Before It Was National News, Payson Family Quietly Prayed


Mary Higginbotham heard about her son Elbert's disappearance three days after he and five others vanished in the frigid, remote expanse of the Siskiyou National Forest in southern Oregon.

He would remain missing for 14 more days.


Becky Higginbotham, her son, Pete, and his daughter, hug upon their rescue after being stranded for 17 days in a snowbound motor home.

For those two weeks, Mary and Robert Higginbotham, owner of Payson Jewelers and Elbert's brother, worried and wondered.

Fifty-four-year-old Elbert Higginbotham of Heber was stranded with his wife, Becky, his stepson, Pete, and Pete's wife, Marlo, and the stepson's two children, ages 8 and 9. The group was traveling in a 35-foot motor home when they became lost. They were missing for 17 days in the craggy mountains bordering California.

"They went there to visit (Becky's) son and family," Mary Higginbotham said. "They live in Ashland (Ore.). They hadn't seen the ocean so they took a scenic route. They weren't on a snowy road when they started, but they got lost."

There's no straight shot from southern Oregon to the coast.

The journey is a series of winding roads through the Cascade and Siskiyou coastal ranges. These mountains separate the drier climate to the east and the briny latitudes of the west.

Unpaved, unmarked logging roads weave deep into this terrain, too remote for cell phone service.

"He was a survivalist," Higginbotham said. "I think that's what kicked in when he got stuck."

The couple had amassed dehydrated food in preparation for Y2K.

The couple stored the surplus food in their motor home along with canned goods, a full tank of propane, camping equipment and a 5-inch television set hooked to a satellite.

"They were able to survive comfortably," Higginbotham said. "The kids didn't realize they were in trouble because they kept it from them."

The area

The Siskiyou National Forest comprises 1.8 million acres, including the Cascade and Siskiyou ranges in California and Oregon. Twenty percent of that land is dense, secluded forest.

Snow, as high as the windows of the Higginbothams' RV fell near the 8,000-foot Siskiyou summit of Mt. Ashland, stranding the family for 17 days.

Elbert, by chance, found a trash can and windsock nearby.

"He wasn't too far from a summit," Higginbotham said. "He would sit on the trash can with the windsock and tried to flag down help. He thought if anyone was flying around, they would find him."

But nobody came.

Sixteen days into their ordeal, the family learned that rescuers had called off the search for them from their black-and-white television.

That's when Pete and Marlo took matters into their own hands, and left the site to find help.

Elbert gave the couple a tent just in case.

"The snow froze and they were able to walk out," said Higginbotham.

"They walked out Monday morning and (were) found Tuesday. When they found Pete he was on dry ground."

Pete and Marlo were unharmed.

The rescue hit national news, spreading their ordeal all over the world.

But here in Payson, loved ones are just glad they're safe.

"I'm just ecstatic," said brother Robert. "It's kind of hard to hold on to hope after that long."

Elbert and Becky could not be reached for comment.

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