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The Last Hike of David Gimelfarb

Four years ago, a Chicago grad student entered the Costa Rican jungle and simply vanished. What happened?

(page 2 of 6)

Hacienda Guachipelín, where the hiker stayed

Hacienda Guachipelín, where the hiker stayed.

The search for answers begins at the Hacienda Guachipelín, a rustic 54-room motel-style complex located on the lonely road that leads to Rincón de la Vieja. I arrived after dark this past February, making it through the motel’s security checkpoint just before the guard went home for the night. I was assigned room 17, next door to the one where David Gimelfarb had stayed.

He had been traveling alone, a last hurrah before starting his fourth year of graduate school. A doctoral student at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, he volunteered as a therapist for the mentally ill at a community health center on the West Side, and he hoped to make that kind of work his career. Counseling was rewarding but stressful, and David’s parents worried that he was having a hard time coping with the recent loss of his beloved Russian grandmother, Valentina, who had cared for him from birth to kindergarten.

The trip had been hastily arranged only a few days before David was to leave. One of Luda’s coworkers at Kraft Foods, where she worked as a chemist, had recommended Costa Rica. It seemed perfect for David, who was fluent in Spanish, liked to hike, and needed to unwind. He was introverted, even a little socially awkward at times, and he told his adviser at Adler that the trip would be a way to build his confidence. “I told him I worried about him,” recalls Janna Henning, a coordinator of the school’s traumatic stress psychology program. “But he said that he’d traveled alone before and would be fine.”

David Gimelfarb
Photograph: Courtesy of the Gimelfarb family

Gimelfarb in 2008.

David had been shy and reserved since he was a child. When the Russian-speaking boy had started kindergarten at Braeside in Highland Park, his English had been poor. That early experience of feeling like an outsider had stayed with his son, says Roma, a chemical engineer at Morton Salt.

But friends say that David came out of his shell at Beloit College in Wisconsin, where he joined a fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi. His wry sense of humor and enthusiasm for techno helped him make friends, and though he never had a serious girlfriend, he wasn’t too shy to ask women out. “He had this theory he called ‘positivity,’ ” explains Ben Clore, a fraternity brother. “He’d give us these sermons about living positively and said you could have a better outlook on life.”

Unlike most young men his age, David wasn’t timid about baring his soul to his friends or voicing his questions about death, love, and the meaning of life. In a private Facebook message he posted just 13 days before he departed for Costa Rica, he wrote that he feared his own mortality and was grappling with how to confront his future. “Life is finite,” he wrote. “We must love it no matter what, so we can be satisfied with it when we look back on it.”

Perhaps this quest to live a memorable life was what had inspired a recent case of wanderlust. In the past year, David had traveled to Hawaii by himself to hike, and in his apartment he kept a copy of the book Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, which encourages the intrepid to take root and dig deep into local cultures.

But David must have known the risks of adventuring alone. Just before his senior year at Beloit, one of his fraternity brothers, David Byrd-Felker, who was from Madison, disappeared in southern Ecuador, likely while hiking by himself in a national park. No one can recall specifically how the disappearance affected Gimelfarb emotionally, but his college roommate, Ian Thomson, who is now an attorney in Milwaukee, says he can’t help wondering if David considered his fraternity brother’s fate when he decided to visit the park that morning in Costa Rica.

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