For the last seven years, John Barraco and his yellow Labrador, Mr. Chili, have traveled together on road trips throughout North America. But a freak car accident on Highway 120 in the eastern Sierra Nevada on Oct. 14 separated Barraco and his girlfriend, Kristen Brush, from their longtime companion.
The couple was making its way east during a road trip from Alaska, where Brush had been working, to Florida, where the couple lives. They had spent about a month driving through British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and the Northern California coast before they reached Yosemite National Park.
The couple was traveling east on Highway 120 a few miles from Lee Vining in Mono County when Barraco realized his van’s brakes were starting to warm up. He stopped to let the brakes cool for about 30 minutes before setting off again.
Barraco explained what happened next.
“We were going about 40 or 50 (mph) down a 7 percent grade when I tried to pump the brakes to slow down. No brakes – and we had a left-hand turn coming up with about a 100-foot drop. I decided during the few seconds I had to swerve across the road and hit a tree.”
The damage was considerable.
“I climbed out of my window, and I knew my foot was broken,” Barraco said. “I limped to the passenger’s side and someone was helping Kristen to the ground.”
“I thought she was dying. She was bleeding out of her ear.”
By this time, several people driving along Highway 120 had stopped to help the couple. Bill Becker drove past the accident in order to reach cellphone service and call 911, Barraco said.
“Bill said he saw Mr. Chili run across the road on the east side of the accident,” Barraco said. “Someone asked if that was our dog, but we were just so out of it.”
The couple was transported to Mammoth Hospital in Mammoth Lakes. Brush received stitches, and Barraco had surgery to repair several shattered bones in his foot. The van was totaled.
The dog was nowhere to be found.
The hospital discharged Barraco on Oct. 17, but he has remained in California to try to find Mr. Chili. Barraco’s father flew out from Florida to help with the search. His sister Lauren has taken to social media and called everyone she can think of who could possibly help her family.
They’ve made signs. They’ve canvassed the area and checked with park rangers in Yosemite and sheriff’s deputies in Mono County. There have been a few reported sightings, but Barraco said he hasn’t heard much in the last few days.
Mono County animal control coordinator Angelle Nolan said employees placed dog traps throughout the accident scene. Her officers are committed, she said, to helping Barraco find his lost pet.
Many community members have helped out during the search by scouring the valley below the crash site.
Stacy Steinwand and Mark McQuinn, a Clovis couple who often vacation on the east side of the Sierra, got involved with the search when they saw one of Barraco’s posters at a gas station.
“We’re just animal lovers,” Steinwand said. “I lost a Welsh corgi out here for two weeks, and she made it. I’m sure she had less survival skills than a Lab, so we hold out hope.”
$2,000the reward amount for finding Mr. Chili
Barraco is asking for anyone who was in the area of the accident to call his sister at 239-633-8950. Even if you didn’t see Mr. Chili, you may be able to help the family narrow their search in a massive area with varied terrain.
If you may have seen Mr. Chili, contact Lauren Barraco or Mono County Animal Control at 760-932-5582. There is a $2,000 reward for information leading to his return.
Barraco said Mr. Chili is microchipped under his old name, Achilles. He is blond with a white belly and weighs about 60 pounds. He responds to both names when called.
Barraco added that his family has no plans to return home without his dog.
“I lost a member of my family in those woods,” he said. “His position is most like our child and my dad’s grandchild.”