Exceptional people live in every neighborhood, some of them miracles, some of them heroes.
Jacob Allen and his parents, Jim and Karen, live near me in Morgantown. Jacob is the young man with autism, who at 18, was lost for four days in the Dolly Sods Wilderness of West Virginia back in October of 2007.
Jacob loved to hike, still does, and that day he enthusiastically outpaced his parents—up the hill and around the bend of the Boar’s Nest Trail in Dolly Sods. His mother Karen called to him to slow down as she sped up to join him. But Jacob was gone. Soon after, the Allens decided Karen should stay put while Jim hiked down for help.
Jacob was not found that day or the next. Or the next.
The Monongahela National Forest where Jacob was lost held many concerns. Venomous snakes lived in the area, but with the cooler weather, bears presented more of a threat.
In addition to crevasses and 20- to 30-foot cliffs, undetonated military shells from World War II exercises still lay buried.
The area’s most daunting obstacle, though, was the thick tangle of mountain laurel.
In Dolly Sods, much of the landscape looks as if a giant laced his fingers and pressed his palms to the earth. To traverse the dense vegetation, crawling on hands and knees often provides the best option.
In addition, Jacob carried no food or water. He wore only a t-shirt, wind jacket, and wind pants. That week the temperatures were expected to dip into the 30’s at night.
Not to mention, Jacob Allen is nonverbal. No matter how many times someone shouted, “Jay, where are you?” he would not, could not, answer.
The members of the Canaan Valley Volunteer Fire Department were the first to arrive. Then came the Mountaineer Search and Rescue group. Three pastors from the Allens’ church in Morgantown, Chestnut Ridge Church, drove over to help, as did people from all over the state. And actually, all over the country.
Jacob’s sister Brittany flew in from Boston. Their brother Micah came over from Morgantown. Whitney Davis, a former trainer of Jacob’s, travelled from New York state, desperate to help the Allens. Don Scelza traveled from the Pittsburgh area to head up the search effort, as he possessed considerable experience with this kind of situation.
In the days that followed, Canaan Valley Resort and Conference Center opened rooms to the Allen family and provided cots for volunteers. The people at White Grass Cross Country Ski showed up with huge pots of their famous chili. The Red Cross provided food and clothes to the family and volunteers.
The search operation expanded daily, eventually swelling to 600 volunteers.
The road into the area was closed. Huge army trucks shuttled people from Canaan Valley up to the “base camp” in Dolly Sods.
Jim Allen said each morning the atmosphere in the camp felt excited, hopeful. But then evenings, after a day of searching with no sign of Jacob, were very hard.
With limited cell-service, contact with the outside world was nearly non-existent. The only news the Allens watched that week was coverage of Chestnut Ridge Church’s prayer vigil in Morgantown. At that event, I joined hundreds of people praying for Jacob’s safety and eventual rescue, as well as strength and peace for the Allen family.
Despite the difficult circumstances, Karen said, “We always had peace that God was with Jay, wherever he was.”
With each passing day, perhaps due to the prayers of many, the weather in the area warmed. Karen later told NBC’s “Today” show, “It was as if God breathed his warm breath down on us.” As such, hypothermia, a concern for the under-dressed Jacob, became less of a threat.
Jim said Thursday morning felt like, “it was now or never.” When he and Karen reported to the base camp, they asked, “What’s the plan for today?”
The team didn’t give many details, only that they planned to expand the search area to 10 miles.
Searcher Jeremy Reneau found Jacob that day.
He crawled through rhododendron so dense, he started to back out. But Jim Allen said, “Something told him to go back in.” And when he did, Jeremy spotted Jacob’s white-blonde hair.
In the small clearing, very near where Jacob disappeared, the grass was matted down, as if Jay had spent time pacing. Dirt and moss were in his teeth, maybe his attempt at food and moisture.
As the team transported Jacob down to the base camp, he polished off multiple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Hershey chocolate bars. He drank so much water, his ankles swelled.
After one night, the Davis Memorial Hospital released Jacob, satisfied his condition was stable.
Jim Allen said back home in Morgantown, “Jacob seemed so calm. He sat on the sofa with a big smile on his face, very content.”
Karen thinks the time Jacob spent alone in the wilderness was a kind of cleanse for her son. “He lived four days without food and without his medications. And he seemed so happy.”
Jacob’s Dolly Sods experience set the Allens on a journey of examining their son’s food. They see a clear benefit to feeding him a gluten-free diet. Recently they have introduced probiotics, as well. They also find that CBD oil relaxes Jacob when he experiences agitation.
The Allens still hike with their son. However, Jacob now wears a small personal transmitter around his ankle, provided by “Project Lifesaver,” a search and rescue program specifically designed for individuals prone to wandering.
Karen Allen says she and Jim are “eternally grateful for everyone who searched and prayed as if Jacob was their own family member.”
Here in West Virginia, Jacob Allen is one of our miracles. And everyone who searched and prayed, or provided beds and food, they are our heroes.
To read another story of miracles and heroes in West Virginia, click here.