Monday, Oct. 30 was just another day for 83-year-old Tacoma, Washington native Donald Maesner, but it would lead to six days of desolation and near starvation on an isolated road in the Little Belts.
An avid hunter who just moved from Moore to Lewistown about two months ago, Maesner thought he’d go explore the Little Belts and see if he’d have any luck spotting big game. It was the only thing he could think to do that sunny fall morning. And why not? He’d wanted to be a little more active and get out, which isn’t always easy. Life has been slower and harder since his wife, Virginia, passed away two years ago. They’d been married 55 years.
“I grabbed my rifle and took off,” Maesner said. “I grabbed a diet drink, a hot chocolate and a breakfast sandwich from McDonald’s, and then I headed out past Utica, past the Circle Bar and took a right. I went to the ranger station and then took a right across the river up toward the ridge. My boy and I had done this trip before.”
But this time, Maesner said, he had a little trouble.
“I got turned around in my Ford Pickup,” he said. “I went down a road where I didn’t see any tracks. I went about 18 miles and thought I’d come out the other side. It dead-ended.”
Maesner couldn’t help but feel a little concerned.
“The road was terrible,” he said. “There were a lot of rocks and stumps. Coming back out, one driver-side tire came off the rim. I kept going another 5-6 miles. Then another tire started coming off of the back passenger side. I got another 4-5 miles, and that’s when the other front tire came off.”
That’s when he stopped.
“I just sat there,” he said. “I was there all day Monday and I didn’t get too excited. It wasn’t bad, really, except I didn’t have anything to eat. I had a space blanket, which really was one of the best things I had. It helped keep me warm, along with the heater, which I would use about once an hour. I had half a tank of gas so I could let the truck and the heat run when necessary. I was using my head.”
Maesner didn’t panic. Trying to see if someone was out there, Maesner took his rifle out and shot a box of shells – three shells at a time.
“I did that about four days in a row,” he said. “I also honked my horn incessantly. Three or four times each hour.”
Determined to live, Maesner stayed warm with his space blanket and stayed hydrated by drinking melted snow from atop the truck. He feels fortunate it snowed as much as it did. He didn’t have to get out of his truck and search for snow. He couldn’t anyhow. By the fourth day, he was physically unable to get to his truck.
“I never got too far,” he said. “One day I went about a half a mile, but I had learned not to leave my vehicle, so I stayed nearby until I couldn’t get out of the truck anymore. It was awful. I was peeing my pants. My kidneys shut down.”
By Thursday, Maesner started to give up on someone finding him during the week, but he had hope a hunter would come across his truck when the weekend rolled around. He just had to make it that long.
“I knew someone was going to come find me,” he said. “I knew it. How could I be there a week without anyone finding me? But just in case I couldn’t hold out, I started writing letters to my kids. I call them my death letters.”
The “just in case” goodbye letters also helped pass the time, which was another challenge Maesner faced.
“I had a lot of time to think,” he said.
He also had a lot of time to play on his phone. He didn’t have service, but he did have solitaire.
“I played 159 games,” he said.
On that 159th game, however, he was interrupted.
“I had my head bent over, playing my game, when I heard someone knocking on the window,” he said. “I thought ‘what the heck?’” I looked up and there was a man. He helped me out of the truck, put me on the four-wheeler and drove me out of there. He had a cabin out there and got me a candy bar. That was the first thing I ate. From there we took off in his truck and he got me to the hospital.”
The man was Ken Shaver, a Lewistown native whose family owns a cabin out at the Little Belts. Earlier in the week he’d purchased the four-wheeler – a Polaris Ranger – and he wanted to take it for a ride in familiar territory.
That’s when he saw Maesner’s red truck right in the middle of the road.
Right away, Shaver could tell the truck was stuck. He examined the tires and saw the empty, worn rims.
“Something in my mind told me to check inside,” he said, “so I shut off my Ranger and walked up to the window.”
When he looked in the truck, he saw Maesner with his head down, and he immediately assumed the worst.
“I thought, ‘oh my God, I just found a dead guy,’” Shaver said. “I didn’t know what to do. My mind was racing.”
Hoping he was wrong, Shaver tapped on the window, and he immediately got Maesner’s attention.
“He had tears in his eyes,” Shaver said, “and he kept asking me if I was real.”
Ken Shaver, left, and Don Maesner celebrate Don’s return home
Maesner may not have heard anything while he waited for help in the Little Belts, but by the third day starvation started messing with him.
“On the third night I started seeing Weimareners and Golden Retrievers,” he said. “I saw about 50-75 dogs. One little black-and-white dog hung out beside the car door every night.”
By the fourth night Maesner’s hallucinations even created a little music festival, albeit without volume.
“There were two Texas bands – one on the left and one on the right,” Maesner said. “There were about 10 people in each band jumping up and down hurrahing and all that. Most of them were older men with big white beards. I also started seeing mobile homes with men, women and children all around. The people were walking around, shuffling their feet and staring at me.”
On the fifth night, Santa came to visit.
“There was an 8-foot Santa and a 7-foot Santa,” Maesner said. “That made me excited. I rolled down the window and told them to get the hell out of here unless you’re going to bring me some food.”
Maesner said all of the visions he was having were people waiting for him to die, but he wouldn’t have it. He wasn’t ready.
“I’d had enough of it,” he said. “I didn’t want to be one of the living dead walking around.”
Don Maesner reads some of his “death letters” in acute care, two days after being found
All in the timing
Looking back, Maesner he wouldn’t have made it if Shaver didn’t find him precisely when he did.
“I was afraid I’d be gone by the end of the hour if he didn’t find me,” he said. “Ken saved my life.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Shaver said in response. ”It was the grace of God.”
When he found him, Shaver said he could tell Maesner didn’t have much time left. It was clear in his appearance, his condition and the words he’d written, as his last letter was left on the dash.
“It was the last letter he wanted people to find,” Shaver said. “He wrote which crematory he wanted his body to be sent and he said something about 83 years old being a long time.”
Shaver agrees 83 years is a long time, and it’s OK for him to accept that he can’t get around like he once could.
Helping Maesner out of Central Montana Medical Center, where he stayed in acute care from Saturday to Monday, Shaver gave him a gentle tip to prevent tragic events in the future.
“Don’t leave the house,” he joked. “That’s where you went wrong.”
“If I do go somewhere,” I’ll let someone know,” Maesner said, “and I’ll bring food…and a space blanket.”
Maesner shook his head.
“What a thing,” he said.
(as published by the Lewistown News-Argus Nov. 8, 2017)