A place to lose one's self 

About once a year, someone disappears inside a national park

The recent disappearance of Larry Thomas Kimble, 40, of Dorr, Mich., inside Glacier National Park has set into motion a routine all too familiar to park employees around the country. About once or twice a year, says author Butch Farabee, someone vanishes for good while visiting Glacier or Yellowstone or another of the country’s national parks.

In Farabee’s book, Death, Daring and Disaster: Search and Rescue in the National Parks, the former assistant superintendent at Glacier recounts several notorious disappearances. He documents a phenomenon that extends back to the earliest years of the national park system when a “dandy” from Ohio named LeRoy Piper vanished from Yellowstone in 1900. He was last seen on the porch of the Fountain Hotel, fashionably dressed in “a blue suit, monogrammed white shirt, patent leather shoes and a derby hat.”

Park officials would later report that the 36-year-old Piper arrived at the hotel in a “partially demented and irresponsible condition.” It’s been 103 years since Piper’s disappearance, and still nobody knows what happened to him.

Partially demented or fully off your rocker, Farabee says there is no single state of mind that leads to disappearances inside parks. Many times, an accident is to blame. A person might slip and fall into a river, where the current traps them underwater. It could take a lifetime for their remains to dislodge, and by then no one’s looking anymore.

The search for two brothers lost in Glacier Park in 1924 went on for years, but Joe and William Whitehead were never found. One an engineer from Chicago, the other a student at MIT, the brothers set off from Many Glacier on Aug. 24. Months, then years passed as the search for the brothers grew. The FBI was called in, but every lead turned out to be a dead end.

Farabee says one rumor had the boys falling into the company of a prostitute. The relationship turned violent, and as the story goes, the boys’ bodies were sunk to the bottom of Lake Five, outside the park near West Glacier.

Farabee thinks a better guess is that the boys “were probably swept over some rapid” and drowned.

Once, while working at Yosemite, Farabee took a missing person’s report from the pregnant wife of a man who had recently vanished. He kissed his bride goodbye, then hiked into the park. But, says Farabee, “He ended up sneaking back and taking a bus out. Seems he didn’t want the responsibility of having a child.”

The man tried to start a new life for himself in Bangor, Maine, but saw his plot undone by a postcard he sent to a friend. Authorities traced his whereabouts using the postmark and charged him with fraud and deception. He was fined $500.

That’s a modest expense compared to what it costs to search for missing park visitors. Recently, it took 16 people to perform an underwater search for the body of Larry Kimble. Eight divers scanned the rocky bottom of Lake McDonald, while support staff bobbed on the surface and manned the shore. Kimble’s dark blue 1998 GMC pick-up was found parked near Rocky Point on Lake McDonald before being impounded by the park on June 23.

Gary Moses, the park ranger leading the search for Kimble, won’t disclose many details about the ongoing investigation. As of July 16, Moses and others working the case had yet to rule out foul play, suicide, an accident or an intentional effort by Kimble to evaporate into thin air.

“We have to explore all those potentials,” says Moses. “We have to look at it as a mystery just as you look at it as a mystery.”

According to the Allegan County Sheriff’s Department in Michigan, Kimble’s family reported him missing on June 20, approximately six weeks after he left town. Detective Len Mathis went to Kimble’s home, then interviewed his ex-girlfriend. She told Mathis that Kimble had expressed interest in visiting Glacier Park, but the ex-girlfriend said Kimble was not the type of outdoorsman who would head off into the backcountry alone.

“That would be somewhat out of character,” says Mathis. “He enjoyed computers. He liked to snowmobile. But I’m talking about snowmobiling across the flat farmland. He’s not about to enter the Iditarod in Alaska. He’s a small-town guy—a flannel shirt guy. Tasseled loafers and a button-down shirt? No, that’s not him. He’s a down-to-earth working guy.”

In Kimble’s pick-up, park investigators found a bottle of prescription painkillers and a leather motorcycle cap. That worries Kimble’s family because, explains Mathis, “They say when he gets out of the truck, that hat usually goes on his head.”

As for the painkillers Kimble took to deal with a lingering shoulder injury, detective Mathis says they were all there: “It wasn’t an empty bottle and a fresh prescription. That wouldn’t be good.”

Authorities are also looking for Kimble’s dog, a dark brown and white English Springer Spaniel named Bubba. Maybe Kimble left the dog with someone, offers Mathis. Maybe that someone can point investigators to Kimble.

Investigators are currently trying to trace Kimble’s movements from the time he left Michigan to the day his vehicle entered Glacier Park. A May 29 park entrance receipt was found in Kimble’s truck, which investigators determined to have been abandoned on June 18.

The last major missing person case to go unsolved in the park dates back to November of 2000. That’s when 33-year-old Patrick T. Whalen of Denver, Colo., vanished in the Cut Bank Creek drainage, beneath Medicine Grizzly Peak and Bad Marriage Mountain on the park’s east side. Whalen’s vehicle was found abandoned just outside the park along U.S. Highway 89, and some of Whalen’s personal items were discovered at the Atlantic Creek Backcountry Campground.

During the investigation, Whalen’s family revealed that Patrick had “recently exhibited symptoms of unusual and potentially ‘obsessive’ behavior, including paranoia,” according to a park press release. These symptoms, investigators concluded, “may have contributed to his disappearance.”

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