Kathryn Joyce profiles the Australian serviceman with PTSD who flew halfway around the world to die alone on the side of a mountain.
On the second-to-last day of 2013, when the glow of Christmas had passed and there was nothing to do but settle in for months of unbroken winter, a stranger arrived in Saranac Lake, a 5,400-person mountain town 70 miles shy of the Canadian border. Set amid the patchwork of forest preserves and villages that make up the largest publicly protected area in the Lower 48, Saranac Lake is the self-appointed "Capital of the Adirondacks," a onetime best small town of New York, and the place where I'm from.
The stranger was a 31-year-old infantry captain in the Royal Australian Regiment who'd been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from Afghanistan two years before. He arrived at 6 p.m. on the one bus that comes through town each day: an Adirondack Trailways coach that chugs slowly uphill from Albany, stopping in what seems like every podunk town along the way.
To get to Albany, he'd taken a bus from New York City, and before that planes from San Francisco, Sydney, Canberra, and, ultimately, Adelaide, Australia, his own hometown, more than 10,500 miles away. He was male-model good-looking—wholesome and tidy, with intelligent eyes—though he'd recently grown shockingly thin and had cut his brown, widow's-peaked hair so close it was nearly shaved.
He'd been a battle captain in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province, just north of Kandahar, working as part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization coalition force. But his PTSD diagnosis had placed him on restricted status, and he'd since been re-assigned to a desk job in Canberra, Australia's sterile government seat. He had a medical review coming up in January and, his family would later tell the police, he feared he might be discharged. The Australian Defence Force was withdrawing from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, and the military was downsizing; everyone who remained had to be fit to deploy.
The bus let out in front of the shuttered Hotel Saranac, its six-story bulk standing dark and silent over the town. From what police would later determine, the man probably walked down Main Street, past the fogged windows of bars, under the yellow face of the town hall clock tower, then traced the curve of Lake Flower back in the direction from which his bus had come. He might have stopped in a liquor store and the shopping plaza at the edge of town, then walked a little farther down the road toward neighboring Lake Placid before turning around where the snowplows do, at the crossing of the old railroad tracks.
Somewhere around nine, he returned to one of the last motels he'd passed, a two-story Best Western, and asked the clerk how far the woods extended past town. Hearing the answer—nine miles to Lake Placid—he said he'd stay the night. At 10, he emerged briefly to use the lobby computer.
The next morning, on New Year's Eve, he bought a plastic shovel and a decorative fleece blanket at the shopping plaza and set off on foot. People would later say they'd seen him pass, dressed in snow pants and a black winter parka, and carrying a large, brown backpack as he walked toward the crossing. The snow was spotty due to a pre-Christmas thaw, but weather was coming. Weather was coming to the whole country, in fact, as a polar air mass—a vortex, meteorologists intoned—descended from the Arctic.
The railroad tracks cut through a marshy area, continued through the smattering of houses that make up the hamlet of Ray Brook, and passed the gates of the federal penitentiary. At noon, two guards on their lunch break saw a man in winter gear walking steadily east. Just beyond the prison was the trail to Scarface Mountain. Broad but not tall, with no real view, Scarface isn't majestic, but on the slope facing Saranac Lake is a distinctive, rocky cliff—its eponymous scar. From the trailhead to the summit, it's a 3.5-mile climb that takes around two hours in summer. In late December, it would have been slower going, the route covered by snow, criss-crossed with misleading animal trails, and slick with ice. At some point, the man walked off the trail and into the unmarked woods.
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