Without a trace: The disappearance of Mitchell Dale Stehling

by Nick Gonzales

At 4:30 p.m. on June 9, 2013 – a Sunday afternoon – Mitchell Dale Stehling left his wife and parents to hike down to Mesa Verde National Park’s Spruce Tree House ruin. That was the last time they ever saw him. Searches have continued over the past seven years, but to date, not a single scrap of evidence hints at what happened to the lost hiker.

Compounding the mystery of what happened to Stehling is the fact that Mesa Verde is not known as a place where it’s easy to disappear. The area and many of its trails are rugged, and it’s not to terribly difficult too injure oneself in its canyons, but it should be — and usually is — impossible to vanish without a trace.

The visitOn June 5, the Stehlings packed their gear into a camper trailer and headed out from their home in Goliad, a town in southwestern Texas, for a 21-day adults-only vacation to visit several National Parks. After Mesa Verde, they planned to visit Arches and eventually Glacier national parks, Dale’s wife Denean told The Mancos Times following his disappearance. They had visited Four Corners National Monument the day before Dale’s disappearance.

Mesa Verde, both a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covers about 52,485 acres, making it the largest archaeological preserve in the United States. It has more than 5,000 sites, including 600 cliff dwellings left behind when the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned the area in the late 13th century.

The Stehling family had originally planned to stop at just the lookout points and admire views of the ruins from a distance — Dale’s wife and parents were not physically fit enough for a steep hike down to the ruins, regardless of the length of the trail. After watching a video, however, Dale decided to explore the Spruce Tree House, the third largest and best-preserved ruin in the park. In theory, it wouldn’t take that long for him to hike down to the site and back up to the car, as the trail is only a quarter of a mile long, and the ruins are visible from the museum.

Before Dale left, he took a photo with his wife.

“I snapped his picture and said, ‘I’ll see you in a little while.’ That was the last I saw him,” Denean Stehling said.

[image:2]He then walked down the trail, wearing a khaki-colored “Mesa Verde Museum Association” baseball cap, sunglasses, a brown t-shirt, khaki shorts, and brown walking shoes. The only items in his possession were his cell phone, cigarettes, and his wallet. He left without water on a day when the temperature exceeded a sweltering 100 degrees.

The disappearanceTwo hours later, Dale still hadn’t returned, and Denean was worried. She alerted park officials. Dale was not necessarily an avid hiker and had undergone several back surgeries, his wife said, but he was in generally good health and enjoyed the outdoors and camping. Then again, the Stehlings are from an area not far above sea level, whereas much of Mesa Verde is above 7,000 feet.

Dale had his phone on him, but authorities were unable to get a signal from it after his disappearance. According to phone records, he tried to access his voicemail at about 7 p.m. on the evening of his disappearance.

Searchers quickly learned Dale had veered off onto the Petroglyph Point Trail, a 2.5-mile loop that branches off of the Spruce Tree House Trail. The trail he wound up on features a lot of steep switchbacks, narrow stairways, and areas where hikers have to scramble over stones – at least on the lower section of the trail. Shortly after it reaches the panel of petroglyphs for which the trail is named, about two miles into the hike, it ascends to the top of the mesa and becomes a simple gravel trail that circles back to the trailhead.

An unidentified family reportedly saw Dale resting in an alcove, where they asked him how far they were from the petroglyphs panel. The family then saw him again at the petroglyphs panel, but he left the site before they did and never saw him again. The family figured he had continued up and around the trail, and only contacted rangers when they heard he was missing.

[image:4]“They said he seemed fine, and I know Dale would have wanted to try and make it to the panel,” Denean Stehling said. “He has to take a lot of breaks but is the type of guy who is motivated to keep pushing a little further. He does not take crazy risks, though.”

Jodi Peterson, a writer and editor for High Country News, wrote that she hiked the trail that day after Dale went missing and heard a man in distress.

“After an hour of walking, I suddenly heard a weary male voice call ‘I need some help.’ I thought of the missing hiker. Perhaps after visiting Spruce Tree House he’d attempted this trail and run into trouble. I called out several times, but got no response. I thought about going off-trail to look but figured I’d become Victim #2 if I tried to scramble down those ledges and cliffs. My cellphone had no signal.”

Peterson hiked back down the trail and told Chief Ranger Jesse Farias what she heard. The ranger, according to Peterson, appeared relieved and said, “We thought we heard a call for help in that area yesterday.”

Confident that Dale Stehling would soon be found, Peterson left the park.

The searchThat evening, after Dale Stehling failed to return from his hike, an intensive two-week search was launched. At its peak, between 60 to 70 people were searching the park for the missing hiker.

A team of scent dogs showed interest in the area beneath the petroglyph panel, which may also be the last place anyone saw him. The dogs were unable to locate any evidence of what happened to Dale or point search teams in a new direction where he might have gone.

Meanwhile, rangers on foot and on horseback scrutinized the area. Rope teams rappelled off the cliff face and into Spruce Canyon to search hidden fissures along the cliffs that would not have been visible from the trail. Helicopters surveilled the area from above, and high-resolution aerial photos were taken and analyzed in a lab, park officials said.

[image:3,half]In the days following Dale’s disappearance, his daughter-in-law, Melissa Stehling, told the Victoria Advocate, a newspaper near Goliad, that the family had high hopes of his survival because he came from a military family and had the wits to survive.

“He’s probably already built a treehouse and is waiting for rescuers to find him,” she said.

As the park officials’ search efforts failed to uncover evidence suggesting what happened to Dale, his son James – one of five children and four grandchildren – showed up to conduct his own search.

“They were really close. Dale’s life was his kids and grandkids. James is retracing the tracks of the searchers. He told me, ‘When I see where the rangers turned around, I look further,’” Denean told the Times.

Dale is now presumed to have died in the wilderness, but the case remains open.

Even after that initial two-week search, the National Park Service has continued to look for him on a regular basis. Most recently, a team of three searchers and one dog spent a day in November 2019 in the area where rangers think he likely went missing, Farias told DGO. When rangers conduct search and rescue training exercises, they search for Dale.

It’s one of the only unsolved mysteries to blemish the modern history of the park. After all, while the park covers a decent amount of acreage, in comparison to other national parks, Mesa Verde isn’t that big.

“If someone is lost, the time that they’re lost on average is about 45 minutes,” Farias said. “It’s not a huge park compared to, you know, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, so we’re pretty confident we can find folks. … As searchers, we value that we can find people, and not being able to do that does develop a sense of frustration.”

[image:5]Farias hesitates to speculate about the details of what happened to Stehling but acknowledges that accidents happen.

“I think he’s still here somewhere — we just haven’t found him. It happens in parks, if he fell in some kind of crevasse or hole somewhere off-trail and where the public or a rescuer couldn’t see him. … Different people get different opinions, but I tend to believe he’s still there.”

The endDale’s disappearance was not the last tragedy to strike the Stehling family. In February 2016 two structures on the Stehling’s Goliad property — their four-bedroom, two-bath manufactured home and a historic one-bedroom cabin constructed in 1898 — burned to the ground. Fortunately, the family was safe; however, Denean’s wedding rings were lost in the fire.

Despite the lack of a conclusion to Dale Stehling’s story, there are lessons that people can learn from it, Farias said. For one, he advises that people always hike with someone else, regardless of where they are.

“I know a lot of folks like to get out and do these things by themselves. I’ve done it myself. But I really encourage people to hike with partners,” he said.

He also suggests that when taking trips, people should be open to reevaluating their plans based on how conditions change. The day that Dale Stehling disappeared was particularly hot, and he was not carrying water with him. As such, some theories suggest that Stehling got dehydrated, and the resulting disorientation contributed to his disappearance. Farias emphasized that even for short loops, such as the Petroglyph Point Trail, people should not underestimate the potential for something to go wrong.

As of May 24, Mesa Verde was in the process of a limited reopening as restrictions that forced its closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic begin to ease. The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum and the Mesa Verde Research & Visitor Center remain closed while the park’s food locations are currently take-out only. The cliff dwellings themselves are closed and rangers are not conducting any guided tours. Weatherill Mesa, on the west side of the park, is also closed. Many of the other recreational areas and trails, however, remain open.

The Spruce Tree House has been closed since 2015 — after a rockfall alerted park officials to the instability of the alcove in which it sits. The National Park Service is conducting an ongoing geotechnical assessment to find ways to engineer a plan to preserve the Spruce Tree Houses’ immediate surroundings – lest it is lost to history as well.


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