Having mailed a farewell letter to his family back in Minnesota, Jerry Wolff stepped off a shuttle bus on a sunny Sunday morning and disappeared into Utah's rugged Canyonlands National Park.
“I am gone in a remote wilderness where I can return my body and soul to nature. There is no reason for anyone to look for me, just leave me where I am,” he wrote.
No trace of Wolff has been found since he was last seen May 11. Park officials assume the 65-year-old biology professor committed suicide.
Millions of people come to national parks each year to enjoy the splendors of wildlife and natural beauty, but a tiny fraction arrive with a grim agenda.
So far this year, at least 18 people have committed suicide in America's national parks, from the swamplands of the Everglades and the beaches of Cape Cod to the rain-soaked forests of Olympic National Park and the bleak expanse of the Mojave Desert.
For some, the parks are apparently just a convenient place to end it all. Others, though, seem to seek out the beauty and solace of these spots.
“Parks hold a special place in people's hearts,” said Al Nash, a spokesman at Yellowstone, where five suicides have been recorded since 1997. “There are some individuals who feel it's important to have that kind of connection in those final moments.”
As for Wolff, Jim Hughes, the police chief in his hometown of Sartell, Minn., said the St. Cloud State University professor had been to Canyonlands before for research. As for why he apparently took his life, Wolff had “some personal issues,” the chief said. But he said he had no details.
The day after Wolff disappeared, searchers found the body of a 27-year-old man who drove into Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction, Colo., parked on the side of a road, walked about 200 yards away and shot himself.
At the same park last October, a 57-year-old woman drove her station wagon off a 250-foot cliff. A few weeks later, a 63-year-old man drove to an overlook at the park called Cold Shivers Point, sat on a rock outcropping overlooking a valley and shot himself.
“It's become known in this area as a place that suicides are happening, but you can be sure the staff here are doing everything we can to prevent them,” said Joan Anzelmo, superintendent of the Colorado National Monument.
Rangers are trained in suicide prevention, and park officials are contemplating closing certain areas at night and adding more guardrails. Employees in places like Grand Canyon are taught to keep an eye out for notes taped to steering wheels.
Ten people have killed themselves at the Grand Canyon since 2004, the most of any park in recent years, according to the Park Service. The 1991 movie “Thelma & Louise” – which ends with the pair driving off a cliff in a convertible – has been blamed by some for a string of copycat suicides at the Grand Canyon, even though the scene was actually filmed at a state park in Utah.
Last year, there were at least 26 suicides or probable suicides in the national park system's 391 units, according to Bill Halainen, who compiles ranger reports daily for the Park Service. The Park Service does not have complete figures for earlier years.
Halainen said he believes the numbers fluctuate from one year to the next, and there is “no clear indication of any sustained upward trend.”