Bill McDonnell was going bonkers.
Deer season had begun, but it was colder than usual, so here he was, sitting among the mounted bucks inside his rancher in Winchester, Virginia, watching winter through the windows.
Up until his late eighties, McDonnell hadn’t minded hunting in sub-zero temperatures. But he had slowed in the last couple of years. One day, trying to haul a buck out of the frigid forest, he’d felt as if his heart were going to burst out of his chest. The snow-dusted mountains of the Shenandoah were no place for a 92-year-old. He knew it. But man, did he want to get outside.
Then, the 15th of December, the forecast brightened, and before he announced his intentions, his wife, Joanna, knew what he was up to.
In recent years, the couple had gone through an old song-and-dance whenever this would happen.
“You’re not going,” Joanna would say.
“I’m going,” Bill would shoot back.
Joanna would try to bargain. “You’re not taking your gun. Stay on a trail.”
“Take a friend.”
“They’re all dead.”
“Take Bill Jr.”
(Not possible that day. Bill Jr. would be at a football game.)
Joanna: “You’re a dang old fool!”
But this particular day, Joanna didn’t even try to talk sense into her husband. McDonnell had fought in World War II and Korea. He’d been a sailor and after that, when he’d had trouble adjusting to civilian life, a soldier. A “country boy through and through,” he might respect his wife’s wishes on most topics, but not when it came to the call of the wild. There was a place he hadn’t hunted in a long time, and he wanted to get out there once more before he was too old—even if Joanna might be calling every half hour to check on him.
The next morning, McDonnell woke at 4, grabbed his muzzleloader, and steered his Jeep toward the backcountry of Shenandoah Mountain. At the end of the old Laurel Run logging road, he turned off the vehicle and hit the trail.
It was about 7:30 and 25 degrees when the sun peeked through the trees as McDonnell was walking west. He had strict instructions from Joanna to be out of the woods by 2 pm and home by 3—plenty of time before sunset in case he missed the deadline, which he often did.
Not long into the hike, he came upon a path he didn’t remember. There wasn’t anywhere in particular he wanted to summit—maybe this was the secret route to the king of all bucks. He took it.
As the temperature climbed through the 30s, McDonnell veered off and on the trail, looking for tracks and rubbings on trees, signs that a buck might be just over the next ridge. He wouldn’t kill it—he just liked to get a trophy in the sites of his scope and whisper, “Pow, you’re dead.” Just enough of a kick to feel the blood surging in his old veins.
McDonnell was feeling good about the day. Then, around 11 am, he emerged into a clearing along a ridgeline. He’d walked farther than he’d suspected. “What the shit?” he muttered.
He realized he’d need to turn back soon if he wanted to get any hunting in. Unless . . . .
From this prospect, it seemed that his path up the mountain had meandered quite a bit. There might be a quicker route back to the Jeep, as the crow flies anyway.
When thoughts of shortcuts come to mind, McDonnell looks at his left hand and remembers a little mishap he had in Hawaii. He and Joanna had taken a once-in-a-lifetime vacation through the islands for her 80th birthday. They were staying in a nice hotel and needed an extra bag. He took a sidewalk over to a nearby Walmart, then realized he could get back much quicker if he just jumped a barrier and scrambled down an embankment to the hotel parking lot. But as he hopped down the hill, he tripped. He fell forward, reached out to blunt the fall, and broke his wrist and hand. With the titanium pins now bolting it together, he was lucky he could still use the thing at all.
But eyeing the line the crow would fly, McDonnell couldn’t help himself. “I’ll just be extra careful,” he said, and began cutting his own path.
Before his descent, McDonnell had picked up a call from Joanna. “Who might this be?” he answered.
“Sounds like you’re still alive,” she said.
McDonnell figured he could drop down into the valley, hunt a bit, tackle the next ridgeline, maybe hunt a bit more. But the farther he snaked down through the forest, the thinner and deeper the ridges became. Before long, the canyon narrowed to a rock chute. Next thing he knew, he was looking straight down from the top of a waterfall, 100, or maybe 200, feet high.
“McDonnell,” he said to himself, “you’ve really done it this time.”
He looked to his right and saw a 20-foot wall of nearly vertical rock devoid of outcroppings and crevices substantial enough to assist in climbing. He looked behind him: The ravine he’d followed down the mountain looked steeper and longer than he’d thought it was. To his left, the rock wall was slightly less vertical, slightly more creviced, slightly more covered in thick laurel roots crawling out from, it appeared, deep in the rock.
He knew what he probably should do: go back up the ravine.
But if he scaled that rock to the left, he could then continue across and down the ridgeline toward his target. He would make it to the Jeep in time.
McDonnell began the climb, carefully plotting each step, grabbing the fattest root with his half-cyborg fingers, tugging it to test its sturdiness, then heaving himself up to reach the next solid perch, and the next one, and so on. He tried not to look down, but he did. So he thought back to other hard climbs he’d done over the years, like Old Rag—he’d scrambled that rocky beast with Joanna at age 58. He could handle this little wall.
He kept pushing upward until, finally, he grabbed one last solid boulder and hurled himself onto the shelf atop the rock wall. Everything burned. He needed a rest.
By the time McDonnell got going again, it was nearing 2:45 pm. Descending into the valley, he came to a trail marked by white blazes. He remembered that one of his granddaughters had mentioned seeing a waterfall while she was rock-climbing in the area, so he called her for advice. He described the ravine, the rock walls, and the white-blazed trail that he thought might take him back to the Jeep. “It looks pretty easy,” he said.
She didn’t remember the trail, but she was adamant about one thing: Grandpa, she begged him, go back to the ridgeline.
“It’s a bitch of a climb back up,” he said. He was too tired, and he’d get back after dark. He wanted to take the trail. “I’ve got it figured out,” he said, then realized he was talking to air. His phone had died.
It was settled then—he’d take the trail. He dug into his pants for the GPS device he always brought in case of an emergency and pushed the “on” button. Nothing. He had forgotten to charge it.
“McDonnell,” he said to himself again, “you’re one dumb son of a bitch.”
The trail looked to be angling downward in the right direction. Soon, though, it turned and began to climb—away from the road where the Jeep was parked. So he decided to take another shortcut. He began bushwhacking, stopping occasionally to survey, then adjust course. He reached the valley. No road. He could follow the valley, but it would lead him away from his target, and he was too tired for a roundabout route, which meant he’d have to cut his own path again. He resumed the trek, eventually pausing to survey his surroundings.
And, well, you know how this part of the story ends: with Bill McDonnell alone in the forest, his legs wobbly and his mind trying to fend off that unnerving feeling of regret and confusion that grips us when we realize we might truly be lost.
No, I’m not lost, he told himself. “McDonnell, get your shit together,” he barked. The Jeep was down in the valley over the next ridgeline. It had to be.
Eventually, his eye caught a finger ridge topped with a stand of tall trees. He remembered admiring the line of majestic oaks and pine earlier. Reach them and the car wouldn’t be that far off. There was some ground he’d have to cover, but part of it looked like an area loggers had clear-cut. How bad could it be?
“McDonnell, you’ve really done it this time. You are one dumb son of a bitch.”
As it turned out, the loggers had left behind a gnarly thicket of limbs and branches, and in the empty pockets between the debris, laurel, prickly greenbrier, and other vines had sprouted up into a web of a billion needles. Crawling through barbed wire in Korea, McDonnell thought, would be better than this.
He was moving slower and slower, Joanna’s 3 o’clock deadline long since vanished. Eventually, the sun slipped below the mountain ridge behind him and the forest turned pitch-black. He couldn’t see his hand in front of him. He hadn’t brought a flashlight. His quivering legs felt as if they’d stomped at least 15 miles.
There was only one thing to say: “McDonnell, you’ve really done it this time. You are one dumb son of a bitch.”
Bill McDonnell Jr. was entering the football stadium at James Madison University that evening when he received a text from his niece, Bill Sr.’s granddaughter. She explained how she’d lost contact with her grandfather around 2 pm and how no one had heard from him in hours. She worried that he hadn’t returned to the ridgeline as she’d instructed. “I’m sure he ignored you and took the shortcut,” Bill Jr. told her.
A financial manager with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond and an avid hiker himself, Bill Jr. knew his father could cover ten miles with all his winter gear on. But Bill Jr. also knew his father had become more forgetful in his nineties. So they agreed to call 911. From there, McDonnell’s granddaughter would head out with the search-and-rescue team while Bill Jr. would tend to his mother.
By the time he arrived in Winchester that evening, she was on the verge of a panic attack, rifling through paperwork. As Joanna told her son, she wanted to make sure she had the necessary documents at hand in case her husband was dead.
Shenandoah County Sheriff Department captain Wesley Dellinger sprang into action when he got the call about a missing elderly man: not quite six feet tall, a stout 200 pounds, lost in the national forest. Having made a few wrong turns in these particular woods himself, Dellinger felt for the guy. “You think you’ve got it figured out,” he told one of his deputies, “then all of a sudden you don’t.”
Dellinger ordered a command post to be set up near the Laurel Run trailhead, and by 6:30 pm he’d assembled personnel from an hour’s radius in every direction. But he didn’t have a lot of options. McDonnell’s last location was in an area far too rugged and remote to attempt a full ground search, especially under a moonless sky. Even ATVs wouldn’t help much.
So Dellinger sent his deputies out to cruise the highways and back roads in all directions, hoping McDonnell might have found his way to a road. He sent others out to comb the major trails in the area around the Jeep. There wasn’t much else you could do in a backcountry search like this one at night, but for one thing: Around 9 pm, a helicopter from the Fairfax County Police Department arrived.
Dellinger was hopeful the crew might spot something, but he also was familiar enough with the area to know that its mix of tall trees and low laurel canopies would make it tough to see the forest floor. He sent the chopper to pan out near the waterfall. They spotted the canopy, but as Dellinger suspected, it was too dense for the searchlight to penetrate.
The forest turned pitch-black, and his quivering legs felt like they’d stomped 15 miles.
Down below in the woods, it was about 9:45 when Bill McDonnell heard the whoop-whoop-whoop of a helicopter blade and looked up from his makeshift bunk. McDonnell had never minded bedding down in dirt—make a little mat from branches, a trick he learned in the Army, and you’d be sawing logs all night.
Now as the light from the chopper danced closer, McDonnell struggled to rouse his achy joints and get to his feet. He managed to lift his orange hunter’s hat to the sky and begin waving. “I’m here!” he yelled. “I’m right here!”
For several seconds, the chopper hovered directly above him. Then the light dimmed and the whir of the blades softened—his rescuers were taking off again, and McDonnell guessed they wouldn’t be back until morning.
He tried to go to bed but couldn’t quiet his head. He hated that search crews were wasting resources and losing sleep because he’d taken one too many shortcuts. And Joanna—his old lady was probably terrified.
McDonnell wanted so badly to get up and power through the darkness, but he knew he’d only end up in more trouble.
After the helicopter returned empty-handed, Dellinger called off the aerial search until first light. But shortly after midnight, his phone rang. It was the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office responding to his call for assistance, offering to send out its search-and-rescue drone. Dellinger had heard about the quadcopters. At $94,000 (for the contraption, the training, and the maintenance), the devices are the hot new gear every search-and-rescue chief wants to find under the Christmas tree but few can afford. “I can’t wait to see that thing,” Dellinger said.
The following morning, as the silhouette of the mountains emerged, Dellinger had a new two-pronged search effort ready to go. Teams of rescuers with bloodhounds, primed with McDonnell’s scent, started in on the trail McDonnell had hiked. At the same time, Loudoun County master deputy Matthew Devaney put the drone through a preflight test and his copilot Jamie Holben set up the launch area, then waited for the signal to send it out over the woods.
Holben had a cup of coffee. Not Devaney. He was anxious. His agency had had the Lockheed Martin Procerus Technologies Indago quadrotor unmanned aerial system for just three months—no, they hadn’t come up with a clever nickname for it yet—and he’d only been through flight training. This was the first time he would fly the drone in a real search-and-rescue situation, made more stressful by the mountainous terrain. Any failure would be red meat for detractors who called the drone a taxpayer-funded toy. “This is not something you buy at Target,” he says he has to tell civilians. The quadcopter is nearly three feet wide, with a 1½-mile line of sight and a high-def camera capable of magnification so powerful, Devaney says, “you can see the nose on a guy’s face on the ground from 100 yards up.”
At 9 am, it was time. The dog teams had been on McDonnell’s scent for more than an hour, and Dellinger and his deputy agreed that the search area had shrunk enough to send up the drone.
As Devaney worked the joysticks on the controller, Holben called out adjustments. Once the drone had risen several hundred feet, Devaney changed the camera to “pilot view,” which allowed him to look at the treetops around the drone. They threaded the quadcopter between a line of tall trees, then sent it flying toward the search area.
At the same time, in the woods below, one of the tracking teams was working its way through the laurel thicket and came upon a spot where some branches had been tamped down into a sort of mattress. They had heard the lost hunter was an old woodsman. Such a comfortable little nest had to be the work of a master’s hand.
That morning, McDonnell woke before dawn and went back to replaying his wrong turns and imagining his wife’s despair. He never once worried he wouldn’t find his way back. He worried only about what was waiting for him when he got there.
Just after 7, the sky lightened and the thicket around him began to reappear. He ate a few snacks (though not the sandwich Joanna had prepared for him) and got ready to go back to battle with the laurel.
At first, he moved only a few feet per minute. The light was still bad, and each step took some thought to avoid thorns or a twisted ankle. After about 15 minutes, McDonnell came to a spot where he could more clearly see the landscape around him. There, only a few hundred yards away, was the line of trees he had been hoping to reach the night before. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” he yelled to the woods.
Within another 15 minutes, McDonnell emerged from the thicket, prowled around for deer marks, and then began a slow ascent to the ridgeline. He saw features in the landscape that he thought were near the Jeep and knew the trackers couldn’t be too far away. He began pushing himself harder. He’d better make it to the goddamn Jeep before they made it to him.
Now that he had the drone up, Devaney could see the forest clear as a crow. With a toggle on his controller, he angled the camera toward the ground and began scanning slowly in every direction. Nothing.
Next, Devaney guided the drone toward a clear-cut area that the helicopter had passed over but couldn’t penetrate. He tried lowering the contraption closer to the old logging site, but he kept losing the signal. So he maintained his elevation and steered the drone toward the site. He saw little except white rock and scattered trees.
Devaney kept scanning, slowly, turning the camera 360 degrees. Soon he noticed that his battery was slipping below 25 percent. He’d have to land the device and switch batteries if they didn’t get a bead on McDonnell soon.
Devaney guided the drone up and over toward a ridgeline capped by tall oak and pine trees. The feature was only about a half mile from where he and Holben were standing. Finally, Devaney thought he saw something: a neon-orange dot moving beneath the line of trees. He zoomed his camera in and saw that the orange dot was a hunter’s cap.
Devaney guided the drone toward the old logging site, but he kept losing the signal.
Search-and-rescue teams always traveled with two or more people. This person was alone, walking along a ridgeline that led in the direction of the Laurel Run trailhead.
“I think we have him!”
Down below, McDonnell began walking more briskly—the terrain was finally familiar, and he was sure he was less than a mile from the Jeep. He had no idea a drone was overhead or that his GPS coordinates had been radioed from its handlers to a tracker team in the woods. “Damnedest thing,” he’d say later. “I didn’t see it, hear it—nothing.”
As he began his descent, he saw a large black animal bounding toward him out of the corner of his eye—a bear, maybe? He had seen some scat. But before he could reach for his gun, he realized it was a dog.
“Bill!” a voice called. “William! Bill McDonnell!”
“I’m up here,” he yelled back.
Damn trackers had beat him after all.
After the cheering and high-fiving, the attaboys from Dellinger for the drone pilots, and a couple of big hugs from McDonnell’s granddaughter, everyone got to mug for the local news channels. It was a classic feel-good tale with a modern twist: Old man is saved by police drone, and family is grateful.
McDonnell’s feelings were more complicated. It’s not that he wasn’t thankful for the “neat little contraption” that had helped rescue him or for the young people who’d traipsed through the cold forest in search of an old-timer. More like embarrassed, and frustrated with all the fuss. “I was no more than 100 feet from getting out of that damn thicket,” he told the rescuers. “Half hour more daylight and I would have been fine.”
When he emerged, he felt even worse seeing how many people were involved—law enforcement, medical personnel. He was mad at himself and his shortcuts. He was mad about causing so many people so much trouble. And he was really mad about something he knew made him a jerk for being mad about: He’d have been all right if everyone had just let the dumb son of a bitch be.
The next day, Bill Jr. was tasked with sitting his dad down and having what he called “the talk.”
“I said, ‘The whole family was extremely scared, especially Mom.’ ” Bill Jr. recalled later. “Dad started laughing. I said, ‘No, this is serious. You can’t go out alone anymore.’ ”
McDonnell agreed to swear he wouldn’t go out hunting or hiking alone again.
But a week later, during a short hike with a reporter up to the intersection of the logging road and the head of the mystery trail—maybe the secret path to the king of all bucks?—McDonnell waffled.
“I need to keep that promise,” he said. “But the idea of it drives me crazy. I love walking around in these woods alone.”
This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of Washingtonian.