About a week ago my wife’s diet club, TOPS, held a Christmas luncheon at a local restaurant. Unfortunately, spouses of club members were welcome. I hate parties, but I knew this meant a lot to my wife, so out of my hole I crawled.
About 30 of us sat gabbing, around a long, narrow table. A finger of restlessness clawed my gut, as there was something at home I had been deeply engrossed in, that I wanted so much to return to.
I found myself warding off the usual assortment of flibbertigibbets, Nosy Parkers, and loud drunks. I did my best to suppress my inner misanthrope, while surveying this party for a kindred spirit who might share my wonkish taste for cerebral communication.
I spotted a candidate. This spirit sat opposite me, and about three chairs to the left. At first I wasn’t sure if the candidate was male or female, until I heard her feminine voice. She was middle-aged, had a heavy, husky build, with a large, square face that surrounded tiny spectacles.
She spoke with those around her sporadically, thoughtfully, and briefly, yet with the gravitas of an anvil. Just my type of conversationalist. I said something in her direction, to grab her attention, and it came across as awkward as the oblique acreage that separated us. I looked like a fool and gave up, contenting myself with the pursuit of staring downward and studying my napkin.
A party game ensued, called Who Am I? We were given clues about various club members’ lives, and asked to guess which member it was. One of the clues stood out like a unicorn.
“I was a Search and Rescue volunteer at Joshua Tree National Park. And then I moved to the Kalahari desert to research subsistence tracking,” the party leader proclaimed, as she read the clue from the paper. Everyone was stumped. “Hannah,” the leader finally revealed (pronouncing it “Hon-noh”).
Wow! I thought. Now there’s someone I’d like to have a conversation with. “Who’s that Kalahari desert person?” I asked my wife, sitting next to me.
“Oh, that was Hannah,” and she pointed at the husky lady with gravitas, whom I’d so awkwardly and unsuccessfully attempted to ensnare in dialogue just a few minutes earlier.
Hannah heard us and looked over at me. My opening! And our conversation began.
She was a challenge. She revealed herself in short sentences. But each sentence was an enticing breadcrumb that led my wife and I, and those around her, on and on, deeper into her personal history.
Hannah had come to our desert to get away from people. Yes! A fellow misanthrope! Tell us more, Hannah!
Her children had been abducted. Twice. What? Was Hannah actually a crazy nut? I mean, whose children get abducted twice? Ah, but it was her estranged ex-husband who had done the abducting. And it was our eccentric local judge who had given this ex-husband unsupervised visitation rights, after the first abduction. Yes, now we understood.
But Hannah exhibited no bitterness toward the judge. Or toward her ex-husband, whom she made a point to say something positive about after I made a sarcastic comment about him. Here was a deep spirit indeed. One who could find the beauty in any soul, no matter how obscured by the dark shadows of their heart.
Hannah mentioned graduate school, which led me down the tangent of her education. I love educated people when they’re as down-to-earth as her. She had a Masters Degree in Anthropology and a PhD in History.
Poor Hannah. It seemed to me that she had invested in an expensive education that was highly unlikely to pay for itself in monetary remuneration. Yet what an adventuresome life. “You’ve really lived!” my wife noted.
“You could write a book,” I added.
“I have written a book. Several books,” Hannah answered.
Another breadcrumb. More inquiries. And more enticing information.
This was no everyday Hannah. This was Hanna Nyala, author of the books, Point Last Seen, and Leave No Trace.
Point Last Seen: A Woman Tracker’s Story had first been published in 1997, and is an autobiographical account of Hannah’s experiences as a tracker for the National Park Service’s Search and Rescue operations. And not only was she a tracker in this memoir, but she was also tracked. By her ex-husband.
Point Last Seen was highly successful for Hannah, and in 1998 became an eponymous, CBS-TV movie, starring Linda Hamilton.
Leave No Trace was also a big success for Hannah, and made into the 2013 action-thriller movie, Heatstroke, starring Stephen Dorff and Svetlana Metkina.
She has also authored the book, Cry Last Heard, a sequel to Leave No Trace.
The diet club members seemed stunned. They suddenly realized that for months, they’d had a celebrity in their midst. The quiet, modestly unassuming, Hannah.
My favorite book genre is the public domain classic, and it takes a lot to get me to stray from that genre. But this was a true story about someone hiking through my backyard. Joshua Tree National Park. And Hannah fascinated me.
So after the party I got on Amazon and forked over $15.21 for Point Last Seen. When it arrived a few days later, it was hard to put down, and I consumed it within 24 hours. Or perhaps I should say, it consumed me.
For me, Point Last Seen was suspenseful, intriguing, outrageous, and funny.
I followed along on pins and needles as she tracked people lost in the desert, including a nine-year-old girl. I felt intrigued as I learned how to track. Or at least, learned how to learn how to track.
I raged at a legal system that sided with her abusive husband and put her and her children in mortal danger. And I laughed at her sense of humor, which had of way of seeping through at unexpected moments throughout the book.
Hannah shares her personal philosophies throughout this memoir, intertwining them with the art of tracking, the terror of being tracked, and poetic descriptions of the Mojave Desert. She left me with the sense that tracking is not just about finding a lost person. It’s also about finding yourself.
Point Last Seen was an inspiring read for me, and so of course I stole many quotes from her book. Here’s a few I’ll share with you, for your own inspiration:
Sitting and thinking and watching. That’s an important part of tracking. Patient attention to tiny, seemingly inconsequential details and differences. Measuring changes, memorizing patterns, asking intuitive questions and looking for their answers, ignoring sand in your eyes or rain on your head but imprinting on your mind the qualities of rain and sand located anywhere else.
As a tracker, I was not only surviving, but following the footprints of other human beings, well on the way to becoming human again myself. Going to the desert to escape people, I quickly began searching for them again in the most literal way imaginable: following their tracks.
Tracking isn’t instinctive or natural. It only begins when you start seeing the ground under your feet instead of just staring blindly at it; when you acknowledge the pain, accept the uncertainty of hope, feel the fear of being saviorless, yet insist not simply on surviving but also on paying attention to the small details of life once again.
Tracking also means learning to walk alongside, caring enough to reach out to other people—a crucial part of surviving when someone wants to make sure you don’t.
“Why didn’t you just leave him?” is one of the first questions our society has for battered women. What we don’t yet want to face is that there are many excellent reasons for staying with an abusive man—and not one completely positive reason for leaving. When you leave, things almost always get much worse, and sometimes they stay that way for a very long time.
No one else can teach you to track, no matter how much money you pay them or how much time you spend with them. Until you put in enough dirt time yourself, you cannot follow footprints on the ground.
Too frequently we notice vague signs, hesitate, and miss the lesson entirely. How many lessons can we miss before we’ve jeopardized the whole search?
Perhaps it’s time to admit that if trackers didn’t pay attention to hindsight, they’d be as lost as guppies on a tree branch . . . Looking backward and sideways while keeping your eyes focused forward is a crucial part of knowing not just where you are—but also where the one you seek may be.
Part of the process of getting lost is losing sight of your reference points without noticing they have disappeared. Then when your memory tries to connect itself to something familiar, it’s gone.
In the final decision to leave, you get out blindly, dumbly, knowing that when (not if) he catches up with you, he’s going to kill you and your children. So why even leave? Because somewhere deep inside, something shattered that last time he choked you—from a place long forgotten, you finally decided that if you had to die, you at least would not do so cowering in a corner of his house.
It’s always the little things, the tiny decisions or nondecisions, that contribute most to losing one’s way.
There’s no rationale behind losing your way, but trackers have to at least try to understand the process before attempting to find someone. Tracking one’s life is much the same. Sometimes you have to figure out why you did a thing in order to know what it was that you actually did. Retracing steps requires getting alarmingly close to what is most unknown to us: who we were at a specific point in time.
The U.S. legal system does not work for people who have no money. And according to the judge in our own case anyway, while it was legal for a man to beat his wife and children, it was illegal for a woman to desert her husband. I had deserted Kevin—and now to fight for the return of my children would require more money than I could ever hope to find.
I’ve always thought that those who manage to do anything for anyone else—regardless of where they happen to be at the moment of “the find”–are heroic. And as for the notion of “outstanding in the field”? To me that means exactly what it says: “out standing in the field”.
By learning to really see and listen to one another, by daring to smile and laugh and, yes, cry together, we can overcome what would destroy us. By joining hands, hearts, and efforts, we make human places where a whisper of hope is indeed equivalent to a done deal.
You can find Point Last Seen on Amazon, by following this link.
And you can learn more about Hannah Nyala at her website: PointLastSeen.com