People disappear from the face of the earth with enough regularity that it doesn't seem to cause a ripple beyond a few days of news coverage. Stories about them can be seen by the dozens of TV shows such as those on the Investigation Discovery Channel. Obviously the effects on the the nation as a whole are minuscule, but those on the immediate family and the community are much greater and longer lasting.
Some of theses cases involve well known figures such as Jimmy Hoffa, and Amelia Earhart, but most are considered unknowns. Like Hoffa, and Earhart, there are usually strong indications of what happened, but final proof is lacking. This account is of the disappearce of Daming Xu, a math professor at the University of Oregon in 2007. The story likely didn't spread beyond the local area much, except for an occasional brief mention, but closer to home it had a large impact.
My own perspective comes from being a co-worker of his wife, Shixiu, at a now defunct electronics plant in Eugene, OR. At least, we called her Shixiu. Her name tag acutally said Shixiu Lei, and I think somehow the name we knew her as was actually her last name. From this friendship, I and others who worked with her had the unique perspective that most watching the news or reading the paper missed out on. Furthermore, my own view was even more unique since I wasn't working at the facility during those weeks Xu went missing. I had worked there both prior to, and afterwards, so I got to know Shixiu before it happened, and was just learning about it afterwards at a time when the other co-workers considered it old news. They were by no means unconcerned, nor unsympathetic, but on their own personal levels, they had moved on. I was able to clearly see perspectives from both sides.
Four months after landing in Brownsville, Oregon with a fully loaded U-haul, I started working at a semi-conductor facilty owned by Hyundai of South Korea. It was my second job since relocating, the first being a stop-gap in a dead end position, and I was glad to get it. Wages in the mid-valley area are pretty depressed for the most part unless one is working in the lumber or paper industry and although my new job wasn't real high paying, it had excellent benefits and lots of potential. I liked it right up until I first sttarted working in the fab; otherwise known as my second week of employment.
The fab was actually a clean room as large as a single lower deck on a cruise ship. Clean room means it is isolated from the general environment with limited access and highly effective air filtration systems to prevent contamination from outside sources. Workers wear full body garb that leaves only the bridge of the nose, and eyes exposed. We were told the fabric was a tight enough weave that it could contain body waste or vomit if an individual was uncontrollably ill, without leaking for the time it would take for the person to get out. Thankfully, I never experienced that but otherwise I found the thing to be a close fitting unbreathable "bunny suit" that just felt hot. To make matters worse, the work load was rather hectic, meaning a person was on the move nearly the entire time they were working.
I took the position and appreciated the pay and benefits, but never really enjoyed it. I had never done anything similar, and while I have no problem in production type jobs, I just didn't feel comfortable in that particular one. I started watching things closely to see if a better opportunity happened along.
Hyundai's Oregon Facility
The Hyundai plant was the type of place that is constantly hiring workers. In truth, they were expanding, although slowly, and the bulk of new hires were needed to replace those who like myself moved on. We used to joke that the place had a revolving door. During the late years of the twentieth century, Eugene, OR was known for high tech jobs. Symentec, the company that owns Norton Security has a facility in adjoining Springfield, and nearby, Sony had a plant to manufacture compact discs. Eugene also had a manufacturer that produced the discs for hard drive, owned by an upstart company called HMT. They went out of business, and were purchased by Bomag. The Eugene facility closed.
A number of the former HMT employees applied for work at the Hyundai plant a few blocks away. The industries were similar on a number of levels, using the same type of processes used in RAM, SDRAM, and even solar cells, so most of them had no problem. Shixiu was one of those workers that came to work then, probably around early 2005. She and her husband immigrated to the US from China sometime during the eighties. She used to speak wistfully about China when we visited at times. In spite of the greater freedoms enjoyed by citizens of America, I know she missed her homeland, and I wonder if she felt comfortable living in a foreign country.
I was born in the mid-west, and never set foot in Oregon until around 1978. A brief vacation that year gave me a glimpse of something that I liked quite well. Prior to that my experience with the mountains was limited to Colorado and Wyoming, but subsequent trips to the Northwest reinforced my feelings and we made a decision to relocate. I knew quite a bit about the state before I ever moved, and that knowledge was part of the reason I wanted to live here.
Oregon of course is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean. A narrow strip of hills known as the Coast Range runs next to the ocean and in some cases rise right out of the water. Elevations top out at somewhere between two and three thousand feet above sea level, with a single location, Mary's Peak, hitting a little over four thousand feet. Then farther inland, the Willamette valley runs from south to north on either side fo the Willamette River. It's relatively narrow with scattered hills breaking it up along its length. The east side terminates aburptly as the Cascade foothills soar to heights of twelve hundred feet above the valley floor. Rivers cut though these foothills draining the mountains througn narrow canyon-like valleys into the Willamette river. The Cascades top out at over eleven thousand feet, less than a hundred miles from the beach. As a result, weather systems are forced upward condensing the moisture out, and to the west of the higher elevations a wetter and more moderate climate exist than to the east where it is a much dryer and more extreme one. The line separating these vastly different environments is narrow also. The differences can be seen by an observant traveler on drives through variouis mountain passes as it changes withn a few miles. To the East, forests consist of Ponderosa Pine with little brush, while the damper parts to the West feature stands of Douglas Fir and Spruce wth thick undergrowth. But for all their differences, both are popular for all forms of recreation and outdoor activities including hiking. Daming Xu was an avid hiker.
Eugene, OR's Playground
The cities of Eugene and Springfield are situated at the south end of the Willamette Valley. In fact, the Willamette River flows from the Cascade Mountains just to the south of town. On the north side of the urban area, the McKenzie River flows through a long narrow valley running toward the east. Hills on both sides of this valley are covered with verdant dense growth of forest and a paved highway provides access to popular hunting, fishing, and camping sites. Hiking trails cross back and forth offering views ranging from panoramic scenes of the valley to tumbling waterfalls. Some of those attractions are quite remote, beyond the reach of electricity or phones. Cell phone towers are nonexistant in these places and consequently, the coverage as well.
Oregon is home to dormant but active volcanoes and the forests on the west slopes of the cascades house several hot spring areas too. Some of these have been improved with bath houses, campgrounds and other amenities, but most are still as natural as the day they were discovered. The novelty of these draws large numbers of nature seekers and provides an added dimension of activity to both residents and tourists. Much of this is secluded in an area with few if any links to civilization except for strips of road from the rest of the state. In mose cases even these are numerous miles apart.
Working With Shixiu
Eugene, OR is a small melting pot of different cultures. Hyundai, being the owner of the plant where we worked, filled numerous key positions with people of South Korea. As a consequence there was a fairly large population in town, although they cycled in and out like soldiers doing a tour of duty.
In addition, at the plant, I worked with people from Puerto Rico, Viet Nam, the Philippines, Iran, and Russia. Shixiu was from China. For a time, she and I worked on the same job, and established a friendship. She talked about her family, mentioning her husband and his job at OU. She also, along with other workers talked about recreation in the area mentioning nearby Cougar reservoir and a hot springs area known as Terwiliger. It was somewhat of a joke because Terwiliger like many hot springs in Oregon is considered clothing optional. Whether because of this, or the other nearby recreations, it was quite popular with a lot of people. Shixiu suffered from tendinitis in both wrists and she and Daming Xu would go there sometimes on her days off to sit in the hot water and relax. It was just about the only therepy available for her arms other than the braces she wore.
Daming Xu Goes Missing
In September of 2007, the pace of the work and the price of gasoline convinced me it was time to move on. No one saw the upcoming recession at the time, although the writing was probably on the wall. I was offered and accepted a position in a paper mill at thirty percent more than I was making at Hyundai, and less than half the commute distance. Scheduling and benefits were very similar, and it seemed like a step in the right direction. Although I can't remember for certain, I think my start date was September third or fourth.
One of the "benefits" of working at Hyundai was a compressed work week. Simply put, it was a way to equally divide the manufacturing operation which ran continuously and never shut down among four shifts. To do so, the shifts divided each day into two twelve and one-half hour stints with the half hour being used to pass down operations to the next crew. The week was divided from Sunday to Tuesday and every other Wednesday, and then the opposite Wednesday plus Thursday through Saturday. Our shift worked every Sunday.
On Sunday, November fourth, 2007, Shixiu as normal got up and went to work. The shift change was at seven AM, so like the other workers, she was dressed in clean room clothing, and at the work station at a few minutes before seven. By that time, although I never heard for sure, Daming Xu was probably up and planning his day's activities. He had told friends and Shixiu as well that he was going on a hike up near Cougar Resivoir. Winter comes about early to mid November in the Cascades, but autumn had lingered a little bit that year and people were enjoying it.
I don't specifically recall working that day, although it would have been a scheduled day according to the calender for 2007. But it was about that same week or the next that I departed the new job after only sixty days and a less than stellar review. It turned out it was even a poorer fit than Hyundai. I remember vividly going home that evening, and then coming in to a hearing the following morning. The management decided to dismiss me before I reached my ninety day milestone and gained union protections. I went home that day and called an upper level manager at Hyundai, to ask for my old job back. Fortunately I had left in very good graces but even so I had to wait for the next orientation class. I started back to work there around December tenth. I had no idea the changes that had gone on during a two month period.
Fitting back in with former co-workers was no problem. Hyundai gave me my old job back at the same rate of pay I was making when I left. And even though I didn't deserve it, they gave me a raise a month later, as though I had never left. There were changes though that surprised me somewhat, for example three people who had been close friends also left the company during the time I was gone. Whatever they chose to do, they were successful, and I never saw, nor spoke to a one of them again. Others had changed jobs, giving up positions of management for something less stressful. And there was a different attitude among the workers by then. Someone had read the writing on the wall about the economy, and nobody was happy about it. I was simply glad to have a job I was familiar with and knew I could work at.
Aside from pessimistic feelings, the rest of my co-workers were about the same. In one or two cases, I ran into someone that hadn't even realized I had been gone, since it was such a short time. I sometimes saw Shixiu in the hall or cafeteria and we visited once or twice. One day, she joined me at a table during the lunch break and we visited. I asked her if they still went up to the hot springs at Terwiliger since I remembered those were happy times for her. This time, though she broke down and told me I hadn't heard. In her broken English which I had never been able to understand well, she relayed to me that Daming Xu had gone for a hike and never come back. It took only a few minutes to relay the story, but to me it seemed like hours. I'm sure it wasn't pleasant for her either, and I regret re-opening fresh wounds even by accident. I wished someone else there had clued me in before that conversation took place.
It took a while to digest everything she and eventually others told me. She had gone to work that day at a little before seven AM and worked through till around seven-fifteen PM. She got home about seven-thirty. Daming Xu had gone to the mountains for a hike. She wasn't worried, since he had done so numerous times and it was a pastime he enjoyed tremendously. But by that time at that latitude in November, nightfall arrives. And knowing he couldn't hike in the dark, she becamed concerned. By Monday, she had called the authorities, and they launched a search effort on Tuesday, November sixth. By this time the man had been missing and overdue for close to thirty-six hours. Shixiu was unable to do anything but worry at home, so in an effort to occupy her mind decided to go to work. It was then she told a mutual friend, a lady named Pam what was going on. Pam urged her to go home, to be in touch. Looking back, I believe it must have been one of the differences in culture that gave her the strength to go about life as normally as possible when most people would have been losing their sanity.
A television station in Eugene reported on the disappearance on Tuesday, the day the search started. By this time, Xu's daughter who lived in Portland had come to Eugene and spoken with the police. She told them the family knew he had left to go hiking without a cell phone, or compass. She didn't think he was carrying any water either. He did have a book showing the locations and maps of the trails however, and a leather jacket as well. After searching all day, his car was found in an area known as Bear Flats near Terwilliger Hot Springs. The jacket and about half ot the trail book was found in the car.
The search continued overnight, with no sign of the missing man. They concentrated on an area fifteen miles in all directions of the located automobile, and utilized twenty-six searchers, six of whom were on horseback, and by November seventh, included two helicopters. On the seventh also, other hikers reported they had seen him on a hilltop called Olallie Mountain. They thought he might have been wearing a backpack.
The Sherriff stated the biggest challenge the lost man faced was the weather. It had been fairly mild up to that point, but on November eighth, the Salem newspaper said temperatures in the search area could drop below freezing overnight. HIs family said he was a fit and accomplished hiker, but they didn't think he had survival skills since he never stayed out overnight.
On November tenth, the Portlant newspaper said rain and fog were hampering search efforts. It was also printed that the snow level was expected to drop below the forty-seven hundred foot level overnight. Part of the search area was higher than that and expected to have some accumulation. On Tuesday November thirteenth, the officials scaled the search back. They had focused on between fifty and one-hundred square miles of thick forest, with nineteen agencies, dozens of volunteers and over five thousand man hours. One of the helicopters had been fitted with heat seeking equipment, but still failed to find him. As Shixiu related the account to me, she said the hardest part was she had no remains, no body to return to his family. I guess the need for closure spans all races and cultures.
Life Goes On
By the beginning of 2008, things were normalizing, at least as much as they could. OU lost an instructor, and there were probably some adjustments for the students he taught. Shixiu moved through the necessary grieving process and as a result probably grew closer to some of her co-workers at Hyundai. But also by this time, it was becoming apparent the economy was sinking and doing so fast. Rumors had circulated periodically throughout the time I worked for the company that their corporate headquarters in Korea were planning on closing the only facility they owned in the US. After nearly ten years of off and on rumors, it was announced in July of 2008 that the plant would shut down. It would be phased in over the course of a two month period starting in August and being completed in October. Employees would receive two months of severance pay and a chance to be retrained under the Federal Trade Act. I think my last day was August fifth. The company organized a job fair that afternoon in the cafeteria, but there was nothing of value to me and so far as I ever heard no one else either. I enrolled in classes the following April and a career program in September 2009. An article in the Eugene newspaper stated a final search was to be made the last summer weekend of that year. The calender places that about September nineteenth through the twenty-first. Shixiu and her daughter were planning to drive to the wilderness area to await word. It was at best a recovery effort, but perhaps it helped provide the closure they needed.
I ran into Shixiu a few months afterward as our paths crossed somewhere in Eugene, and we chatted a few minutes. She seemed happy and at terms with life as it had dealt with her. She had taken advantage of the schooling and was taking courses to become a hairdresser. I think she has the personality and aptitude to do well with it. I haven't seen nor heard from her since that day, and don't know if she is still in the Eugene area, or if possibly she went to Portland to be with her family. Wherever she is, my hope is that she is at peace and happy. Strong friendships were forged among those who worked at the now closed plant and now even three years later some of us stay in touch.
His Fate is Still a Question
So what could have happened to a physically fit healthy adult who went on a day hike and never returned? There are a lot of possibilities but the law enforcement people and searchers seem to think he probably tried to find his way out until he just couldn't go on. They told his family he probably went to sleep somewhere and never woke up. Hypothermia doesn't need freezing temperatures to take a life, only enough cold to lower the body temperature by a few degrees. A person becomes tired and lethargic, unable to think clearly. Death can follow quickly. But as it was explained to them he most likely didn't suffer. I think the family found some peace in that.
As I mentioned earlier, I came to Oregon from Kansas. I admit I don't know every square inch of that state, but it's hard for me to imagine getting lost anywhere in those open plains and rolling hills. Roads cut through on regular intervals and signs of civilization can be seen for miles along the flat landscape. And as mountains go, the Cascades aren't as tall as the Sierra Nevadas, nor as extensive as the Rockies. Wild predators are limited to cougar and black bear, both of which can be dangerous, but seldom attack people. One of the people commented regarding the area of Bear Flats where the search was being conducted saying while it was level, it dropped off into deep canyons on both sides. Another searcher made mention of the marked trails and how they crossed over unmarked game trails sometimes. They expressed concern that maybe he took an unmarked trail in error, but still no trace was found. If an accident had happened, he may have been dead by the time the search was launched.
What is known, is that he was seen and spoke with other hikers on Olallie Peak. They followed him down, although not close enough to keep him in sight and when they returned to the parking area, saw his car but no sign of him. Searcheres found part ot the guide book in the car along with a leather jacket. They also found the remainder of the guide book on a trail in a drainage area called French Pete Creek. For a while they followd footprints they believed were his but the trail fizzled out. His fate may never be known, or a hunter may at some point report the finding of human remains in the forest. Either way, the family's comment to the searchers seems appropriate; "We hope that this event might save future lives by encouraging others to take basic safety precautions when enjoying Oregon's beautiful yet unforgiving wilderness." If it does, then Daming Xu did not die in vain.