Off the grid — The disappearance of Dustin Self

Oklahoma teen hasn’t been seen in more than a year. Truck found in March 2013 on Steens Mountain.

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

STEENS MOUNTAIN —

Dustin Self sent a text to his ex-girlfriend March 16, 2013, saying he was lost. Hallucinations rocked his brain. He’d seen plants running around, he wrote.

Disoriented, Self, then 19, was more than 1,500 miles from his home of Piedmont, Okla., a suburb of Oklahoma City, according to a Harney County Sheriff’s report. He thought he was near Denio, Nev. He wasn’t.

The text message is the last known contact Self, who would now be 20, had with anyone. After going missing, there was no trace of him for a month. Then the foreman of a ranch near Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon found Self’s black 1999 Toyota Tacoma pickup teetering on an embankment along a seldom-traveled road winding through Stonehouse Canyon on the mountain.

Rather than lead to Self’s whereabouts, the discovery of the truck only fed the mystery. Harney County Sheriff’s deputies found snack food and energy drinks, as well as Self’s computer and GPS device in his pickup — all items the sheriff believes someone intentionally ditching the truck wouldn’t have left behind. Gone, though: his subzero sleeping bag, lime green tent and cellphone.

More than a year later, no one — not his ex-girlfriend, his parents, searchers or law enforcement officers around the state — have either heard from him or discovered any clues to his whereabouts.

Search crews scoured the terrain in spring 2013 around Stonehouse Canyon by riding horses and ATVs, as well as hiking on foot. A rancher buzzed the canyon in a helicopter, but didn’t find a thing. Efforts to ping his cellphone also failed.

“(We) never found him, his tent or his sleeping bag,” said David Glerup, Harney County sheriff in Burns.

News of Self’s disappearance garnered regional, national and even international coverage, with many reports focusing on the fact he’d watched “Into the Wild” before planning an outdoor adventure of his own. The movie, based on the 1996 book by Jon Krakauer, chronicles the travels and demise of Chris McCandless. After graduating from Emory College in 1990, McCandless gave away the remaining $25,000 in his college fund, cut off contact with his family and started wandering the country. Moose hunters found McCandless’ decomposed body in an abandoned bus in Alaska in September 1992. He’d gone into the wild with a 10-pound bag of rice, a .22-caliber rifle and a field guide to the edible plants around him, but probably mistakenly ate poisonous plants.

Self’s father, Victor Self, 49, said his son had tried marijuana but deputies didn’t find pot or any other drugs in his truck, according to Glerup. However, on the laptop left behind they did find that Self had searched the Internet for information on hallucinogens. The sheriff has a couple of theories as to why Self was hallucinating when he sent his last text message to his ex-girlfriend.

“That tells me he was either deprived of sleep or possibly under the influence of something,” Glerup said.

It’s unclear whether Self intended to step into the wild. He could be dead, led into a bad situation by following misleading directions from his GPS device. Or he could be alive, having walked away from his truck and back toward East Steens Road and caught a ride out of the wilds.

Before disappearing, Self told his parents in a phone call he planned to go “off the grid” for a year. In a letter he left for them when he departed Oklahoma, he said he’d be “off the grid” for two years. His mother, 47-year-old Tammy Self, said she’s certain he’s not on Steens Mountain anymore.

“I just know he got out of there,” she said.

And she’s surprised they haven’t heard from him.

“We just thought he would go up there for a week and come back,” she said.

Rugged road

Dustin Self headed up Steens Mountain on Stonehouse Road.

In the late 1870s, homesteader James Rankin Crow and his wife, Ann Elizabeth, built a stone house in a canyon cutting through a flank of Steens Mountain, according to the book “Oregon Geographic Names.” The home became the namesake for a creek, the canyon and Stonehouse Road.

The road splits off East Steens Mountain Road, passes over a cattle guard and winds up the mountainside, crisscrossing the creek along the way. The road is rough and rugged. Going just a couple miles up it can take a half-hour, depending on the vehicle. While it had solid suspension, Self’s pickup was a two-wheel drive. He made it 2.5 miles up the road, which may have been snow-covered at the time and apparently was muddy , before his truck slid off.

These days, Stonehouse Road is mainly used by ranchers tending to their cattle grazing on the public and private land surrounding the road. The nearest ranch is Juniper Ranch, about 5 miles north of the turnoff from East Steens Mountain Road to Stonehouse Road. It was the Juniper Ranch foreman who found Self’s pickup off Stonehouse Road a month after his father reported the teen missing.

As Stonehouse Road rises up Steens Mountain, the surrounding sagebrush gives way to juniper. Where the ranch foreman found the pickup, the junipers start to become thick. It’s about 5,500 feet up the 9,733-foot fault-block mountain . But the spot isn’t as remote as it may seem. Hiking up the south side of Stonehouse Canyon, it’s possible to see that to the east the canyon and Stonehouse Road lead back to East Steens Mountain Road, which is visible from the hillside.

“The smart thing for him to do would be to walk out that road,” Glerup said.

Of course, late May weather is different than what it was when Self went missing. A weather station on public land near where Self’s truck was found showed the noontime temperature at 54 degrees and an overnight low of 38 degrees on March 16, 2013, according to data kept by the University of Utah. While it was above freezing, there was likely snow on the ground. A month later, when his truck was found, blizzard conditions hit the mountain.

Oklahoma to Oregon

Self originally looked to a challenging academic path as he neared the end of high school.

“He was supposed to be a brain surgeon,” Tammy Self said.

His entry in the 2012 senior yearbook for Piedmont High School read:

“I, Dustin Self, aspire to become a neurologist...I have real dreams. I, Dustin Self, regret having to leave Piedmont behind...Haha...”

He also said he wanted to pass his hard work and dedication on to his little brother, who graduated earlier this month from Piedmont High School.

Although not involved in many school activities, Self brought home decent grades and was a “good kid that was very determined,” said Clay McDonald, assistant principal at Piedmont High School. Self had some discipline issues early in his high school career, which McDonald wouldn’t detail. He transferred to a charter high school in Oklahoma City focused on advanced science and technology education for a year before returning to Piedmont High School.

“He came back a model student,” McDonald said.

During his senior year, Self got into weightlifting and built up a muscular physique while also doing well in school.

Self’s life plans changed after high school. He wanted to test himself against the wild, his mother said. He was curious about an Oregon church that used hallucinogenic tea as sacrament, although his mom said he wasn’t interested in trying the tea. He stocked up on camping gear, studied up on wilderness survival and targeted a trip to Oregon.

“He had this all planned and he was very prepared,” Tammy Self said.

He bought the best of everything, including Kevlar pants, and had six ways to start a fire. He planned to live off the land, but his mom loaded him up with food, including protein bars and Gatorade, before he left.

“He said, ‘This is just something I have to do,’” his mother said.

Although he had the gear and knowledge, Dustin Self didn’t have much experience in the wild. He’d camped before, but always on outings with his family.
He left Oklahoma just a couple of days before sending the text message to his ex-girlfriend saying he was lost. He had driven straight to Oregon, staying in touch with his parents by phone, said Darrell Williams, president of Harney County Search and Rescue.

He didn’t have a credit card, Glerup said, and there hasn’t been any indication of him taking up a job anywhere. Self set out with about $800 in cash.

“That doesn’t go very far,” Glerup said.

No signs

The search for Dustin Self involved about 30 people who looked for him on foot, hoof and ATV, Williams said. They searched for three days in late April and early May 2013 after the ranch foreman discovered his truck on April 15, 2013, and found no signs of him. A deputy did find the remnants of a warming fire under a rock about 200 yards uphill of the truck on April 21, when Self’s father came to see where his son disappeared and to collect the truck, but it’s unclear whether Self lit the fire.

Like Self’s mom, Williams thinks he may have made it off the mountain.

“If he was any place up there, we would have found him,” he said. “Even if a cougar ... got him we should have found his tent and sleeping bag.”

An air search for Self also didn’t turn up any sign of him. Pat Jenkins, 70, a rancher in Diamond, runs cattle around where Self’s pickup was found and has flown a helicopter for 44 years, mainly herding cattle. She flew Stonehouse Canyon and the surrounding terrain after he went missing.

“It was a very steep hillside and a very flat plateau when you got to the top,” she said.

Up the mountain from where Self’s pickup was found are a couple scattered cabins, including one owned by Jenkins and her husband, but there has been no evidence that anyone broke into any of them or took food from their pantries.

Almost as big a mystery as where Self is now is why his truck ended up where it did. The day before texting his ex-girlfriend, Self was in Fields, an outpost in Oregon’s outback. Fields is 22 miles north of Nevada, 112 miles south of Burns and nearly 50 miles south of the turnoff for Stonehouse Road from East Steens Mountain Road.

Self was at the Fields Station, a restaurant, watering hole and gas station, when it opened early on March 15, 2013. He wanted to fuel up and mentioned plans of heading to Lakeview, more than 100 miles to the west.

Nothing stuck out about Self or his situation, said Sandra Downs, who gassed up his truck that day.

“He got fuel that morning and that was it,” she said.

Self may have followed bad GPS directions in trying to get to Lakeview. While in Fields during the search for Self, Williams punched in where Self said he wanted to head into the same brand of GPS device he had and it led him to Stonehouse Road. But given the state of the road, Williams wondered why Self would have turned onto it.

“It’s definitely a four-wheel drive road and it is only passable about three months a year,” he said.

If Self did decide to leave his truck behind and head up Steens Mountain, Williams doesn’t understand why.

“You wouldn’t survive up there,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com