Writer Lost on Mt. Rainier Driven by Sense of Mission

Democratic Presidential hopeful Bill Bradley was one of the last people to see Joe Wood before the 34-year-old New York-based writer and book editor went up Mount Rainier on July 8 and didn’t come down. Mr. Bradley was in Seattle for the Unity ’99 Journalism Conference, a gathering of 6,000 black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American journalists, and Mr. Wood was one of eight black journalists sitting down to breakfast at the Westin Seattle hotel with Mr. Bradley.

“He was the first one there,” said Cornel West, the Harvard University professor and best-selling author who attended the breakfast as a supporter of Mr. Bradley. “And he asked the toughest question. He said, ‘How are you going to distinguish yourself from Gore vis-à-vis the black community, and what makes you think you can win?’” Mr. West said. “It was a basic question, but he was the elephant sitting in the room. No one wanted to ask.”

By asking questions like that, Mr. Wood had shaped a career for himself as a black cultural critic in the lily-white precincts of New York’s publishing worlds. As an editor at the nonprofit New Press, he was one of a half-dozen black editors to be found in the book business. “Often he was the only black guy in the room, and he wanted other people to recognize that,” said Lee Smith, a senior editor at GQ . Mr. Wood had edited an anthology, titled Malcolm X: In Our Own Image , and written major features for Rolling Stone and Vibe magazines about Denzel Washington and Sly Stone. He was working on his own memoirlike meditation on the black family in America for Simon & Schuster, which he hoped to finish this fall on a fellowship at the MacDowell artists colony in New Hampshire.

Later that day, with book and binoculars, Mr. Wood went birdwatching-a lifelong passion-along Mt. Rainier’s Rampart Ridge trail. It is unlikely he was outfitted for any serious exploring. “He didn’t own hiking gear, didn’t have a special jacket,” said Daniel Abrahamson, a San Francisco-based civil rights attorney who was Mr. Wood’s roommate at Yale University. “The boots he’d wear for a walk around the city were the same boots he’d walk in the countryside.” A receipt found among Mr. Wood’s belongings showed that he had just purchased a windbreaker in Seattle. “We think he went up with books and a writing pad and a laptop,” said Mr. Abrahamson, one of six friends who would join the search party. “It would’ve occurred first to him to bring books rather than a sweater.”

According to friends, Mr. Wood had a heart condition, which he only discovered last October after a fainting spell in an airport. He had been considering getting a pacemaker.

Mr. Wood was not reported missing for six days, a fact which, combined with the second-heaviest snowfall on record on Mt. Rainier, hindered the rescue operation. The missing persons report was filed on July 13 by Somini Sengupta, a New York Times reporter who until early January had been living with Mr. Wood. She called police after friends and family had grown concerned by Mr. Wood’s absence from much of the conference and unreturned phone calls and e-mails. He was expected to return to New York by Monday, July 12. By Wednesday, Ms. Sengupta had hired a private investigator. Then friends learned from an acquaintance of Mr. Wood’s in Seattle that he had planned to go hiking on Mt. Rainier on July 8.

The search on the mountain began Thursday evening, when Mr. Wood’s rental car was found in a parking lot at the base of the mountain. But by then, two feet of snow had melted, and along with it, clues to Mr. Wood’s whereabouts. He is one of three people who have gone missing on Mount Rainier this year.

The fruitless search lasted four and a half days and at the high point involved 38 people, a helicopter and five dogs, according to park spokesman Maria Gillett. She said it’s possible Mr. Wood fell through a snow bridge and was then carried downstream underneath the snow. Ms. Gillett said the likelihood of finding his body before the snow melts is low. If that’s the case, “To search any more thoroughly would put our searchers in great danger,” she said. When the snow melts later this summer, officials will resume the search for Mr. Wood’s body.

By Saturday, July 17, several of Mr. Wood’s friends, his parents and sister Pamela had traveled to Mt. Rainier. While the Coast Guard was starting to scour the Eastern Seaboard for John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane, a large search party was scrambling along the southwestern slope of the 14,400-foot mountain, calling Mr. Wood’s name.

“It would be an easy comparison to say here’s a whole nation looking for John-John, but I didn’t feel that way,” said Mr. Abrahamson. “We had a dozen rangers working around the clock with 40 other volunteers and climbers, continually pulling their hair out trying to find our friend.”

Their friend did the usual New York things-he liked sushi and jazz clubs, he loved movies, he was starting to write his own fiction. He was living temporarily with his parents in the Bronx. But as a black man of letters, he was outspoken and driven by a sense of mission.

“He was a verbal brawler,” said Thom Powers, an independent documentary filmmaker. “I remember the first time I met him, at the Shark Bar, he immediately went off on me for praising too highly a black intellectual who Joe thought was overrated. Often, when you first meet someone, you don’t take umbrage at something they say, but Joe didn’t worry about that, for which I admired him.”

“So many times Joe and I went to a party, I’d turn around and he’d be in a heated situation with someone,” Mr. Smith said. “One time he almost got physical.”

“Joe was very, very hard on people who paid lip service to the idea of racial equality. He was angriest in many ways at publications on the left- Harper’s , The Nation , The New Yorker -that employed no people of color,” said James Ledbetter, New York bureau chief for the magazine The Industry Standard , who wrote a much-discussed two-part article for The Village Voice called “The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing” which was edited by Mr. Wood.

Such sentiments perhaps led Mr. Wood to sign (along with three other writers) a letter in the spring of 1996 accusing the black culture magazine Vibe , which had a white editor in chief, of having a “plantation” mentality and being a place “where African-American cultural producers labor with minimal clout under Euro-American overseers.”

“He wasn’t going to agree with anyone about anything to be safe,” said Mr. Smith. “It just didn’t make sense to him. And if Joe got into a debate with somebody, he wouldn’t want them to fold. He’d want something to go on and on.”

“Joe was earnest in the best sense,” said Matt Weiland, an editor at the New Press and one of the editors of the journal The Baffler . “He admired writers and thinkers who thought about American culture and thought clearly and wrote clearly. We used to joke that we both liked Mencken’s writing even if we disagreed with his more offensive opinions.”

At Toukie’s restaurant one night in 1996, Mr. Wood debated critic Stanley Crouch on whether Albert Murray’s novels were any good. “I thought he was kind of naïve, but a lot of people are,” said Mr. Crouch, the contrarian Daily News columnist who frequently lambastes identity politics. “The last time I saw him, we were joking about him being ethnically confused, but he was getting it together. The substantial thing about him was, he was a good guy, he was on his way to something and he would’ve gotten there.”

“Joe’s the kind of cat who might write stuff you think about but wouldn’t necessarily say or write yourself,” said Kevin Powell, who writes for Code magazine and made a splash as the black roommate in the first season of MTV’s The Real World . “He’s a provocative thinker. And he’s not one of those celebrity writer types who gets off on their bylines in major publications, not one of those writers who thinks they’re more important than the subject matter.”

“He was very cool, very modest, not a typical New Yorker,” said the writer Ishmael Reed “He’s not coming on real strong at you, like gangbusters.”

Born and raised in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx, educated at Riverdale Country School and Yale University, Mr. Wood indeed often was the only black man in the room. After Yale, he started to shoot a documentary about black students at the Ivy League university. Jacqueline Glover, who worked with him on the project, said, “A scene he really seemed to like was when one student who was searching to get his hair cut had to go to the black neighborhood. It was this great scene, being in these two worlds.”

Alone on a mountain, Mr. Wood was in another world, one with blue sky and woody coves.

“He thrilled to this idea of travel writing,” said Michael Vazquez, executive editor of the journal Transition . Mr. Vazquez said they had discussed the idea of sending Mr. Wood to central Asia to retread a path cut by Langston Hughes that resulted in the 1934 book A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia . “He was interested in promoting a long tradition of black letters about travel writing.” For Transition , Mr. Wood wrote an article entitled “The Yellow Negro,” a survey of hip-hop culture in Japan.

“He had a hunger to learn about other worlds, really take a bite out of something different from himself,” said Ms. Sengupta.

On the opposite coast from his home in New York, Mr. Wood left an impression on his last interview subject. When Jacques DeGraff, Bill Bradley’s senior adviser for delegate selection, told the candidate that Mr. Wood was missing, Mr. Bradley “mentioned that he had found his questions provocative, and indicated he wanted to express his condolences to the family,” said Mr. DeGraff. “Joe was attempting to probe the depth of Bradley’s feelings about racial unity to see whether these were just positions Bradley was stating and how deeply he felt.”

The last person known to have seen Mr. Wood alive was a hiker he encountered at around 4 P.M. at an elevation of 4,800 feet, where the snow lay two feet deep. Just above, it reached as high as eight feet. Mr. Wood told the hiker about the birds he had spotted already: stellar’s jay, scrub jay and Western tanager. The hiker told Mr. Wood of an unstable snow bridge a few minutes up the trail. Mr. Wood said he probably would turn around soon.

Mr. Abrahamson said he didn’t think Mr. Wood would have packed any provisions when he started out that morning. “He would’ve given secondary thoughts to water and food-he was going out for a couple of hours,” he said. “Sort of like going to Central Park.”

The Publishing column can be reached at emanus@observer.com.