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Leah Roberts: The Missing Gen X Dharma Bum
Leah, a devotee of Jack Kerouac, suddenly disappeared, her later car found wrecked on the opposite side of the country with her nowhere to be found.
In the fall of 2009, I dropped out of college as a senior — the same decision the still-missing Leah Roberts would make a decade earlier in fall 1999. Our reasons were a bit different, but I understand the level of disillusionment that drives someone to that point. What I do not understand is what happened next. This Kerouac-obsessed twenty-something would disappear without a trace the following spring, her last traces on the opposite side of the country.
Leah was rocked by a challenging series of traumas while in college: her mother dying of heart disease, a car wreck that almost claimed her life and left her with a metal rod in her leg, and her father finally passing away from chronic lung issues — all in the span of about two years. One cannot blame her for needing to sort some things out, much as her surviving family members encouraged her to stick it out until graduation.
Instead, Leah focused on her photography, learning guitar, and her newly adopted cat Bea. To friends Jeannine and Nicole, the latter of whom was her roommate, she enthusiastically expressed wanting to emulate the life of Jack Kerouac, who took a trip out west, as fictionalized in On the Road, and then spent time as a solitary fire watch lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington, a significant part of the story of Dharma Bums — a tale in which Kerouac’s character gets heavily into Zen Buddhism, a religion that I was introduced to and embraced when living in Japan as a high school exchange student in 2004.
In some ways, Leah’s story reminds me of Justin Alexander Shetler’s search for spiritual transcendence. In others, her sudden flight reminds me of Maura Murray, who also was drawn to the solitude and beauty of the mountains, though in New Hampshire instead of Washington. Though I am thankful I am here to tell the tale, she also reminds me so much of myself in my early twenties exactly a decade later.
Leah’s fate diverged in March 2000. According to friends, everything seemed normal with her at first that month. On the 9th, Leah spoke to her sister, Kara, on the phone and discussed seeing her soon. That afternoon, she made plans to do a babysitting gig with Nicole, her roommate, the following day on the 10th. Nicole left afterward, and, when she returned, Leah had vanished, along with her white 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Leah lived in North Carolina. The Jeep would not be seen again until nine days later in Washington, found wrecked in an embankment not far from Desolation Peak. Joggers noticed some clothes entangled in the trees near the road. They followed the chaotic destruction the Jeep wrought while careening down the embankment, soon finding where it had crashed, structurally intact but far beyond repair.
Leah would be seen alive again by others on her trip, but, tragically, never again by her friends or sister. On March 10th, when she did not show up for the babysitting job, Nicole began to worry, but she attributed it to Leah’s occasionally erratic behavior in the wake of the trauma she had endured. Everyone around her understood she was in a weird place mentally. On the 11th, the rest of her family started to notice her absence as well. On the 13th, they reported her missing. Only on the 14th did Leah’s roommate Nicole, along with sister Kara, enter her bedroom to find the note she left.
With references to Kerouac and reassurances that she was the “opposite” of suicidal, the handwritte note also included a mischievous doodle of the Cheshire Cat’s grin. Included was cash equivalent to one month’s rent and her typical share of utilities, suggesting she would be back within a similar time frame. Only clothes and her most prized possessions were missing, including her cat Bea.
Though they were somewhat reassured, Kara, who had access to Leah’s bank records, decided to try to trace her sister’s trail. On the afternoon of the 9th, not long after promising to babysit with Nicole, she withdrew several thousand dollars of cash. From there, she embarked on an expedited westward road trip, abridging the On the Road portion o her adventure.
Every summer as a kid, I drove with my family from Tennessee to Colorado to visit my grandparents in about two days. The drive was a slog and required spending most of the time to be literally just “on the road.” To go from North Carolina to Oregon would require a similar pace over three days instead. This part would be less an interesting adventure and more a grind. The first night, she clearly stopped in Memphis, Tennessee — though I grew up in the further east Chattanooga myself.
From there, gas and food purchases took Leah steadily westward on a road more southern than my family typically took on Interstate 40 — through Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and, finally, California. From there, she took Interstate 5 up to Oregon, purchasing gas shortly after midnight on March 13th in Oregon, a little more than three days after she last talked to Nicole in North Carolina.
Mysteriously, no more activity would ever be recorded on her bank accounts after this point. Only many days later would Kara be able to track her troubled sister further. She expected a call on the 18th from Leah, presuming she would at least reach out to wish her a happy birthday. Instead, she got a call that the wrecked Jeep was found wrecked in the Washington wilderness. Kara and Heath, her and Leah’s Brother, flew out to Washington as soon as they could.
Investigators determined the Jeep had careened down the embankment at around 40 mph (64 km/h). The car, while intact, was heavily damaged. Such a wreck would typically leave some signs of the occupant being in there at the time of the accident. They found no blood, no stretched fibers on the seatbelt typical of such wrecks, nor any shatter points from an unseatbelted body hitting the glass. This led them to consider the possibility the wreck may be staged. Though the hood was too damaged to be opened on-site, much later, after it was towed, they found a wire was severed seemingly intentionally, not from the wreck, that would enable the accelerator to be stuck down with no one inside.
Though there were no hints of life being present in the Jeep during the wreck, there were plenty of signs after. Blankets were hung over the windows to give the inside shade. Everything from her room — her passport, driver’s license, Bea’s cat carrier/food, her guitar — was found, though not Leah or Bea themselves. One new thing they found, in addition to most of the cash that she withdrew from the ATM, was a box of mementos she was keeping from the trip, in it a stub to the film American Beauty for an afternoon matinee showing on the 13th at a mall in Washington. Finally, they could trace her trail past the early AM hours of that morning!
Though Leah’s car was found in a fairly remote place wilderness, the ticket was for a mall the closest major civilization nearby, Bellingham at the Bellis Fair Mall. Inside the mall was a sit-down restaurant adjacent to the movie theater. Presuming their sister might want to grab a bite to eat before or after the show, Kara and Heath started asking around the restaurant. Workers there recognized her and were able to put them in touch with two men who sat on opposite sides of her at the counter for dinner after the film.
The men confirmed what her car’s proximity to Desolation Peak had already made them theorized based on her adoration for Kerouac: Leah wanted to take in the transcendent beauty of the wilderness there, hoping to live out her version of the Dharma Bums story. One of the two men claimed Leah left with a man she called Barry and was able to provide a description for a composite sketch. The other said he has no recollection of anything about Barry. No one else who could be placed in the restaurant that evening could corroborate the story.
A few days after the Jeep was discovered, an anonymous, seemingly male voice called authorities reporting his wife seeing a woman who looked like Leah wandering around, disoriented in Everett much further south, far from Desolation Peak. He seemed to panic before hanging up when pressed for more details. Whether or not the tip was truthful remains in question.
After the Jeep was towed, Leah’s mother’s engagement ring, which she had always worn for years, was found under the floor mat on the driver’s side. Whether it fell off or was hidden there, her family insists she would have never abandoned it there forever, as it was one of her most prized physical possessions. Other than her feline companion Bea and some of her clothes, everything seemed accounted for.
The only other piece of substantial evidence they were able to obtain was security footage from the gas station in Oregon where Leah purchased gas shortly after midnight on March 13th — her last recorded bank transaction. Leah seemed healthy and acting mostly normal, other than peering repeatedly out into the parking lot while at the checkout inside the adjoining convenience store. Was she just looking out longingly out into the illuminated night, eager to get back on the road? Or was she looking at this possible traveling companion “Barry,” whose existence is based entirely on one man’s testimony?
Given that, at this point, the case is over two decades old, it is, sadly, probably the case that Leah is dead. Some suspect foul play, either from the mysterious Barry or the man who, in their eyes, conjured the man up as a red herring. Personally, I lean towards her getting lost while trying to find herself in the Washington wilderness in her Kerouacian adventure. Even if the accident was staged, Leah had inherited some money from her parents’ untimely passing — perhaps she planned on, after returning home, upgrading into something nicer. Her behavior suggests an intended return.
Given no remains were ever found after searching the area around the Jeep and Desolation Peak, even assisted with metal detectors capable of picking up the rod implanted in her leg, it is unclear where Leah is or what happened to her. Her intended destination was not far from the wreck — within hiking distance. At the very least, I hope was she at least made it up to the point Kerouac’s Zen Buddhist self-searching took him and was able to find some meaning or at least some peace in what she saw.
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