The Search for Bill Ewasko

[Images: Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

“In June 2010, Bill Ewasko traveled alone from his home in suburban Atlanta to Joshua Tree National Park, where he planned to hike for several days.” So begins the story of an avid hiker and Vietnam vet who went missing in Joshua Tree, a mere two-hour drive from Los Angeles, and has never been found to this day.

It has now been nearly eight years since his disappearance, but the search for Bill Ewasko never ended: people with no connection to the Ewasko family have continued to look, trading maps & GIS files online, scouring ever more remote regions of the park on foot, and arguing about the meaning of a mysterious cell-phone “ping” that seemed to place Ewasko so far outside of the original search area that, at first, many hikers simply dismissed the data.

The ongoing search for Ewasko has since become one of the most geographically extensive missing-person searches in U.S. history, with well more than a thousand miles’ worth of routes covered in Joshua Tree National Park alone.

[Image: Joshua Tree National Park; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

I began following the story of the Ewasko search in the late spring of 2016, following a series of posts on a blog called Other Hand, written by retired civil engineer Tom Mahood, and emailing a handful people still involved with the search. In the spring of 2017, I was able to join one of those searchers, Los Angeles musician Adam Marsland, in person on a new hike into a part of the park known as Smith Water Canyon. Then, when I was back in Palm Springs to report on the National Valet Olympics, I stayed in town for a few days to do several more hikes of my own, trying to familiarize myself not only with the landscape of Joshua Tree’s mountainous northwest, where Ewasko disappeared, but with the sensation of being alone there.

In Joshua Tree, even when the roads through the heart of the park are clogged with vehicles, it is often true that the instant you hike just one more ridge away from whatever trail you were meant to follow, you are utterly and completely on your own.

[Image: Joshua Tree National Park; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

A feature I wrote about the Ewasko search is now online over at the New York Times Magazine, part of their “Voyages” issue. The piece not only recounts the known details of Ewasko’s June 2010 hike, it also includes a look at so-called “lost person behavior” algorithms, deployed to anticipate how a stranger will act in an unfamiliar landscape, and it briefly reviews some of the more outlandish theories of what might have happened to Ewasko and how his cell phone appeared to be in such an unexpected region of the park.

[Image: Joshua Tree National Park; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

What drew me to Ewasko’s story in the first place was not just the fundamental mystery of how it could have happened—that is, how a competent outdoorsman could completely disappear from the surface of the Earth only two hours outside Los Angeles—but also why disappearance itself seems to draw so many people in. Trying to understand this led me to a long list of people, including musician Adam Marsland, as well as a cell-phone forensics expert and USC alum named Mike Melson who founded an independent search-and-rescue group inspired by a line from The Book of Matthew: “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.”

As with all stories of this kind, of course, there is so much more to tell, so many more details that only add to the mystery of Ewasko’s disappearance and to the depth of character of the people involved in searching for him, but there was not enough space to get into it all. This includes questioning the very idea of wilderness, and how we define it, when a step beyond the boundaries of civilized space can occur mere yards from the edge of a popular trail.

Here is a link to the piece, which also features evocative photographs by Philip Montgomery.

(Previously on BLDGBLOG: Algorithms in the Wild).

Nocturnes

merrell4[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Filmmaker Alec Earnest—who we last saw here for his short film about the death of a mysterious map collector in Los Angeles—is back with a mini-documentary about landscape painter Eric Merrell.

Merrell, we read, “might be best known for his rigorous approach to landscape painting. For several years Merrell has been working on Nocturnes, a series of abstract desert works that he has painted all over Southern California, each solely by the light of the moon.”

merrell6[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Earnest’s film follows Merrell into Joshua Tree National Park, “where night falls and the desert takes on a surreal and mysterious beauty, where edges blur and shapes transform, and solitude takes on a whole new meaning.”

The small crew used a new Sony A7S camera “that basically allowed us to shoot completely in the dark,” Earnest explained to me over email.

The film is embedded, below:

Of course, as the video makes clear, this is a slight—but only slight—exaggeration, in that Merrell uses a headlamp and small clip lights on his painting box to help illuminate the scene.

merrell11merrell2[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

When those lights are switched off, however, the landscape takes on a silvered, almost semi-metallic lunar glow, as if bathed in ambient light.

merrell8merrell7[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Standing there in the darkness, Merrell comments on how working at night also comes with a peculiar kind of audio enhancement, with distant sounds riding the breeze with a peculiar clarity; and at one point a fortuitous lightning storm rolls by in the distance, as if to prove Merrell’s point with the atmospheric sonar of a thunder crash echoing over the otherworldly rocks of the National Park.

merrell12merrell13[Images: Paintings by Eric Merrell; screen grabs from Nocturnes].

Read a bit more at the L.A. Review of Books, and don’t miss Earnest’s earlier film here on BLDGBLOG.

(Related: In Search of Darkness: An Interview with Paul Bogard).