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.

February 7, 2008

A Man and His Horse

If this page is for another out-of-bounds snowboarder, I'm not sure if I'm going to respond. It's after dark as usual, and not only am I tired but it's so cold out. My husband and dog are all wrapped up, cozy in the blankets, as I call in to see what's going on. I honestly don't feel like snowshoeing all night.

Oh. It's a call-out for a missing cowboy and his horse, and the cowboy is hearing impaired. Well ... that's different. I'd surely regret not responding, so I leave a message that I'm on my way. Two hours later, I'm riding with Al, towing the ATV trailer along a muddy, dirt road, with Sergeant D in his patrol car and two other SAR vehicles ahead and one behind us. I hate to say it, but based on my own thoughts at the time of the page, I don't think another out-of-bound snowboarder or skier would have drawn quite as many volunteers from their beds on this winter night.

Nearly four hours after the initial call, we finally reach the staging area. What a long drive, 31 miles of it slow-going on unpaved roads on Babbitt Ranches. And it did take us a rather long time to get things ready at the SAR building, in part because we had some difficulty with the trailer hitch. I hope our missing cowboy isn't too cold out here, somewhere in all this vast, open space, as he waits to be found.

Now we're given our briefing and maps of the area--thousands of acres of grazing land with a network of dirt roads and very spread-out camps. The briefing states that we're looking for a 28 year-old man named Brandon, who is believed to be on a bay horse. Brandon is not wearing his hearing aids, but does have a heavy jacket and a lighter. He did not, however, bring any food or water, which surprises me; I'd have assumed a cowboy out on the range would have some provisions, especially since his horse can carry both himself and his gear. Babbitt Ranch staff conducted a search earlier this evening when they realized that Brandon was overdue, and the DPS helicopter is now en route. The other bit of information in the briefing is that Brandon has cancer and stopped taking his medication a week ago. Since that time, he has apparently been vomiting and has been depressed. Oh. That certainly changes what I've been thinking. Maybe Brandon isn't actually lost, if you know what I mean. I try to shake off such a thought.

Tonight, I'm assigned to ride with a volunteer named Phillip, and we'll take one of the trucks to a cowboy camp where Brandon has been staying. We'll keep our eyes peeled along the way, of course. Meanwhile, four volunteers will be on ATVs and several others in SAR vehicles. Sergeant D will remain at the staging area, where he'll continue to gather information, plot any significant coordinates we call in, and alter our assignments as needed.

Phillip hands me the big map. "You're the navigator," he says. "If we get lost, it's your fault." I've never met Phillip before, but I glance over and he's smiling. I open the map and turn on my headlamp, as we begin bumping along. Minutes later, I don't want to let on that I'm still looking for our current location. There are just too many lines on this thing. But I finally figure it out, just in time to tell Phillip to turn right. Seems there are many two-tracks out here that are not on the map. Great.

As the night passes and we drive, we stare into the blackness. There is a spotlight on the driver's side, but I'm limited to the beam of my flashlight. Periodically, I jump out to open then close a gate behind us as we make our way towards our destination. I half expect that, at any moment, a bay horse with an empty saddle, reigns hanging, will gallop out of the darkness and cross the path of our headlights. But the only movement we detect is the occasional form of a cow or a rabbit zipping across the road.

I see a light in the distance. How far off it is or how big, I can't tell. We stop driving and stare. Is it a campfire? One moment the light looks yellow, then it appears blue-ish. Phillip and I contemplate the light for several minutes, drive a little further then stop and stare some more. Eventually, Phillip says, "Why don't you go ahead and triangulate it so we can get a fix on the location." Um ... triangulate. Right. I know we learned this in basic SAR training. I know I need my compass. Yep. I get out of the truck and hold the little thing in the palm of my hand. "You need to move away from the truck," Phillip tells me through the open window. "The metal will interfere." I knew that. So I move several yards away and once again hold up the compass. Shoot, I can't remember. I swallow my pride and go back to ask for help. When Phillip gets out and shows me what to do, I feel silly. I knew that. We take a bearing on the light, then transfer it to our map and draw a line. Then we drive further, to another known point, and take another bearing, draw another line, and find that the intersection of the two lines is off the map. Whatever that light source is, it's certainly far away, and Phillip now seems quite sure it's not a campfire but rather a street lamp or a light on a building. He thinks it appears to flicker because something--a tree branch perhaps--is between us and it, and the branch or other object is bobbing in the breeze. Okay, I guess I'll accept that.

We move on and eventually arrive at the camp, which is composed of buildings, not tents as I'd thought. No one is home but some cows and horses in the corral. No bay horses, either. As another SAR team is following some horse prints--which could have been made by any cowboy's horse--Phillip and I make the long drive back to Incident Command, receive our next assignment and head out again. I'm struggling to stay awake in the passenger seat, as the horizon begins to brighten.

Ranger, the DPS helicopter, flies over our current location, which is a large, dry stock tank. (In the southwest, a stock tank is a man-made watering hole for livestock.) Phillip and I are out of the vehicle now, and he's wandering around the perimeter of the tank. I feel a bit lost, myself. Wide open spaces like this--that is, searching for a comparatively small human being in such a vast area--kind of confounds me. Where to look? Again, too many choices. So I just start walking around, looking both at the ground and into the distance. There are a lot of pinion pine and juniper bushes in this area, any one of which could be hiding a person or even a horse from view. I squint and look as far off as I can, trying to see what probably isn't there.

It's now morning--full light--and we hear on the radio that Sergeant D has made a second call-out for more volunteers, including the mounted unit. After nearly twelve hours, those of us who've been searching all night are soon going to need a rest. In fact, Sergeant D just called Phillip and me and told us to take at least a half-hour break where we are.

But that break doesn't last more than a few minutes. Brandon is found! Turns out, the ATV team following the horse prints had picked the right set of prints after all. Brandon is a bit disoriented and very hungry, but he's otherwise Code 4: He's okay. What a relief! Phillip and I plot the coordinates just given by the team who've located the subject and find that he isn't all that far from our location. Less than a mile away in a drainage area. Interesting that he didn't stick to a road, since his job for yesterday was apparently to ride a particular two-track to check on some cattle and return the way he'd come. No idea how he got lost, but I guess that's not really so important, at least not to us. Still, it's tough not to be curious. Another curious thing is that Sergeant D had contacted Brandon's family, who live out of state, and they say he's in perfect health. No mention of cancer as another cowboy suggested or any other medical problems. Hm. Well, I guess we volunteers may never know for sure. But that's the way it goes as a member of SAR; we find and rescue but often don't get the whole story, either before or after the missions. Oh well, at least all ends well yet again, and that's what matters most.


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