It had been weeks since Jack McAtee was last heard of, and his father was feeling desperate.
He reached out to local police, printed fliers featuring pictures of his son — brown hair, green eyes, toothy grin — delved into hiking books and traveling blogs to figure out where the outdoors-loving 27-year-old might have gone next.
And over and over again, Steve McAtee read his son’s favorite book: “Into the Wild,” Jon Krakauer’s grim chronicle of another young man who vanished into the wilderness and then died there. Hoping for an answer. Hoping that story wouldn’t soon become Jack’s.
Jack McAtee, a St. Louis native living in the ski town of Breckenridge, had been driving amid the mountains of Colorado when his car swerved off the road and tumbled more than 100 feet into a river below, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The car was totaled, but, miraculously, McAtee swam to the surface and escaped with only a scratch above his left eye. He had fallen asleep at the wheel, he told a state trooper that Thursday evening last September.
But the trooper’s suspicions were roused by the young man’s odd behavior — he seemed carefree one moment, erratic the next — so he took McAtee to the hospital, then to protective custody at the local jail, then to a mental health facility at Summit Safe Haven in Frisco, Colo., a mountain town at the northern end of Colorado’s Tenmile Range.
The next morning, according to Colorado newspaper the Summit Daily News, McAtee walked out of Safe Haven with just $67 and the clothes on his back. And that was the last anyone saw of him. There were no more phone calls, no bank withdrawals, no run-ins with the police. Nothing.
Until this August, when a pair of French hikers bushwhacking down a mountain near Frisco came across a skull on the rugged, steep slopes.
The skull, DNA tests revealed, was Jack’s.
“Our search has come to fruition,” Steve McAtee wrote on a Web site set up to find his son. “Our closure is at hand.”
His son was gone, he continued, “There’s nobody now who saw just what Jack saw, knows what he knew, remembers what he remembered, loves what he loved.”
But the McAtees tried. During the year they spent wondering what had become of Jack, the McAtee family tracked him across the country in an attempt to see what he saw, to know what he knew, convinced that being in the mountains he loved would tell them something about why he had vanished.
They began in the spot where he was last seen: the gravel cliff above the Dillon Reservoir. Standing before the mountain-ringed reservoir, Steve McAtee recorded a short video for his son, panning the camera across the pristine landscape. At the end, he turned the lens toward himself.
“I love you Jack,” McAtee said. “Wherever you are.”
He left no physical evidence behind, but the family had a few leads. According to the Summit Daily News, McAtee had asked the state trooper who responded to his crash if hitchhiking was allowed in Colorado.
Within certain guidelines, the trooper explained.
Then McAtee asked the trooper the best destination to hitchhike to using nearby Interstate 70.
“Moab,” the man responded.
Moab, Utah. Lead No. 1. Steve McAtee and one of his four daughters traveled to the desert city and got the local newspaper to run an article on Jack. They flew low over peaks he used to rave about, eyes straining for some kind of sign of where he’d been.
Then there were the leads from Jack’s own history, which Steve McAtee hashed out endlessly on the FindJackMcAtee Web site. His sense of adventure — he used to fly planes in Alaska. His commitment to service — he once spent a month living and working at a homeless shelter. His admiration for Chris McCandless, the focus of “Into the Wild,” who, like McAtee, grew up in the suburbs but then fled into the wilderness, where he lived for a time on the strength of his survival skills and a Thoreauvian desire to disconnect. Perhaps he was piloting flights for fishermen in Alaska, or volunteering at a shelter in a big city like San Francisco or Houston. Perhaps he’d just gone deep into the wild around Frisco, where 10- and 12- and 14-thousand-foot mountains and endless acres of trees would shield him from the outside world.
Alaska, shelter, mountains. Leads 2, 3 and 4. Steve McAtee reached out to his contacts in Alaska. He posted Jack’s missing poster on the Facebook pages of homeless shelters in cities across the West and Midwest. All six of the McAtees flew out to Summit County and ensured that signs about their brother and son were posted at every trailhead. Riding a mountain bike up and down the steep slopes, the family stopped every hiker they came across and held up Jack’s photo. Have you seen this man?
During the winter months, when it was impossible to stay in Colorado and scour the mountains, Steve McAtee devoted himself to reading about lives lived off the grid. “Travelers,” or “Rainbow people,” as he called them, migrated from town to town without cell phones, jobs, permanent housing or bank accounts. He studied these drifters ceaselessly, trying to figure out what might have appealed to Jack — the creative chaos of Burning Man? the California winter campsite “Slab City,” where McCandless had once stayed?
Then there was the other lead, the one the McAtees didn’t want to think about. Jack had stopped taking medicine for bipolar disorder just before the crash, the family told the Summit Daily News. It had happened before, and on three of those occasions he’d gone missing for a short while. Usually he popped back up again.
But the state trooper who met Jack McAtee wrote in his report on the incident that he believed the crash might have been intentional, according to the Summit Daily News. Maybe he was trying to die.
Maybe he was already dead.
“At times, it’s a bit like being in the wilderness ourselves,” Steve McAtee wrote on Thanksgiving, 2014. “At times the lack of hope and feelings that it may be all over, that Jack may be dead and never found. And yes, we all understand that very well could be the case.”
His updates from this summer are more optimistic. “It was a long cold winter,” McAtee wrote during a visit to Colorado in July, “… Even in light of the fact that Jack has now been missing for such a long time,we remain vigilant, hopeful and thankful for [friends and family] — even in the face of despair.”
When the Summit County Sheriff’s Office called Steve McAtee in August to alert him about the skull, he tried not to assume the worst.
“We don’t have any information yet,” he told the Summit Daily News. “I would call it inconsequential at this stage.”
Two months later, the information came: Jack had died.
What’s still not clear is when, or how. Taniel Ilano, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, told the Denver Post the investigation into McAtee’s death is ongoing.
But in his message on his Web site, Steve McAtee doesn’t ask those questions. The biggest one, the one that’s dogged him for the past year, already has an answer: “A person, an irreplaceable person, is gone.”
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Jack McAtee’s father. His name is Steve McAtee.
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