Ab Taylor, a plain-spoken Texan who became a legend in the arcane art of man-tracking during three decades with the U.S. Border Patrol and later taught children how to survive if they became lost in the wild, has died. He was 88.
Taylor, who had Alzheimer’s disease, died Sept. 9 in the community of Alpine in eastern San Diego County, his family said.
As he patrolled the rugged, unpopulated stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border, Taylor developed expertise in looking for the small signs — a broken twig, a small footprint, rocks out of place, patterns in the dust — that indicated the passage of immigrants trying to sneak into the United States.
Like other Border Patrol agents, Taylor referred to the daily hunt as The Game. While he never expressed any remorse for doing his job, he admitted admiration for immigrants trying to get to America and find jobs.
“I can have the greatest empathy for the individual Mexican coming in and understand him and know about him,” Taylor told a reporter for The Times in 1972 while spitting wads of chewing tobacco into the border dust. “Still, I don’t have reservations about doing my job because I know that this country cannot possibly absorb all the poverty of Mexico.”
The more difficult the chase, the greater the satisfaction, said Taylor, who spent most of his career assigned to the Southern California border.
“The tougher he is to beat, the more you admire him,” he said. “If you catch him down there a mile away from the border and blunder into him, there certainly is no satisfaction there. But if you track him from sun-up one day to sundown the next … then there’s a great measure of satisfaction in beatin’ him.”
If he had respect for immigrants, he had scorn for the smugglers, particularly those who take money to transport immigrants to the Mexican side of the border and then abandon them to navigate the overland dangers by themselves.
“Typically, the smuggler is greedy,” Taylor said. “And typically he’s a little bit cowardly. If he had a lot of guts, he’d be hauling narco.”
After three decades with the Border Patrol, he retired in the late 1970s. An incident in 1981 changed Taylor’s life and gave him a new passion: teaching children how to survive if they were lost in the forest or desert.
Taylor was one of hundreds of people who searched for a 9-year-old boy who had become separated from his family during a trip to Mt. Palomar north of San Diego.
For four days, searchers scoured the forest, only to find the boy dead from exposure. Taylor would later say the failure to find Jimmy Beveridge was the biggest disappointment of his life.
After that bitter experience, Taylor was among those who founded the nonprofit Hug-a-Tree and Survive program, a guide for children on staying safe.
Among the tips: Stay put, do not panic, and hold onto a tree for warmth. Taylor instructed parents as well, telling them to equip their kids with flashlights and large plastic bags to stave off the cold.
Taylor used his fame and media savvy to spread the message of survival. He gave lectures to schools and community groups. His slide presentation included pictures of his grandchildren.
Albert Snow Taylor was born in San Angelo, Texas, on Nov. 24, 1924, the son of a small-town grocer. He worked on his uncle’s farm and grandfather’s ranch and served in the Navy aboard an aircraft carrier in World War II.
Joining the Border Patrol after the war ended, Taylor found his true talent. In the days before trackers used high-tech methods, Taylor could discover small signs others missed, a skill called “sign cutting.”
He tracked innumerable immigrants and also helped capture killers and kidnappers and find lost children. Jimmy Beveridge was his only failed search, Taylor often told audiences, the pain evident in his voice.
In 1980, he served as a consultant on the movie Fundamentals of Mantracking: The Step by Step Method.” Chapters included how to search for lost children, how to track animals, and how to track someone trying to evade capture.
In retirement, he noted with sadness the Border Patrol had shifted away from tracking. “They did away with everything I had spent my life building up,” he told the Associated Press in 2001.
Taylor is survived by his third wife, Lillian Beam Taylor; sons Kenneth and Stuart; and daughter Patti; along with three stepchildren, Rick, Kenny and Kevin Beam; and sisters Barbara Tolch and Marjorie Grubb.