GILA HOT SPRINGS, N.M. — Micah True went off alone on a Tuesday morning to run through the rugged trails of the Gila Wilderness, and now it was already Saturday and he had not been seen again.
For three days, rescue teams had fanned out for 50 yards on each side of the marked trails. Riders on horseback ventured through the gnarly brush, pushing past the felled branches of pinyon-juniper and ponderosa pine. An airplane and a helicopter circled in the sky, their pilots squinting above the ridges, woodlands, river canyons and meadows.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere, and this guy could be anywhere,” Tom Bemis, the rescue coordinator appointed by the state police, said gloomily. He was sitting in a command center, marking lines on a map that covered 200,000 acres. Some 150 trained volunteers were at his disposal, and dozens of others were there too, arrived from all over the country, eager and anxious, asking to enlist in the search.
“Coming out of the woodwork,” Bemis said wryly.
Not only did Micah True have loyal friends, but he also had a devoted following. At age 58, he was a mythic figure, known by the nickname Caballo Blanco, or White Horse. He was a famous ultrarunner, competing in races two, three or four times as long as marathons. The day he vanished, he said he was going on a 12-mile jaunt, for him as routine as a lap around a high school track.
But True’s mythic renown owed less to his ability to run than to his capacity to inspire. He was a free spirit who survived on cornmeal, beans and wild dreams, aloof to the allure of money and possessions. He lived in the remote Copper Canyons of northern Mexico to be near the reclusive Tarahumara Indians, reputed to be the greatest natural runners in the world.
His story was exuberantly molded into legend in the 2009 best-seller “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. Caballo Blanco, however private and self-effacing, was suddenly delivered to the world as a prophet, “the lone wanderer of the High Sierras.” To many, he represented the road not taken, a purer path, away from career, away from capitalism, away from the clock.
McDougall, himself a runner, was one of the dozens who had hurried to southwestern New Mexico to join the search, as had the actor Peter Sarsgaard, who was about to direct a movie based on the book. In just a few days, the Gila Wilderness had become a lodestone to a who’s who of ultramarathoners, athletes with loose limbs, lanky bodies and now a shared sense of dread.
“We’re thinking he could be lying out there hurt, unable to get help,” said the ultrarunner Luis Escobar, who had driven all night from California.
Several of these athletes were impatient with the authorities’ methodical search. The main footpaths had been scoured, but they wanted to venture onto the smaller elk trails and into the pockets and crannies of the cliffs.
Bemis, the rescue coordinator, was mildly annoyed: “This is a wilderness, not a walk in the park, and some of them might get lost. Then we’ll be looking for them, too.”
Among the most restless was Ray Molina, who led mountain bike tours through the Copper Canyons and was one of True’s closest friends.
Random Ray, some people called him. A nonstop talker, he was also a pack rat, collecting old bicycles, antique toys, manikins and bleached bones. Skeletal remains jounced about in his car.
Molina, 44, had not learned of the disappearance until Friday. He rushed to the Gila in his beat-up 1979 Mercedes with two friends, Jessica Haines and Dean Bannon. They were agreeable to joining the organized search. But by 10 on Saturday morning, they were among a handful yet to be assigned to a team.
The hell with this, Molina concluded. He and his friends lightened their backpacks of unnecessary gear and went off on their own, simply walking a short distance down the access road, crossing the Gila River and scurrying into the nearest arroyo.
This strategy, while not entirely random, was hardly well conceived. They were assisted only by a folded-up map and their own instincts and whims.
They rambled and they ran and they climbed. They called out, “Caballo!”
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