Los Angeles Magazine
A DEATH IN THE VALLEY
Like many mid-life adventurers, Patrick Hodge pitted himself against the obscene forces of the hottest place on Earth--except this time he lost.
A member of the 20-man China Lake Rescue Team that had been scouring the desert floor of Death Valley located the body of Patrick Hodge at 9 a.m. on July 26, 1991. Hodge had made it to within a half mile of his red Toyota truck, which was parked at the north end of the asphalt lot that fronts the small, brackish pool known as Badwater. Six gallons of water sat on the passenger seat.
At 279 feet below sea level, Badwater is nearly the lowest point in North America. The true lowest point--282 feet--lies four miles to the west, in the middle of the snow-white salt pan where Patrick Hodge and the obscene natural forces of Death Valley clashed--and he lost.
Badwater is the hottest place on Earth. Official ambient air temperatures for all of Death Valley are measured inside a white louvered box that perches five feet above an irrigated lawn at Furnace Creek, 18 miles north. It has" registered as high as 134 degrees, back in 1913.
"The temperature at Badwater is consistently 5 to 10 degrees hotter than at Furnace Creek," says district ranger Mark Maciha, who coordinated the search for Hodge.
When ambient air temperatures approach 125 degrees, radiant heat has superheated the ground to nearly 200 degrees. In summer zero percent humidity and an almost chronic wind combine to make the 10 miles of salt flats that stretch across the valley floor like a ceramic frying pan. Hodge had chosen this pan for his 20-mile round-trip hike--and he'd made 19.5 miles of it.
At six feet and 165 pounds, Hodge was a fit, experienced outdoorsman. He would have turned 41 the day they found him, though friends say he looked 15 years younger. By the time he was found, he weighed 90 pounds. The sun had literally broiled the fat from his bones and turned his muscle tissue to jerky. His skin was darkened and mummified. The dry, greedy air had sucked every last drop of water from his body.
He was discovered lying on his back, as though he'd grown weary and fallen back to take a nap. The body was not disturbed by desert animals. Around Hodge's shoulder was an empty bandolier-style three-quart water pouch. Also with him were a Yashica 35mm camera and a Sony 8mm camcorder.
The rangers took Hodge's body to Lone Pine, about 125 miles northwest, where Dr. Milton Jones, the local physician, performed an autopsy in conjunction with the deputy coroner, Dwight Van De Walter, to determine if Hodge had been murdered. Jones found no signs of foul play. Because of the extreme desiccation, it was impossible to determine the exact time of death, but the cause was obvious to Jones, who listed it as "hyperthermia and dehydration, severe, 12 hours, secondary to extreme temperature ranging from 122 degrees in the air and up to 190 degrees on the ground."
The rangers, hoping for clues, developed the film in Hodge's camera and viewed the tape in the camcorder. The final 14.5 minutes of the tape chronicle the first leg of Hodge's hike across the 10-mile salt pan to the western side, where Hodge makes this fateful observation before the batteries die: "The only problem is that we have to hike back, otherwise we shall not see home again. Indeed, this is the real world. One false move, and you're dead."
Although I'd never met Patrick Hodge, I felt a strong kinship with him. I had been at Badwater at 7 a.m. on July 22. My running partner, Tom Crawford, and I were there for a second attempt at the classic 300-mile round-trip Death Valley-to-Mt. Whitney course. When we drove up to the little parking lot, still very much in shadow, I had noticed the red Toyota pickup with a white shell parked at the north end of the lot. I thought it strange that someone would already be out there at that hour of the morning, but I had a run to prepare for and quickly forgot the truck.
Later that day, we saw a search plane overhead but had no idea it was looking for the owner of that pickup truck--or that his body had been lying a mere half mile from where we stood. When I learned of Hodge's fate a week later, I was astonished to hear he had attempted the 20-mile trek with only three quarts of water.
At first, most who heard of the incident thought Hodge had probably committed a unique form of suicide. The idea was not alien to the park rangers, who, over the years, had unraveled cases of people who'd come to Death Valley with the express purpose of dying. And the desert is more than happy to accommodate such wishes.
The fact that Hodge had not exhibited the typical irrational behavior of people suffering from extreme dehydration (wandering in circles, discarding clothes that protect them from the sun), plus the ritualistic tone of the camcorder tape, suggested to the rangers an elaborate suicide rite.
Yet Hodge had had the wherewithal to push himself to just a half mile from his truck, and my own thought was that he had attempted an astonishing--even crazy--feat and made a fatal miscalculation. I felt even more sure when I later learned he'd made two such attempts in past summers--the last in 1988--but had been turned back by a lake of standing water in the middle of the salt pan. If there was an obsession there, it didn't seem to be out-and-out self-destruction.
I found myself thinking about Hodge frequently--even dreaming about him. What exactly drove him out into that deadly wilderness that day. I had to find out.
When faced with the sobering and extreme truths about Death Valley's perverse hospitality, it seems unthinkable that such a place could draw the occasional scorpion or befuddled lizard, much less a supposedly sane human being. But every summer, Death Valley does attract people, thousands of people, like moths to a flame.
And it's not just Chuck Yeager types. Pushing the envelope of human endurance, even survival, has become almost an addiction for many who on a daily basis toil in professions where their progress or their accomplishments are difficult to measure. Maybe it has something to do with being office-bound prisoners to the computer age. Maybe it's something locked deep in our nature. But more and more in the last decade, people of all ages and disciplines have found themselves drawn to the prospect of challenging nature, of braving physical extremes.
In the gray band of the 9-to-5 world, it's sometimes tough to see results. But the attempt to plan intelligently for a challenge, to anticipate the unexpected and then to pit oneself against heights, temperatures and distances that can be measured precisely--and extravagantly--has a much more simple reward: You either survive, or you don't.
For years, many have climbed--or attempted to climb--Mount Everest. Each summer, the adventurous come from all over to tackle the face of Yosemite's Half Dome. Other mid-life executives have taken to the potentially perilous sport of shark diving. And in the latest derring-do craze, z growing number has begun long-distance hang-gliding, soaring some 500 miles--even napping--then turning and returning to the same spot, using extensive knowledge of thermal wind patterns and weather conditions to beat the odds.
Since 1974, there have been several hundred attempts to run the 150 miles from Badwater northwest to the 14,494-foot summit of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. But it wasn't until 1977 that Al Arnold, a health-club manager from Walnut Creek, successfully completed the run. Since that time, 38 men and women have accomplished the feat--of those, a handful has done it twice. My running partner, Tom Crawford, has done it three times. And in July of '89, he and I became the first--and remain the only--runners to do the course out and back, 300 miles of arguably the toughest endurance course in the world.
And during the summer months, when drought and the sun have evaporated even the standing pools in Badwater, the occasional hiker will attempt to traverse the 10 miles across the belly of the valley and be met by friends on the other side. Some will even attempt to hike across, refill their water bottles and then hike back. But no one has attempted to hike both ways alone, without backup and with only three quarts of water.
Patrick Hodge was born July 26, 1950, the third and last son in a Catholic, blue-collar family in Canton, Ohio. Raymond, John, and Patrick were sent to St. Paul's Parochial school for the first eight years of their education. John was an altar boy, as was Jim Ball, who was a few years younger than Patrick and would become one of his best friends. Patrick was not.
"Pat was more of a juvenile delinquent at that time," Ball told me when I got hold of him in Ohio.
But he was into physical fitness. "He worked out a lot," his mother, Bernice, recalls. "At a very early age, he got a weight set--and I hid some of the heavier weights so he wouldn't hurt himself."
Although the family did not travel or go on extended vacations, Hodge, whose father passed away early last year, developed a burning curiosity about the world. "He was very good in geography," says Bernice. "When we first moved into the house, he was in eighth grade, and he drew the complete map of Europe freehand on the wall, like a mural, and all of the countries were so true to life: France, Italy, Russia, Estonia--even the little countries like Lithuania. He had them all in there. He's always wanted to go to China. He'd even gotten his passport. He was going to go next year."
An average student at St. Paul's, Hodge's grades suffered in high school. But his mother spent quite a bit of time tutoring him, and it paid off. He suddenly developed an interest in college, where he majored in psychology at Kent State and earned his master's at Central Missouri State.
It was at Kent State that Hodge and Ball became reacquainted. "We had some philosophy classes together," Ball said, "and he dated my older sister for about a year and a half. We were very much into existentialism. He was also very much into Carlos Castaneda, and in the early '70s, he got into kung fu and the martial arts. He was always into fitness."
After college, the two corresponded regularly. "He moved around a lot," Ball recalls. "He was interested in clinical psychology." The two would eventually end up working next to each other in Columbus. Hodge worked as a psychology assistant, administering tests and teaching a course in relaxation techniques at the J. Leonard Camera Center of the Ohio State Department of Workers' Compensation, helping to rehabilitate injured workers. Ball became director of grants and contracts at Ohio State University, coincidentally situated next door to Hodge's workplace.
"On weekends, Pat would come over, and we'd get a bunch of us together, turn on the stereo, have some beers and play Axis & Allies [the war-strategy board game]."
Meanwhile, Hodge and another childhood friend, Stan Micklavzina, began climbing mountains together--several peaks in the Adirondacks, Mount Whitney, the South Sister in the Oregon Cascades. When I tracked down Micklavzina, now a physics instructor at the University of Oregon, he recalled the first time he and Hodge drove cross-country in the early '70s. "He had a love of the desert--of wide-open spaces. I remember once we were on Interstate 40, which goes through Needles. I had this little Vega. I was asleep in the passenger seat, and I woke up at 11 at night and started screaming, because I thought he had the heat on, and he's going, "No man, it's the air! This is great!" We pulled into Needles, and there was a bank sign that said 102 degrees. Yeah, he loved heat, hated cold."
Hodge's mother recalls that as a youngster, he'd once nearly suffered frostbite on his hands and never seemed to get over it. Hence, the desert became almost an obsession. And, for some reason, so did electronics. "He was a very frugal guy," Ball says. "He had total disdain for people who sat and watched TV or spent money frivolously. Of course, his electronic equipment was not frivolous to him--it was essential."
John Hodge, who flew to Death Valley with his eldest son to bring back his brother's truck and who, with Ball, cleaned out Hodge's apartment, agrees: "Pat lived in a nice little apartment, neat as a pin. He spent money on only two things: electronic equipment and going to the desert."
Much of his spare time was spent planning and then editing the video of his serious treks. "Pat had edited his last trip [to Death Valley] down to like an hour and a half and added sound effects and all this bizarre stuff," Ball says.
His mother is reminded of a little movie Hodge made on another trip to Death Valley. "He'd gone with his friend, and they made a little skit where he was a businessman and he met this Indian, and the Indian wouldn't give him water. In the end, he runs out of water and falls over and dies. I can't bear to watch that movie anymore."
Hodge had told his mother and Ball about his plans to carry only three quarts of water across the saltpan. "His theory was that in crossing the flats, people carry too much water and fail from all the weight," says Bernice.
Once, when Ball stopped by to see Hodge before he left, Hodge had him videotape him driving his truck around, so he could use the footage in the opening scene of the tape he was planning for the trip. The Hodge showed him a map of Death Valley.
"He explained about the water," Ball recalls. "He even made a point of it: 'I'm only taking three quarts of water.' He said it like I should be surprised, but I didn't know enough. The he asked, 'Do you know why?' 'No,' I said, and he said, 'I have figured out what is the optimum--the exact amount, not a drop more or less--that I'll need.'"
Then, just before Hodge left, John, a Toyota mechanic, tuned his truck. "I said, 'Pat, you're gonna go out there and kill yourself.'" John recalls. "And he said, 'Naaah! You know me better than that.' And look what the hell happened!"
Micklavzina called the rangers from Eugene, Oregon, on July 21, and told them that before leaving Ohio on July 8, Hodge had called to say he planned to hike Death Valley and possibly ascend Mount Whitney and that he'd be in Eugene by the 19th or 20th. He was concerned because Hodge was overdue.
Initially, there was some confusion among the rangers over whether Hodge's truck was actually at Badwater on the 20th. The report the district ranger received from one of his staff was that the truck was not there on the 20th but was there on the 21st, the day Micklavzina reported Hodge missing. The rangers believed he couldn't have been out there a whole week. A flyover was organized on the 23rd, and then a full-scale search was called in.
I had, in fact, unwittingly already begun to solve the mystery of when Hodge began his hike. In a year-end roundup on completion times for Death Valley-to-Mount Whitney runs for UltraRunning Magazine, I had mentioned Hodge, and Fred Vance, a reader from Parker, Colorado, wrote me saying he thought he'd seen Hodge at Badtwater on July 13 at 8:30 a.m. Vance had asked Hodge to shoot some photos of him with his own Yashica. I asked Vance to describe the man he'd seen, and he sent me descriptions of what Hodge was wearing, as well as of the angles of the shots he had taken.
When I first located his brother John in Ohio, I asked him to look at the photos the rangers had found in Hodge's camera. The three pictures Vance described were there.
They proved Hodge had seen Vance and then begun his hike at 8:30 a.m. on July 13, a full eight days earlier than the rangers estimated. Obviously, his pickup truck would have sat in the Badwater parking lot that entire time. How the rangers missed it on a July 20 sweep remains another of Death Valley's trove of mysteries.
Three months later, when I found myself back in Lone Pine, I contacted Jones, whom, ironically, I'd met on an earlier Death Valley run. I asked if I could view the videotape, and he said yes. Hodge's family had given permission for the coroner and the rangers to use a copy to help train search-and-rescue crews in assessing the likely movements and possible distress of a hiker under Death Valley conditions.
If I'd already found the circumstances of Hodge's death unsettling, the videotape turned out to be downright unnerving. An eerie piece of cinematography, replete with fade-ins, fade-outs, and occasional segments backed by mysterious, almost macabre music, the tape captures Hodge's trip through Flagstaff to the Hoover Dam and Death Valley Junction and then down into the valley.
In one section, Hodge drives to Dante's View at sundown. Silently, he pans the valley some 5,000 feet below. The tape resumes the next morning with more silent panning of the expanse of Death Valley. Only the relentless wind is audible.
In the next segment, Hodge drives to Badwater, then climbs above it to the south and aims his camera into the scooped-out range of the Black Mountains that encloses the area. He drives across the valley through the Devil's Golf Course, shooting from inside the truck, then drives back. At one point, he says, "This one's for you, Rose." As he drives, instrumental music with a decidedly ominous bent plays.
The final minutes of tape chronicle Hodge's journey across the alien landscape that is the saltpan. There is the scene of his truck that John taped in Ohio and then Hodge begins his walk from Badwater out toward the salt. Initially, he pans back and forth: where he is going, from where he has come.
"Ah, at last--from Hell's heart, I grapple with thee," he announces dramatically. Then he finds a dead bug in the bleached white salt. "This is as far out as the bugs come. Not even they can survive out here."
He walks with the camera aimed at the ground. We see his shadow in the stark, white salt. We never see him, although we learn that he did carry a tripod. Eventually, he begins to sink through the salt into the soft mud below. "Starting to leave a trail. This stuff just isn't solid," he observes.
The mud becomes a quagmire. At one point he stumbles and sinks in up to his calves, and the camera wavers. He picks up what is left of his sunglasses, on which he's fallen. Yet he maintains a sense of humor as he labors through the muck. "I'll say one thing," he says, "this is a good thigh workout."
Clearly, struggling through mud would have used more energy than Hodge expected. At that rate, he would have needed some 12 quarts--four times what he brought. It was a tragic mistake. Had he then begun to suspect trouble?
He eventually reaches more solid salt, and the texture of the ground changes to a brownish crust. He thinks he has reached the other side. But then he encounters another saltpan, crosses that and, using a green bush on the other side as his target, eventually reaches the west side of the valley. As he does, the camera falters, the picture washes out, but the voice is clear, steady, unperturbed: "Ah, made it to the road at last."
Then Hodge makes what turns out to be his epitaph--"One false move, and you're dead"--and the batteries die. "It's so orchestrated," says Jones' wife, Denise, when I see her after viewing the tape. "It's spooky. It gives me the chills."
By factoring in the 8:30 a.m. start and observing the shadows on the first half of the tape, I estimate Hodge reached the western extreme of his trek before noon. Considering his increasingly dehydrated state and his growing exhaustion, but also considering he no longer wasted time shooting video footage and that his single-minded focus never wavered from his goal of reaching his pickup truck and the cache of water that waited on the passenger side, he likely collapsed late in the afternoon.
The assumption, according to Jones, was that Hodge, with the truck in sight and within reach, sat down to rest. The desiccating effect of the desert had sucked out the three quarts of water he'd drunk, but it had also sucked out so much body fluid that his blood had begun to sludge. When he sat down, his overworked heart was unable to send enough of the now-viscous blood to his brain. He passed out, fell backward and gradually slipped into unconsciousness and death in the continually dehydrating heat.
(Of the mysterious reference to Rose, Ball says, "Pat once worked at the Marysville Correctional Institute for Women. There's a woman there named Rose who has multiple personalities. Patrick kept up a correspondence with her. One interesting thing about him is that he had a wide range of interests--and therefore a wide range of friends.")
The fact that Hodge didn't check in with the rangers didn't surprise anyone who knew him. "He didn't do it this time" Bernice says, "because when he did in 1988, they watched over him--and he didn't want to be bugged."
Michlavzina says Hodge was the kind of guy who'd see a perfectly nice campground along the road but would drive beyond it until he found a deserted dirt road. He didn't like camping in a prescribed place.
"Pat wanted to hike higher and farther than other people--that was his personality," says Ball. "He was 100 percent confident in his ability to do [the Death Valley hike]. He kept himself in good shape that he felt he was going to outlast everybody. He'd have felt he would have been able to do it at 100 years old."
Dr. Andrew Hinkle, director of health psychology where Hodge worked, says Hodge saw his hiking as something that came naturally. "He wasn't a daredevil. He never presented it as though there were any danger. We thought it would be hot and uncomfortable and couldn't figure out why he'd want to do it. But no one felt he had a death wish."
"Pat died doing what he liked," John Hodge says. "But it's damned tragic to die at 41."
When I returned home, I began to dream about Hodge's last trek and what was on the videotape. He seemed calm and in control during the crossing. It was as though this environment--so alien from anything he'd known in Ohio--were home to him, as though he were drawn to it, had come to fill his psychic reservoirs to the brim.
Logic would seem to dictate that my dreams of Hodge would be nightmares, but they were not. Instead, I dreamed of being the person behind the camcorder, of being out there with him on that expanse of leached white salt. As I became aware that I didn't have enough fluids, what would I have done to ensure my survival? Lighten my load? Head back to the westside road? It was a puzzle that I would need to solve, or I would certainly die. Would I panic? Did Hodge? Or could he not have realized the danger he was in? Was it suicide or a fatal miscalculation?
At the turnaround point on the summit of Mount Whitney during my out-and-back in '89, I'd been caught in a lightning and hailstorm totally exposed. Death was a very real possibility. A year later, a Southern California hiker was killed at the summit in a similar storm. People say I was crazy to be up there during those conditions.
Did I have a secret death wish, or had I just badly miscalculated? Those who would pose the question wouldn't understand the answer.