My Afternoon with DB Cooper

DB Cooper Was Not Here

A recent clear, beautiful sunny Pacific Northwest day found me and Lakshmi scaling a steep ridge in search of DB Cooper and his bundle of cash. Though we didn’t find him (yet), the day was pleasant, the climb (700 feet of elevation over about 700 yards) arduous, and the adventure properly adventurous. While I am known to hike in the woods with the pooch, I am not necessarily known as a treasure hunter.

Why then was I out there?

40 years ago, my Great-Uncle Russ heard from a colleague that, the morning after DB’s daring escape, said colleague, from his front porch, sighted a parachute caught in a tree off on a distant ridge. For 40 years, my uncle plotted, planned, and dreamed of scaling that ridge to finally solve the mystery of what happened to Cooper. I knew almost nothing of the legend until earlier this year when my uncle mentioned, almost in passing, that he knew the final resting place of DB Cooper. My great-aunt listened quietly the whole time and managed to contain her eye-rolling to only a few instances.

My insatiable curiosity led me down a wormhole after that first conversation. After 40 years of dreaming, Russ finally found someone who said, “A parachute in a tree seen from over a mile away? That’s the proof? Cool, let’s do it!”. 

Armed with a GPS (and estimated coordinates), knowledge that the ridge was on public land (I went to the county to check), a metal detector, the dog, and a pickaxe, we set out to find DB.

Just off the road, the ground rose gently and then became a formidable ridge. Lakshmi and I went ahead to scout possible routes and, when I turned back to discuss options with Russ, I couldn’t find him.

He was sitting on the grass, a mere 20-30 feet from the road, cane in hand, trying earnestly to get back on his feet. At 85 (or so), he is in generally good shape but I could feel in my heart that he quickly realized the ridge was bigger than him. He couldn’t even make it up the gentle slope and there was a very ungentle slope standing in the way of us and DB’s remains.

I helped him up and, after composing himself, he said, “I’m having trouble keeping my feet. I’m not sure if I can make it all the way up.” I said that I would rather he turn back now and wait in the car than make it to a point where he couldn’t get down without serious help. I couldn’t imagine how I would carry him with a broken bone down the slope I’d just scouted.

We decided that, with a walkie talkie in one pocket and the GPS in the other, Lakshmi and I would make the ascent and look around. He smiled weakly and said, “I sure wish I could go with you.” I replied, “Me too but I think this is the smartest choice.”

After 40 years, he stood looking at his goal, staring up at his dream and, no matter how much he wanted it, he couldn’t attain it.

There was a point on the climb where I was literally scaling up a roughly 75-degree wall, pickax in one hand, the other searching for that next branch or trunk to use to leverage myself up a few more feet. Lakshmi was diligently navigating the wall with me and, at one point near the top, began to arch off the wall, her front paws flailing in the air as she fell backwards. I had a free hand at that moment and gently reconnected her with the climbing surface.

Later, I looped a rope around a tree and slide down about 100 feet of mud and leaf to get to the next piece of flat ground. Lakshmi had to jump from the ridge, drop 5 feet or so, and land in my arms. The look on her face convened her nervousness; this was definitely more adventure than she had in mind. If she could speak, I think she would have said, “Dude, I didn’t sign up for this shit.”

Through it all–the views, the ridge (metal detector in hand), the sunshine, the clean air, the complete lack of traces of humanity, the five-point elk horn I found (and brought home)–I kept thinking back to Russ, sitting there in the grass, feebly trying to get back up so he too could ascend the ridge. After making the climb, I knew it would have been totally impossible for him to make it as it was barely possible for me. There was a point when I was over half-way up and decided to continue because I wanted to make it for his sake. A parachute in a tree was the ostensible reason I was there but the truth is that I love my uncle dearly and figured that, barring actually finding DB, I could put a part of his dream to rest and, in my own small way, vicariously accomplish his lifelong goal.

I found a saying in one of my old journals (source uncertain) a few weeks ago–“Practice with love and without expectation”–and that was my mantra for the day. I was there for love, not expectation. Hundreds of feet below, my great uncle sat in the car knowing that he would likely never make the ascent. It was too late and this was the only way I knew to help heal a bit of his heart that was surely still breaking open in the shadow of the ridge.

I’d be happy to again explore the ridge when the dead leaves are gone and the moss not quite so invasive. I’d be happy to again wander around all day in hopes that the few bits of metal on DB’s person would trigger the metal detector. If I never make it back, though, I’m alright with that too.

But what I know for sure is that I am never going to wait to fulfill a lifelong dream because, if I do, I very well could end up as Russ did, collapsed on the side of the trail staring up at my goal so close yet forever unattainable.

I choose to not let that happen to me.


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