Travel Read: Trail of Feathers, Searching for Philip True

“‘If I’m not back in 10 days, come looking for me,” he said, then waved goodbye through the open window as the taxi disappeared from view up the steep, winding street.

No one who knew True ever saw him alive again.”

–from Trail of Feathers, searching for Philip True.

The description of what happened to Philip True in Mexico intrigued me. It was written on the inside flap of the jacket cover of Trail of Feathers. True, a journalist, was brutally murdered in Mexico in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains ten years ago. My uncle, also a writer, was shot to death in Mexico more than thirty years ago. Both of them were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

True’s account is told by Robert Rivard, his former editor at the San Antonio Express. After finding out about True’s death, Rivard set out for Mexico to find out what happened and locate True’s body. Rivard’s journey continued long after True was found buried in a shallow grave in a 150-mile canyon, deep in Huichol Indian territory.

When he was murdered, True was chasing a story and was traveling alone, something he did frequently. Rivard was drawn to find out more about what elements in True’s life pushed him towards such dangerous, solo travel. As he uncovered True’s mysteries, Rivard discovered more about himself–another mark of a traveler’s tale. Aren’t we all linked somehow?

As I read Rivard’s account of True’s life and death, as well as, what pulled Rivard in the direction of this book, I found a traveler’s story that sounds similar to the stories of many people I have met. For True, travel was a way to be his best self. An abusive, tumultuous upbringing gave him the umph to hit the road later in life. Becoming a journalist provided him the focus that enabled him to find peace and eventually marry. His wife was pregnant when he was killed.

Like any traveler who has distant horizons in his or her blood, settled or not, one is never quite settled. That’s the reason True journeyed into those mountains in December of 1998.

What happened to True is not exactly a warning, but it is a reminder that there are cultural elements that can trip up the most seasoned travelers. It doesn’t matter the size of a person’s heart or the pureness of intentions.

Along with delving into those elements of True’s life that helped make him a traveler, Rivard’s book is an intriguing look at what happens when a person is killed in another country and what needs to happen in order for justice to be served. In True’s case, and in the case of my uncle, the people from both countries, including the U.S. government and the Mexican government became involved.

If it wasn’t for Carl Perkins, who was a senator from Kentucky at the time of my uncle’s death, my uncle would have been buried in Mexico and we may not have found what happened in that ambush where he was shot five times.

Rivard’s book is an alluring read that drew me into its nuances. It’s a chance to find out an insider’s tale and see how a crime is solved, as well as, journey into a traveler’s soul.

Philip True was killed December 6, 1998, 10 years ago tomorrow.

* the photo is of Copper Canyon, not the same place where True was killed, but in the Sierra Madre mountains.