A chance encounter in America's first national park nearly two decades ago changed the course of one man's life, and now he's made it his mission to track down the missed connection that saved him.
For Ryan Eisele, every day starts with a journey back in time. It doesn't take long for him to turn a gas station off the interstate into his own one-night-only performance. Despite being born in the early 90s, it's the blasts from the past that speak to him the most. Songs like "Take It Easy" by The Eagles have a special place in his heart.
Ryan lives each shift and each song like it's his last, because he knows how quickly it can all fall apart.
September 28, 2002: the day everything changed for spunky, 11-year-old Ryan Eisele.
The towering, steeple-like rocks known as The Hoodoos, just south of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, were still new and wonderful to Ryan. The preteen had only moved to Gardiner, Montana from his home in Michigan three months earlier… joining his father, Art, following the sudden death of his mom and grandmother.
Nothing about the day particularly stood out.
"It was a Saturday, we started out," Art recalls. "Crock pot full of vegetable soup. Hiking around like we're doing now. And uh, he decided, all the kids were up there climbing. He had asked me to go up there and I said, 'be careful,' of course."
"I climbed up on these rocks," Ryan remembers, "and I went in on one rock and I would take a picture and get up on this one… and it’s a 90 degree angle drop off on the other side. I stand up and he takes a picture of me, and I was jokingly getting to the edge and go, ‘Dad, catch me,’ ‘cause he was at the bottom."
The towering limestone pillars already dwarfed the 11-year-old, but their size didn’t become terrifyingly clear until he fell.
"My dad was like, ‘Stay right there, I’ll come and get you,’ and before he could finish his sentence, I fell. Just, straight down.”
Straight down, about 50 feet, onto the rocks below.
"His head smashed into these rocks all the way down and landed probably right here," Art says. "His eyes rolled back in his head and I thought he was dead."
Ryan says: “I could hear in the background somebody, like, ‘Dear God, please help me.’”
"I picked him up screaming, ran down this street trail, got down to the cement area there…"
A couple from New York happened to have a cell phone. Remember, this is 2002, way before cell phones were as popular as they are today and long before they were supposed to work in the park.
But it seems someone had an eye out for Ryan that day, with the couple making a call that likely saved his life.
"And we got into the ambulance and that's when I met the couple," Art says. "They were here on their honeymoon and they were really nice people. I vaguely remember them, I think he had brown hair."
It was Yellowstone park ranger Rick McAdam who answered the call, arriving on the scene just minutes later.
Ryan was rushed to the closest hospital, more than 60 miles away in Livingston. But the 11-year-old’s injuries were so severe, he was flown another 118 miles to Billings to undergo emergency brain surgery. The couple followed Ryan and his father, driving Art’s car all the way to Billings as he flew alongside his son.
"They just did it because they wanted to help," Art explains.
Skull fragments penetrated Ryan's brain. Doctors say without immediate treatment, his chances of living a full life would have looked much different.
Now 28-years-old and a father of his own, Ryan still lives with the impacts of that fall, explaining that, "my head injury and epilepsy has left me disabled.”
His experiences over the last 17 years have given Ryan a greater understanding for the pain his father felt that day: “No one’s gonna forget their own child sitting there, their own child fall.”
The incident left Ryan scarred, in more ways than one. He has flashbacks to the moments where his life hung in the balance "all the time." Ryan's had several rounds of surgeries, from metal plates to shunts. Most recent complications had him flying back to Billings just last year.
One thing that has never left his mind, even 17 years later, are the people who saved his life.
Ryan contacted us in April, asking for our help in trying to find the people who came to his rescue all those years ago.
Ryan says: “I want to thank them for saving my life and helping my father out and extending their arm out to help my father out without any hesitation. It’s – I’ve thought about it a lot over the years. A lot. Every September 28th I think about it, especially.”
While we haven’t been able to find that couple with the cell phone, after knocking on a few doors in Gardiner and making a few phone calls, we were able to find retired park ranger Rick McAdam, who was the first on scene after Ryan’s fall. We organized a reunion at a bakery in Park County's Paradise Valley.
Just like old friends, Art, Rick, and Ryan sipped coffee and swapped stories about that life-changing day and their lives over the last 17 years. The meeting provided closure not just for Ryan.
“We sometimes don’t find out what happens to the patients that we deal with," Rick told Ryan. "So, it’s nice to know that you’re still here."
While Rick recalls the couple that helped Ryan, no one can remember a name or any way to get in touch with them.
Ryan is still hoping someone will see this story and be able to put two-and-two together: Who was that New York couple honeymooning in Yellowstone on September 28, 2002? Ryan would like to meet them - and thank them.
“I know I will find them," Ryan says. "[I'll] probably give them both a big bear hug and probably cry. I just want to say thank you for helping me.”
Then, he can finally 'take it easy.'
This is where we need your help. Does Ryan’s story sound familiar? Do you know anyone that fits the description of the couple?
No tip is too small. Send anything that might help us find Ryan’s saviors to email@example.com. And share this story on social media, using #FindTheYellowstoneSaviors.