Through son’s journal, mother finds solace, Letter gives insight into his thoughts in days before disappearance
Publication Date: September 30, 2002
Zamora, Ecuador — Shortly after Maggie Felker arrived in Ecuador on Aug. 27, a private investigator hired by the family told her that he believed that her missing son had simply, willfully, decided to strike out on his own and did not wish to be found.
Of the three broad explanations for David Byrd-Felker’s disappearance, this was certainly the most benign.
Under such a scenario, David would be both free and alive. The other two possibilities were many degrees more horrifying: David was being held somewhere against his will or he was dead.
And as much as Maggie wanted to believe that David had, without a word, taken off on some kind of youthful adventure, she realized that if such a thing were true, the son she had known and loved for 20 years was lost to her in a different way. He would have, for some reason, undergone some profound alteration of character.
David, a young man of uncommon intellect, compassion and love, would have to have become someone foolish and selfish and uncaring.
And so there in Zamora, in a barren room at the police station, Maggie opens David’s journal and begins to read.
— — —
The following is David Byrd-Felker’s journal. It is written in the form of a letter. Small portions of the letter have been edited for clarity:
“I was actually robbed recently, and among the things I lost were my notebooks, which contained the seeds of a letter to you. I was on my way to catch a bus to meet friends to go to the beach when the robbery occurred.
“Perhaps all for the best.
“I find myself in an Andean hamlet, near the Peruvian border, called Vilcabamba. It is a beautiful night. I am staying in a cool hostel — a big old house run by a woman who has named each of the rooms after one of her children.
“It’s $7, including what she promises will be a winning breakfast tomorrow.
“Vilcabamba is famous for the longevity of its residents. It is rumored to have 100 centenarians in a population of 5,000. Incredible, but unconfirmed.
“It is night now. There was certain point, passed a while ago, when the distinctive features of the mountains faded and all that was left was a darker shade of sky beneath the midnight blue.
“I climbed the main mountain today that overlooks the town, hot and dusty. The mountain is topped by a cross. A sign beneath the cross says: `NO GRAFFITI ON THE CROSS.’ Nonetheless, the cross was scratched with the names of countless lovers.
“There was some sort of hippie festival in the village plaza, a mixture of Ecuadoreans and foreigners, some young, some children. I was standing next to a group of (unclear). These men found the hippies tremendously amusing. They did impressions of the “keep with the flow” body movements of the hippies, and one even asked a hippie to dance. She smilingly refused.
“The men asked me to translate the chants, which they presumed were English. When I told them I didn’t understand the chants, they began laughing more and doing nonsense imitations. The hippies didn’t even seem to notice.
“A goose is honking next door. He sounds frantic. There are some fireworks. The eldest son of the hostel owner has offered to notify me when he sees a firework so that I don’t just hear a boom and look up to find the firework gone.
“I like traveling by myself. My rhythms are different than most people’s today.
“I spent a long while as the sun went down (I was just thinking: what a lengthy process the sunset is when observed carefully) at a river, wetting my feet and letting them dry, as a local family bathed in the river — the man in briefs and the woman in a swimming suit and a five- or six-year-old boy in nothing. The boy rubbed soap into his mother’s wet hair.
“The Spanish is different here, more lilting than in Quito.
“I am tired.
“I spent the night on the bus from Quito and my neck is craned into all sorts of weird positions. But the bed here looks very cozy.
“On the bus there were two showings of the Bruce Willis and Alec Baldwin thriller, `Mercury Rising,’ one from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. If you happened to miss that rendition of the tale of an autistic code breaker and a tough FBI man, it was shown again from 10 p.m. to midnight.”
— — —
“Now I am in Loja, the provincial capital and what is for me a delightfully sleepy town, with beautiful parks and streets, with sane traffic that does not smell of exhaust.
“I spent the day in a national park called Podocarpus after an obscure species of vine that grows there. It is for the most part what is called a `cloud forest,’ misty and entangled and cloudy — a rain-forest mountain.
“I hiked up through these forests to the top of a 9,000- to 9,500-foot mountain (home to many animals, famous for spectacled bear and puma. I saw what looked for all the world like hawks — large golden birds with claws, but I cannot check that scientifically) which gave way to paramo (high grasslands) and the scrub that covers Andean peaks all the way up to the snow.
“There were amazing views from the top: green-ridged mountains covered with forest in every direction, Loja small in the distant valley.
“Time is so different when not measured. I watched the sun go by today. I was considering spending the night, using clothes for blanket and pillow, in some unfinished cabin in the cloud forest.
“However, for some reason, I could not wait for the sun to go down. I was all psyched up to listen to the cloud forest at night and watch the stars. But the night would not come.
“So, that meant a five- to six-mile hike down the mountain to the park office, where they owed me change for the entrance fee I paid this morning.
“The shadows during the walk lengthened then vanished then reappeared in a muted form under the full moon.
“The man at the park entrance was sweet and chatted with me about nothing in particular until we flagged down a family in a pick-up truck who let me ride in the back, with lots and lots of bananas, to Loja.
“And, for what it is worth, the breakfast this morning was excellent: scrambled eggs with spinach, toast with guava jam, black tea and the juice of what is called tree tomatoes — something between a tomato and a pepper — tart and really good.
“In all, juice here is superb, wonderfully fresh.”
— — —
As far as Maggie knows, these are the last words David wrote.
Investigators have pieced together that David was robbed on July 18. He withdrew $100 from an ATM in Quito, then, on July 19, took the overnight bus south. He stayed in Vilcabamba and watched the festival on July 20. He went to Loja, where he wrote the second half of his journal/letter on July 21.
On July 22, David checked in at a hostel in Zamora. He left his things in his room, including, obviously but significantly, his journal. He took his room key with him, a detail investigators take to mean that David was planning to return.
He did not sleep in the room that night.
No one has seen him since, at least no one willing to talk to authorities.
His trail goes cold in Zamora.
— — —
Maggie finishes the journal, closes it and weeps.
Here revealed is the tender heart of the boy she has known. And to this extent, David has been restored to her, and she offers a prayer of thanks.
Later she would ask, “Isn’t it like God to answer your prayers without giving you the very thing you want?”
Maggie’s joy, therefore, is mixed with grief. If the first option seems the most unlikely, if David did not wander away, then what happened to him? Is he alive and held against his will? Or is he dead? Is there another possibility not yet considered?
In any case, where is he?
— — —
From Maggie’s journal:
“I am loath to admit, to God or to myself, that the gifts I have been given are those which are indeed central, instead of peripheral, afraid that if I admit that, God will think I am satisfied.
“I am beyond satisfied and, at the same time, deeply bereft.”