Part 1: Without a Trace

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

September 29, 2002 

Zamora, Ecuador — On Aug. 12, Maggie Felker drove to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to meet her son’s flight home from Quito, Ecuador.

Her son, David Byrd-Felker, never got off the plane.

Maggie is a registered nurse at St. Marys Hospital Medical Center in Madison and married to Mike Byrd, a distinguished and popular professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is 51 years old and had been outside the borders of the United States exactly twice, and both times only to Mexico — once in high school to work at a Catholic mission, once to visit her daughter, Rachel, who was involved in an exchange program.

Maggie now divides her life into two parts, the pieces separated by the moment she stood in O’Hare and realized that her 20-year-old son was missing.

In the weeks that have followed, Maggie has traveled to one of the remotest regions on Earth — what Ecuadoreans call el Oriente — the cloud forest and jungles of the Amazon Basin. There, Maggie has become known by the phrase she uses over and over as she travels from squalid city to sleepy town to remote village, showing anyone who will look a picture of her son:

“Yo soy la mama del desaparecido.”

I am the mother of the boy who disappeared.

From “The Pocket Guide to Ecuador,” by Nelson Gomez E.:

“The turnover of life is extremely rapid in the jungle. Everything seems to bloom in a great hurry, and decay in equally short order. There is a constant vague aroma of fermentation hanging in the air.”

The isolating mountains that surround the small Amazon city of Zamora are hidden in clouds this morning; the city itself is clouded.

Little girls with black hair and plaid dresses, little boys with stiff collars and ties, emerge from the mist on their way to school and then disappear down a dirt road, followed by dogs. Everything is at least a little wet, and some things are soaked. The fur of the dogs that follow the children is matted and wet.

The Zamora River flows through town and into the jungle. In the morning, in the clouds, the jungle hums, as if electrified. Roosters crow. The children appear again and cross a steel bridge that spans the river. They vanish into the clouds on the other side.

Every flat surface of the bridge, whether it is vertical or horizontal, supports strata of things that are either growing or rotting. Grow or rot. Those are the only choices here.

Animals rarely swim in the river the children cross, and even more rarely, humans. It is said to contain stingrays, electric eels and two kinds of piranha. But it’s the tiny candiru catfish that seems particularly horrifying.

These small monsters can swim up the human urethra, where they lodge themselves with quill-like spikes. The pain and the infection are said to be difficult for even the strongest to bear.

Life here is parasitic, on scales both large and small. There is a mite that lives in certain flowers favored by hummingbirds. While the hummingbirds feed, the mites crawl into their nostrils and are thereby moved from place to place.

A small building in Zamora houses both a funeral home and a disco. Latin music and American rock blast from speakers that, during the day, are quiet with respect. Life and death here are so intermingled; a certain amount of mutual accommodation is what is required of both the living and the dead.

From the journal of Maggie Felker:

“Thus far I have been told my son could have fallen from a high place, been bitten by a snake, eaten/swallowed by an anaconda, drowned/pulled under by a whirlpool, swept downstream and found, then buried in an Indian ceremony, attacked by some wild animal, frozen in place as he sat somewhere at nightfall.

“There seems to be many ways to die here.”

— — —

A black four-wheel-drive truck leaves the neighboring city of Loja and climbs a rough road up the mountains to a pass 8,000 feet above sea level. It then follows the dirt road down into the jungle to Zamora.

Loja — which is the only real city in the region, the only place where telephones and hot-water showers are common — is but 40 miles from Zamora, but it’s a two-hour drive when the road is passable. Waterfalls, dozens of them, gush from every stone outcropping. The road is always muddy in one place or another, and sometimes it is covered by a mudslide or simply washed away.

The vehicle from Loja contains two members of the Ecuadorean national police: Victor Camacho and Kennedy Vallejo. The two men hide the grim purpose of their trip from the third passenger, Maggie Felker.

Search parties and investigators — including Sam Gardner, a Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations detective hired by Maggie and her husband — have traced David’s comings and goings to this region of the southern Oriente.

As far as Maggie knows, David has vanished with virtually no trace. But Camacho and Vallejo believe that their search for Maggie’s son may be about to end. In Zamora’s primitive morgue is the body, fished from a river, of a young man whose features seem consistent with David’s.

In a culture that reveres motherhood, both human and ecclesiastic, the two men feel something approaching love for the woman whose son has disappeared. They pray with her. They sing with her. When they walk with her, they hold her hand. She is small and grief-stricken and farther from home than ever before in her life.

And while Camacho calls Maggie “sumamente preparada,” (exceedingly prepared) and “sumamente formidable,” (extremely formidable), both he and Vallejo would do anything to keep her heart from breaking.

From Maggie Felker’s journal:

“I said to Victor last night, maybe it’s the sense of bottomless vulnerability I feel — that there is nothing I wouldn’t do to find my son, and this leaves me open, a sitting duck, for any wind blowing by, whispering a promise of resolution.

“I am also scared of a resolution that takes away this fleeting hope that occasionally surges up as we drive endlessly through the gorgeous, impoverished land. The random images of David alive — in varying unlikely circumstances — are so sweet, albeit bittersweet, that I sometimes feel I could live this vagabond life indefinitely, just so as not to lose that sweet privilege of hope.

“I have been suspended in mid-life, mid-breath, mid-being.

“I am la mama del desaparecido. I am bathed by love, yes. But I am also a person whose internal eyes are continually met by a brick wall, by a shrouding mist. That which I long to focus on is continually impossible to focus on. My son, David.”

The clouds lift and the sun begins to burn through. The clouds that move up the ridge are shredded by trees, like cotton balls raked across Velcro. The remnants are devoured by the trees.

The people on Zamora’s streets open their umbrellas. Here at the equator, the sun pours down with striking heat and clarity.

As the black vehicle approaches Zamora, Vallejo’s bright chatter softens, then turns serious. Whatever you do, he tells Maggie, you must remain calm. Whatever happens, you must remain calm. Whatever you see or hear, you must remain calm.

Why are you telling me this? Maggie asks him.

He tells her about the body in the morgue. They must go there together and see if the body is David’s.

Maggie is stunned but not shocked. She has understood from the beginning that this how it might end.


To prepare herself, she asks the officers what she might expect to see. What will the body look like?

They tell her that the body has been in the river for some time and that it is swollen. If they tell her more than that, Maggie doesn’t hear.

At the morgue, however, they discover the body does not belong to David, but to a young man with a couple of children. An uncle of the man recognizes the young man’s shoes. It appears the young man committed suicide. He had been troubled for a while. The shoes had been a gift to the young man from the uncle.

Maggie looks into the uncle’s stricken face as if looking into a mirror and offers whatever words of comfort she can find.

The uncle tells Maggie that they should pray for each other’s families.

From the “Magnificat,” Maggie’s book of daily readings and devotions:

“I have trusted in the eternal God for your welfare. And joy has come to me from the Holy One because of the mercy that will swiftly reach you from your eternal Savior. With mourning and lament I sent you forth, but God will give you back to me with enduring joy and gladness.”

Baruch, 4:22-23

It is Sept. 5.

Maggie has been in Ecuador for 10 days, and the police in Zamora tell her they may have found a clue.

A gringo matching David’s description checked into a Zamora hotel on July 12 around 10 a.m. The young man put his things in his room, then left, taking his key with him. The young man never came back. His bed was never slept in. After about five days, the hotel turned the belongings over to the local police.

The police tell Maggie that the young man was not registered under the name David Byrd-Felker, but David Vincent. Maggie’s heart both leaps and sinks. Vincent is David’s middle name.

Maggie is taken to the second floor of a decaying building and asked to wait. After a few minutes, someone comes into the bare room with a small, blue duffel bag.

Maggie recognizes the bag and knows that it is David’s.

It is the closest Maggie has been to her son since July 17, the last time she had talked to David on the phone. David was finishing a summer program in Quito sponsored by Beloit College. He had studied Spanish, Spanish literature and German and, during his free time, spent three days a week helping street children learn to read.

He told Maggie that he wanted to delay his return home for a month and explore a bit. He said he would probably be in areas where it would be difficult to call or write, and he told Maggie not worry if she didn’t hear from him for a while. He would fly into Chicago on Aug. 12.

Maggie told David she would continue to write him at his address in Quito.

“I will harvest your letters when I return,” he told her.

“Cuidate,” Maggie told him. Take care.

“Mama,” he said, “se cuidarme.”

Mom, I always take care.

Maggie unzips the bag and touches the things inside.

It contains underwear, socks, toothpaste and deodorant. Maggie wonders when her sloppy son started wearing deodorant. There are a couple of shirts, including the red one she and Rachel, 18, had bought for David at a Santa Fe Goodwill store. Rachel loved to pick out shirts at Goodwill. There are a few books, including a novel by one of David’s favorite writers, Miguel de Unamuno.

And in the bag is a treasure.

A treasure.

David’s journal.

There, in the barren room, Maggie opens the journal and begins to read.