Birdwatching on Rainier turns fatal for writer, editor Joe Wood
Leftovers of a life linger in Joe Wood's boyhood home.
A chunk of coconut sits in the icebox, freezer-burned after eight months. A brown handwoven shirt from India hangs on the back of his closet door, waiting to be laundered. Hundreds of boxed books line the walls in his basement, organized for a rummage sale.
No one really expects Wood to eat the stale fruit, wash the shirt, host the yard sale.
The 34-year-old New Yorker, a widely respected writer and editor, is presumed dead. Last July, he came to Seattle for a journalism conference, and decided to go bird-watching in Mount Rainier National Park. He was last seen hiking toward the Mildred Point trail spur on July 8.
Park rangers believe Wood either fell through snow to a creek bed or died of exposure after becoming lost. Unusually high snow levels and impassable terrain are blamed for masking his remains.
Under different circumstances, the rangers' assessment might have been accepted by grieving family members who visited the park, mourned and returned home.
But Wood's disappearance is unlike any to precede it on a mountain replete with disappearances.
For one thing, he is the first black man to go missing on a mountain that receives more than 2 million visitors a year. For another, family members and politically astute friends pulled out all stops to try to find him. And they are not satisfied with the official theories.
In their effort to find Wood's remains, his loved ones have called on state officials, private investigators and national media. They even contacted White House sources, who asked park officials to keep looking even longer than they normally would.
That persistence has raised a few hackles in a cloistered, homogeneous group of park rangers -- without resolving the mystery of Joe Wood.
Did he fall from a steep ridge, unable to climb or call for help, as rangers believe? Or, as his mother says she still fears, could he have been the victim of a racially motivated attack or some other form of foul play?
Federal investigators, police detectives and private eyes on both coasts have searched for answers since last summer. So have friends, relatives, helicopter pilots, rangers and volunteers who combed a heavily forested area in the southwest corner of the 378-square mile park for five days in July and again in August.
All they found was a conundrum.
"How is it possible that a person who goes out for an afternoon of bird-watching just vanishes into thin air?" Elizabeth Wood asks wearily.
Before last year, the retired social worker from the Bronx would never have imagined such a thing could happen. Now, she knows better.
She and her husband, Joseph Sr., raised Joe and his sister Pamela in the residential Baychester section of the New York City borough. Joey was a thoughtful, studious and attentive child who loved books and birds.
His passion for birds propelled Wood into years as a Boy Scout. His compassion for the downtrodden helped him obtain his Eagle Scout badge, scouting's highest honor.
"I won't forget it"
At age 16, the "lily-clean adolescent" was profiled in a 1980 Daily News article for turning a chance encounter with local shopping bag ladies into a yearlong volunteer project.
"I caught sight of one of these ladies as I waited at the bus stop for a ride home," the precocious teen told the reporter. "Her shuffling, her inattentive wandering eyes, her disinterest in the hurried world around her aroused not just my curiosity, but that weird sadness I felt for her."
"I won't forget it," he reflected after collecting dishes, furniture, clothing and utensils to donate to a shelter for bag ladies run by area nuns.
A student at Riverdale Country, a private school overlooking the Hudson River on the northernmost edge of the Bronx, Wood completed two college applications before graduating with honors.
He ended up rejecting Harvard Yard for the inner-city grandeur of Yale, where he was also graduated with high honors.
His love of books spurred him to apply for a 1990 fellowship sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts. He used the award to travel to Ghana in quest of his African American heritage and returned to pen a travelogue titled "Blood Whispers and Color Lines."
Before settling into an editor's job at The Village Voice, he wrote articles for The New York Times and Essence Magazine. Three years ago he left to accept a job as editor at The New Press, an alternative publishing house, where he edited a definitive collection of writings on Malcolm X and "Remembering Slavery," a book and audio-tape collection of first-person accounts by former slaves.
He also edited "Class Notes," a soon-to-be released collection of essays by political theorist Adolph Reed Jr.
Reed used the preface to memorialize his friend and editor.
"If he's gone, many of us are pained and diminished by the loss, but I know that he would insist that his demise should be seen, except within his world of intimates, as no more tragic -- notwithstanding his impressive accomplishments, his even greater promise, his visibility and Yale pedigree -- than that of anyone else who meets an untimely or unfair end," Reed noted.
Through her son's work, Elizabeth became fluent in the language of publishing. Through his disappearance she has come to learn terms of mountain dangers that would have been foreign to her a year ago.
Snow bridges and tree wells
Wood picked a brilliant Thursday afternoon to string a pair of binoculars around his neck and slip an Audubon guide book on Pacific Northwest birds into his day pack.
A day earlier, he had flown in from New York to attend Unity '99, a national conference of 8,000 minority journalists in Seattle. At dinner with acquaintances, Wood mentioned his plan to hike and bird-watch on Rainier after attending a news breakfast with presidential candidate Bill Bradley.
Wearing the Timberland lace-up boots he wore to work in Manhattan and the red Patagonia windbreaker he'd paid $189 for that morning, Wood started up his white Mercury Marquis rental and headed south.
A park entrance receipt found later in the car showed he drove into the park's Nisqually entrance just before 12:30 p.m.
He parked in the Longmire parking lot and headed over to the hiker center near the trailhead. Inside, he asked where he'd have a good chance of spotting birds.
Taking the proffered map, a two-sided yellow photocopy with hand-drawn trails on one side and short explanations on the other, Wood stepped outside, climbed six railroad ties into a sunlit corridor lined with western hemlock and Douglas fir, and set off toward Mildred Point.
His boots crunched on top of several feet of hardpack snow speckled with broken pine cones, branches and leaves. Overhead, shafts of sunlight pierced the cool shade of 100-foot-tall old-growth trees.
There in the solitude of the park, Wood was rewarded with a glimpse of a brilliantly colored western tanager.
He mentioned the bird a few moments later when he met a newly retired Boeing Co. engineer on the five-mile trail.
The 56-year-old Seattle man, who asked not to be named, had just turned back toward Longmire when the two crossed paths on the snow-covered trail.
"He was . . . a little aimless or unsure of where he was when he asked me how much farther does the trail go?" the hiker said. "He actually said 'Where am I?' And I showed him on the map."
The hiker later told rangers that during the brief discussion, they compared birds they had seen, and he warned Wood of a snow bridge a short way ahead.
The terminology wouldn't have been familiar to the Bronx native, whose bird-watching previously had lured him to Central Park, to well-trodden greenspaces in the Bronx and to Trinidad.
"I'm sure Joe did not know what a tree well was. He did not know what a snow bridge was. To say simply that there was a snow bridge would not have done much," said Wood's former girlfriend, New York Times reporter Somini Sengupta.
Still friends, Sengupta and Wood would have rehashed the conference highlights after they flew back East on separate flights.
When he did not return by Sunday, July 11, Sengupta began to worry. Two days later, she filed a missing-person report.
The following day, park officials located Wood's white rental car in the Longmire lot, but nothing more.
"The thing that really hurt us with Joe Wood is that he didn't tell anybody where he was really going, so essentially when the friends and family called and said, 'Where is he?' it had been a week," said park ranger Steve Winslow. "His family wanted to keep pressing, searching. We went way beyond what we would normally do. But we found nothing."
By the time rangers launched their first massive search, warm temperatures had melted more than 2 feet of snowpack near Van Trump Trail. The changed landscape -- where knee-deep snow had been replaced with mud, puddles and ice -- made it difficult to pinpoint where Wood could have run into trouble.
Despite a $50,000 Park Service investigation that encompassed a 10-square-mile area and used nearly 200 volunteer searchers, hours of helicopter time and more than a dozen scent dogs, no trace of him was found.
"It's one of Mount Rainier's great mysteries," says the hiker who met Wood on the trail. "Mildred Point is one of the most benign parts of the park . . . Most (missing hikers) disappeared doing things far beyond that."
Warnings in the park
Wood's sudden disappearance has given Sengupta and Elizabeth Wood a shared purpose: together they dispute assumptions park authorities make about what the average tourist knows before venturing into Rainier's foothills.
Their concern centers on the yellow square of paper Wood carried on his hike.
As maps go, the photocopied handout is rudimentary.
On one side, hollow dashes mark the Wonderland Trail and solid dashes mark the 7.5-mile route from the hiker center past the Mildred Point Spur, Van Trump Park and Comet Falls to the Christine Falls bridge. On the opposite side is a list of nine popular routes with brief descriptions.
The hiking route that caught Wood's eye was described as a steep trail that offers a view of the volcano, wildflowers and mountain goats in late June or early July.
The only warnings on the map advise hikers to stay on the trail to protect fragile meadows and, for safety reasons, to avoid walking on the bridge toward Paradise.
But exceptionally heavy snowfall that winter, the third-heaviest recorded in park history, had left 4 to 6 feet of packed snow along the route, obscuring the trails and blanketing the steep landscape. No signs warned that losing track of the snow-covered trail could be treacherous. Nowhere does it remind hikers to carry the ubiquitous 10 essentials: water, food, extra clothing, matches, a map, compass, first-aid kit, flashlight, blanket and pocketknife. Nor does it distinguish between easy and more challenging treks.
Those omissions can cost lives, Sengupta believes.
"I really do think that it's incredibly irresponsible to allow people to go on protected federal property and not be told of the very real risks that they are taking," she says. "This is not Disneyland. The terrain can be life threatening.
"There's something very surreal about going to Rainier. You go to the gift shop, and you see the same slogans on T-shirts and refrigerator magnets, pitch(ing) the mountain as a beautiful, quiet magnificent mountain that you can explore: 'Escape to Rainier.' Those words kind of take on an eerie meaning when you know a man that you loved went to the mountain and never came back."
Better trail markings, a registration system to keep track of lowland day hikers, reminders of park risks -- these measures are what Sengupta and Elizabeth Wood say they've proposed to park officials.
Park ranger Mike Gauthier, a veteran of a decade of search-and-recovery efforts at Rainier who has seen countless hikers underestimate the terrain, sees value in their ideas:
"This ain't Central Park. To some degree this is the Yukon Territory. There are some places where you can be missing forever."
Elizabeth Wood, who started her career at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, doesn't consider herself an especially suspicious person by nature.
But looking for closure, she's considered an array of factors that might explain why Joe has never returned home, including news stories about incidents involving white supremacists in national parks, discrepancies in the accounts of the hiker who saw Joe, and three recorded homicides at Rainier.
The witness initially did not mention to rangers that Wood was wearing a hat. Later, he described a hat in detail to a private investigator. Rangers attribute that and other discrepancies in his accounts to the normal variance in witness accounts after the passage of time.
"I've gone through all kinds of theories. Maybe someone came to him and said I'll take you over where some birds are," she says from a telephone in Joe's boyhood bedroom. "He would have gone. He was that kind of trusting person. He had that kind of innocence."
When she and her husband, Joseph Sr., arrived in Longmire to help with the search, she was haunted by last February's triple slaying at Yosemite National Park. A week after her return home, the suspect in that case also was charged with beheading a naturalist.
So when a volunteer broached the subject about crime in the park, Elizabeth passed on her concerns to a supervising ranger at Rainier.
"Some of the rescue workers from Tacoma had talked to us and said criminal things had happened and they just don't get published," she said. "But the ranger, he said, 'Well, the only people who come into the park are family-type people. We wouldn't have a serial killer here.' I just cut him off. You can't look at a face and see what a person is about."
Her fear that Wood may have been the victim of foul play wasn't beyond the realm of possibility. Several homicides have occurred in the park.
The first suspicious death occurred in Mount Rainier National Park in 1924, when the wife of a seven-time bigamist fell to her death into Van Trump Creek, near the eastern base of the ridge where Wood was last seen. Her husband was never charged.
The first recorded homicide occurred 13 years ago when park visitors discovered the bullet-riddled body of a man alongside Highway 123 in the southeast corner of the park. The FBI and National Park Service conducted fruitless investigations. The victim and his slayer remain unidentified.
In 1996, 43-year-old Sheila Ann Kearns, a housekeeper at the National Park Inn at Longmire, disappeared after work. Seven months later a park volunteer found partial skeletal remains about a mile from the inn near the old Longmire Campgrounds. A check of dental records matched Kearns' but few clues remained to lead investigators to her killer. That case also remains open.
Late last July, Billy Don Boyd committed the third recorded homicide in the park. The 36-year-old Tacoma carpenter pushed his 7-year-old Nicholas son off the Christine Falls Bridge, 125 feet into Van Trump Creek. Then he jumped after him.
Three thousand miles from the trail Joe vanished on, Elizabeth Wood finds reminders of her son in every room of her house.
In the bedroom he had moved back into a few months earlier after moving out of the apartment he and Sengupta shared in Brooklyn. In the pile of books and folders stacked neatly on his desk. In the row of 20 pepper plants -- Scotch Bonnet, jalapeno -- he asked his mother to care for during his vacation.
Still grieving, Elizabeth Wood has begun to reach out to others who have lost kin or friends to Rainier. She scours reports of search efforts on the mountain, looking for family names and hometowns. Hoping to reach those who shy away from media inquiries, she asks that her telephone number accompany her story: 718-231-1194. Healing, as she and husband Joseph envision it, may come after mingling her grief with others.
"It's a never-ending process. It never, ever stops," he says.
She still hasn't even been able to let go of mundane reminders like the plastic freezer bag filled with coconut.
Joe, an avid runner, usually stopped at the grocery store on the return leg of his morning jog around Van Courtland Park to buy a single, ripe mango for his mother.
The morning he departed for Seattle, Joe surprised her with the fresh coconut.
More than once she has considered and rejected the idea of eating the plastic-wrapped fruit. Like the 3-foot-tall pile of books and the pepper plants, Joe's remnants have taken on an unexpected value.
"I can't bring myself to eat it," she said. "When it's gone, he's gone."
P-I reporter Kimberly A.C. Wilson can be reached at 206-615-1246 or email@example.com
Friday, March 31, 2000
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