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“Desert grass with Lensbaby” by Kevin Dooley, CC BY 2.0

The night I arrived at Deer Island, I sat in a fifty-foot yurt in the woods drinking Costco-brand bourbon and cola out of a travel mug in the company of a dozen men. They were ex-military, volunteering with Search and Rescue or working as civilian police on base. All of them dressed in army casual. The only other female student in the yurt made her living training dogs. Like the men, she dressed in camouflage fatigues and wore a little camouflage cap. She’d brought along one of her K-9 trackers, a fluffy German shepherd that growled like he’d flay your face if you so much as glanced at him.

Fernando Moreira, the man we’d come to the Oregon woods to see, was rumored to be one of the best trackers alive. His students claimed his abilities verged on the supernatural, that thousands of hours in the field had so attuned his eye to the spoor he was capable of trailing a man for miles over solid stone. One student told me that Fernando had never lost a trail. A missing person was sometimes dead by the time he found them, or a trail terminated in a parking lot just before the subject climbed into a car and sped away, but if a hair so much as grazed the earth, he could point to the sign.

A Google search the week before I arrived had produced a 2008 article, first published in “the official peer-reviewed, quarterly journal of the American College of Forensic Examiners.”

It began like a script for an action trailer:

He’s wanted by the FBI, Special Forces, the Border Patrol, sheriff departments, SWAT teams, and at least a dozen police agencies . . . Law enforcement personnel are aware that he camps in the mountain ranges . . . and that he uses “Grasshopper” as an alias. What makes him so hard to find is his ability to cover his tracks, never leaving a trail . . . Like the strategic chess player, his mind is always several moves ahead of you. The dictionary describes him to a tee under the word stealth.

And so on.

This sort of hype is not uncommon in the world of tracking. Student trackers tend to constellate around personalities, and there’s a lot of whispering about who’s for real and who’s a grifter. There are claims of rare competence and an intense desire on the part of students to believe. Of the handful of charismatic tracking experts, most served as full-time figureheads for expensive schools and rarely returned to the field. Guys like my former hero Tom Brown, Jr., or the ten-gallon-hat-wearing Canadian reality TV star Terry Grant.

Student trackers tend to constellate around personalities, and there’s a lot of whispering about who’s for real and who’s a grifter.

But Fernando Moreira executed live missions monthly in between trainings. Unlike those other teachers, he didn’t care about notoriety or money or personal comfort, and much of his work was volunteer. He was, reportedly, indefatigable. If a case took multiple days, he’d track to exhaustion, sleep a few hours beside the trail, then rise in the predawn dim to track again.

I’d talked my friend Willem—one of Fernando’s protégés—into letting me crash the Tactical Tracking Intensive for free. Willem and I were first introduced to each other in the late 1990s at the wilderness survival school where we were both enrolled (he was in a program for college-age students). Wildlife tracking was a main component of our study, though I was never very good at it. For Willem it had remained an abiding passion. He’d nursed many passions in the twenty years I’d known him: boxing, thermogenesis, Arthurian legend, polyphasic sleep cycles, and, most recently, the history of nomadic horse peoples on the Eurasian steppe. He was prone to enthusiasms but generally a reliable source, and he was certain that Fernando was the real deal. Willem, who dressed in a woolen suit and flatcap and smoked a calabash pipe, had taken to calling Fernando the Portuguese Sherlock Holmes.

In the tradition we knew, tracking was less a discrete activity than a total worldview. We didn’t just study animal tracks in mud or sand. We tracked animal shit, pulled it apart, studied its composition of fur and berries and plant fibers, and tried to extract from that composition information about the availability of small prey or seasonal blackberry yields. We tracked the paths of plants over the landscape, shifting weather patterns, salmon migrations. We tracked the alarm calls of birds and hypothesized as to the type and whereabouts of the predators that had prompted them. We tracked our emotional responses to natural phenomena. In the mornings, we tracked the previous night’s dreams. Or at least we tried to track these things.

Intimate knowledge of the world was the goal, and tracking was the method for achieving it. If you were estranged from your own ecosystem, tracking was a refreshingly straight-forward practice for overcoming that estrangement. I never doubted its importance, though I did wind up doubting the abilities of some who were touted as experts. There was so much masculine posing and bluster, there were so many fish stories, it was difficult to know what facility in tracking actually looked like. If Willem was right, if Fernando was the real deal, I wanted to see for myself.

It was late in the evening and the men had circled around him, cupping their travel mugs of booze. The scene had the spirit of a tailgate. Under a string of white Christmas lights, Fernando lit one unfiltered Camel after another. The glow split his face in two. On the lit side, just above his broom-like mustache, I could see the scar jagging up his cheek where a surgeon had cut out a sizable melanoma five years earlier. (It wasn’t the excision that hurt, he’d later tell me, but being stitched up again taut as a drum.) He was dressed like his students, in fatigues and a woolly army-surplus sweater, but with one notable exception: he wore a scarf of pale yellow linen wound loosely at his neck. I was taken with this yellow scarf—a romantic flourish—and with the extravagant fluidity of his movement. He told tracking stories continuously through the night, and as he told them, he floated back and forth on his heels in a kind of slow dance.

Given the volume of militarized testosterone in the room, I doubt he performed that rhumba intentionally, and I suppose he thought the scarf harked back to the flyboys of a bygone war rather than to an aged choreographer of Eastern European extraction, which happened to be the effect.

Intimate knowledge of the world was the goal, and tracking was the method for achieving it.

Back home in Reno, Fernando kept in shape by walking in the dry heat with a weighted pack, ten or so miles a day, three days a week. But most weeks he was away on missions.

“I used to average two, three, four hundred missions a year,” he told me. “There were days when we’d get two or three calls.”

“Wow,” I said. “What does your day off look like?”

“I still go out and train.” He laughed. And then, as if it had only just occurred to him, he said, “I don’t do anything else.”

Some expert men exploit their corner of power to make other men feel small or subservient, particularly if there are women on hand to bear witness. Fernando managed to project a humble, democratic air even as he dominated our attention, the addendum of each story amounting to You can do this, too! I’m just a regular guy. He was a jovial, constitutionally enthusiastic person—a type we might dub gentle-father raconteur. Anyway, the students adored him and drank in his stories eagerly, prodding for another as soon as he’d finished the last.

I remembered reading a theory that human storytelling and animal tracking were interdependent ventures, evolving in concert over millennia. “Trackers themselves cannot read everything in the sand,” wrote the evolutionary biologist Louis Liebenberg. “Rather, they must be able to read into the sand. To interpret tracks and signs trackers must project themselves into the position of the animal in order to create a hypothetical explanation of what the animal was doing.”

The act of reading into the sand might sound exotic, but wherever human beings have subsisted on the flesh of wild animals, they’ve tracked. Go back far enough, and that’s most people’s kin.

By midnight, between the bourbon and the Busch, pretty much everyone in the yurt got popped. Fernando was showing off a pair of custom-made flip-flops: scored into the sole of the left: Follow Me. Right: Bring Beer!

I saw him sit down just once the entire night, and then it was at the insistence of a student. Of the handful of things in life Fernando disliked—idle time, “bad people”—the thing he most especially disliked was saying no. For this reason, he hadn’t taken a day off from tracking in approximately forty-five years. He’d go anywhere in the world to help find a missing person, and he’d work for free, he said, so long as someone covered his travel. He didn’t even mind sleeping on a couch or pitching a roll on the floor of a garage. When probed about the root of this selflessness, he simply said, “Everyone has the right to come home.”

This is an edited extract from Believers by Lisa Wells (Black Inc.). Believers is available now at your local independent bookseller.