In the opening days of autumn two years ago, 30-year-old Noah Pippin walked alone into the million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness for the first time. He was wearing army fatigues, standard military boots and a camouflage boonie hat, remnants of three tours as a Marine in Iraq. He was carrying a backpack, a GPS, a plastic milk jug and a .38 revolver.
By all accounts, including a journal entry detailing his intended route later found by his family, Pippin walked along the northern bank of the Spotted Bear River toward Blue Lake. He continued across the sylvan landscape to the base of a dramatic scarp of limestone that stands 1,000 feet tall and stretches 12 miles along the Continental Divide, called the Chinese Wall.
On Sept. 15, 2010, four days after the California National Guard notified the Pippins that their oldest son was AWOL, Noah was last reported seen traveling to the skyline of the Chinese Wall.
The mystery of Noah Pippin remains unsolved two years later. The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office has compiled a file that’s almost two inches thick. But the case has gone cold and is currently listed as inactive pending new leads. Yet the Pippins are continuing their exhaustive journey to find answers, and continue to cling to the hope that Noah is still alive.
“There’s not enough information to come to a conclusion to what happened, or what Noah’s current state is,” 29-year-old Caleb Pippin, the youngest of three brothers, said in an interview last week. “I’m willing to not know for right now. Until I find real evidence that he’s dead, I will keep looking. It’s been a challenge. But I’m committed to the process of finding him. I’m his brother. I’m responsible for him.”
Noah and Caleb’s parents, Mike and Rosalie, plan to drive from their home in northern Michigan to Great Falls and on Aug. 17 meet Caleb and the hikers – Vern and Donelle Kersey – who last reported seeing Noah. They intend to hike in through the eastern side of the wilderness to Noah’s last known whereabouts, the Chinese Wall.
“Our goal is to try to solve the mystery; if Noah is dead, to find the remains and if he’s alive, to know that,” Mike said from his home in Traverse City. “We still have hope that he may be alive.”
Noah had never been to Montana before, and never mentioned the Bob Marshall to his family. The only clues that illuminate his plans were found written in a notebook after he went missing. On one page, he scrawled an intended route — south along the “Flathead Reservoir,” presumably the Hungry Horse Reservoir, and east into the wilderness toward Blue Lake. On another page, he wrote down a short supply list: watch, binoculars, two ponchos, GPS, compass, five bottles of honey, water, beef jerky and flotation devices. Eyewitness accounts from the Kerseys and others later confirmed the small revolver. They also all described the fit, bald-headed man as seeming “troubled,” according to Mike.
New information has trickled in over the last year, most notably this spring after Outside magazine’s Mark Sundeen wrote a detailed account of Noah and his mysterious disappearance. The article included new first-person testimonies from people who came in contact with Noah during his last known days that the Pippins were unaware of until then. There was also the account of a Mexican man contacting the Pippins and telling them Noah was actually living across the border from San Diego. The Pippins became suspicious after the man appeared eager to receive money, and they contacted Pat Walsh, the Flathead County detective who was investigating Noah’s case. Walsh quickly determined the man was trying to scam the family. He implored the Pippins to ignore it, but they haven’t completely. Just the idea of Noah beginning a new life somewhere far away planted a seed in their minds.
Maybe Noah hiked north across the Canadian border? Or maybe he traveled east to the Bakken oil fields?
“It would be just like Noah to completely immerse himself in a job that is 16-18 hours a day of work,” Rosalie said.
Knowing her son, she could see him becoming so immersed — like he became with almost everything in his life — that he wouldn’t realize how much time had passed without contacting anyone.
But there’s also a much more grim possibility, too, and it underscores a tragic reality playing out across the nation.
American troops and veterans are committing suicide at the highest rate since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began a decade ago, according to Pentagon statistics obtained by the Associated Press in June. So far this year 154 active-duty troops have been reported as suicide victims, an average of at least one per day. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are reported each year, and for every soldier killed in Iraq or Afghanistan another 25 commit suicide, according to Department of Defense statistics. Since 2005, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates almost 20 veterans have been dying by their own hand every day.
In over 30 years involved in law enforcement and search and rescue efforts, Walsh has seen a number of suicide cases. Sometimes Northwest Montana’s wild landscape draws people in and becomes an unfortunate ending place.
“People will come here and (commit suicide),” Walsh said. “We’re not saying that’s what happened to Noah Pippin. However, that’s certainly a possibility, isn’t it?”
Walsh officially retired last December but remains actively involved with local search and rescue efforts, like the recent missing hiker in Glacier. He also keeps an eye on cold cases like Noah’s.
Through his investigating Walsh never found any “logical” reason for Noah to commit suicide, but “he may have suffered from undiagnosed depression.” Noah may also have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but Walsh was never able to check any medical information from the military.
Spiking suicide rates are being commonly linked to PTSD stemming from wartime battle – the kind of savage experience Noah Pippin went through. Noah enlisted in the Marine Corps after dropping out of college in 2003, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were just beginning. Noah spent the bulk of his three tours in Fallujah and Ramadi, where some of the bloodiest fighting occurred. As Sundeen explains in his Outside article, “Noah saw some of the worst fighting of the war, but he didn’t speak much about it to his parents.”
After receiving an honorable discharge in 2007, Noah moved to Los Angeles where he spent three years as a police officer. His parents were surprised when Noah called and said he was quitting the LAPD. Michael said Noah was disappointed with the LAPD experience and was planning to find any way he could to redeploy overseas through the California National Guard. He was scheduled to arrive in San Diego for initial drill on Sept. 10, 2010. But first he returned home one last time.
When he arrived in Michigan Noah declined to stay with his family, choosing a hotel room instead. This seemed strange to his parents. But the family still spent an enjoyable week together at the lake.
Ever since he was 18 years old and broke away from his spirituality, Noah stood out in his family as a staunch atheist among devout Christians. But even though their faiths were polar opposites, Caleb was finally growing closer to and getting to know his oldest brother Noah two years ago. They began talking on the phone once or twice a week about basic “life” stuff, though Noah avoided talking about his military service.
“That part of his life was not something he really shared a lot about,” Caleb said.
On Aug. 25, Noah said goodbye to his family, climbed into a cab and was gone. Everyone believed he was headed toward the car-rental agency and San Diego. As Walsh would later uncover, Noah instead drove to Kalispell and then Hungry Horse, where he stayed for a few nights before traveling on foot into the wild.
Walsh gained access to Noah’s cell phone records and discovered a notable piece of information. Noah made his last phone call on Aug. 31 at 10:45 a.m. He called Caleb. But Caleb was surprised to find out he was the last person Noah contacted. Caleb had been working late nights and sleeping in during the day. He remembers Noah calling but not any of the specifics from the roughly two-minute call.
“That’s really tough for me. It’s really important to me to be there for the people I care about,” Caleb said. “Especially to know now that apparently he was struggling with something and that I had the chance to maybe make an impact or at least hear what he was thinking or what was on his heart. I feel like I wasn’t able to be there for him …
“It’s on my mind everyday.”
The Pippins forge on. They established a Facebook page called “Have You Seen Noah Pippin?” Messages arrive from across the world, words of support or those curious for updates. People have even begun contacting the family directly. It’s nice to see people care about Noah, Rosalie said.
The hope is that more exposure will find its way to someone who might know anything about Noah. Or if he is alive, maybe Noah will hear the search cries of his family and come home.
If Noah is out there, his mother has a message for him.
“Noah, we love you and Noah I realize you may need some time to yourself right now to figure something out,” she said. “But I just want you to know we are here for you whenever you decide to connect with us again.”
Will her message be heard? The Pippins will arrive in Montana hoping to find the answer, though once again the mystery appears destined to be prolonged. Recent wildfires have led to the closure of several trails throughout the Bob Marshall, which could postpone the private search party. Also, Caleb broke his ankle almost two months ago and his cast was scheduled to come off the day before flying to Montana, leaving his abilities in question. These variables, combined with the small window of time when conditions inside the Bob Marshall are favorable, could mean the mystery will only linger on.
“God knows where Noah is,” Rosalie said. “He knows if he’s alive or dead. He’s the one we can go to and in His timing He can reveal to us the answer to the mystery. But in the meantime He is holding our hand and we are holding His.”
Anyone who may have information about Noah Pippin and his possible whereabouts is encouraged to contact the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office at 406-447-8293.
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