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In the desert, a simple mistake can turn deadly

Bob's truck was parked near this outhouse

In the desert, a simple mistake can turn deadly

Did Bob get disoriented and turn the wrong way? In the desert, a simple mistake like this can turn deadly.

In May 2021, Bob Wildoner, then 76, rolled into a campground in a remote area of Death Valley National Park, fifty miles from the nearest highway.

Bob was tired – he’d been on the road since morning. He was feeling his age and his memory wasn’t what it used to be. Assuming he followed his usual routine, after leaving the highway and turning onto the rough dirt road, Bob had popped a couple of beers.

By the time Bob reached the campground at Lower Warm Springs in Saline Valley, night had fallen. He parked his pickup truck near this outhouse.

It’s reasonable to assume that Bob needed to use the facilities. Afterwards he exited the outhouse into the darkness of a moonless night.

Bob needed to turn right and walk downhill to reach his pickup. But Bob’s truck was black in color, so it blended in with the terrain.

Bob wasn’t carrying a flashlight. We know this because later, when Bob’s wife Cindy Lee allowed me to search his truck, I found the flashlight in the glove box – without a bulb.

Bob also wasn’t carrying his cell phone. He’d left it sitting on the seat.

Come morning, Bob’s pickup remained parked where he’d left it. His keys were still in the ignition. There was a fast-food bag on the seat, next to the cell phone. On the floor were two empty beer cans.

A search and rescue effort by ground teams and helicopters failed to turn up any sign of Bob. Officials even pumped the outhouse, in case somehow Bob fell in.

Some people speculated that Bob was a victim of foul play, but this didn’t make sense. Among the smattering of desert aficionados who venture into Saline Valley during the hot season, who would want to harm an affable old man?

The plateau where my colleague Stuart Jeffries found one of Bob's Wildoner's flip-flops.

Two years after Bob disappeared, my colleague Stuart Jeffries and I decided to hunt for clues. We spent days scouring the desert in the vicinity of the bathroom where Bob made his final pit stop.

Stuart suggested that we engage in a recreation. As luck would have it, after the sun set that day, there was no moon.

Stuart started at the bathroom but deliberately turned the wrong way, in the opposite direction from where Bob parked his pickup truck. Stuart hunched over slightly and tried to emulate the shuffling gait of an elderly man with limited mobility.

Stuart’s route led us away from the bathroom – until Stuart announced that at this point, Bob would have realized his mistake and turned back.

But turning back wasn’t so easy. With no light except from the stars, the most obvious path angled in a wrong direction, missed the bathroom, and led onto a desolate plateau.

This clever recreation is what led Stuart to stumble across one of Bob’s flip-flops. Cindy positively identified the sandal because she recognized the repair work Bob had performed, using adhesive tape, a few days before he left home.  

Next blog: What happened to Bob after he took a wrong turn?

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