01 Feb Search and Rescue Stories: Sidewinder Post 1
This has taken me the better part of a month to work up the courage to tell the tales I have experienced. I’ve bounced around some, lurked here, and shared other stories from my past; but these… well they were always off limits. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell them, but rather a fear that men in white coats will suddenly take me away to a nice padded cell. Thing is, from what I know, well I’m not the only one that’s had strange happenings in their time with the service.
So first things first, you’re probably wondering what a “Sidewinder” is. Officially, we’re members of a rather elite group of Search and Rescue officers who specialize in Desert Searches. Note that I said searches, and not rescue. Each and every one of us, collectively called Sidewinders from our ability to survive in the most hostile desert conditions, are trained in everything from tracking and first aid, to survival and recovery. Typically, they only call us in on the worst cases. Someone goes missing in one of the many desert areas in the west; and after the massive search fails…we go in to recover the body, or bodies. Truth be known, we don’t usually find bodies, just bones or a few identifying items. We’re also rather unique among S&R, since we tend to work alone. There’s always a lot of desert to cover, and it’s just more cost effective to send in one, maybe two Sidewinders in to track missing persons.
In my time, I’ve recovered something around fifty people, and only rescued one. The desert is a rather harsh place, but that kinda goes without saying. In training, they teach us that after three days in the desert, the chances of a person surviving drops exponentially. After five days, there’s no hope and it becomes a recovery. Granted, that’s when you’re not talking about a missing sidewinder. I remember during training, our training officer related a story about one Sidewinder who had gone missing during a recovery. Almost a month later, that guy wandered into a parks service office. He was skin and bones, but alive. The service had long given up on him, and his family had largely moved on; yet here this guy was, a walking bag of bones, coming out of a hell that you can’t imagine. All told, the guy had walked almost three hundred miles from where he started out, to where he ended. Dude’s still with the service too, in case you wondered.
I won’t go into detail about the training, but suffice it to say that it’s the hardest training you’ll ever experience. Two hundred S&R guys sign up for the training every year, and typically only two or three actually survive the process. Most simply decide that they can’t do it, though there are other reasons they drop out. The doors always seem to claim one, every training rotation.
Doors. If you had told me three years ago that a simple door would be the object of terror, I would have laughed in your face. They’re probably the strangest thing you’ll in the high desert. Middle of no where, no roads or trails for miles, and there will be this door standing there upright. It’s never the same kind of door either, I’ve seen house doors, a couple metal ones, and at least one cheap trailer door.
These doors, they’re creepy to say the least, but it’s the fact that they move that really gets to you. I remember one recovery in particular that I was followed by one of these doors.
That one started with a simple hiking incident. A couple had decided to hike out into the desert, camp over night, and then hike back. When they didn’t show at their works the next Monday, family called the parks service. The S&R guys searched a good fifty mile square area of desert for them, but didn’t turn anything up. So, rather reluctantly they called me in. Calling in the sidewinders was seen as admitting defeat. Even the police give us a wide berth.
I packed up, took enough food for a two week trip (MREs are handy in that regard) and enough water to pack in and out. With that, I hiked into the desert to follow their steps and try to retrace where they may have gone, and hopefully find this pair.
Their trail was pretty easy to follow for the first few hours, before it turned off the established path and cut out across the sand pan. Their tracks showed that they were walking side by side then, and continued on for upwards of five miles like that before I found something that sent chills up my spine.
The tracks suddenly turned to the left and seemed to circle around a point up on one of the dunes. There was no reason for them to do that though, at least nothing visible. From then on, the path continued back down and headed almost directly away from that spot. The tracks continued on, before coming to a stop in the lee of a dune. They had simply evaporated. However I knew that they couldn’t have gone too far, if they made the same time I had, then they likely would have reached that point about the same time I did. Thinking like the hikers, I decided that I’d be looking for shelter. A short distance away, as I picked my way through scrub and around some rocks, I came to a good camping site. Located in the shade of a large rock wall, with a nice overhang, I spread out my bed roll and then set to getting something to eat. I think it was then that I first noticed the door. Now, you need to keep in mind, by that point I’d stumbled over several of those before. This one seemed different though. It was located a short distance away, just down from where I sat. I knew well enough to steer clear of them, as they were bad news, but I have to admit I was curious. I suppose that’s what prompted me to become a sidewinder in the first place, looking at things in retrospect. Curiosity. Going where no living man or woman has gone, and exploring what lay out there.
The door was this large house front door, painted a bright red. So bright that it seemed to shine in the waning light. It stood there like the house it once occupied had long since fallen down, and this chunk of wood had somehow managed to stay standing. Lifting my glass of water to it, I gave a light nod, as if saying to it “Yes, I know you’re there.” I then ate, and went to sleep. I rose with the dawn, packed up and kicked out my fire before heading on further. The door was gone. No surprise there, they tended to do that. I picked up the trail shortly after, and found the remnants of a camp. From the looks of things, the couple had camped there for a day before leaving…suddenly. Everything was torn, there were signs of a struggle, or more likely a fight. Two sets of tracks headed off into the desert from there, each going a different direction. I surmised that they must have had an argument over something, and had wandered off to cool their heads. Problem was, I couldn’t see any indication that they had returned. So that meant that they’d split up, which is bad to do in the first place, and then something had happened. Most common killing cause out here is someone slipping into a crack in the ground, and just never getting out. Kinda like the guy down in Moab, but with no survival.
I decided that I’d check the left most path first, as that one seemed to head down into the sand. The other went up over some rocks and headed down into a valley area, but tracking that would be a royal pain in the ass; and honestly I was here to tag and recover bodies. Whatever makes that job easier, is what wins.
I followed that sandy trail a good three hundred feet before it simply stopped. Not petered out, as often happens, not turned back on itself, no, it just stopped. Mid step no less. Turning around and checking my maps, I made note of this for an aerial search before turning around to walk back. Behind me, not three feet from the trail, and maybe twenty from where I stood, was that same red door. I stopped in my tracks there, pausing for a long time. Chills ran up my spine, and I broke out in a cold sweat. I probably stood there a good ten minutes before I mustered up the courage to walk back the way I had came. I didn’t even shoot a glance at the door then, opting to ignore it from that point forward. Leaving it in my wake, I continued on to follow the second track. That one continued deeper in the desert, and seemed to be heading in a particular direction. As if the person leaving it had known where they were going. Sadly nothing lay in that direction, at least not for a good hundred miles of hard scrub. Well, let me rephrase that. Nothing worth finding. There was that damn door. I’d see it every now and then, usually off the trail a short distance, sometimes even hidden up at the top of a bluff that there was no way for it to be put up there in the first place. Always following me, always beckoning me closer.
In the end, after a good week out on the search, I called it quits. I hiked back out, providing the S&R guys with the evidence I had found, and suggesting that they just write it off. The desert had claimed two more, or maybe the doors had. It would be a good year and a half further on before there would be some closure to that story. While on a fire patrol outside Vegas, a Park Ranger saw smoke rising off in the distance. Driving that way, he eventually came to the source of the smoke. It was the remnants of a small brush fire that was quickly burning itself out. He was, reportedly, about ready to chalk it up to lightning, when he tripped over the bodies. The strange thing, he would later tell the authorities, is that the two looked like they’d just appeared from no where. Trails leading to where they lay were quickly found, but those trails just appeared out of thin air. An autopsy was performed, and it was discovered that they had died from exposure. They were identified by family as being the pair who I had been sent in after; though mysteries remained.
For example, how had they, with no food or water, crossed a full five hundred miles of open desert? Why were their clothes untouched by the weather, and strangest of all, how had they managed to keep their cellular phones at a full charge…with nothing to charge them with?
I have many other stories to tell, such as a town you won’t find on any map, or the many ghosts that wander the sands, or the sheer number of planes that simply vanish in this area. When I have some time, I’ll post those.