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.
Pippin apparently continued his trek in the direction Lang and his party had gone, passing over the Continental Divide. He must have followed the trail as it veered south along the Chinese Wall, a line of cliffs towering above the wilderness. He was already dozens of miles deeper into the Bob Marshall than his original route implied, and he wasn't done hiking.
A chance to serve
A World War II uniform hangs in a glass case on a wall of the living room of the Pippins' Lake Ann, Mich. home. It belonged to Mike Pippin's father, who fought in the European Theater. War memorabilia surrounds the case, making it a shrine to the Pippin family's service record. Mike's great-grandfather fought for the South in the Civil War. His wife Rosalie's great-grandfather fought for the North. Mike served in the Navy in the Vietnam era.
"Noah was around his grandfather and around all these stories," says Rosalie. "Noah's grown up in a family that understands the necessity of war at times, and can appreciate that he's part of a family that believes in country, and that there are men who need to go fight wars sometimes."
With the U.S. invasion of Iraq in early 2003, Noah saw an opportunity to serve his country. The Marine Corps had always been his Plan B if college didn't work out. At boot camp in Camp Pendleton, Calif., he quickly found that the reality of service didn't necessarily match up with tales of glory. "But when he'd been in for a while, he enjoyed the structure and the camaraderie, and the reality that it was black-and-white," Mike says.
"The grayness of life has always been difficult for him to deal with. He's a black-and-white guy."
Military service opened the world to Noah. He spent time in Okinawa, visited Singapore. He stayed in touch with his parents, but, Mike says, he "didn't talk a whole lot about his service."
From 2004 to 2006, Noah served three tours in Iraq with the 1st Marines 5th Battalion. His first tour put him into combat in the first battle of Fallujah, one of the grimmest chapters of the Iraq War. On his second tour he was in Ramadi, in Al Anbar Province, a stronghold for Iraqi insurgents.
On his third tour he returned to Fallujah. Noah and some fellow Marines were guarding a Humvee there, says Mike, when "a brand-new SUV darted out of a side street, pulled right up to them and blew up. Knocked unconscious all four of the guys, blew all the (Humvee) doors open."
Noah was hospitalized for 48 hours. Then he insisted on returning to active duty.
"He always plays down anything like that," Rosalie says. "He always feels like other guys have lost limbs and lost lives...as long as he could keep moving, he wasn't in it for glory, he was just there to do his best."
Mike doesn't discount the possibility that Noah suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Still, his only hint that war altered his son's mind came during one of Noah's few visits to Lake Ann after his third tour of duty. He and Mike were driving through the Michigan countryside in the family convertible. It was night. The moon was out. "I just, off the top of my head, said, 'You know, Noah, we'd often see the moon and think about you [in Iraq] and pray for you, and wonder what in the world you're doing or thinking about on the other side.' And he said, 'Dad, quite honestly, the only thing I was thinking about was there's someone out there trying to kill me.'"
Noah left the Marines in early 2007. Rosalie says he was looking for opportunities to earn more money, perhaps to eventually own his own business. He heard the Los Angeles Police Department was recruiting former soldiers for academy training. It seemed a decent start for civilian life. "He could start saving up but still be in some action situations," Rosalie says. "That helped him decide."
September 15, 2010, evening
Pippin strolled into the camp of three Arlee elk hunters at My Lake. Robert Schall, one of the hunters, says he looked like "a good, stable backpacker," a man "in good health." Pippin stayed in their camp long enough for two cups of coffee and a dose of chitchat. It was "real light conversation," Schall says. "We could see he had military-like fatigues on, and his mannerism was 'yes sir,' 'no sir,' 'thank you sir,' like he was talking to a general...Everything was just to the 'T.'"
Pippin told the group that he'd served three tours in Iraq. Considering what he'd likely been through, Schall says "he was on top of everything."
Pippin admitted he didn't have a map, but he appeared to have memorized everything about his intended route. Distances, feature names—he was "dead on" with most of it. "If he was a confused person," Schall says, "he damn sure had all his facts and figures." He refused Schall's offer of a meal but accepted a 20-ounce bottle of water.
"The only thing we questioned was that it was like he didn't have enough staples for what he said he was going to do," Schall says.
Pippin continued south along the trail, leaving the hunters to ponder the visit. Only after several hours did they reach a consensus that the man had something on his mind. Pippin seemed capable of undertaking the physical trek to White River Pass, where he indicated he was heading. But "there was a question in our mind when he left that something wasn't quite right," Schall says. "I by no means would have thought he'd have gone over the hill and blown his head off. He seemed like a man who had come to the mountains—which we do constantly—to work things out."
'He was good'
Noah moved to San Diego and enrolled in the LAPD academy in December 2007. The process was a struggle, Rosalie says, involving a long string of interviews. But once the academy accepted him, he flourished.
"Any of the people that have military experience, they were usually a step ahead of the other civilian recruits coming in," says one of his academy classmates, Branden Jew. "They already had that teamwork and leadership training, and the discipline to do it."
Noah's academy drill instructor quickly appointed him a squad leader, a duty that required Noah to submit morning reports on attendance and maintain a dialogue with his fellow recruits.
Jew remembers him as quiet, serious and well organized. "He was a good person to talk to. He'd always listen and we'd try to work things out...I think everybody liked him." Noah didn't socialize much, however, Jew says; he was "mostly just business." He didn't share stories from his Marines service.
Noah briefly roomed with another recruit in the LA suburb of Glendora while the two were in the academy. But he found housing expensive during training. The California National Guard was offering an impressive enlistment package at the time for anyone with previous military experience. Noah signed up in late 2007, committing to one weekend of duty a month and two weeks a year.
"He was good," says Sgt. Scott Hegerle, Noah's Guard commanding officer in San Diego. "He was always motivated, always cooperative, always enthusiastic. No matter what kind of dirty detail you gave him, it got done." Many of the Guard's reserve soldiers in San Diego are "police officers, firemen, customs agents, border guards," Hegerle says. Many of them, Hegerle included, are also former Marines. Yet even in the Guard, Noah didn't have many buddies. "He really wasn't that type of guy," Hegerle says. "He was very professional in almost all his dealings."
Noah graduated from the police academy in May 2008 and was detailed to southeast LA, an area of the city known for racially charged gang violence. In 2008, he set his sights on a new goal: a deployment with his Guard unit to Kosovo. Rosalie, his mother, says he was eager to see Eastern Europe and had his heart set on the opportunity. Training for the assignment brought him closer to home, to Indiana, just in time for Christmas. It was the last time the entire Pippin family was together.
A few weeks later, Noah injured his knee when a helicopter malfunctioned during a training exercise. Instead of Kosovo, he was sent to Fort Knox, Tennessee, for surgery, then back to LA for rehab. He worked a desk job in the interim and returned to the LAPD when he'd recovered.
Hegerle says Noah was very disappointed that he was unable to move forward with his unit.
Hegerle says rumors began to circulate in Noah's unit early last year about a possible mobilization in 2012, though no specific location was mentioned. Mike, Noah's father, says Noah hadn't volunteered for any specific duty assignments abroad, but his son believed that, given his previous combat experience, any mobilization would result in him being stationed in Afghanistan.
Then, in June 2010, Noah quit the LAPD. He left his home and car in Southern California and traveled back to Michigan to visit his family. His next duty assignment with the guard was set for the weekend of September 11.
When his son left Michigan to drive back to California, "he had decided that he was just going to try something different," Mike says, unsure what that something was.
September 15, 2010, dusk
Vern Kersey of Great Falls was hiking near his family's camp below Salt Mountain with his 11-year-old son, Trevor, when they spotted a man in a green poncho filling a gallon milk jug out of lower Rock Creek. The two hailed Pippin, but his response was curt. Minutes later, Donelle Kersey and her 16-year-old daughter, Shelby, watched as Pippin wandered down the trail right by their camp. When Donelle greeted him, she says, Pippin patted his hip calmly. "Just to let you know," he said, "I'm packing."
"I took it just as a courtesy," Donelle says. "'I have a pistol,' you know? Didn't want me to freak out."
Donelle wasn't sure what to make of the hiker. Her family is seasoned in the unpredictability of Montana's backcountry. They had come prepared. Pippin hadn't.
"My immediate feeling was, 'This guy shouldn't be in here like this. He needs to stay here. It's getting dark, he obviously needs some food, he doesn't have a tent.' It almost made me sick to my stomach."
Pippin's gear was minimal, Donelle recalls, and the clothes beneath his poncho could not have been warm enough for the cold, the rain and the wind that can develop in the Bob Marshall without warning in the fall.
The sight of him triggered a protective, almost motherly instinct in Donelle. "I engaged in a conversation with him, but my focus was trying to get him to relax because I wanted him to stay. I had this feeling in my gut. So I started talking to him. 'Where did you come from?' 'How long have you been out?'
"He told us he'd been out for 13 days, that he'd come from up in the Hungry Horse area. He said he was going to follow the [Chinese] Wall, and I said, 'You know, the trail goes away from the Wall and out towards Benchmark.'"
Pippin never answered her directly when she asked if he had a map, Donelle says. He seemed to indicate that he had one buried in his pack, but when she invited him to look over hers, he became engrossed. She told him the trail turned east, away from the Wall, near Cliff Mountain. He indicated he planned to leave the trail and bushwhack to White River Pass.
She tried to convince him to stay, she says, to accept some food, to not leave the trail. But he was "hell-bent" on his plan, as if hiking the length of the Chinese Wall were an item on a bucket list. He seemed reserved and distracted.
"So I asked, 'Well, will you eat with us? We've got way too much food and we're going to have to pack all this food out.' He wouldn't. His remark to me was, 'Oh, I'll just crawl up under a tree.' It was a bit disturbing to me, honestly it was. It just didn't sit right."
Vern Kersey wasn't part of that conversation. He and his son remained about 40 yards away. But they heard every word. As Pippin left the Kersey's camp, headed south, Donelle says her daughter's active imagination kicked in. She asked, "What's up with that guy? He doesn't have a tent or anything. What if he's a psycho?"
"I said, 'Shelby, this is a man who, okay, wife and kids just left him and he wants to be by himself.'"
Connecting the dots
On Sept. 11, 2010, Sgt. Scott Hegerle called Michigan from San Diego and informed Mike and Rosalie Pippin that their son had failed to show up for a training weekend with the California National Guard. He had a simple question: Where was Noah?
"We said, 'Well, he's supposed to be with you. Don't you know where he is?'" Mike says. "We thought, 'He's not AWOL, he's not really in any trouble, they're allowed to skip drills. Maybe he's just running late or decided to take that weekend off.' But when we hadn't heard from him for a week or two more, and his sergeant hadn't heard from him, we began to grow concerned."
As the weeks passed, prayers and reflections punctuated the Pippins' lives. The Michigan State Police were slow to start an investigation, Mike says, but when they did, they found that Noah had returned his rented car in northwestern Montana in late August.
At the same time, Hegerle, in San Diego, began putting pieces together. He'd been trained to recognize the signs of PTSD in his soldiers, as all officers in the armed forces are. Now he saw the signs in Noah: resigning from the LAPD, moving out of his house, leaving his car behind in California.
Rosalie says they were "on alert for that in our boy." He'd seen battle, she says, he'd killed people, seen buddies incapacitated by PTSD. "Neither in the military nor in the LAPD did Noah ever feel he could seek out help even if he had a need."
Mike traveled to Kalispell to meet with Flathead County Sheriff's Detective Sergeant Pat Walsh. The department subpoenaed Noah's bank records and tracked his last known expense to the Mini Golden Inns Motel. Beyond that room charge and Noah's possessions, which were discovered in the motel's lost and found, there were no leads.
"We didn't know at that time that he'd been to the Bob Marshall Wilderness," Mike says. "We didn't find that information, that note of Noah's with directions to the Blue Lakes area, until about January or February, when it was already snowed in." (They found the notebook among possessions he'd left in Lake Ann.) "So we just had to wait through the winter until Detective Sergeant Pat Walsh told us that it might be good to come around the beginning of June. Maybe the snow would be off and we could search, see if we could find any evidence of Noah in the area."
A TV station in the Flathead Valley ran a story on Noah's disappearance in November 2010. About a week after Thanksgiving, the Pippins received a call from a woman in Missoula who claimed to have seen a man who looked like their son outside a bar.
This June, an elk hunter from Arlee caught a KPAX update on the case. He called his friend Robert Schall, believing the missing person to be the same man who had wandered into their camp at My Lake the previous summer. Schall called Mike and Rosalie Pippin several times and told them all the details he could recall, including that the weather turned "terrible shitty" shortly after they saw Noah.
Schall said he'd also seen a Forest Service ranger that day who might have seen Noah. Walsh tracked down Kraig Lang, who told him he'd made contact with a Great Falls family along Noah's route. An article in the Great Falls Tribune's outdoors section prompted Donelle and Vern Kersey to call in. Every one of the people to see Noah on September 15 agrees he was 15 to 20 pounds lighter that day than in the older images they later saw.
The Pippins received one additional call from Missoula early this summer. An unknown woman told them she saw a man in a military-style boonie hat standing outside the Army Navy store on North Higgins Avenue. The hat, with a wide, full brim, is common working garb for men and women in the armed services. The man looked like a vagrant, the woman said, but the hat, the short-cropped hair and clean face led the spotter to believe it was Noah. He was holding a sign stating he was broke and needed money for a bus somewhere, she said. The woman failed to note his destination.
The Pippins visited Montana in June to search the backcountry themselves. They found nothing.
Deep snowpack prevented the Flathead County Sheriff's Department from conducting an aerial search of the Chinese Wall until early August of this year. Walsh worked alongside Flathead County Search and Rescue Coordinator Brian Heino as well as representatives from the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Department in an attempt to spot any trace of Noah Pippin.
One problem, Walsh says, is that it sounds like "everything he had on was green."
"It wasn't like he was wearing the usual red backpack, anything like that," says Heino. "It was green and camo. With all those difficulties, even right now, searching is difficult...You're looking for objects, especially when you're doing aerial searches, that don't blend into the environment."
Heino says that finding Noah—if he's there—will likely require a multi-agency ground search, with horses, a base camp, and supplies.
As for the odds that Noah made it out and is living off the grid, Walsh says he isn't holding his breath. "I think there would have been some activity on his credit cards, his phone, something...I suspect he didn't make it. We have nothing else to go on."
Shortly after the Kerseys made contact with the Pippins this summer, 11-year-old Trevor had difficulty sleeping for two weeks. Vern Kersey began having nightmares. "One dream, he'd made it his life's mission to find [Noah]," Donelle says. "Another dream he found him. He walked into this little hut up by the Wall, he walked in and there was this guy sitting at a table with his head down.
"He walked over and tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'Hey, hello, hello.' And he kinda lifted the guy's head up and here's this guy that's just like almost a skeleton—still alive, but almost like a skeleton."
The Kerseys have begun to see Noah everywhere. "You can't help it," Donelle says. "You look twice. You run it over and over in your head, thinking, 'Could he have survived?'"
Much of the time when Mike and Rosalie Pippin talk about their oldest son, their optimism shines through in their use of the present tense. The two sightings in Missoula have given them a sliver of hope. But occasionally, they slip.
"My son was a tough guy, he was," Mike says. "He was a brave, tough man. But he had a gentle heart."