About Coconino County

About Coconino County

Encompassing 18,661 square miles, Coconino County, Arizona, is the second largest county in the U.S. but one of the least populated. Our county includes Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi Indian Reservations, and the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world. Elevations range from 2,000 feet above sea level along the Colorado River to 12,633 feet at the summit of Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff.

December 4, 2007

Looking for a Sheep Herder

This time, we've had a little advance notice about the search. When I got the page yesterday evening and called in, Sergeant D's message stated that we would meet at The 105 at 7am, to head out to the Navajo Reservation to search for a sheep herder who has been missing for several days. At this point, I don't know why there has been a delay in starting the search.

This mission calls for both ground-pounders and the mounted unit. We ground-pounders also will need to bring ATVs. From what I know of the area we're going to, near Gray Mountain, it's like much of the Navajo Reservation--wide open spaces dotted with very spread out homes, hogans and outbuildings. Desert grassland, basically.

We're given a printed briefing, which states that the subject we are looking for, a 43 year-old Native American male, was last seen wearing baggy pants and a tank top. Definitely not proper clothing for this time of year, and it's been especially cold lately. The subject was possibly suffering from Delirium Tremens (or alcohol withdrawals), and he was reported to be having hallucinations. Apparently, he went to a sheep camp near Gray Mountain and, at some point on the afternoon of the 29th or 30th of November, walked away from that camp, thinking someone was following him. He ended up at a hogan, where the occupant gave him a jacket and told him to go home. The subject then walked to his brother's hogan. Still suffering from DTs, he told his brother he was going to walk home to Cameron ... approximately 20 miles away! He left without the jacket this time, during a severe winter storm, at approximately 8pm and hasn't been seen since. Navajo police have been searching ever since, and DPS Air Rescue flew a daytime search on the 3rd and then a night-flight without success.

As we get things ready at The 105, I try to make myself useful. I ask what we need and grab ATV helmets and gas cans. At the same time, I watch others as much as possible. I'm told that we should leave our own gear in our vehicles until we're ready to leave, so it isn't in the way. Also, we should be sure we load our personal gear in the vehicle in which we'll be riding, just in case we receive instructions to go to different locations.

It's a long ride to the staging area at the sheep camp. We turn off the highway onto a dirt road and meet with Navajo police officers before continuing on to where we'll begin our search. Our coordinator leans on the hood of a Sheriff's vehicle, looking at a topographic map of the area. The other officers and a couple of our most experienced volunteers are in the inner circle with Sergeant D, while they discuss possible plans of action, how to best use our resources, what they know so far. I stand outside the circle, listening and thinking of all sorts of questions I'd like to ask, but I say nothing.

When they've decided how to proceed, I find out that I'll be on an ATV, which makes me a little nervous. The first and only time I've ever ridden a four-wheeler was during basic SAR training, and there were certain maneuvers I was too chicken to do, such as ride up and down a rather large cinder hill. Flat ground is one thing, hills and washes are quite another. This should be interesting.

We continue on towards the sheep camp in the SAR trucks, with the ATVs still on the trailers. I'm riding with Val, one of the most experienced members of our team, who's been doing this for something like twenty-five years. In fact, I hear he used to do Sergeant D's job before retiring and becoming "just" a volunteer. Val is very quiet--perhaps contemplative might be a better word--and I wonder what he's thinking. He's driving slowly, and I see him looking out his side window towards the ground just beside the truck. At one point, we stop and Val gets out to look at something in the road--a piece of litter of some sort. Then he looks off into the distance. I just sit there, and he eventually gets back in, still saying nothing.

Okay, I guess I should start looking around, too. I roll down my window and scan the ground alongside the road as we go. Footprints maybe? I alternate between staring at the ground and scanning the open countryside. I see a dark form at the top of a mesa. "What's that?" I ask Val, pointing. Silently, he hands me a pair of binoculars. Oh ... it's a hawk sitting on a boulder. A big hawk indeed, but without the binoculars, I couldn't tell how big or small it really was. Darn, I was hoping I'd spotted the missing man, watching us from above. I imagine him standing up there, waiting to see if anyone cares enough to come look for him. I imagine him smiling as he sees that, yes, they do.

Eventually, we reach the sheep camp, which is composed of a couple of trailers, a hogan, a collection of ramshackle outbuildings, a few horses and about a dozen skinny rez dogs. Poor pups. I'd love to take them all home. They stand around, looking at us hopefully; maybe we'll have a bit of food. Later, I guess.

After more discussion between Sergeant D and one of the Navajo police officers, it seems the plan of action has changed a bit. Not sure why. But the difference it makes to me personally is that I won't be on an ATV after all. (Phew!) Instead, I'll continue to ride with Val in the truck, and we'll first check out some empty sheep corrals. We're given a description of the tread of the subject's boots, the only known print remaining after the storm being one on TOP of a trailer here at the camp. He had apparently jumped up there, ranting about being chased, before he took off. Sergeant D makes sure that the didn't take a weapon with him, because he doesn't want to put us volunteers in any unnecessary danger. I sure appreciate THAT.

Val and I get back in the truck. We end up in and out of that truck for many hours, bumping along often barely-there dirt roads, stopping periodically to search the ground for prints, to search abandoned buildings, to stop at a residence to talk to the elderly occupant, to check a nook or cranny or wash. We keep our eyes out for birds circling an area or unusual wildlife activity. Could the subject have crawled into a crevice in the rocks if he thought someone was chasing him? Into or even under an empty structure? Hidden in a wash or under a juniper tree? Did he walk directly towards Cameron? Or did he wander in an entirely different direction? Most of the time, I don't know where to look; there are too many choices.

Val is so quiet, but eventually I start asking questions. What are you looking at? What are you doing now? Why are you doing that? You're going to drive this truck up there??? I begin to take some initiative, pointing out certain footprints, none of which turn out to be like the subject's. I walk away from the truck at times, looking at this and that on my own. Hoping that I'll notice something of interest or find a real clue.

But nothing. As daylight starts to dwindle, we reconvene with Sergeant D and the other volunteers back the sheep camp. While waiting for one more ATV team and two riders from the mounted unit, things are pretty quiet. I sit on a rock and hand out granola bars to the rez dogs. The subject's grandmother and sister make Navajo fry bread over a fire pit and offer a whole stack to the volunteers and officers. (I'm sort of on a diet, and fry bread sure isn't diet food, but turning it down just wouldn't be P.C. I do slip pieces to the dogs, but, man, is this stuff tasty!) Eventually, all of the volunteers are back, including one on an ATV with a flat, which made the going extra slow and difficult. The horseback riders look really tired. Unfortunately, none of us have anything to report. No clues. Nothing.

After three more days of searching, still nothing. Three months later, the story remains the same. Is it possible we'll never know what happened to the missing sheep herder?

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