Last summer, Noah Pippin scrawled a brief itinerary in a small, spiral bound notebook:
"South from Hungry Horse along the eastern edge of the Flathead reservoir to the Spotted Bear River. Then east on Spotted Bear River (traveling on its northern bank) until Blue Lake(s) is reached."
It should not have been a difficult route into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, especially not for someone like Pippin, a fit, 30-year-old ex-Marine who'd served three tours in Iraq followed by two years as a cop in Los Angeles.
On Aug. 25, 2010, Pippin left his parents' home in Lake Ann, Mich. He was due in San Diego for duty with the California National Guard on Sept. 11.
"We were encouraging him to have some fun while he was driving back across country," says his father, Mike Pippin, "but we didn't realize he was thinking about Montana."
On Sept. 1, Pippin checked out of the Mini Golden Inns Motel, in Hungry Horse, leaving behind three pairs of pants and the car chargers for his laptop computer and cell phone. He returned his rented car at the Glacier Park airport and started walking to Blue Lakes. In the first few days of September, several people at the Spotted Bear Ranger Station thought they saw Pippin walking on the gravel road along the Hungry Horse Reservoir.
Fall in the Bob Marshall can be unkind. The temperature was dropping, the wind was rising, and there were snowstorms on the way. Witnesses say Pippin had a small mess kit, a .38 pistol, a plastic gallon jug of water and a green poncho. He did not have a tent.
The Pippin sightings slowed to a trickle. Then they stopped cold. But was he still out there?
Noah Hooper Pippin was born in Memphis. He was a bold toddler, Mike Pippin says. "We had to watch him because he would climb ladders, climb on top of roofs—scared us half to death a few times."
Two brothers, Caleb and Josiah, soon followed. They were raised in a deeply religious Protestant household. When Noah was eight, the family relocated to an old farmhouse in rural Michigan. The boys would walk a quarter of a mile to the school bus stop in the mornings; on the way home, they'd often play by a stream, watching the frogs, something Noah would later fondly recall. They were a close, traditional family, Mike says.
Noah was fond of many animals. His mother, Rosalie Pippin, remembers that of all the stories that she read to the boys when they were young, Kipling's "Rikki-Tikki-Tavvi," about a mongoose, left an impression on Noah. Years later, when he graduated from the Los Angeles Police Academy, he went with his parents and brothers to the San Diego Zoo, she says, where they saw a mongoose for the first time. Noah loved that.
Still, the stream and the frogs were about as deep as Noah's connection to nature and the outdoors got. The family didn't do much camping. Noah was more inclined toward sports, playing soccer in his youth and then football in high school, on the defensive line. He was always trying to challenge himself. As early as the third grade he asked his parents to let him walk the six miles home from school, alone. "He was an unusual guy in that way," Mike says. "Very physical, very adventuresome, willing to get out, not afraid of taking risks."
While he was still in school, Noah had a job mucking out horse stalls, but he never learned to ride. Horses frightened him.
He liked to tinker with computers, and to read about science, history and philosophy. "He really put a lot of value in the ability of science and reason to solve man's problems," Mike says. And he loved to debate. Noah was also interested in foreign cultures, Rosalie says—not so much in travel per se as in learning about the different ways that people lived. He studied French in high school and then in college, and also took courses in Japanese and German.
In college, first at Central Michigan University, then at Michigan State University, he left his upbringing behind and began to call himself an atheist. He studied journalism, then switched his major to philosophy, then to pre-law. Finally, after four years, he left without a degree. In those years following 9/11, there was something bigger going on in the world.
Noah enlisted in the Marines.
September 15, 2010, morning
Wilderness ranger Kraig Lang was leading five Forest Service officials from Washington, D.C., and the agency's Missoula office through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, traveling east over the Continental Divide toward My Lake, when his horse spooked at something on the trail. They were ascending a series of switchbacks near Spotted Bear Pass when they saw it: a person wrapped in a sleeping bag and poncho, apparently asleep in the middle of the trail.
Lang wasn't entirely surprised. He'd seen stranger things during his 26 years as a ranger in the Bob Marshall. But the horses were startled and his group couldn't get through while the man slept.
"He kinda sat up and was a little bit startled," Lang recalls.
"I said, 'You know, I'm sorry but I'm going to have to ask you to get up and move, 'cause I can't get past you and the horses are afraid of you.'"
Lang later recognized the man as Noah Pippin based on a physical description and the man's "military bearing"; Pippin answered his request with a crisp "Yes sir, right away sir," he says.
Pippin, who had a shaved head, and weighed about 200 pounds when he set out from Michigan, "seemed very fit," Lang says. "The young guy I met that day easily would have the wherewithal to hike out of the Bob Marshall in a day. He could be in Tahiti right now for all I know. I didn't see someone who was on his last legs." At first Lang took him for
a through hiker, a type of minimalist outdoors enthusiast common along the Continental Divide Trail. But Pippin was unfamiliar with the term, Lang says. The Forest Service crew rode past.