “I had told myself for so long that my dad was out looking for me, and that he was fine,” he says. Stephanie was at the top of the mountain when word came that Trevor had been found and was being airlifted to the hospital. She pleaded to speak with him over the radio, to hear his voice, to ask if he’d seen Shawn, but Trevor couldn’t talk. She was overjoyed that he had been found, but whatever relief she felt quickly faded. What about Shawn? What about my husband? “At that point,” she says, “I knew it was really freaking bad.”
She met Trevor at the hospital. He was hypothermic, and his kidneys and his liver were shutting down, but he would recover. Doctors even let him eat a bacon cheeseburger. When Stephanie saw him for the first time, she threw her arms around him. “I couldn’t speak,” she says. When she eventually calmed down, though, she asked if he’d seen any trace of his dad. Trevor broke into tears. She stopped asking him questions after that.
Stephanie returned to the mountain later that day. Even though there was no reason to suspect foul play, she couldn’t keep her mind from spinning. What if Shawn had walked up on some bad dudes deep in the woods? What if they did something to him? What if someone on the road had accidentally run over him and tried to cover it up? Nonsense, she knew, but she couldn’t shake these thoughts.
An Official Search Ends
The sheriff’s department suspended the search for Shawn Higgins on Oct. 25, 2016. In the 11 days since he’d disappeared, search teams had uncovered no trace of him and were no closer to knowing where he might be. With so much time having passed, the odds were against his surviving. Stephanie had spent nearly every waking moment on the mountain since Shawn disappeared. She knew people had to return to their lives, to their families, but she would’ve done anything to convince them to stay. “I would have sent 300,000 people down there to look for him,” she says.
Over the next couple of months, she and family members returned to the mountain every weekend, searching areas that might have been overlooked. But by early December, snow had blanketed the mountain, halting their efforts. They made plans to return next spring. At what point do you stop looking? Stephanie asked herself. At what point do you admit that your best friend, and the father of your children, has ceased to exist? She didn’t have an answer; neither did Trevor.
It’s hard to say with confidence how many people like Shawn are missing in the American wilderness. Some experts claim that the number could be as high as 1,600, but the government doesn’t keep nationwide records of missing persons in the wild. Trevor sees how his dad could have gotten lost like he did, given how that particular trail makes you think you’re on one ridge when you’re really on another. But Stephanie speculates that whatever happened to Shawn was bad and quick. “I think it happened immediately,” she says. “A tree fell on him, or he fell somewhere.”
A Family’s Search Continues
The months following Shawn’s disappearance have felt stagnant, the loss the only window through which the family can see the world. Trevor moved back in with his mom and brother and returned to his job. Before his dad went missing, during downtimes, Trevor used to get out of his log stacker and talk with the other guys, but now most days he stays in his machine by himself. “What gets to me the most is how come I was found but he wasn’t?” he says. At first Trevor couldn’t get through a day. “He’d break down and start crying,” Stephanie says. With the help of counseling, he has begun to settle into the reality of life without his dad. “I can’t change what happened,” he says. “I just want to work hard like he did and treat everyone good.”
In April 2017, the family held a service for Shawn in Coos Bay. Stephanie wrote a speech but improvised when she got up to speak. “I wanted to talk about what a good husband and father he was,” she says. She told the crowd about when she and Shawn had learned that she was expecting. “I was bawling my head off, of course, because I was 20 years old. I didn’t want to be pregnant.”
“Oh my gosh, that’s what you were crying about?” Shawn told her at the time. “It’s going to be fine.”
And it was, she told everyone. He always made everything O.K.
In early June, once the snow had melted off the top of the mountain, Trevor and about a dozen of Shawn’s friends hiked down into the canyons, beginning in the deepest, darkest hole. Trevor was nervous about going into the woods again. “I don’t know if I would want to see his body, if he wasn’t alive,” he says. Stephanie, meanwhile, waited at the top of the mountain, hoping for news. After three days, the group had found nothing. “It’s weird, it’s confusing, it’s frustrating, it’s heartbreaking,” Stephanie says. “I just really, really like him, and I want him to come back.”
Oregon law requires that five years pass before a missing person can be considered dead, which means Shawn’s family cannot collect his life insurance or even sell his truck unless a body is found. Stephanie and Trevor are struggling to make payments on their house without Shawn’s income. Foreclosure looms, Stephanie fears. They’ve had to come to terms with the fact that Shawn may never be found. “I sat down with both of the boys,” Stephanie says, “and told them, ‘I want you guys to know that we may never know.’”
Stephanie still talks about Shawn in the present tense. “Maybe it’s my way of not admitting that he’s gone,” she says. “All of his stuff is still here. His clothes are still in the closet. I still talk about his pickup.” Sometimes at the doctor’s office where she works, patients will notice her wedding ring and comment on how beautiful it is. She doesn’t tell them that her husband is gone or that her son nearly died looking for him or that her life has been at an utter standstill since he disappeared. She doesn’t tell them she had never felt lonely in her life until the day he vanished. Instead, she replies, “Thank you. I have an awesome husband. He’s a truly amazing guy.”
This story appears in the Nov. 2017 issue with the headline “The Vanishing.”