Woman describes tracking the lost, battling abuse

by Brad Russo | 10/23/98 5:00am

Author Hannah Nyala discussed the similarities between her work as a "tracker" of lost children and her experience as a battered wife in a speech in Collis Common Ground last night.

Nyala combined these events with anecdotes and slides which paralleled both experiences and through excepts from her book, "Point Last Seen: A Woman Tracker's Story," which is currently being made into a CBS television movie.

Nyala highlighted her role as a tracker by recounting her search for a missing girl in the Mojave Desert.

Mandi wandered from her campground -- Nyala was the lead searcher in charge of tracking her down.

Nyala discussed how details were essential in finding Mandi and all missing people.

"For a tracker, details make all the difference ... Nobody goes anywhere without leaving signs. The tracker's job is to find those signs and make sense of them."

Nyala said clues can come from such obvious marks as footprints or from those which require a more trained eye, like pebbles indented into the sand or overturned sticks.

Nyala's house turned into the command headquarters for the search mission, and two helicopters were called in to search for Mandi from the air.

Nyala said she found Mandi's footprints heading from her family's campsite to the restrooms, but lost them for awhile after that.

She said the search was impeded by others who attempted to find Mandi before they reported her missing to the park rangers -- by walking around the area, they destroyed many of the clues.

She described how different it was to be on an actual search, compared to the practice tests she went through during training.

"It's one thing to practice -- it's entirely another when a child is involved."

"There is something deeply unnerving about knowing that if you [make an error], the person you're looking for may die," Nyala said. "You don't move forward until you've seen the next track."

Nyala and her team eventually found Mandi, who emerged saying, "I'm Mandi, and my parents have gotten lost."

But Nyala's story didn't end there. In the other part of her speech, Nyala described her experience on the other side -- as the person being stalked.

Nyala said her first husband Kevin repeatedly beat her, and at one point in 1980 threatened to kill her at gun point and dropped her off on an abandoned road in the middle of the desert.

"When the cold steel touched my forehead I shivered -- he laughed," Nyala said, adding that he planned to take their young son and leave her to die.

After she spent hours following his truck's tire tracks trying to reach her son, Kevin returned to retrieve Nyala.

She said while things were better for a few days after that incident, Kevin returned to abusing her and they eventually divorced, but he continued to threaten her and later abducted her two children.

Nyala said when she was searching for Mandi, her own children had been missing for a year. "I finally had to accept I would never find John and Ruth again," she said.

They were eventually returned to Nyala however, not through her own tracking but because her former husband tired of them, she said.

Nyala warned the audience of approximately 40 people not to try to tell battered women what to do, only to provide a safe environment for them because there are many logical reasons why a battered woman would stay with her husband and we cannot comprehend that until we have been in the situation.

She is currently working on a second non-fiction book about tracking in the Kalahari Desert.

The speech was sponsored by the Women's Resource Center as part of its series, "Re-Imagining Our Worlds: Models and Visions for Change," and jointly sponsored by the Sexual Abuse Awareness Program.

Nyala's visit was co-sponsored by the Women's Studies Department, the Dean of the College's Office and the Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Office.