Missing Woman – Katie Hunter

Zion National Park, Utah. Image by Courtney Kenady, via Unsplash

In early October 2020, my partner Greg and I drove at sunrise to Zion National Park in southern Utah. On the way I swigged coffee and snapped photos of sandstone cliffs dip-dyed red by the sun. They dwarfed what I’d imagined while planning our pandemic-adapted vacation – a national park tour via road trip, starting and ending at our apartment in Oakland.

In the months before that, I’d gotten out the vote over text. I’d baked sourdough and binged The Sopranos. I’d taught my family in Florida to Zoom and guided students through fractions on a virtual whiteboard. It was the era of sheltering in place and I was showing the people in my life that I too could adapt.  

But on many days I barely got out of bed. On the worst, I felt emptied of everything yet weighed down, immobile, like a hollowed-out boulder on a cliff’s edge.

In better moments I saw beauty and grace, interwoven like threads of a net that kept me from oblivion. My student thanking me, through a pixelated screen, for helping her with math. My best friend texting how are you. My husband brewing us tea before bed. I recounted these moments in gratitude lists and as I walked by the lake near our home. No matter the time of year, it teemed with gulls who came and went as they pleased. I watched them and wondered what that must feel like. To come and go as one pleases. As one needs.

Therapy submerged me in strategies for handling the hard days. I chased endorphins with walks and sought guidance in spiritual podcasts. Still, the oblivion loomed.

Soon it beckoned.

The days I couldn’t bring myself to text friends or do much at all became days I considered driving away from home with no plan. Leaving started to feel like the only climber’s hold out of the void. Maybe if I get far enough, I’ll find something. Some purpose. Something, anything, to fill me up.

This unnerved me, especially as a person who makes spreadsheets for weekend trips. Worse were the roundhouse kicks to my heart. What kind of person could leave their partner, and the rest of the people they loved, like that?

Was it a person with the need to run baked into their genes? I thought of my grandfather. A dashing Air Force colonel and writer, he died of a heart attack before I was born while jogging around a track. My mother still fondly calls him Daddy.

Several times he had left his family without warning. Once, he was gone for three days. He gave no explanation for his absence to my grandmother or his six children.

How far had he gone before he turned around? How far would I go? I imagined the Sierras giving way to scrubby desert. I imagined pulling over our Prius, eyes heavy, and waking up with the sunrise into some motivation to turn around and live—or maybe, to just keep driving.

Diagnoses of depression were few in my grandfather’s era. I wondered what a clinician would say about him now. I wondered if they would tell him to listen to podcasts or make lists to keep from falling off the edge of a cliff.  

When Greg proposed the road trip it was temporary salvation. Like a sliver of belief that I, and our world, might get past the dread dominating our lives.

The 2,300-mile trip would take us through Utah and Zion. Planning it got me out of bed and on the internet. It gave my dark fantasies a detour. A rest stop. One surrounded by red-tinted cliffs, solid and impenetrable.

_____________________________________________________

The morning we arrived at Zion, I saw the poster. 

MISSING PERSON: Holly Suzanne Courtier, a subject compressed into bullet points: Age: 38. Height: 5’3. Weight: 100 pounds. Hair: Brown. Eyes: Blue. A photo shows her in a tank top swirled in psychedelic hues, smiling, eyes crinkling at the edges. A woman who loves being alive. A woman who may have the following items: a Patagonia black nano puff jacket; a camouflage hammock.

When I saw this sign, I did not know that a search team had found receipts for these items in Courtier’s van the previous day. A van she had left on a roadside near Zion. A van she had lived in since losing her job as a nanny due to the pandemic.

Courtier had left no itinerary. No signal. No way to know if she might be seen again.

I did not know any of this at the time. All I knew was what the poster told me.

On October 6th, COURTIER was possibly dropped off by a private shuttle bus in the Grotto parking area. Her intended travel plans and whereabouts are unknown.

_____________________________________________________

I thought about Courtier as our shuttle ambled through Zion Canyon. What had brought her to the park alone? Had she needed to see or feel whatever it had to offer, or was she driven by the need to leave something behind? Was she, like me, another brunette in her thirties starving for sunrises over the mountains, thinking they might make her whole?

We passed maidenhair ferns and red mesquite as I pondered this. They lent lushness, gentleness even, to the arid land. But at 3,000 feet high, the canyon walls are the showstoppers. They filled me with that emotional cocktail specific to the West: one part awe, one part fear, and one part spiritual longing. For a hardcore agnostic, it felt like the closest I might get to touching the hand of whatever force, whatever god, is responsible for our existence. For the first time in a long time, it felt like being alive.   

Our shuttle dropped us off at the Grotto, where Holly Courtier had started her Zion journey. What, and who, had she left behind? How long had she meant to leave them?

We had told no one of our plan. It would be easy, we thought, hiking up to Angel’s Landing. I was used to Oakland’s hills and navigated the uphill hike easily. My heart began to pound, though, when we saw the landing itself—a narrow lookout point, accessible only with anchored chains you must use to traverse half a mile of sheer cliffside.  

I counted fifteen hikers ahead of us, gripping metal as they dangled over the canyon floor 1,000 feet below. When my turn came, I breathed deeply, then white-knuckled to the first waypoint. There I exhaled and took in the view: blue sky over rocks, level with my gaze. A hawk soared past and I watched, feeling suspended, feeling something like joy turned relief as I glanced down. I did not want to let go.

A gust of wind slapped me. You’re terrified of heights, remember?

“I’m going back,” I yelled to Greg. Almost there, almost there I mumbled as I passed, fist over fist, back to where the chains began.

_____________________________________________________

By October 12th, the day we neared the Landing, search and recovery crews had scoured Zion Canyon for Courtier. The park had set up a tip line and blanketed trailheads with posters.

By October 12, five days since her disappearance, Courtier was national news. That day, as I turned back from the Landing, Courtier’s daughter, Kailey Chambers, prayed in an interview for her mother’s rescue. She tearfully recounted how much Courtier loved Zion: how it had a “special place” in her heart.

As I had dangled above the canyon that afternoon, my mother had texted me.

Did you make it to the Landing? Have you heard about that missing hiker? Keep an eye out for her.

We deal in questions like these, my mother and me. In logistics and solutions. Specific actions one can take to tone biceps or remind your husband how to clean a toilet (“there’s a YouTube video for that,” she texts with a smiley face emoji).

What we don’t deal in are unfillable voids. I was a sullen child, prone to anger and silence, making her job as a single parent that much more difficult.

It’s a mood, she’d say through my closed door. It will pass.

What if it didn’t? What if I wasn’t solid like my mother, who had never run away, even in moments when she might have wanted nothing more? What if I was more like her father, who had gotten in his car and driven away? I squeezed Greg’s hand as he started our car to leave the park.

I thought back to Courtier. We loved nature and were close in age. Had she wanted to escape herself too? Had she been looking for something here to make herself whole?

Where was she?

_____________________________________________________

That night I made a fire in the outdoor pit at our rental home near Zion. I knew nothing of Courtier beyond the poster. My cell signal was weak.

Instead I chopped onions and tossed them into a skillet. As they caramelized, a man pulled up in a red pickup. Dressed in Levis and flannel, he introduced himself as Adam, the property manager, and asked about our stay. Small talk led to Courtier.

“Heard about that,” he said. “Doesn’t surprise me. People go missing a lot out here,” he added, waving toward the scrubby desert behind us.

“They’ll come out here for a break. Or sometimes just leave their lives and start over. We’ve seen it a lot more since COVID. People losing their jobs and all,” he said.

“Huh.”

“Easy to do up here,” he added. “There’s so much land where you can just get lost.”

I stared out and looked for life signs—a fire or the peak of a tent. Wondering if someone was out there turning themselves into someone new. Doing what I had imagined.

“Well,” Adam said. “I need to make the rounds. You might want to check those,” he added. I looked down at the charred onions.

“Shoot. Thanks.”

As I scraped the pan, I wondered who might be out there; at the people searching for new selves, leaving everything and everyone they knew behind. What had made them decide to go? To keep going? I wondered if Courtier was among them in her camouflage hammock.  

What were the physics of leaving and returning? What was the equal, opposite reaction that had made my grandfather turn around and go back to his family?

Would I come back if I left?

These questions ticker-taped through my brain the next day as we drove through the Eastern Sierras and descended into thick fog. Not fog, I realized, as an acrid scent filled the car. Smoke. A taste of fires and pandemic and a seismic election.  A reality I could not return to, or confront. I squeezed silent fists in my hands until my knuckles whitened. 

When we returned home the next morning I threw our clothes in the washing machine and then turned on my computer, desperate to stave off reality. I needed to find the missing people instead.

Maybe they had answers. Maybe they could show me what would happen if you ran into the void.

Tabs soon cascaded across my screen. I forgot about the laundry. I forgot to charge my phone. It lay on my desk like an anemic lifeline. How was your trip, my best friend had texted.

Instead I clicked into the wilderness. And found that no one knows many people are missing there, in the actual wilderness, at all. No one knows how many souls are lost or hiding in the 640 million acres of federal land that includes our National Parks. 

The government doesn’t keep statistics on lost persons. Reporting them is voluntary in forty states, making the Department of Justice’s database, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a rough guesstimate.

How can we not know? This horrified me but I couldn’t stop digging. I mined for headlines about missing people and rescue efforts. Did they all look like Courtier’s, full of teams and posters?

The answer, I learned, is no. Once someone goes missing, local authorities are responsible for looking for them. Authorities with wildly varying degrees of resources and willpower for covering wild terrain for a single missing person.

National Parks like Zion have their own reporting system and Search and Rescue (SAR) team, backed by heavily-resourced command centers. But other jurisdictions are far less equipped. Like Colorado’s Rio Grande National Forest, where one full-time law enforcement officer covers the 377,314 acre Conejos Peak district. Summits there reach 14,000 feet and temperatures drop to thirty below zero. In 2017 the district officer said she sometimes learns of missing persons in the local newspaper.

I shared these facts with Greg over dinner. He seemed surprised, and, perhaps, relieved that something was keeping me aloft, if manically energized.

“Don’t stay up too late,” he said. He kissed me on the forehead. 

Midnight passed. Still I searched, ravenous. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey carried out over summer 2020 found that twice as many people had considered suicide that year than in 2019—a rate even higher among essential workers and respondents who were young, or Black, or Hispanic. Opioid-related deaths have increased in more than 40 states since March 2020.

Before COVID, unemployment and income loss were already linked to depression, stress and suicidal thoughts. But never on this scale.

I imagined the people behind these facts. People like my cousin, someone who, growing up, was like a sister to me, and who also grappled with depression. We shared the same dry sense of humor; the same tendencies, I knew, to stare into the void.

In March, she’d lost her job. I am sorry to hear that I’d texted her. You doing okay?

She was managing, but I was worried. I don’t know what I’d do without my job—without one of the few delicate threads that kept me aloft.

And what of my students? Before the pandemic, they had been cashiers and servers and nannies like Courtier. Now they had no jobs. No safety nets. How much more could they take? How much more could any of us take?

_____________________________________________________

For two days I ignored my phone and my husband and looked for Courtier. By this point—October 17th, twelve days into her disappearance — the Zion teams had conducted dozens of searches. Yet they couldn’t hope to cover the park’s 229 square miles of deserts, buttes, river valley, and coniferous forests in time.  

“I am personally begging people to help come look for my mom. We need more manpower,” said Chambers in an interview I streamed on my laptop. What must it be like, I wondered, watching, to have someone you love go missing? Would there only be fear and anguish? What about anger?

But it was only desperation I saw on Chamber’s face as she pleaded. “Any tip at this point is so crucial to this investigation and search for her.”

Time was running out. Soon, rescue would turn recovery.

On October 18th, the team at the Emergency Operations Center in Zion received a call.  A pair of hikers had spied a hammock in a brushy area off the Emerald Pools trail. It was camouflage.

When search crews arrived, they bushwhacked past the hammock. A few hundred yards back, they found a woman, emaciated. Dehydrated. But alive.

Holly Courtier had been pulled from the oblivion.

_____________________________________________________

Courtier’s family was overjoyed. And so was I and the rest of the internet. I texted links of the news to Greg and my mother and watched interviews with Chambers, tearfully thanking everyone who had aided the search.

The feeling didn’t last.

How could a person stay lost in that area? Emerald Pools was a popular trailhead. Not a place someone easily goes missing.

And how could a person survive and walk out of the park on their own after twelve days of no food and little water? Lacking water, your cells suffocate. Your kidneys shut down. Your brain swells. You sustain shock and seizures.

Courtier’s story didn’t fit these realities. Still I kept clicking, wanting to believe otherwise. Couldn’t it just be, as Courtier’s sister, Jamie Strong, had said, “nothing short of a miracle?”

Wasn’t there any room, especially now, for a narrative of a miraculous rescue from ourselves or from oblivion?

The sheriff leading the search, Daril Cashin, didn’t think so. He claimed that if the SAR team had found someone with the kind of severe head injury Courtier’s family reported, they would have had her examined for trauma.

Strong responded. She said that Courtier had been treated for a concussion. That rescuers had to hover near her while she walked out of the park.

But I was struck by something else Strong said. Something that brought me back to why this story had grabbed me so hard. Something that made me see a reflection—one more than just that of another thirty-something white woman who loves National Parks. I wanted to reach into the monitor and wrap Courtier in my arms.

“I don’t think that her mental state was good,” Strong added. “I really think she had a mental breakdown and was not in the right state of mind when she decided to take this journey and not tell people where she was going.”

That’s why, Strong added, her sister had checked into a mental health facility after her rescue. That’s where Courtier remained while the internet rumors swirled; as the New York Post and Los Angeles Times cast suspicion on the family’s claims.

What do you think? I texted my mom.

What I didn’t text: Who do you see in this story? Do you see me?

Sounds sort of scammy, she replied. How was the trip? 

I put down the phone and went back to the wilderness. Once linked to prayers, the #HollyCourtier Twitter hashtag now flanked conspiracy theories. I spent the next three nights prowling it, ignoring everyone in my life, as I searched for a rational explanation.

I should have known better.

Missing or GoFundMe money grab? asked CrazyWorld. You going to look at those eyes and tell me she didn’t make up some crazy ass story? posted MuskRat23 beside a photo of Courtier, saucer-eyed.

I wondered who would risk the wrath of nature and the internet for $11,761 in donated funds. Was Courtier this kind of person? Who was this person? Was it someone who took a small thread and unraveled it, spinning it into a fabric of an alternate reality that became, for them, for a time, the only one?

I wondered how deep the void might go.

I thought back to the night my mother and I had driven to see her brother, my uncle. A man who, over years, had alienated our family with incoherent voicemails and webpages strewn with fantastical conspiracy theories that everyone he knew was out to get him, us included.

I was eleven years old, sitting in the passenger seat in my pajamas. All I knew of my uncle was that he loved cats and the Simpsons. Just like me. “He’s not well,” my mom had said as she drove.   

He came out of the building as we pulled in the driveway.

I want to kill myself,” he sobbed. I held my breath as my mom walked toward him.  

I do not know what it means to inhabit his mind. I do not know what it is to feel exactly how he felt that night, or to live with a clinical diagnosis of bipolar disorder like he does. He takes a medical cocktail now that brings him to equilibrium. To reality.

But what I’ve glimpsed is the temptation to trade that reality for another. To trade the exhaustive search or the wandering in the desert or the conspiracy theory for a feeling that makes an end seem reasonable. A feeling that makes you sob words of self-destruction or scream them at your husband days after you return from your trip to Zion, when you feel like there is nowhere else to go, nowhere left to escape to from yourself. I didn’t mean it, you’ll later say, the words still acid on your tongue, and you’ll wonder whether you can believe yourself anymore.

Mental illness or money grab? a member posted in the Facebook group HOLLY COURTIER: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED.

Both read the unanimous replies. Both.

I scrolled and tried tallying evidence for either side. I followed a thread to Holly’s Facebook page. In public posts, she likened vaccines to mind control. She posed herself yogically atop cliffs and redwood stump in profile photos. One featured her in a full Native headdress.

I tensed, then slumped forward. As if I’d been punched. Duped into believing camaraderie with someone who’d just pulled a curtain back to reveal she’d been a stranger all along.

I would not find whatever I needed here, I realized. Not on a Facebook page of another white woman in her thirties whose story is her own.

Not in a stream of social media conspiracy theories or best guesses or opinions of others trying to remove themselves from their own reality too, if just for a little bit.

I shut my computer.

_____________________________________________________

The story of Holly Courtier does not have a neat ending. Perhaps that is because there is more to the story than we know. Maybe there’s some concealed part, hiding a lie, schemed up by a woman down on her luck, who did not actually survive for twelve days in the wilderness. Maybe this will come to light and give us the ending we have suspected all along.  

We may never get a clean ending to that story. But that’s not the story I’m telling here.

So what’s it about, this story of mine?   

Perhaps it’s a story about people finding god, or themselves, in nature. Or perhaps it’s a story about people who have been found, because they live in a country that rallies when a white woman and mother disappears into the wilderness.

Or perhaps this story is about people who are never found. Either because they don’t want to be, or because there are not enough resources and will to find them, or both.

Maybe this is a story about family. About how we inherit from them and learn from them in equal measure, and yet how we set ourselves apart too, finding our way through our own lives the best we know how.

Perhaps, though, this is a story about me. A woman spending nights in a Google tailspin, chasing hashtags and news clips about wilderness rescue efforts, threading the connections like some crazed investigator on a picture-laden pegboard because it is how, for a while, she can avoid doing what she has been doing for parts of her life: staving off the weight that sits like a boulder on her chest, pressing her down, trying to stop her from searching for the meaning behind it at all. 

That story, the one about me, doesn’t have a neat ending either. But what it does have are threads, which, when I finally begin to pull them, I discover aren’t threads at all. They are ropes, thick and smooth as steel chains, sturdy as the people I love. The people who are there when I reach out or reply, unafraid to tell them that I need to hear their voice and be reminded of what lies on this side. The side of dark and light, of sandstone cliffs and gulls, of words on paper and infinite moments of grace. The side opposite the oblivion.

*

Katie is a writer, educator, and student in the MFA Program at San Francisco State University. She has been published in Hecate magazine, the Bold Italic, Rebel Girls, and Misadventures Magazine. She currently lives with her husband and cat in Oakland, where she enjoys hiking, birdwatching and karaoke. You can find her at @kahunteroma and katiehunterwriter.com.

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