The discovery this week of adventurer Steve Fossett's airplane wreck isn't just some yarn about a multimillionaire who took off for a pleasure flight one day, crashed in the mountains and died.
It's a rare tale of mystery, bravery, tenacity and the very essence of the American West. It's about the pitiless ferocity of nature - and about how, whether you are Joe Normal or phenomenally rich and talented, the worst can happen to you with no warning.
Fossett was 63 when he took off in a single-engine acrobatic plane on Sept. 3, 2007, from the Flying M in Nevada, a ranch owned by his pal Barron Hilton, the hotel mogul. Fossett had already set 115 world records in aviation and sailing, including being the first to fly alone around the globe without refueling, and at his age, many might at least have considered slowing down a tad.
But not Fossett.
He'd earned millions in commodities trading in Chicago, where he lived most of the time (he also had a home in Carmel), and for decades he'd used his money to go adventuring. That meant swimming the English Channel. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Journeying solo across the world in planes, balloons and boats.
One of the things he was doing in his final hours in the air was scouting for a route in the desert along the Nevada-California border where he could try to set a new land speed record in a high-tech racing car he was having built. And he wasn't just tooling through the skies that day in an ordinary plane - he had borrowed Hilton's Bellanca Super Decathlon, a nifty little aircraft made of aluminum, wood and cloth that could twist and cavort in the air like a sparrow.
And then he disappeared.
Thousands of cops, volunteers and National Guard troops spent a month combing 25,000 square miles looking for him in the biggest manhunt of its kind in U.S. history - another record for Fossett, albeit horribly ironic.
Searchers at risk
Combing the stunningly rugged terrain involved great risk for the searchers, with treacherous winds buffeting their aircraft - the same downdrafts and thermal gusts that experts think probably slammed Fossett's plane into a mountain a year ago. And it wasn't much easier for the trackers on foot: It's easy to get lost in the forbiddingly craggy alpine Sierra Nevada and the sun-baked desert, with thousands of ravines to fall into. Hunting through these areas requires true wilderness skill.
After the big search was suspended, private crews made their own stabs at it in the following months, one as recent as September, each having to surmount the same daunting challenges in the air and on foot. In all, the original search cost $1.6 million. Fossett's widow, Peggy, spent an additional $1 million on a private hunt of her own.
No one found anything.
Fossett had already been notable for his world records and the bravado he inspired in his fellow adventurers and admirers around the world, including Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson.
Rumors and theories
But now he was even more notable as the Amelia Earhart of our time, the affable flier who disappeared in 1937 and might never be found.
The same crazy theories that sprang up after Earhart vanished over the Pacific soon emerged about Fossett: He was hiding on an island, he ran away for a love tryst, space aliens snatched him. All highly unlikely, but consuming great attention in fringe corners and the foreign press as far away as Australia.
After all the hot-air speculation, the reality of what happened to him finally snapped into focus this past week when a Mammoth Lakes man walking his dog at about 10,000-foot elevation in the Minaret Range found some of Fossett's identification papers in the pine needles. It was short work from there for search and rescue teams to locate the missing Bellanca Super Decathlon - it was lying, as many professional trackers had thought a year ago it would be, smashed into the side of a wooded peak in pieces so small they couldn't be spotted from the air.
Fossett's body has not been found, only bone fragments that may or may not turn out to be his. But barring a space-alien-style anomaly, there is no doubt that he is dead. (He was already officially declared dead in February by a judge.) Crash experts said there is no way anyone could have survived the ferocious impact of his plane against the granite wall, and Fossett had no parachute.
What really resonated about Fossett's life and its abrupt end was how unusual he was, how dogged the search for his wreck was - and how in the end, even a multimillionaire with access to the best flight expertise in the world can die alone in the mountains like any other pilot who has a moment of horrific luck.
Admire him or not, the saga of Fossett and those who hunted for him speaks of many things we hold dear here in the West: The can-do willingness to push the envelope, the eagerness to plunge into the wilderness for a cause, and the unforgiving challenge of the vast, rugged expanse of mountains and desert that we call home.