A weekend camper went missing in Rocky Mountain National Park. It happened a lot. Enough that the park relied on volunteers to help find people when they disappeared. I hadn’t been doing it long, but there was a certain draw to setting out on the trail of someone who’d disappeared. And this particular disappearance was confusing.
By all accounts, Joseph Kinneman, who was twenty-eight and a high school basketball coach, was in excellent physical condition. He and his pals spent most of their free time in the park, hiking, rock climbing, camping and swimming. Yeah, they had a case of beer to split between them all for the weekend. And yeah, okay, one of his friends had a couple of joints in his backpack. But this wasn’t some newbie or wandering five-year-old. This dude knew his way around the woods, and, unless he had a habit his friends didn’t know about, wasn’t a rabid imbiber of controlled substances. Something happened, and we hoped it wasn’t the worst-case scenario. He’d been missing for two and a half days.
We volunteers fanned outward from the hikers’ campsite, a starburst of humanity that lost its density the further and further we moved from ground zero of Joey Kinneman’s disappearance. The head SAR gal, Beatrice, made it clear to all of us she fully expected to find him alive but injured.
“Joseph Kinneman, you guys,” Beatrice had held up a photo, clearly blown up from a cell phone image. He was enormous, with a full auburn beard and a barrel chest. “Six-three, two hundred forty pounds. He’s wearing gray shorts and a bright blue tee shirt. Had his boots on, but no pack. His buddies thought he’d stepped away to take a piss, but he never came back. If you find him – when you find him – you’ll need help getting him back. He’s a Sasquatch.” She chuckled a little. Some of us glanced at each other, not entirely sure of the proper reaction.
“Gallows humor,” one of the rangers standing near me muttered and shot me a half-smile. His dark eyes were tired but clear. “Or I guess, not really - more like whistling past the graveyard.”
After a few moments, we all headed out in our splayed-finger pattern, away from the last place Joey had been seen. I wound up walking between the brown-eyed ranger and another volunteer who I knew from the diner, a guy named Derek.
“Your first search, Steph?”
“Second, actually,” I answered, my eyes moving around, looking for anything out of the ordinary. “I worked on one in August, when that eight-year-old broke his leg?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Derek nodded. “I remember that, Julie helped out ‘cause she’s got lots of climbing experience. They found him in the rocks.”
“That was Ethan James,” the ranger said. “One of those ‘fall-from-the-sky’ cases we get out here, sometimes.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I hadn’t been on the team that actually found the kid. I knew Derek’s friend, the climber, had been. The kid had been wedged down into a sliver in the wall of reddish rock over a dozen miles from where he disappeared.
“You worked the SAR on that one, you just said,” the ranger’s eyes were moving everywhere, searching for signs of Kinneman even as he was talking to us. “KINNEMAN! JOSEPH KINNEMAN!” The three of us, along with some of the other volunteers I could see through the scrim of trees and underbrush, paused for a moment. Waiting. Hoping. Nothing.
“That kid was almost fifteen miles from where his parents last saw him. He was just sitting in a spot that took three climbers with a decent amount of experience to access. Other than his leg, he was clean, healthy and seemed in good spirits. His leg was all kinds of messed up, yeah, but he chatted with the EMTs that flew him to the hospital like they were all gathered around the campfire roasting s’mores or something. Lucid as all get out. ‘Cept he couldn’t remember a damned thing about the three days he’d been missing. He just sorta shrugged and asked if someone had a granola bar. He was ‘a little hungry’. He should have been starving. And dehydrated. Possibly even a little hypothermic. Except he just wasn’t. Not any of those things.”
“What are you getting at, man?” Derek asked. He sounded annoyed.
“It’s Sam,” the ranger answered. “Sam Broward. Anyway, what I am getting at, man, is other than the leg, the kid didn’t seem like he’d been out in the elements, lost in the woods, for over seventy-two hours. It was like he was dropped from the sky or something.”
“Maybe that’s what broke his leg,” I quipped, and both men laughed.
But a cold worm of dread twirled in my belly. I remembered, when they found the boy, how relieved I had been. How glad I had taken part in the search. Hell, how exciting the whole experience was, the thrill of it, the idea that I might be the one to find him, save him. But the only details I had known, until Sam had told his story, was that the kid had been found, alive, safe, with a treatable injury, not the inexplicable circumstances Sam was describing.
My heart thudded in my chest, and I wiped my sweaty forehead, adjusted my bandana. The nape of my neck was soaked. We trudged forward and I gazed up at the sky, an unrelenting, cloudless blue through the webbed canopy of tree branches.
“Looking for Kinneman?” Sam was at my elbow, smirking a little. “You better watch it, if he comes crashing down, you’ll be crushed. Big dude, that guy.”
“Nobody likes a smart ass,” I answered, but laughed.
“You don’t sound convinced,” he said, still smiling.
“That’s funny, because you’re a pretty convincing smart ass.”
Now he was laughing. “Takes one to know one, I guess.”
“You’re like Alexa for trite phrases,” I replied.
“Less talking, more walking!” Derek chided. It took a certain type of cocky for a volunteer to preach to a ranger. I wondered how Sam would take it.
“You’re not wrong,” he answered, his smile fading. We all walked in silence again, with echoing calls of Kinneman’s name reverberating through the woods around us as others shouted, hoping to hear something, anything, in return.
“What do you think happened to Ethan James? Seriously?”
Sam glanced over at me and shook his head. “I don’t really know. No one does. It happens a lot out here. We don’t talk about it much, but we all know about it. Rangers, I mean.”
We kept moving. Each volunteer had more ground to cover the further we spread out from Joey’s disappearance spot. I could only hear the crunch of our boots on the ground. Sam’s was face serious now.
“The woods are strange,” he finally said. “I love them, I do, really. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t love them. But I can’t explain everything I see out here, Stephanie. Not by a long shot.”
He sighed and his eyes went upwards, brow furrowed. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
Neither was I.
We walked for over two hours. I struggled to stay focused. I promised the SAR team five volunteer hours, so it was nearly time for me to turn around and head back to the gathering spot near the Kinneman party’s campsite. I knew from the last time the hike back felt harder, and longer.
Derek had turned back about a half hour before. I didn’t blame him; the day was heavy and hot and searching the woods for a missing person was dull, bland work, until it wasn’t. And that was assuming Joey Kinneman would be found. And that we’d be the ones to find him.
“Ever think about becoming a ranger?”
Sam hadn’t spoken in a while, and his question startled me. I hesitated.
“Sometimes. Not really. Not sure if I’m in good enough shape for it.” My thighs were shouting at me and the back of my tee was soaked through with sweat. “Besides, I don’t know how long I’ll be here.”
“In town? Or in Colorado?”
“Both.” I shrugged. “I came here – Colorado, I mean – to go to CSU. That was…a long time ago. I like it here, but…I didn’t mean to stay so long.”
“Well…why did you? Stay, I mean?”
“You probably think it was for a guy, right?” I challenged him. It was easier than answering his question. Because I honestly didn’t know.
“Or a girl, I don’t assume things about people,” Sam shrugged, then turned west and called out to another ranger leading group of searchers below us on the grade. They were heading into a small valley as we climbed steadily upward on slope that required more effort with every step. “Tara! Let’s all meet here in about twenty, okay? We’ll head up, you guys head down, and then we’ll all walk back to the gather point together.” The small group disappeared from view with a few shouts of agreement.
“So, if it wasn’t a guy, or a girl…was it a job? Maybe you got involved in the robust herbal growth and sales industry out here?”
He was being nosy, but I didn’t mind. I opened my mouth to answer him, not entirely certain what I was going to say, when we crested the low, rolling hump at the upgrade we were trekking.
And then, there it was. The staircase.
It rose out of a copse of trees to our right. I didn’t realize it was a staircase, not at first. Why would I? I thought it was a rock outcropping, rising from the thinner underbrush at the top of the hill. It was beige and indistinct, at the corner of my view. I felt Sam clench beside me. For some reason, that brought it into focus.
The impossible, banal thing that was just sitting there, exactly where it didn’t belong. Is there anything more perfunctory than a set of stairs? Anything more ordinary? I stopped and turned towards them. They were perfectly normal stairs: there were thirteen of them, covered in pebbly tan carpet, that flat, easy-to-vacuum stuff in every rental house or apartment everywhere.
Normal, yes. Inside of a house, or a hotel, or an office, even. But out here? In the wilderness?
“What the hell?” I breathed. “That’s super weird.”
“Don’t,” Sam said, his voice suddenly flat. I was pretty sure he had been flirting with me, had pictured the two of us, at some rowdy college bar in the Fort, his uniform drawing second glances, having a local microbrew and some hot wings. Our lips would burn when he kissed me goodnight.
“Don’t what?” I answered, my stomach swooping and cold.
“Just…don’t go over there, Stephanie,” he replied. “We stay away from them, when we find them. They’re no good.”
“Wait, wait. What do you mean, ‘when you find them’? Do you often find random sets of carpeted stairs in the forest? On the mountain?” I asked, laughing.
“Sometimes,” his lips were pressed into a tight line. “I’ve never seen those particular ones before. But…but…I’ve seen others. Maybe five, or six, other sets. All totally normal, average, dull staircases. That have absolutely no business being out here in the woods.”
“That’s crazy. Someone…someone must be building them. Maybe it’s some wacky art instillation, or something?”
“You don’t understand!” His voice was nearly a shout. “They’ve been around for years. Decades. Centuries. Every ranger has stories, you know. Like that kid with the broken leg. Shit happens out here that we can’t explain. The stairs, well, the first time I saw a staircase out here I was with Beatrice. She just told me to keep away. To ignore them. So did all of the other older rangers. So I did.” He shrugged. He looked scared. I got the feeling he didn’t get scared of much, but he was now.
I stared hard at him for a moment, then at the staircase. It was about thirty, forty feet from us. It was almost time to meet the others at the base of the hill.
“Sam? Kinneman was wearing a blue shirt, right?”
“Yeah, you know he was.”
“I see something over there, right by the bottom step. Something bright blue, you know?” My heart sped up. There was definitely a piece of fabric over there, a tiny hill of color in the grubby grass.
“We need to check it out, don’t we?”
“Jesus,” he sighed. I knew he had seen it too. “Yeah, okay. Let’s go over there. Do not touch the staircase, do you hear me?”
We crunched through the grass, passing the slimmer trees here at the top of the crest. And then we were right in front of it. The staircase. I shivered and my stomach swooped again. They simply didn’t belong here. It wasn’t something of the wilderness, made of stone or wood. It belonged away from here, in civilization. In the banality of town.
But, oh! Right there, by the first step: a crumpled tee shirt. Bright blue.
“This is totally his,” I said, bending down to look at it, but not touching it. The fabric was worn but not degraded. It wasn’t dirty or torn or ruined in any way.
“Maybe,” Sam answered, looking up, towards the top of the staircase. He gasped.
“What?” I stood, looking at him. My heart thudded painfully.
“Nothing,” he answered. He was lying.
“Yeah right,” I said, then followed his gaze. There, there at the top of the staircase, draped over the very top step, was a blob of grey, nearly blending in with the carpet. “Oh shit! Those are his shorts!”
“Yeah,” Sam sighed. I shuddered.
“Joey Kinneman?” I called out, imagining the giant beast of a hiker, broken and bruised right behind the incongruous staircase. Nothing. I looked at Sam, shrugged.
“Stay here. I’ll go around back, see if the – if he’s there,” Sam swallowed and pulled out his walkie as he rounded the staircase, muttering hurried instructions and information to his colleagues. I knew he was expecting to find Kinneman’s dead body, like a felled bear.
“He’s not here!” Sam’s voice sounded muffled, far away, somehow, rather than just a few yards and around the bend. His head appeared from around the backside of the staircase. He smiled a little.
“Wait a sec,” I answered. “Let me check it out from the top. He obviously was here. Why did he take his clothes off? Where did he go?”
“No, Stephanie, don’t! Don’t touch them, don’t go on them! We don’t understand what they are!”
But it was too late for his words, his warning. I was already on the second riser and climbing. I wanted to see what Joey Kinneman had seen. He’d been here, that was certain, on these uneasy, exciting, strange stairs. And there were more of them! Scattered across the forest. That’s what Sam had said.
There was bound to be something extraordinary at the top.
I just had to climb a little further to find out.