Webmaster's note: Please
also see the
to this story, posted Jan/04, at the bottom of this
note (July 2014): I was contacted in July 2014
by the boyfriend mentioned in this story. From his email
I could feel the pain of his loss even now, almost 20
years later. He feels that the story implicates him in
her death and he naturally found this quite offensive
and hurtful. He also mentioned there were several
inaccuracies in the story. When I offered to have him
correct these, he instead requested the removal of the
Upon careful re-reading of it I feel
that the story should remain on the website for the
valuable lessons it contains about tracking skills and
about not getting lost, and edit out references to these
implications. I hope that this compromise will satisfy
those who are involved. My sincere sympathy goes out to
I'll share a story I heard this month at the Back-to-Back class
in the Pine Barrens. I love the way this account illustrates the importance of conducting
an interview before beginning a lost-person search. It also illustrates how the landscape
plays the animal (or person). (Please be sure to also read the Addendum
farther down this page.)
"To track is to become the animal we are tracking." (Grandfather, 1958)
On the afternoon of July 9, 1995, a 37-year-old Massachusetts businesswoman named
Jeannie Hesselschwerdt was driving from Fresno to Yosemite National Park with her
boyfriend. On the road to Glacier Point, the couple pulled over at a turnout and took
separate, short walks. When the boyfriend couldn't find Jeannie fifteen minutes later, he
returned to the parking area and asked other tourists if she had been seen. No one
recalled seeing a woman who matched her description. He searched for another fifteen
minutes with no results.
The man drove immediately to get the park rangers stationed a short drive down the
road, who were searching for her within forty-five minutes. Within two hours, a chopper
was in the air. The next day dogs were called in. Bloodhound owners don't like to be told
their dogs can't follow a trail, so when the dogs turned right and circled back to the
road, the dog handlers insisted that Jeannie was not lost but rather the victim of foul
play. The FBI was notified.
A massive ground and air search ensued, the largest in National Park history, involving
many hundreds of personnel. They conducted grid searches on foot, scrutinising forty
square miles, step by step. They brought in smoke jumpers (paratrooper fire fighters).
Search and rescue groups from all over the Central Valley came up. When the search was
called off, two clear footprints that matched Jeannie's boots had been found: one near
where she was last seen, and another CROSSING one of the most heavily travelled hiker
trails in Yosemite, the Bridalveil-to-Yosemite Valley trail. It made no sense to the
searchers that a smart businesswoman like Jeannie would ignore such a heavily used
footpath, so the print was dismissed as an anomaly.
Two thirds of the search had focused on the area to the left of the woman's presumed
direction of travel. In the Standard Classes, Tom teaches that a lost person usually walks
in a circle of about one square mile, always turning toward the dominant side. In
retrospect, it seems that the only trackers used in the case were dogs. A good tracker
would have been frustrated because she knows that if you find one track, you have a trail,
a string of tracks leading to the individual. However, not knowing the skills of a good
tracker, the searchers simply moved their grid searching and extended it through the
direction beyond the clear print, thus trampling the area and destroying any chances of
finding and following the trail.
One month later, the woman's roommate called the Tracker School, asking if they would
help. The family and friends held little hope that Jeannie was alive, but did want to
learn what had become of her. Tom referred the case to a tracker student in California.
The student had been taking Tracker classes for several years, and remembered that Tom had
said that an interview was MOST important for getting into the mind of a lost person. So
the student called the roommate and talked for several hours, asking about Jeannie's
habits, preferences, backwoods experience, work demeanour, moods, recent history,
you-name-it. He also spoke with several others associated with the case: the ranger in
charge of the case, the federal agent and park investigators, and the person in charge of
the search and rescue. From all of these sources he began to form a profile of Jeannie.
The profile was of a self-assured businesswoman who was headstrong and confident, if
not stubborn, but who knew little about the woods. Yet it was more than just a profile. It
was an attempt to get inside the head of the lost person, to become that entity.
The student called a fellow tracker student who lived nearer to Yosemite, and asked him
to help out with the case. This student checked out the place where the woman had
disappeared. He found no sign of Jeannie (just sign of lots of searchers), but did notice
that the area consisted of stands of aspen trees. It occurred to him that when the wind
blew through the leaves, the resulting noise closely resembled that of a car driving by on
a paved road. Unfortunately, if one were to search for a road by walking toward the noise,
one would be walking away from the true road. This was the key to the two students'
piecing together what had happened. Jeannie had got turned around and simply kept walking
towards the sounds she thought were the sounds of cars on the road ahead of her.
The first tracker student obtained the reams of search report data, sat down at his
desk, and plotted everything on a topo map: ground search grids, dog searches, air
searches, two clear prints, and an aspen forest.
Starting at the point last seen, he drew a one-mile-radius arc on the topo map in the
direction of Jeannie's dominance. How did he know her dominance? From the interviews, he
was fairly sure she would be right dominant. Also, the areas to the left were so
thoroughly searched as to be virtually ruled out. The arc crossed the Bridalveil trail in
the vicinity of the footprint. Why didn't she use the trail? At this point, she would have
been in such profound shock as to not even realise she had crossed the trail. A lost
person typically goes into shock as they become aware of their situation. It causes them
to do irrational things, such as drop canteens of water, or remove coats in cold weather.
Tom tells of a hunter he had tracked that in his panic had crossed the Garden State
Parkway, then only a two lane road, and not even known it.
The tracker student surmised that once Jeannie was across the trail into the Bridaveil
watershed, dusk would have been falling and Jeannie would begin to catch glimpses of the
lights on the floor of Yosemite Valley. She would become resolved to get herself out of
this mess by making a beeline for those lights. No more right-dominant arc. To get to
those lights, Jeannie would begin to descend some very rough terrain. She would soon come
to Bridalveil Creek, swollen dangerously with snow-melt runoff. Lacking backwoods savvy,
she would not know that to attempt a crossing would be suicidal. No matter where she would
choose to cross, she would undoubtedly slip on the wet, polished granite, probably to hit
her head on the rocks and drown unconscious in the cold water. She might have sensed the
danger, but the combination of shock and fear coupled with stubbornness would have pushed
her onward toward the lights.
The tracker student followed the course of the creek as shown on the topo map and chose
a likely spot for her to have attempted the crossing. He called the authorities and gave
them co-ordinates (elevation at the stream) where they would likely find the woman's body.
This was pure landscape tracking done while seated at a desk, and the student's suggestion
was met with great scepticism. The investigator believed there was no way Jeannie would
have attempted to enter that area, as the terrain was so rugged. He assumed that the
tracker student had simply chosen the one area in the entire region not yet grid searched
and said, "Check here."
But the student assured the authorities that he and his tracker friend would personally
find the body the following weekend. Two fishermen found the body the next day, Sunday,
September 3, 1995, within one-quarter mile of the student's estimation, at the correct
elevation. If you've been to Tracker School, you've heard Tom say, "Don't take my
word for it--prove me right or prove me wrong."
A newspaper article gives voice to skepticism from park officials:
"Investigators do not believe the body could have been carried to that spot by
rushing waters because 'the creek is fairly choked with debris", park spokeswoman
Nikyra Calcagno said. The authorities do not have a theory, however, as to how the body
got to where it was. The only explanation that makes any sense is the Tracker students'.
However, since it was after the fact, and since it was not "field work", the two
students never received anything but a thank you from the roommate. The investigator
believed it a fluke. The Tracker students
called it right, but who are they anyway? Just a couple of Johnny-come-latelys trying to
take credit. Neither of the two care much. They know the truth about what really happened
to Jeannie Hesselschwerdt.
"First we role-play the animal, dancing the
music of the pressure releases. We then surrender to the track and the animal
moves within us--forever connected, by becoming we master, we are the tracks,
the animal, the land, and the very earth."
-- Coyote Thunder
Copyright © Timmy Trumpet
ADDENDUM to this story:
By Maureen McConnell
I am actually the person who called in the Hesselschwerdt case to the Tracker
school. I was asked to by her college roommate and friend Vickie Fortino. It was
a very frustrating experience for me because I had talked to Vickie while the
search was still active and begged her to get the Tracker School involved right
away. She talked to the family and they decided not to because they didn't want
the Park Service searchers to take offence or feel that they weren't trusted.
Weeks later Vickie called me back and asked me to contact the school. She knew
the trackers would be looking for a body at that point, but the family needed to
know what happened, so they could get some closure and end their fears that
Jeannie might have been abducted.
After the body was found and identified through dental records, I went to the
funeral here in Boston. It was a real heartbreaker. Jeannie's boyfriend told the
story. They were hiking together. He had binoculars and went ahead to an
overlook where he thought he would do some birding. He waited for her to catch
up, and when she didn't join him he walked back to the car, thinking she had
tired and returned. When she wasn't there he talked to a Park Service employee
who was emptying the trash at the trailhead, and the authorities were called in
immediately. The story on this page picks up the tale from there.
It was Nancy Klein who answered my phone calls to the Tracker School and who
interfaced with Tom Brown Jr. He was already familiar with the case. The
response was swift. When Nancy called back I just gave her Vickie Fortino's
contact information and backed out of the way. There was no reason for me to be
involved after that.
At the funeral, which was heart-wrenching, a couple of her friends asked me
to teach them some wilderness skills, which I did at my cabin in Vermont. It was
here that I resolved that I would try to reach out to the public and tell the
story and encourage people to learn basic awareness skills. I gave talks in the
area, but people always questioned her wisdom and almost never felt that
anything like that could ever happen to them. Of the things we tried, it was the
blind drum stalk that most made an impression. Maybe if I included the blind
drum stalk as an exercise when I gave talks, I would have been able to break
through the armor of people who think it could never happen to them.
In any talks I've given, and now I'm including talks I gave after my kayak
accident in Maine, it's the men who ask sharp questions like "Why didn't you do
this?" or "If I were there I would have done that." The women are more likely to
talk about relatives that do outdoor activities and their desire to protect
them. "Oh, I wish my niece was here, she hikes. I'll have to tell her what you
said." When I point out that a car stranded in a snowstorm would put them in the
same situation, I get blank looks from both men and women. I suppose it's
denial. And when denial finally breaks, I suppose it turns into the blind panic
that Tom so often talks about.
Since that time I've worked with Tom Brown Jr. and Jon Young creating exhibits on
tracking and bird language at the Museum of Science where I work as an exhibit
I am still haunted by that case and by my inability to convince others both
during and after the search of the value of what Tom calls "the tracker point of
Boston Museum of Science