Four-year-old Travis Mitchell pushed through the thick brush as the darkness gathered, determined to find Alex, 10, his brother.
Although the adventurous little boy, garbed in only a tank top, flip flops and shorts, had gotten lost trying to find his way back to four playmates, he was mostly worried about finding his brother in the thick brush.
The toddler’s confusion would soon grip an entire community in hope and fear, mobilize hundreds of volunteers, reveal how the Web can connect a whole town and lead to such an unlikely chain of good fortune that it smacked of Divine Intervention.
But that was all in the future as Travis wandered further into the forest and his mother’s nightmare took shape. Back at the house, Travis’ mother Ginger Mitchell frantically called and texted everyone she could think of, letting them know Travis was missing.
Friends and family members joined in, sending mass texts and Facebook messages.
By Monday morning, nearly everyone in Payson had heard that Travis was missing and was looking for him. Hours later, three volunteers on horseback found Travis safe — but dusty, scratched and too weak to sit up, in a remote, rugged canyon northwest of the airport.
The boy’s safe return garnered national attention and brought the community together in ways never before seen in Rim Country as the latest technology and old-fashioned legwork combined to produce a happy ending.
Travis’ story starts behind a home in the Airpark around 5 p.m. Sunday. Travis and brother Alex were playing with three friends, an 8-year-old boy, a 6-year-old girl and a 9-year-old girl. The five friends played in a fort a few hundred feet from the back door where Ginger was cooking supper.
Ginger explained Travis and Alex had been spending time at the home of her friend, Emily, nearly every day during the past two weeks. As the children played, Emily’s husband cooked barbecue in the back yard, Emily was doing laundry and Ginger was cooking Minute Rice. The children approached the home and wanted to come in, but Ginger told them to stay out until dinner was ready.
The children walked to a fort they had built past a ravine near some bushes.
After a time, Travis said he had to go to the bathroom and the 6-year-old girl said she would take him back to the house to use the bathroom. Ginger said Travis refused to pee outside, despite her efforts to convince him it’s all right.
As they neared the home, the girl told Travis to go inside and then headed back to the fort. However, Travis apparently decided instead to “hold it” and return to the fort by himself. He then apparently headed off in the wrong direction.
Roughly 15 minutes later, Ginger realized Travis was missing and looked everywhere through the home — under the TV and through the cabinets. When she could not find him, she called 911.
Travis would later tell Ginger that he was looking for Alex the whole time he was in the woods.
“He thought his brother was lost,” she said.
Through the night and into the morning, Travis said he kept walking, resting occasionally but never sleeping.
Travis told Ginger he “tried to pick up dirt for a blanket,” because he was cold. Sometime during the night, an elk and its baby hovered near Travis because he would later report, “reindeer were playing with me.”
As Travis wandered, more and more search and rescue personnel and volunteers surrounded the home off Gina Point, south of the airport runway. High school students, family members, friends, Rim Country residents and news media flocked to the scene.
Through all the chaos, Ginger said Payson Police Sgt. John Heflin “was my rock.”
“All I wanted to do was go look for him,” she said. “I tried to jump the fence, but every time I got away, Heflin would find me.”
Police kept Ginger inside Emily’s home through most of the search.
By Monday morning, searchers had few clues to go on.
“At about 7 a.m., I started to lose it,” Ginger said. “I started to think the worst.”
Ginger, who had avoided watching the television news, finally sat down and watched the morning broadcast. Reporters said Travis was the third child to go missing in Arizona recently. The first two had turned up dead.
“Mine is coming back alive,” Ginger said.
Meanwhile, John Hughes, like so many other Payson residents, turned on his TV and listened in horror. Within moments, Hughes’ friend Heath Wacker called and said, “God had told him to go look for that boy.”
“You heard Him tell you to go look for him?” Hughes asked in disbelief.
“Yes, He told me to go look for him,” Wacker responded.
Hughes and Wacker got in Hughes’ white pickup, drove to the airpark and asked for the command center in front of Emily’s home.
Hughes said, “We are here to help, what can we do?”
When the officer asked if they had any horses, Wacker said he knew of someone who did.
Hughes said he had a plane and could go up and look, but the officer said to stay out of the sky to avoid conflict with the helicopters already searching.
So Wacker and Hughes left the command center and called their friend Gary Chitwood, asking him to round up his horse to look for the boy.
At that point, the two friends realized the skies over the search area were empty — so they decided to go up in Hughes’ Cessna.
From the air, the men noticed that the searchers were scouring the area northeast of the airport, but no one was looking to the northwest.
Wacker pointed down to a deep canyon and said, “That is where he is.”
Hughes landed the plane and drove over to tell Chitwood where to look. Remarkably, Chitwood and Beth and Wyman Kindall were already waiting in a cul-de-sac at the head of the canyon to which Wacker had pointed.
Chitwood asked Wacker what direction to head and Wacker pointed back into the forest.
The three rode off, following Wacker’s line of direction.
After hoofing it through brush, the riders came across another rider who said the brush in the canyon was so thick they’d be wasting their time to look for a boy in flip-flops down there.
Chitwood and the Kindalls turned around and were about to head out, when something prompted them to change their minds and search the canyon anyway. They fought their way through the brush, calling Travis’ name all the while.
Then they heard the boy respond, “I’m right here.”
Joyfully, they rode down to a tree, pulled back the thick branches and found Travis lying on the ground, too weak to sit up. They carried him out and gave him some water, which immediately seemed to revive him.
“They said do not drink too much or you will get sick,” Travis said Thursday afternoon while playing in Rumsey Park.
Fortified by water, raisins, a little gentle coaxing and the promise of a helicopter ride, Travis conquered his fear and climbed onto Wyman’s horse, Rooster. The group then rode out of the canyon to where a helicopter could airlift Travis to Payson Regional Medical Center around 11 a.m.
Ginger said when she first saw Travis at the hospital she hugged him tightly. Travis responded, “Mom I got to ride in a helicopter.”
As Ginger wept, Travis said, “Don’t be sad, it’s OK.”
Besides dehydration and a few scratches, Travis was in good condition.
“I would have died if I had lost him, Ginger said.
Hughes said it is remarkable how the whole event unfolded, with those determined volunteers following a hunch and ignoring their doubts to find the lost boy, less than two miles from where he’d disappeared.
“This was the worst thing for any parent to go through,” Ginger said. “I am one of those people who ridicules parents for losing their children and it happened to me.”
“I learned don’t judge people.”
As Travis played on the playground equipment in Rumsey Park Thursday, Ginger said she is worried he will be traumatized, but so far, he appears normal.
“He thinks he went camping,” she said.
Travis later told a TV reporter, “I wasn’t scared, I was worried.”
Poem honors search and rescue volunteers