Into Thin Air

Author: David Devine '94

On assignment with the Peace Corps in Bolivia, Walter Poirier ‘00 mysteriously vanished, leaving no clues, a pall of unanswered questions and a wide circle of loved ones who cannot believe he’s gone.


Word spread the way it always did.

Haphazardly. In fits and starts. A phone call here. Bump into someone there. Have you heard? Anyone call you yet? The news getting out the way it always had when they were all living together in Zahm Hall. Smitty calling Cheez. Or Papa getting in touch with Downsy. Someone tracking down Uno. An imperfect, inefficient fanning of information until everyone who used to live in that old hallway knew. Until they were all back in touch. Just like before. The whole O-Row. You got the word, right?

Only this wasn’t some late-night conspiracy hatched in a dorm room. Not a call for volunteers to dye the fountain red or sneak hay out of the Grotto Nativity scene for the Christmas hoedown. This was no road trip rally cry or midnight Denny’s run. This was different. Serious. Something to make all of those late nights, so achingly important and full of promise, tumble toward inconsequence.

I’m telling you, it’s in the papers.

Others were receiving the news as well. Former professors and old high school friends and Habitat for Humanity volunteers and college crushes. All of them reading it or hearing it or passing it along. I thought you should know. Their former rector, Father Jim Lies, CSC, ‘87M.A., no longer living in Zahm Hall and perhaps convinced he was done fielding these unexpected, unsettling phone calls about young men in trouble, listening to one more voice on the other end, full of concern and short on information.

Word spread, that awful spring, the way it always did.

Have you heard? Anyone call you yet?_

It’s about Wally, down in Bolivia_.

No one can find him.


I have an amazing project just outside the capital
city, La Paz. I’ll be living on the side of the high
plain. . . . It’s called a cloud forest, as all the clouds
just crash into the side of the hill.
—October 2000 letter from Walter Poirier to college friends

Late one afternoon, in the gathering heat of the South Bend summer, Walter “Wally” Poirier ‘00 received the letter that would end his two-month holding pattern and send him to a thin-aired place half a world away.

It had not been an easy wait. Accepted weeks earlier to the Peace Corps, Wally was anxious for the packet informing him of the country in which he would be spending the next two years of his life. He passed the time working with Habitat for Humanity, checking each day for the correspondence that would allow him to shift gears and move on. Many of his college friends were already gone. New jobs. New schools. New, unfolding lives. Most of the “Zahmbies” from Zahm Hall scattered and dispersed, promising to stay in touch. But not Wally. He was still in the ’Bend, waiting for a letter.

A double-major in government and international studies, Wally settled on the Peace Corps because it promised to expand not only his burgeoning call to service but his understanding of a world primarily encountered in college classrooms. Like many, he was accepted to the program in the waning weeks of his senior year. Since he had no training in specific fields like medicine, agriculture or education, he was designated a program generalist and placed on hold while the Peace Corps determined his placement.

Now, long-awaited letter in hand, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. The Peace Corps was inviting him to work in the sprawling country of Bolivia, heading a tourism development project. Not exactly what he imagined. When he shared the news with his parents back home in Lowell, Massachusetts, they too wondered if it was the right fit. Walter had always been successful in service projects with tangible outcomes. Building houses. Working with children. That sort of thing. This tourism project just seemed so . . . vague. What did Walter know about tourism?

Friends still in town that summer couldn’t resist throwing in their two cents either. Wally? A tourism expert? C’mon.

The same guy who twice ran for Notre Dame student body president on joke platforms? And convinced 10 other tickets from Zahm to join him that second year? Please. The guy who submerged a row of milk crates in the library reflecting pool and had one of the frosh walk across dressed as Jesus? On a football weekend. Sure. The Wally of toilet bowl apple-bobs and North Dining Hall food fights and all-day tailgating? Him? An ambassador of tourism?


In spite of the parental doubts and the good-natured ribbing from friends, Wally was undeterred. When he happened to meet some Bolivian students near campus one evening, it seemed like one more indication that he should accept the assignment. After all, he’d never met anyone from Bolivia. That had to be a sign, right? And as for the intricacies of tourism development, he was sure they taught you that once you got there. Besides, how hard could it be? He had good people skills. Excelled at bringing folks together for a common purpose. That had to count for something. There was a lot more to Wally than the practical jokes and the rowdy hall events.

He was also the Wally of after-school tutoring programs and Habitat for Humanity work and thoughtful, late-night conversations. The one who worked Zahm’s Freshman Orientation because it was important to him that the newest Zahmbies felt welcomed. The guy who spent his senior year living at the Dismas House of Michiana, a home where college students and former offenders from the criminal justice system live together in community. All of that wasn’t some mysterious other side of Wally Poirier. It was one and the same. Whether gathering friends to make a meal at a soup kitchen or a trip to the bowling alley, the context didn’t matter. The important thing was the gathering, the motivating, the common purpose. It was about pulling people together. And if nothing else, Wally Poirier possessed a certain rakish genius for that.


“He climbs up on this table, right? I hardly even know this guy.”

Paul Nebosky ‘01 turns back from the restaurant window and can’t help smiling.

“I’d just gotten there, it’s Freshman Orientation, and he’s up on this table in the lounge. And he gets everyone to sing me ‘Happy Birthday.’ All these girls. And I’m just this shy freshman.”

His eyes return to the window, to the unread menu, to that day more than six years ago. He shakes his head, still not quite believing it.

“Thing is, it wasn’t even my birthday. He was just trying to make me feel welcomed. But, you know, that was Wally.”

That was Wally. There’s Wally for you. That’s just Wally.

How many men who lived in Zahm Hall between 1996 and 2000 are walking around with stories that end with those words? Stories that start off innocently enough, angle toward the absurd, cross over to the mischievous, but all end the same way. Heads shaking. Smiles impossible to suppress.

That’s Wally for you.

How many people who love him carry those stories around?

Joe Priest ‘00 does.

“To be honest,” he says, "that’s the way people knew him at first. Oh, this guy. What’s he gonna do next?"

Priest, who lived with Poirier in Zahm Hall during their junior year, recalls a particular Halloween when Wally dressed as their hall rector. “It was Wally, so he went all out. He actually shaved his head into male pattern baldness. Got the black suit, the whole deal. The next day’s a football game, and he’s still dressed as Father Jim. Collar and everything. I remember a fight broke out in the stands, the student section, and Wally’s down there in the middle of it, acting like Father Jim. ‘Gentlemen, gentlemen, please stop.’”

He pauses, shakes his head. Cracks a smile.

“Funny thing is, the fight broke up. Because of Wally. That’s just who he was.”

In March 2001, Joe Priest received the phone call so many former hallmates were getting.

“This guy living in Zahm calls me up and says, ‘Hey, have you heard anything about Wally missing?’ That’s how I learned about it . . . feels like yesterday.”

Now, more than three years later, Priest wonders if he has truly faced the implications of that phone call.

“If I found out he was dead I would start crying. For the most part I haven’t accepted it yet. That might be where I’m at—that I’m not dealing with it properly. It’s complicated.”

It’s complicated for Paul Nebosky too.

When he first found out that Wally was missing, he started seeing his friend everywhere. In crowds milling around the campus. In classrooms, sitting in the back row. In his dreams.

“I would dream about him once a week . . . I felt really bad. Wally had sent me an e-mail in December, and I never responded to it. I regret that to this day. Because we don’t know what happened to him . . . we don’t have an answer.”

Absent that answer, Nebosky clings to something else.

He holds on to the stories. The hilarious, heartbreaking stories that all end the same way. Smiles and heads shaking. He holds on to the stories because the stories have the power to gather his friend back from the ether. Because in the stories, the winter nights still thrum with promise and the hallways still echo with their laughter, their plotting, their ridiculous potential. In the stories, all the lingering regret is bearable, because in the stories, Wally is still here.

And so, one more story.

The one about the football weekend when Purdue University came to town with their vaunted marching band and their claim to possess the World’s Largest Drum. Wally, as Nebosky tells it, just wouldn’t have it. Couldn’t see granting the Boilermakers the upper hand on that one. Not when there was an entire Friday afternoon free. Not when the only thing needed was the one thing he did best: gathering a crowd for a common purpose. World’s Largest Drum? How hard could that be?

Three-hundred-dollars worth of building supplies later, the Zahmbies set to work.

“The whole dorm was out there at some point hammering on this thing,” Nebosky recalls. “Just this monstrous, plywood thing. That night, we convinced them to let us bring it into the pep rally. I don’t know if it sounded better, but I’m pretty sure it was bigger.”

He pauses to smile, and you already know what’s coming next.

“He just couldn’t let Purdue get away with it. That was Wally.”


I will assume that you have read my e-mails.
This letter will only delve into what lies ahead. . . .
My site consists of 21 communities with a grand
total of 1660 people. Called the Zongo River
Valley [it] is a two-hour drive on a shitty bus on
a shitty road from La Paz . . .
—November 2000 letter from Walter Poirier
college friend Lou Amorosa ‘00

How many times did Wally miss the bus?

How often did his fellow volunteers wake up in the communal apartment where they all stayed when they were in La Paz and find him still sprawled on the floor? Still curled up in his sleeping bag and full of excuses. _Overslept. Alarm didn’t go off. Couldn’t get anyone to go with me. What kind of bus leaves at 5 in the morning?_ How many times did that happen?

The apartment, known as the “crash pad” by its revolving cast of occupants, was supposed to be a temporary hang-out, a home base for Peace Corps volunteers while they were in the capital city for business, relaxation or shopping. You weren’t supposed to actually live there. With three months of training under their belts, the volunteers were supposed to be spending the majority of their time at project sites. It was a time for getting settled. Assessing needs. Making contacts. Moving on.

Wally wanted to be doing that too. It just wasn’t happening.

“If you are taking note,” he said in a frustrated November 2000 letter to his friend Lou Amorosa, “I wrote that [my site] is supposed to be beautiful. That is, I did not get to visit. Public transportation left at 5 a.m. every morning and my Bolivian associates would not get up that early. I am the only one who has not visited.”

All of the volunteers in Wally’s training group, Bolivia #25, were given an entire week during the third month of training to make an initial visit to their project sites. Wally never got to his. It was a disturbing trend that would continue through January 2001. Although his Zongo Valley placement was closer to La Paz than many of the other projects, it seemed at once less accessible and more daunting. The astonishing thing, in light of what happened, is that Wally selected the site himself.

According to Sarah Peterson ‘00, a fellow trainee in Bolivia #25, there was a “site fair” in early October, at which the various possibilities for placement were presented. Wally had known since the summer that he would be involved with tourism development somewhere in Bolivia. Here was the opportunity to find out where. As the training group discussed the options, it was soon apparent that a certain project in the Zongo Valley was not high on anyone’s list. Perhaps it was the location: a remote forest cut through with precipitous dirt roads and scant infrastructure. Perhaps it was the fact that the people of the Valley spoke almost exclusively Aymara, an indigenous tongue, and the volunteers had spent three months immersing themselves in Spanish. Perhaps it was the project itself, ill-defined and under-funded. Whatever the source of unease, most of Bolivia #25 tried to steer clear of the Zongo Valley project. It eventually fell to the sanguine young man who could see the bright side of just about anything.

“It was kind of the site nobody else picked,” Peterson recalls, “and Wally’s attitude was, ‘I can handle it if nobody else wants it.’”

Once he started working on the project, “Wally had no real support,” Peterson says. “He was frustrated. . . . When no one tells you what to do and you’re sort of dropped off in the middle of nowhere—not even dropped off, you have to find your own way—it’s really hard.”

Being Wally, he gave it his best shot.

He set up meetings with Teresa Chavez, his Bolivian counterpart in La Paz, only to find her absent or looking to reschedule. He sought funding from various sources and ran into bureaucratic brick walls. He attended a workshop on tourism and got a certificate. He traveled to the Zongo Valley and tried to make connections.

Unlike Peterson’s assignment, however, which had “tons of work for [her] to do,” Wally’s was being created as he went. Even the proverbial Peace Corps village, where Wally had been expecting to live, was not a village. It was a loose collection of communities strung along the river, some no more than two or three houses. As Wally began to visit the people who lived there, he had no clear indication that a tourism project was even desired.

“Tourism,” Peterson points out, “is such an American, capitalist concept. It doesn’t translate. It’s hard to get people to come to meetings.”

The Peace Corps, so full of promise in the summer, became an increasingly frustrating prospect for Wally. The comforts of cosmopolitan La Paz and the sleeping-bag-strewn crash pad gradually became more alluring. As the weeks crept on, that 5 a.m. bus, departing in darkness from one of the most dangerous parts of Bolivia, the one with the driver who blessed himself as the bus careened around mountain passes, became easier and easier to miss.


People are trapped between tenses.

You have to realize that. You have to realize that even this far along, more than three years out, those who know him still struggle with how to place him in time, still hesitate around the simplest of words. Every sentence spoken or discarded is still suffused with meaning. Still considered for evidence of where you stand. What you believe. The boundaries of your faith.

In the waning present tense there remains a sliver of possibility, a door left open. Hope hinges on a hesitation, a pause, a subtle stutter-step around avoided phrases.

Wally was—I mean, Wally is . . . actually, we don’t know. That’s the hardest part. We don’t have any idea.

The alternative is pragmatism, the simple arithmetic of days that have turned into months that have slid inexorably into years. The passage of time makes the slow, reasonable exodus of words into the past tense understandable. It is a benign sort of capitulation, but surrendering your sentences to the past tense is admitting that you do have some idea. Admitting that the sprawl of the Bolivian jungle and the clutch of found belongings and the silence of accumulated years do have something to say. Not much, but something.

Sarah Peterson has had time to think about this. Time to watch his grainy, Xeroxed photograph on the posters at Bolivian bus stations yellow, tatter, and disappear altogether. She is familiar with the unwieldiness of language.

“I still don’t know whether to talk about him in the present or the past. I guess I’ve started to be okay with speaking about him in the past. But I don’t want to—I don’t know. We just circle around.”

Father Lies, the former rector of Zahm Hall, is as trapped as anyone by the limits of language. By all these answerless questions. And so he continues to do the one thing he has done every day since receiving that phone call. He prays.

“I pray for him all the time . . . and I continue to pray, seemingly against all hope, for his safe return to us.”

It has been his prayer for three-and-a-half years now.


[T]he people of the Valley are extremely suspicious
of the work of the government. I feel that presenting
to these communities before having any hope of
receiving money would be ridiculous . . . nothing is
sure in Bolivia.
—January 29, 2001, e-mail from Walter Poirier to Ryan Taylor,
his associate Peace Corps director in Bolivia

For two days, Sheila Poirier and her husband, Walter, waited.

While Peace Corps representatives in Bolivia scrambled and mobilized and pointed fingers, Wally’s parents held tight in Lowell, Massachusetts.

It had been a simple question, the one Sheila posed in a phone call to the Peace Corps 24-hour hot line in Bolivia on March 4, 2001. The sort of question you would expect an organization claiming volunteer safety as its number-one priority to be able to answer. It might take an hour or so, stretch into the next day perhaps (La Paz is 4000 miles from Lowell), but you figure they would get back to you with something. The question, after all, was not complicated. It was the kind of question a parent would expect the Peace Corps to be able to answer in a reasonable amount of time.

Where is our son?

The origin of that question, and its accompanying urgency, came from the first phone call Sheila made on March 4. After not hearing from Walter since the end of January, she thought she might reach him at the crash pad apartment in La Paz. It was a logical assumption. Walter had spent many of his nights there, unable to make the expected inroads in the Zongo Valley. But the denizens of the crash pad, who had awoken so many mornings to find Wally present, didn’t even need to check the sleeping bags.

“They said they hadn’t seen Walter in two or three weeks,” Sheila says, “That’s what set the alarm off for me. Not that we hadn’t heard from him but that nobody had heard from him.”

Although alarming for parents thousands of miles away, a two- or three-week stretch without volunteer contact was not exactly panic-button material for the Peace Corps. One of the basic tenets of the program is that volunteers be placed alone in communities so they are forced to engage the local population immediately. Groups of two or three living together, the Peace Corps asserts, would increase suspicion and distrust on the part of neighbors while encouraging dependency on the part of volunteers. The reality of this approach is that many volunteers live by themselves in isolated areas, without phone, radio or other immediate means of contacting Peace Corps officials. They can go weeks without being in touch.

For volunteers like Sarah Peterson, that sort of isolation, and its attendant self-reliance, was both the challenge and the reward of the Peace Corps.

“It gets really lonely out at your site. . . . I struggled. And I cried. I cried alone in my little hole of a room. But that challenge was also why it was such an amazing experience. It’s a decision you make when enter the Peace Corps.”

Peterson acknowledges, however, that the tenuous balance between volunteer independence and Peace Corps supervision may have broken down in the region of Bolivia where she and Wally were serving. Ryan Taylor, their associate Peace Corps director, was stretched thin with too many volunteers and too large an area to cover.

“It is the job of associate directors to make sure [volunteers] have site support,” Peterson says, “and I think that was part of the problem for Wally.”

By the time Sheila Poirier called the Peace Corps hot line in March, Ryan Taylor had not communicated with Wally for more than 72 days. On December 22, 2000, they traveled together to the Zongo Valley seeking housing for Wally in the village of Camisique. The room they selected was unavailable, so they returned to La Paz the same day, with Taylor under the impression that Wally would make the arrangements on his next visit.

But in a January 3 letter to college friend Lou Amorosa, Wally noted, “I finally spent some time at my site . . . I have yet to secure housing.” Sometime between then and the end of January he began renting a second-floor room in the Zongo village, upriver from Camisique. Although required by Peace Corps protocol to submit a volunteer locator form for this new residence, Wally did not. Instead, on January 31, he signed in at the Peace Corps headquarters in La Paz and turned in a locator form with the crash pad address, perhaps convinced he would still be spending the majority of his time there.

Two-and-a-half months after the December trip, when Sheila Poirier’s phone call notified the Peace Corps that one of their volunteers might be missing, Taylor still assumed that his young volunteer was living in Camisique. When the scrambling and the mobilizing and the urgency lurched into high gear, with Sheila and Walter Poirier awaiting a phone call, the Peace Corps began their search for Wally by looking in the wrong village.

On March 6, a call to the Poiriers was finally made. It was placed not from Bolivia but from the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. A voice on the other end held the sort of news no parent should have to receive.

We’re looking for Wally.


“We call him Walter,” his father clarifies, relaxing into the couch for the first time. “The whole world calls him Wally. But to us, it’s always been Walter.”

His entire childhood, at least to his parents, it was Walter.

It was Walter kicking the soccer ball around in middle school. Walter crashing through the leaves that buried their yard every autumn. Walter when he rose and fell with the Celtics, and Walter pulling up for driveway jumpers, yelling Bird! like a million other kids from Massachusetts. He was Walter at the age of 12 when his father took him to the golf course for the first time, and Walter that next summer when he started slinging bags as a caddy to make some money. And it was Walter when he left the crumbling textile mills and Merrimack River canals of Lowell for the manicured quads of Notre Dame.

Always, to his parents, it was Walter.

Just like his father. Just like his grandfather.

“I guess being ‘Wally’ was his way to find individuality in the family,” his father says, before standing to adjust an oscillating fan.

It is the day after Halloween 2003 in New England, and it is unseasonably warm. A humid breeze drags store-bought cobwebs off the bushes outside, while inside Walter fiddles again with the angle of the fan. It is only the latest attempt to improve the circulation in the living room. And as Wally’s father returns to the couch, it is apparent that the conversation, like the fan, is about to shift directions.

“But here’s another thing. Talk to anyone who deals with disappearances, missing persons, they tell you that the first 48 hours are the most critical. We had, what, four weeks go by? Three or four weeks?”

It is a rhetorical question. He knows the answer. He has had three years to ponder these numbers.

“We lost all that time.”

A stocky, fireplug of a man with a ruddy face and a short, trim beard, he plows through the circumstances of his son’s disappearance in staccato bursts, sentences draped in a thick Boston accent. His wife is more reticent, leaning back in her chair, but just as firm.

“First of all,” Sheila says, “they didn’t even know he was missing—”

“Yeah, that was a lot of fun,” Walter interrupts, sarcastic. “Pretty bad when an organization doesn’t even know you’re gone. And the parents have to tell them? Real nice.”

In fact, no one is exactly certain when Wally disappeared.

Evidence suggests that sometime after signing in at the La Paz Peace Corps office on January 31, 2001, he traveled back to the Zongo Valley and the upstairs room he was renting. Sarah Peterson and several others who watched the Super Bowl with him on January 28 recall that he planned to stay longer at his project site this time.

“He intended to really make a go of it,” she says. “We figured we wouldn’t see him until February, at Carnival in Oruro. Then . . . he didn’t show up.”

With no way to contact him, they figured he must have simply changed plans.

When Peace Corps officials began looking for Wally in March, they found most of his belongings in the second-floor room, including his wallet and identification. There were no signs of struggle or theft. If Wally left, investigators reason, he left from here. If he was taken, he was taken from here. The small, spare room, furnished with little more than a battered metal bedframe, yielded few clues.

“So many things could’ve happened,” Walter says. “He could’ve been jailed. Or had an accident. He could’ve been killed for money, or because someone got suspicious. I mean, here’s a 22-year-old American kid going village to village asking questions, and he doesn’t even speak the local dialect? There’s all kinds of things . . .”

He trails off on the possibilities as Sheila returns from a room down the hall with two Ziploc freezer bags.

“These are a few of his things,” she says, sitting back in her chair, smoothing the plastic against her lap. “Some things we know he’d still want . . .”

Inside the first bag is a fuzzy letter L, backed with thick felt.

“It’s his varsity golf letter,” she says, “from Lowell High. I removed it from his high school jacket. I didn’t think—well, it just seemed unnecessary to keep the whole jacket.”

Because after three years of waiting, how do you decide what to keep? What to throw away? How do you select, among the blizzard of belongings that accumulate in a 22-year-old’s room, what he might still want if . . . just _if_—

Sheila turns the letter over in her fingers and slides it back into the bag. The second Ziploc holds a more recent acquisition.

“This is Walter’s Peace Corps hat,” she says.

Unlike the high school jacket, it wasn’t found in Wally’s closet. Sheila retrieved the weathered ballcap from the basement of the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia. Three months after Wally was officially declared missing, Sheila traveled there herself.

“I went to see if somehow or other, just by my being there, someone might come forward and—you know, help us find our son.”

Her husband’s asthma prevented him from traveling into the thin, Andean air, so Sheila journeyed to La Paz with her sister. There, they met with FBI agents investigating the disappearance and spoke with Bolivian security officers. They gathered in a hotel with some of Wally’s fellow volunteers. They braved the trip over the steep dirt roads and winding switchbacks to the Zongo village. And they visited the house where Wally had been staying.

In the abandoned second-floor room, Sheila looked out through a broad window at the vista that only months earlier had been her son’s sole purview. It was all there, just like in his letters. The sprawling jungle. The rising valley walls. The low clouds, crashing endlessly into the hills.

The persistent silence.

“I realized,” she says, “that nobody was coming forward.”

Knowing that Walter’s January 31, 2001, sign-in at the Peace Corps office in La Paz was the last actual documentation of her son’s presence in Bolivia, Sheila requested to see the log before they departed.

“I asked the Peace Corps if we could see the sign-in sheet. At first they said yes, but when I went back they said, ‘We can’t show you for privacy reasons.’ I never got to see it.”

And so Walter’s mother, who had traveled 4,000 miles for some hint of what had befallen her son, departed without viewing the one document on which he may have signed his name for the final time.

“Isn’t that something?” her husband asks, in an unseasonably warm November room, “Isn’t it?”


Mr. Poirier failed to follow certain Peace Corps location
and notification procedures. Although the Peace Corps
Associate Director responsible for Mr. Poirier while he was
in Bolivia knew that Mr. Poirier was not following these
procedures, he took no steps to correct the situation and,
as a result, lost track of Mr. Poirier.
—official finding of the July 2001 U.S. General
Accounting Office investigation into the
disappearance of Walter J. Poirier

The Peace Corps, like so many other things, has been altered by the disappearance of Walter Poirier. Stung by a blistering July 2001 report on volunteer safety from the Congressional branch’s General Accounting Office, the program has enacted a number of policy changes.

Associate Peace Corps Directors are now expected to speak with each volunteer at least once a month and maintain a log of this activity. They also are required to identify a host family for each new volunteer at his or her project site and must ensure that the volunteer lives there for the first eight weeks of the project. The “crash pad” apartments, seen as an excuse for volunteers to be absent from their projects, have been curtailed. And the Peace Corps has initiated new, high-level positions in safety and security around the world.

Many of these efforts, the Peace Corps suggests, were planned before Wally’s disappearance. Sheila and Walter Poirier are not sure they believe that. After three years of frustrating interactions with the Peace Corps, they have found it hard to let go of their anger.

“My resentment,” Walter says, “is that they put him in harm’s way. Contrary to what the officials say, they put him in harm’s way.”

The harrowing travel, the language barrier, the ill-defined project and the lack of funding all add up to a scenario the Poiriers have a difficult time believing: that the Peace Corps would place a 22 year-old with limited tourism training alone in a remote setting without supervision for more than two months.

The Poiriers requested several times that the Peace Corps assign a full-time Spanish-speaking investigator with Bolivian connections to the case. For more than three years, the Peace Corps, while continuing to offer assistance, rebuffed the Poiriers’ request. On June 18, 2004, after Wally’s father testified before Congress in March, that position changed as well.

Slightly more than 40 months after Walter Poirier was declared missing, Peace Corps Director Gaddi H.Vasquez released a letter agreeing to identify “an individual with the necessary skills and experience to assume the responsibility of determining what additional steps should be taken” in Walter’s case. Perhaps now, the Poiriers reason, the investigation will receive the coordination it has deserved all along.


This much we know.

The people who love Wally are carrying his stories.

Stories to make you laugh and cry and break your heart. Stories that are passed along like legends. All of them ending the exact same way. Heads shaking, smiles impossible to contain.

You listen to these stories and you want every story about Wally to have an ending because the endings are so damn good. They are buoyant and irreverent and bursting with the kind of electricity that gilds young lives on the cusp of something big.

“He would’ve done some amazing things,” Lou Amorosa says. “I’ve never met anyone else like him.”

Which is what makes telling his story so maddening.

Wally’s story, it turns out, is not about endings at all.

It is about memories pressed into Ziploc bags. Unreturned e-mails you can’t delete. It is about waiting for phone calls and letters and things to get started. For signs and answers and closure that never comes.

And it is about love.

It is about the fierce persistence of love in a place, half a world away, where the unanswered questions and the lingering regret and the defiant, ceaseless prayers still crash, like every last cloud, into the echoing hills.

David Devine lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.