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How She Got Her Life Back on Track

Books: An abusive marriage sent Hannah Nyala and her children running for their lives. She found peace of mind searching for people lost in Joshua Tree. Now she's sharing her story as a cautionary tale.

June 24, 1997|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Over and over during their stormy seven-year marriage, Hannah Nyala's husband told her what he'd do if she tried to leave him: "He was going to torture each of the children to death in front of me and then kill me in a very brutal way and scatter my body parts over the desert."

It was always the desert.

Then, around Thanksgiving, 1990, he called from Oklahoma to say he was coming to the Mojave to get them "and would do it right this time." Just before Christmas, she spotted him, in his car, staking out her house in Joshua Tree. "Completely panicked," she just took off for a while.

For a time, this forbidding land that she had learned to love "came to symbolize hell."

The memories, bittersweet, surface as we drive through Joshua Tree National Park, through places with names like Fried Liver Wash. For three years as a member of a National Park Service search and rescue team, this was her terrain.

She was a tracker, trained to find people lost in the desert. It was not mere chance that had drawn her to tracking. In her new book, "Point Last Seen: A Woman Tracker's Story" (Beacon Press), she relates these threats on her life, telling how, from 1983 to 1995, she herself had been tracked, hunted and harassed.

"Living underground," she and her two children had learned to be alert to any sign that he'd been around. Tire tracks. Footprints. A door left ajar.

They even took to hanging towels haphazardly, knowing he was compulsive about such things. Three times they came home to find each towel folded precisely in thirds, with exactly 1 inch between towels.

The story of Hannah Nyala--as she has written it--is both a horrifying chronicle of domestic violence and a story of hope, survival and the human spirit.

It is about a woman who, seeking personal peace, becomes a skilled tracker and, through tracking, learns to find beauty in this harsh land, its flora and fauna. Even today, she brakes for lizards, fumes when a four-wheeler swerves to squash a rattlesnake and has a quirky gait from trying not to step on ants.

Tracking is not glamorous work. It is hard and dirty. Nyala describes it this way: "Searches are made up of extended spurts of activity interspersed with brief periods of apparent inertia; even trackers have to sleep and eat . . . whether somebody is missing or not." Nyala learned to catnap under a bush with her backpack for a pillow.

She relates a typical rescue, that of a 65-year-old woman lost on a family camping trip during wildflower season. Using her training and the information that the woman was wearing size 8 lug-sole High Tec hiking boots, Nyala was able to follow her route, drawing a circle around each set of prints, each time tying a piece of orange flagging to the nearest bush.

From the pattern of the shoe prints, Nyala reconstructed what had happened, how the woman had wandered off to inspect a pretty bush, or maybe a lizard, unaware that she'd lost her way back to the campsite. The quick, circling movements Nyala detected told her exactly when the woman had realized her plight. This story had a happy ending: With Nyala close behind, the woman found her way to a road before dark.

One day, a 9-year-old girl went to the restroom at Cottonwood Campground and didn't return to her parents' campsite. Repeatedly "cutting for sign"--drawing a circle, then walking the perimeter to spot any tracks leaving it--Nyala and two other trackers followed her trail. Six hours later, success. The child came running out of a wash, yelling, "I'm Mandy and my parents have gotten lost!"

Not all tracking stories end happily. Nyala was on a team that searched by helicopter for a young man who'd parked his truck at a Twentynine Palms motel with a suicide note inside, then walked off into the desert. When found, he'd been dead for nine days; he'd killed himself with a shotgun.

There are not always footprints to guide a tracker. There may be only broken twigs, bent grass, crushed rabbit pellets, pebbles pressed into the soil--subtle signs that someone walked there recently.

Often, tracking is solitary work. Nyala writes, "I could not begin to count the hundreds of hours I have spent alone outdoors, far from other humans. You become your own closest companion, the one person you have to be able to trust implicitly.

"Tracking means immersing yourself in signs and in the knowledge that none of us goes anywhere without leaving a trail behind--a pretty damned reassuring thought when you're being stalked by someone who has sworn to kill you, laughing, saying, 'No one will care enough to even inquire about where you've gone.' "

*

As a child in southern Mississippi, Nyala had learned the rudiments of tracking, following deer and rabbit tracks in the woods near the family farm, making loud noises to alert the animals that hunters were nearby.

A gentle, sheltered girl, she'd spend hours curled up with the classics. She'd never even been to a movie.

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