Northern Wyoming Daily News - Serving the Big Horn Basin for over 100 years

By Marcus Huff
Staff Writer 

Lost in America

The Wyoming search for Patrick Combs

 

June 3, 2017

Marcus Huff

Washakie County Sheriff Steve Rakness instructs volunteers and Search and Rescue personnel before descending into the Honeycombs to search for Patrick Michael Combs, missing since October 2015.

WASHAKIE COUNTY, Wyoming – On June 1, Washakie County Sheriff Steve Rakness adjusted his utility belt and scanned the developing storm clouds to the south, as 20 volunteers and deputies donned their packs and tightened their boot laces, overlooking the vast expanse of the Honeycombs wilderness study area, a 21,000-acre sandstone landmark in Northern Wyoming, pocked with caves and radiating the afternoon heat into a gumbo of caliche dust and sage pollen.

"Alright, listen up," said Rakness, as the group tightened up into a circle around the lawman. "Everybody check your radios. We're going to take this in groups of four and fan out through the cuts and over that spine until we hit Blue Bank Road. Remember, what we are looking for could be as small as a finger bone, or a scrap of fabric, so keep your eyes on the ground."

The Disappearance

By all accounts, Patrick Michael Combs was the kind of guy that could take a pocketknife and survive in the wilderness for several days.

Raised in Idaho and an avid outdoorsman, the burly, bearded, two-pack a day smoker still had no problems exploring craggy mountain sides and the forests around St. Maries and Pocatello.

"He never fit any kind of mold or category," said his wife Calynn, by phone from the honey operation she still runs in Inkon, Idaho, which the couple started in 2014. "He was stubborn, but out in the wilderness I had a hard time keeping up with him," noted Calynn, an avid runner and mountain biker.

In October 2015, the 38-year-old loaded his 2003 white Mazda pickup with clothes and water, and intended to take a road trip to visit his parents in South Dakota. He didn't know anyone in Wyoming, but planned to do a bit of exploring in the Cowboy State along the way.

"He called me on Oct. 21 from Thermopolis," remembers Calynn, "and then he called me again on Oct. 22 and said he found a place he wanted to go exploring ... I guess you guys call it the Badlands."

After Oct. 25, 2015, when, according to the Washakie County Sheriff's Office and cellular records, Patrick left a cryptic, paranoid message on his cell phone fearing someone was

after him, the Idaho native was never heard or seen from again.

The Discovery

On May 25, 2017, Comb's pickup was spotted in a deep ravine at the foot of North Butte, at the edge of the Honeycombs, by an over-flying helicopter pilot with Sky Aviation. Before flying away, the pilot sent the coordinates of the pickup to a local cattle rancher who frequents the area.

After locating the pickup and wenching it up and out of the 15-foot ravine, the rancher notified the Washakie County's Sheriff's Office of the discovery.

"Until we ran the plates we didn't know anything about Patrick Combs," said Sheriff Steve Rakness, while walking the Honeycombs on the evening of June 1, along with a search and rescue volunteer group. "As soon as it came back that he was a missing person, things just kind of exploded."

Inside the pickup, which showed only slight damage to the front bumper and a chip in the windshield, both the driver and passenger airbags had deployed, evidence of a hard landing. Among the seats were virtually all of Patrick's belongings: two pairs of sunglasses, a winter coat, an extra pair of boots, assorted clothing in a laundry hamper, water, food ... and his cell phone.

"His knife and wallet weren't inside the truck," said Calynn, who traveled to Washakie County, along with Patrick's sister, to retrieve the vehicle soon after being notified of the discovery. The two women would spend three days in the Honeycombs, searching for any sign of the missing husband and brother.

"Everyone around there [Worland and Ten Sleep, Wyoming] say that that is some rough country," noted Calynn, "but from what I saw it's a leisurely walk compared to what Patrick was used to hiking around in."

After three days, Calynn returned to Idaho and the bee farm, still without a single clue to her husband's whereabouts.

The Honeycombs

The area of the badlands between Ten Sleep and Worland has forever been a mystery, as thousands of years of wind and water have carved pockets into the land, rising and falling into steep crevices and deep runoff bottoms.

After the Shoshone inhabited the area, and before the land became known for its mineral and oil wealth, Ten Sleep archeologist Paul Frisson found the skull of a Hyracoltherium in the Honeycombs, a prehistoric anomaly thought only to exist in the British Isles.

Today, the area is inhabited heavily by the jackrabbit and rattlesnake, frequented only by grazing cattlemen, seasonal hunters, and the occasional hiker, dedicated to exploring the rough, dry canyons.

It's not a prime picnic spot, and far from the conveniences of the highway.

But like Frisson's prehistoric skull, mysteries still exist, deep in the pockets where sinkholes and caves are too dangerous to explore, and water is hidden and hard to reach.

The Search

As directed by Sheriff Rakness and accompanied by deputies, the search party split up into small groups and descended into the Honeycombs, spread out, eyes searching the ground.

After a brief inspection of the pocket where Combs' truck was found, the groups fanned out into the canyons and draws for almost three hours, covering several miles of switchbacks and runoff bottoms, topping rugged spines and fingers, kicking up dust and stopping only occasionally to inspect coyote tracks and peer with flashlights into rock chuck holes and under rocks for any clue.

After exiting the vastness of the area, and debriefing at the tailgate of the gathered pickups while sipping Gatorade and chewing on jerky, the search party came to the same conclusion.

No trace of Patrick Combs had been found. Not one cigarette butt. Not one shoelace or button. Not one bone or scrap of hair. Nothing.

He had literally disappeared, although the tens of thousands of un-searched acres in all directions could certainly hold a conclusion, nevermind the thousands of unsearched miles between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the whole of America.

"He could have very well hiked to the highway and caught a ride to anywhere," noted Sheriff Rakness, looking to the north. "We may never know."

Lost in America

At some point in his life, like many young men, Patrick Combs collected tattoos on his body. A tribal design on his back, a woman on his rib cage, and one that his wife Calynn is reticent to speak toward, or offer an explanation.

"If you find me alone leave me alone, if you find me dead call...[telephone number ]"

"You know, he had a few other tattoos, but people don't ever ask about them," said Calynn from her home in Idaho, the morning after the Washakie County volunteer search. "I don't really have anything I want to say about that tattoo ... I knew he had had it, but I'm just not sure how much to say."

While Calynn is grateful to the people of Washakie County, the sheriff's department and deputies and the town of Worland for their hospitality, she still believes that the disappearance may be simpler than perceived.

"I have a good friend who is a forensic pathologist, who has been doing it for a long time, and they said if he's out there, he's topside and probably scattered," said Calynn matter-of-factly, in the event that he perished in the Honeycombs.

The story as a whole is eerily reminiscent of Edward Abbey's protagonist from the novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang," a burly, bearded Vietnam veteran named Hayduke who loses himself in the wilderness to avoid the trappings of society, never to be seen again but at his own choosing.

Like Frisson's elusive prehistoric find, and like Hayduke, Patrick Michael Combs, at the moment, remains a testament to the fact that it is still possible to get lost in America, and that hope exists to be found again, someday.

 
 

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