Twenty-One Years Ago, Steven Reed Said He Was Going for a Hike Near Mount Hood. He Hasn’t Been Seen Since, and That May Be Just What He Wanted. 

“I don't think he's lost,” says Emileigh Rohn, a close friend. “I don't think this was an accident.”

Timberline Trail. (Joe Michael Riedl)

This story was published in the Oct. 13, 1999, edition of Willamette Week.

"Only the missing people get to forget." —Miranda July

When American Airlines Flight 1390 touched down at Detroit Metropolitan Airport shortly before 4 pm on July 2, Steven Reed was not on the plane.

Reed neglected to call his parents the day before to confirm his arrival, an uncharacteristic failure. When their son missed his flight, Larry and Hope Reed feared the worst. "We panicked," his father recalls.

Reed, 24, was due back from a two-week vacation in Portland. He had come West to recharge his batteries, to hike—and, he hoped, to meet his favorite performer.

In the next five days, nearly 100 highly trained searchers combed the treacherous terrain in the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness of Mount Hood National Forest. Despite specific information about where Reed had apparently gone hiking, searchers didn't discover even the smallest clue about his fate—then or in two subsequent missions.

Chris Nolte, the Clackamas County sheriffs deputy who led the rescue effort, says that his department has conducted hundreds of searches in the past 12 years; but only twice has it failed to discover a trace of the missing person.

The names gnaw at Nolte, none more than Steven Reed's. "The ones you don't find are the ones you remember," he says.

Nolte's best guess is that Reed got lost and died of exposure; but without evidence, he says, he can't rule out the possibility that Reed is in what searchers refer to as ROW—the rest of the world, i.e. somewhere outside the search area.

Those who know Reed best say that it's possible he chose to disappear. As evidence they point to his alienation and his infatuation with the haunting words of Miranda July, the performer he came to Portland hoping to meet.

"I don't think he's lost," says Emileigh Rohn, a close friend. "I don't think this was an accident."

Highway 35 and Mount Hood. (Peter Murphy, Oregon Department of Transportation)

Steven Reed grew up in a three-bedroom, ranch-style home in Sterling Heights, a middle-class suburb 20 miles north of Detroit. An only child and only grandchild. Reed was his family's focus. "He was going to be the shining star," says his father, a financial analyst at Ford Motor Co.

Instead of toys, the Reeds bought educational games and flash cards for their son.

By the time Reed started first grade, his father says, he tested at a sixth grade level. His IQ measured 165. Reed wanted to be a doctor from an early age, his parents say. For his 13th birthday, he asked for a copy of Gray's Anatomy. "He read it cover to cover and could cite it chapter and verse," recalls his father. Reed was a solitary child who spent most of his time reading. His tastes in literature were eclectic, ranging from Nietzsche to Tom Clancy to Anne Rice. Raised a Lutheran, he questioned that faith and nearly everything else.

"He was a challenging young man," his father says. "He never rebelled, but if he didn't agree he'd just say 'bye' and follow his own path."

After graduating eighth in his high-school class of more than 500, Reed attended Albion, a private college in Michigan. Away from home for the first time, he branched out. A girlfriend introduced him to gourmet food and good wine. He joined the Society for Creative Anachronism, a national group dedicated to reviving medieval customs. Slight at 5 foot 9 and 145 pounds, he nonetheless delighted in donning armor and jousting with other SCA members.

Despite his new interests, Reed excelled academically, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. From Albion, he went on to medical school at Wayne State University in Detroit, plunging ever deeper into his studies. "He never came up for air," his father says.

The second year of med school culminates in a grueling national examination. The day after the exam, Reed treated himself to a long-anticipated vacation. "He'd been researching Portland for a year or so," his father says. "It seemed to fit what he was looking for."

(Joe Michael Riedl)

Reed arrived in Portland on June 19. He picked up a 1998 Maroon Chevrolet Cavalier at Rent A Wreck on Southwest Canyon Road and checked into the Portland International Youth Hostel on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, paying for 13 nights in advance. The next day, phone records show, he contacted OHSU and Legacy hospitals about residencies. He also bought eight bottles of wine, visited Spirit Sound Flutes at Saturday Market, purchased a ticket to a Bach concert and a bought a book titled God Is a Verb at Powell's.

On Sunday, June 20, he called to wish Larry Reed a happy Father's Day. At the end of the brief conversation, Hope Reed jumped on the line. The last thing I remember saying to him," she recalls, "is, 'You aren't going climbing alone?' He said, 'Mother, I know better than that.'"

Two days later—June 22—Reed drove to the Mount Hood Information Center in Zigzag. He bought a parking pass and collected trail guides for two hikes—Ramona Falls and Salmon Butte.

Ramona Falls. (Adam Sawyer)

The Salmon Butte trailhead is 6.6 miles down a dead-end road off Highway 26 in Zigzag. One of only two maintained trails in the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, the path up Salmon Butte rises steadily, gaining 2,897 feet in 4.4 miles. The lightly used path snakes along steep dropoffs and winds through second-growth Douglas fir and lodgepole pine trees interspersed with patches of rhododendron. From the 4,800-foot-high top of the butte, hikers can see Cascade peaks ranging from Rainier to the Three Sisters.

On the day officials think Reed set out for the Salmon Butte, the snow line was at 3,500 feet and even lower in heavily forested areas. It was an ideal hiking day—the high of 68 was 8 degrees warmer than normal.

The next day, however, more than an inch of rain fell and the temperature dropped sharply, reaching a high of only 51 degrees. For the next four days, conditions remained wet and cool, with lows in the mid-30s.

On June 25, the Clackamas County sheriffs office dispatched a deputy to investigate a car reported abandoned at the Salmon Butte trailhead. On the seat of the car, a 1998 maroon Cavalier, the deputy noticed trail guides for Ramona Falls and Salmon Butte. A check of the car's registration yielded nothing unusual.

Moss on red cedars along the Hunchback Trail in Mount Hood National Forest. (David Prasad / Flickr)

When Reed failed to arrive at the Detroit airport on July 2, his father immediately called Rent A Wreck and the Portland hostel. The news from both was bad: no Steven. Larry Reed then called the Mount Hood Information Center. When he described Reed's car, staffers made the connection—it was the same vehicle the deputy had checked on June 25.

At 9:30 am on July 3, Chris Nolte received a call from the Mount Hood Information Center notifying him of a lost hiker.

If anyone could find Reed, it would be Nolte. A veteran of 12 years of finding lost hikers, the 39-year-old deputy is well-known in rescue circles. At 5 feet 10 inches and a couple of belt holes north of 200 pounds, he's more bloodhound than greyhound, but friends say there's no map of Clackamas County more precise than the one in Nolte's mind. He instructs sheriffs from across the state in rescue techniques and is often summoned to help other counties with difficult searches. Like all deputies, Nolte does his share of routine patrol, but he spends his spare time training his bloodhound, Marshall, and volunteering for rescues that he's not already leading.

Nolte's career in search was shaped by a tragedy that occurred just after he joined the Clackamas County sheriff's department. On May 12, 1986, a group of 10 students and three faculty members from Oregon Episcopal School in Southwest Portland were trapped in a powerful spring snowstorm while trekking up Mount Hood. The hikers set out before daylight that morning, intending to summit and be home for dinner. Instead, nine of them died on the mountain, killed by hypothermia before rescuers could find them. Their deaths radically changed search and rescue in Oregon. "After OES, the difference is night and day," says Lou Serafin, a Clackamas County deputy who was involved in that search and hundreds of subsequent efforts.

Unlike the days before OES, searchers now continue through the night. Hikers don't stop dying at dark, Serafin explains, but they often stop moving, which makes them easier to find.

Most people who get lost in the Mount Hood National Forest are novices hiking alone on trails, rather than climbing the mountain, according to Irv Wettlaufer of Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue.

Thanks to the popularity of cell phones and global-positioning systems, the number of people requiring rescue has continued to range between 25 and 50 per year, even though the number of annual visitors to the Mount Hood National Forest has increased from 27,000 to 106,000 since 1990.

In Oregon, all wilderness searches are run by county sheriffs. The rescuers they deploy are nearly all volunteers, who must be state-certified and complete at least 32 hours of additional training each year. "Search is a pretty developed science," says Rocky Henderson of Portland Mountain Rescue. "We use statistical probability quite heavily."

Developed by Canadian rescuers, these so-called "probabilities of detection" give searchers a methodical way to approach their task. By conducting experiments in varied terrains and observing the behavior of lost hikers, experts have calculated the probability that a hiker will be in a given area and, further, the probability that searchers will find him.

Searchers are thus able to methodically approach vast tracts of land like the 44,600-acre Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, which contains Salmon Butte. Each year, the Clackamas County sheriff mounts between 25 and 40 rescue attempts. Perhaps only one of them is as large as the search for Reed.

By 2 pm on July 3, Nolte had assembled about 20 volunteers from Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue, Search One K9 Detection, Portland Mountain Rescue and the Civil Air Patrol.

For three days, searchers ignored the holiday weekend and focused their attention on the bluff of the butte and the area just south.

By July 6, the search team had grown to 70 people. The Reeds had arrived from Michigan, and Nolte was pulling out all the stops. That day he called in a helicopter from the 304th Air Force Reserve Rescue Squadron. The helicopter, equipped with a heat-detecting camera, probed ravines while crews known as "ground pounders" paced high-probability areas in gridlike patterns. Nolte's report describes the treacherous conditions searchers worked under: "Teams in the field indicated that the areas off the trail were extremely difficult to navigate and littered with unseen and uncharted hazardous terrain features."

On July 7, after five days and thousands of man-hours, the rescuers' topographical maps resembled a completed crossword puzzle—except they hadn't solved the mystery. Nonetheless, the deputy told the Reeds he didn't think there was any point in continuing. Reluctantly, they agreed and returned to Michigan.

Still, Hope Reed refused to believe her son was dead. She acknowledged that searchers had done all they could, but that didn't mean there weren't other options. A secretary for the U.S. Army, Reed is also an astrologer. She decided to call on searchers of a different sort. She contacted psychics who claimed expertise in locating missing persons. One of them, a Denver-area woman known as Sid, telephoned Nolte with a description of where she thought Steven Reed's body lay.

On Aug. 11, in response to the psychic's vision, Nolte sent searchers back out. The team included a German shepherd named Klause, the only certified "cadaver dog" in Oregon. Rescuers use three types of dogs, explains Klause's master, Marty Neiman of Search One K9 Detection. In the first 24 hours a person is missing, they use tracking dogs, typically bloodhounds, which work from a "scent article" such as a person's favorite jacket. After a day, human scent fades from the ground, and searchers bring in air-scenting dogs, which are trained to find traces of any human in the atmosphere, rather than on the ground. The last resort is the cadaver dog, which detects decomposing human flesh. Neiman spent 14 months training Klause, first sensitizing the dog to a chemical substance called "pseudo-corpse" and, later, using body-fluid-soaked soil taken from underneath real corpses.

While Klause sniffed away, the two-legged rescuers went to extraordinary lengths. They lowered a team of kayakers 400 feet down from the trail to search the confluence of Bighorn and Cooper creeks. Poking around logjams and waterfalls, the kayakers, like the other searchers, found nothing.

On Sept. 8, the Reeds returned to Oregon, this time with a Michigan psychic named Judy Feathers, who believed Reed had been rescued by a "mountain man" after falling off a cliff and suffering serious injuries. Rescuers accompanied them to specific sites on the trail, at one point rappelling down a cliff face to search an area that Feathers believed held Reed's glasses, water bottle and black Levi's jacket. Again, they came up empty.

Trained in the cold logic of search, Nolte is diplomatic about the role of seers, whom families often consult when all else fails.

"We're willing to look at all possibilities," he says. None of the paranormal predictors he's encountered has found the missing, but, he says, "[Feathers] cited specifics, and in my 12 years of dealing with psychics, I've never seen that before."

As it turns out, Forest Service employees have regularly encountered a man who lives on Salmon Butte at least part of the year. But nobody has seen him since Reed disappeared.

(Joe Michael Riedl)

Nolte and other searchers cite several reasons their massive manhunt failed. The biggest is that the search didn't begin until 10 days after Reed disappeared. The rule of thumb is that a lost hiker can move eight miles a day, which means Reed could have been anywhere in a circle with a diameter of 160 miles. Further, the terrain was treacherous, remote and washed clean by heavy rains. Finally, Reed suffered from low blood sugar, which could have caused him to act irrationally, walking in an illogical direction.

"My best guess is that he got off into the snow and couldn't find the trail again," says PMR's Henderson. Then again, Henderson concedes, "There's an equal chance that he's not out there at all."

Once the horizon shifts away from the search grid in the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, the story of Steven Reed enters the realm of speculation.

Although officials don't suspect foul play, there is a film-noirish twist to the story. The first time Clackamas County Detective Roxanne Cadotte spoke to Larry Reed, on July 8, he inquired about the procedure for having a person declared dead. Cadotte told him the question seemed premature.

The detective later learned that at his parents' urging, Reed had bought $100,000 worth of life insurance in early June. The policy was to go into effect July 1. The beneficiary of that policy and Reed's modest trust fund? His parents.

Cadotte's notes from a subsequent conversation address the obvious question: "Mr. Reed said he knows that it sounds like they "had him pushed off a cliff,' when you look at the dates of the insurance policy; however, he said that simply is not true."

The contents of Reed's rental car are also puzzling. A criminologist found no fingerprints in the rental car, although Cadotte says that's not uncommon. The car did contain three items that any normal solo hiker might carry: a good camera, a cell phone and, most surprising, Reed's trail guide.

If searchers can't find a body and foul play isn't the answer, then the possibility that Reed chose to disappear is harder to dismiss—and clearly harder to prove.

Miranda July in 2007. (Steve Rhodes)

Why would Reed want to disappear?

Interviews with friends reveal that he was deeply unhappy with his studies and his life in general. From the first week of medical school, Reed struggled. John Whapham, a classmate and friend, remembers that Reed's frustration began in the most basic class, gross anatomy.

"Steve would stay long after everyone else," Whapham says. "I remember him standing over a cadaver in tears. He felt he wasn't living up to his own very high standards."

As time went on, Reed's frustration only increased. "He was under a lot of stress," says Tiffany Farchione, another classmate, "and the more stressed he got, the worse he did."

As the second year of school ended. Reed expressed fears that he would fail to get a medical residency. "He was despondent about his place in the class," Whapham says.

Frequently dressed in a black trenchcoat, black beret and Lennonesque glasses. Reed was something of an oddity at buttoned-down Wayne State. He alternately ignored his classmates and sought their attention, says Farchione. "He was a little eccentric," she recalls. "He'd walk into a lecture hall with giant Pixie Sticks and eat them during class." Reed's apartment was "like a medieval castle," Whapham says. Heavy shades blocked the windows; candles always burned instead of electric lights, and concrete gargoyle statues kept watch.

When Reed wasn't studying, he dived into Detroit's goth subculture, hanging out at a club called Ascension UK with Emileigh Rohn, a graduate student in biology. Reed also belonged to a role-playing group that acted out vampire stories. Despite these diversions, Rohn says he complained that he was very lonely and had felt like an outcast his entire life.

In March, Reed sent an email to Whapham, his best friend. At the end of the message was a quote from the liner notes of the Portland performance artist Miranda July's 1997 album Ten Million Hours a Mile:

The slow people always remember and the fast people try not to remember, only the missing people get to forget. They get to live clean lives under new names with no guilt and no memories. Everyone is jealous.

Whapham says he thought nothing of the words at the time, although it was unusual for his friend to append a quotation to a message. He never told the police or Reed's parents about the email. Farchione received a message with the same quotation. She too worries. "What if it was his way of saying goodbye?" she wonders.

Reed's interest in Miranda July bordered on obsession. A 25-year-old performer who bears a passing resemblance to a raven-haired Little Orphan Annie, July has earned critical acclaim nationally for her films and monologues, which focus on alienation and the transience of identity.

Reed apparently stumbled across July's work on the Internet but never saw her perform. He wrote July three letters, she says, the last one dated March 22. Each was several pages long. Reed reportedly spent months on one of the letters, which he asked Rohn to read. In it, he asked July to meet him when he came to Portland and included the names and phone numbers of references who would confirm that he wasn't a stalker or a weirdo. He also sent July flowers, a prepaid telephone card and a copy of his student ID card so she could see what he looked like.

July says she never spoke to Reed. She wrote him a letter and later a postcard but says she broke off communication because she didn't want to meet him.

Questioned by Cadotte, July said that Reed seemed not entirely pleased with the direction of his life and that he may have wanted to disappear to start a new one. She says she was surprised that the detective didn't seem to share her perception of Reed's disappearance. "Maybe I watch too many movies," July says, "but I thought it was more mysterious than she seemed to think."

Cadotte may be skeptical, but one of Reed's oldest friends thinks July's apprehensions are correct. "That was the first reaction I had," the friend says of the theory that Reed chose to disappear. "He's got a lot of computer savvy; he could easily create a new persona."

(Joe Michael Riedl)

In all probability, Steven Reed died somewhere near the Salmon Butte Trail. The area teems with coyotes, bears and other animals that searchers say could have consumed his remains. It's a safe bet that various rescue groups will be back at Salmon Butte on a training mission soon, looking for a scrap of clothing, a water bottle or Reed's glasses. As for Cadotte, her file is still open, but Reed's disappearance is a low priority for her. The reason is simple: "There's no crime here," she says.

Then there's that slim possibility Reed was fed up with his old life. In that case, as July said in a Portland performance on Oct. 9, "Who wouldn't want to disappear?"

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