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Pastor's dying words still an inspiration

Journal shows his faith amid wilderness ordeal

In this 1998 self-portrait, the Rev. Mike Turner stands with his dog, Andy, in the Fitzpatrick Wilderness in Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. The Idaho pastor died while on a hiking trip 10 years ago.
In this 1998 self-portrait, the Rev. Mike Turner stands with his dog, Andy, in the Fitzpatrick Wilderness in Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. The Idaho pastor died while on a hiking trip 10 years ago.
Associated Press

CALDWELL, Idaho — Ten years ago this week, a Caldwell pastor was found dead, his legs wedged between two massive boulders in Wyoming's Wind River Range. It was a freak accident followed by an ordeal of biblical proportions, endured by a man who sought out wild, high places to feel close to God.

But it's not the manner of Mike Turner's death that most resonates today. It's the way he lived and the way he faced that death, trapped alive for about nine days and pouring his thoughts, fears and faith into a journal that brought peace to his family and friends.

The Rev. Turner's saga drew national attention in 1998, but its impact is undimmed a decade later on those who lived it, including his widow, who plans to remarry next month, and the Wyoming man who led the search.

"It was a very intense search. It changed a lot of people," said Dan Holgate, former search commander for Tip Top Search and Rescue in Sublette County, Wyo.

The Rev. Turner, the 6-foot-6 pastor of Boone Memorial Presbyterian Church, strode into the Wyoming wilderness on July 30, 1998, with his black Lab mix, Andy. Capping the end of a three-month sabbatical, he planned a 10-day, 60-mile solo hike across the Continental Divide, ending with a family camping trip. He dubbed his itinerary "Wander in Wonder."

The Rev. Turner, 48, never emerged. On Sept. 3 his family learned another lone hiker had discovered his body, still trapped by granite, near the shore of an unnamed mountain lake. The next day they received his journal and an understanding of his experience.

"I had dreamed of a special time alone with God, facing the elements, the passes, thinking about my life, the direction of the church, about my family," the Rev. Turner wrote. "Indeed, this has been all of those things only magnified 100 times. Thoughts about life, God, people, risk, filling my time. ... God will make a way either earthly or heavenly. My only dread is not seeing my family and being present with them in body."

"So much of the story is beautiful," said College of Idaho Academic Vice President Mark Smith, a close friend who was part of the planned camping trip that was to cap the Rev. Turner's adventure. "Its beauty is terrible at the same time."

Although a pastor, the Rev. Turner never seemed preachy, Newton said, noting that he joined 500-member Boone Memorial after he met its minister at a Christian retreat. "He was nonjudgmental, but he made you want to do better and be better."

On July 29, 1998, the last night together for the Rev. Turner and his wife, Diane, they attended a James Taylor concert in Nampa with Matt and Lisa Newton. The next morning, before the Rev. Turner left, he gave Diane a bouquet of flowers.

"It was totally surprising that he did that," she said. "I still have the card."

It reads: "Thank you for letting me live this adventure. Know wherever I am and whatever I'm doing, I am thinking of you."

Turner and his dog started their adventure on July 30, hiking to Eklund Lake in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. In his journal, he described a scene "so quiet, so perfect."

"Is it all just as you want it, God? Or, like skeptics say ... is it just random events and we are nothing before the beneficence and destructiveness of nature? You send the winds and rain and yet even amid the deep savagery and destruction of life, I sense your hand. In threatening my comfort, even my life, you challenge me to cope. In beauty and peace, you refresh me."

On Aug. 2, the fourth day of his journey, the Rev. Turner was traversing a field of boulders along a mountain lake, more than 11,000 feet high and 16 miles from the nearest trailhead. When a boulder he stepped on teetered, he jumped to the next one.

But he slid off, and the 800-pound rock he had just leapt from rumbled toward him, catching him between boulders.

"Somehow, miraculously, the rock had barely touched Mike," Smith wrote in an article, not yet published, that retraces his friend's journey. "But when he tried to extricate himself, his legs wouldn't move. They weren't broken, barely even injured, but his feet were suspended in air. He couldn't push them down or pull them up. Sideways motion was equally impossible beyond an inch or so. The two boulders had come together in the perfect configuration to form a pair of granite shackles."

Through the hiker's journal and physical evidence at the scene, it is clear he fought mightily to free himself and to stay alive. He used his tripod and anything he could lay his hands on to try to force himself free. His sleeping bag and clothing provided some insulation against the cold granite.

He melted, then drank, the snow he could reach, and used his tent's rain fly to collect dew and rainfall. He tied a water bottle to a rope and tried repeatedly to toss it to the nearby lake. But the bottle, too, got caught between rocks.

"I am concerned about first, losing my legs, second running out of snow to melt for water, and fuel," he wrote. "Third, hypothermia. My biggest concern is water. I have only 2 quarts left. The irony is that the lake is only 30 feet away. ... I am also saving my urine. I wonder how it will taste with Crystal Light?"

The journal, carefully protected in a zip-top plastic bag, slipped beyond his reach after about five days on the rocks. Desperate to maintain communication with his family, he began writing on the blank pages at the beginning and end of his Bible. When those filled, he wrote in the margins of the instruction sheet for his camp stove.

As his suffering continued, the Rev. Turner's mood turned darker, despairing. Smith describes it as "faith on the edge."

The Rev. Turner wrote:

"God is with me, but I am angry with him. What is the purpose of this ordeal? Will I ever know, or continue to be puzzled, angered, and feel quite abandoned by the one I serve?"

More than a week passed, with daytime temperatures in the 90s and nights dipping into the 30s. The Rev. Turner's handwriting weakened; a mood of acceptance took over.

"Fill me with peace, Lord," he wrote. "May the conditions not deny my love for you."

No one knows for sure how long the Rev. Turner survived, wedged between those rocks. The Fremont County coroner reported that he died of hypothermia and dehydration on or around Aug. 11, 1998.

Some 70 friends and parishioners from the Treasure Valley and beyond joined dozens of professionals to look for the hiker. They searched on horseback, by foot, by helicopter. They put up posters and scanned trailhead logs to identify people who might have seen him. The scale of the search was daunting — hundreds of square miles spanning two counties and both sides of the Continental Divide. And the Rev. Turner had diverted from his planned itinerary, a fact he noted with regret in his journal.

"I feel so foolish taking this longer pass," he wrote on Aug. 5. "So lonely, more than I imagined. Who would have guessed that four days would have gone by and no one has come this way?"

The search was called off after about two weeks, with the understanding that it would resume if there was a break in the case. That break came five days later, on Aug. 28. Andy the dog walked out of the wilderness, skinny, sore and accompanied by two hikers.

Family and friends mobilized to resume their search, hoping the Rev. Turner's trusty dog would lead them to him.

Andy led them in the right direction, Diane Turner said. Searchers were about a mile from where the hiker was trapped when a radioed message turned them back: A hiker, who had found the Rev. Turner's body Aug. 31, made it out of the mountains and into the Sublette County sheriff's Office, carrying the Rev. Turner's wallet.

A year later, Diane Turner carried her husband's ashes on her back, following his path into the Wind River Range for a memorial service with family and friends.

They trekked two days to Island Lake, where the Rev. Turner had described "amazing beauty that fills my soul."

"It was hard. It was good. It was really amazing," Diane Turner recalls. "We had a service, and we scattered his ashes. We all cried. We all laughed."

The journal comforted his family and friends. The depth of his suffering, and the belief and love that outlasted it, inspired many who never knew him.

"It was a gift," Diane Turner said.

Over the years, she has allowed excerpts of the journal to be printed in several publications, including this one. A Backpacker magazine article by Jeff Rennicke drew widespread attention and was included in the book "Adrenaline 2002: The Year's Best Stories of Adventure and Survival." But parts of the journal are private, including personal messages the Rev. Turner wrote to his wife, their three children and his mother.

"Not being able to say goodbye was hard," Diane Turner said. "But because he was able to, that made it a little easier."

Their daughter Jill said she rereads the journal every six months or so, drawing inspiration from her father's faith: challenged and battered, but steadfast.

His last, barely legible entries echo biblical accounts of hardship and devotion.

"I am ready to die, though missing my family. ... I will trust in God though he will slay me, yet will I trust in him."