Photos by Todd Meier, Mike Turner (inset)
For 10 years, Mike Turner had been the pastor at Boone Memorial Presbyterian Church, a pleasant brown brick building on a quiet, tree-lined street in Caldwell, Idaho. At 6’6″, the 48-year-old Turner could, at times, seem larger than life, yet parishioners say they were drawn to his open face and ready smile. They describe him as “an inspirational pastor” who was active in all aspects of his congregation’s life. “I had five operations in the last few years,” one church member says, “and Pastor Mike was always with me, making the long drive whenever I needed him.”
The seemingly opposite joys of both leading a 500-member congregation and witnessing the solitary beauty of wild places peacefully coexisted in Turner’s life. “Mike saw God’s hand everywhere,” his wife, Diane, says, “in church just as much as in the backcountry.” Childhood hikes took him deep into the cathedral-like light of the Sierra. He celebrated his ordainment as a minister in 1976 with an 18-day hike in these same Wyoming mountains. The first time he held hands with Diane was in Rocky Mountain National Park; vacations with the kids were hiking trips, and he enjoyed long theological discussions with friends on the trail. “Mike was drawn to the high country,” says friend Mark Smith. “It was where he felt closest to God.”
So in the summer of 1998, when Turner wanted to cap off a 3-month sabbatical with something that would challenge both his body and his spirit, he naturally looked to the high places. The Wind Rivers rise out of western Wyoming like a crest of waves gone to stone–100 miles long, with 48 peaks above 12,500 feet. They are the highest and wildest mountains in the state. The 60-mile hike Turner planned, much of it off-trail, would begin and end in the 428,169-acre Bridger Wilderness. It would cross the Continental Divide twice, traverse a glacier, top 12,000-foot passes, and take him deep into the 191,103-acre Fitzpatrick Wilderness, one of the most remote places in the lower 48.
He wanted to do it solo. Hiking alone, Turner reasoned, would let him travel at his own pace, linger over his photography, and enjoy some quiet retreat time with God. It was to be the trip of a lifetime. In big letters across the top of his itinerary, he called it his “Wander in Wonder.”
On the morning of July 30, 1998, Turner loaded his gear and his dog Andy into his blue Honda Civic. Before he drove off, he gave his wife of 20 years a bouquet of flowers. “Thank you for letting me live this adventure,” the card read. “Know wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, I am thinking of you!”
With that, Mike Turner walked into the Wyoming wilderness.