EAST LACKAWANNOCK, Pa. -- Every discarded soda bottle, rock and misplaced blade of grass plays on Mike Mariacher's dwindling hopes that his father -- a former outdoorsman turned agoraphobe -- will be found alive.
Donald Mariacher, 80, walked away from his home on Perry Highway in the small rural town of Lackawannock, Mercer County, Friday morning, prompting several state police searches and puzzling his four children, who said he rarely leaves the house.
Because their mother's short-term memory has become hazy with age, the Mariacher children have spent the last five days talking to neighbors to try to piece together clues about their father's whereabouts.
"Where does a guy go who never goes anywhere?" asked Mike Mariacher. Like his siblings, he clings to the hope that his father will be found alive, but quietly braces for the likelihood that he could also be found dead.
Mike Mariacher last saw his father Thursday night, when he shared a beer with him while watching TV after mowing the grass at the home his parents have lived in for at least 50 years.
Mike Mariacher learned Friday afternoon about his father's disappearance when his mother, Esther Mariacher, left a voicemail at his Struthers, Ohio, home saying she had called the police because his father was missing.
"Him just going for a walk is highly unusual," Mike Mariacher said. "He retired at 60 and became agoraphobic. If everyone was outside -- relatives -- he might go out just to see what was going on."
Aside from that, Mike Mariacher said, his father largely avoided the outside world -- with one notable exception.
About three months ago, Donald Mariacher left his house with an envelope of cash tucked into his pocket and began walking north along the highway.
State police, assisted by family members, found him lying in the brush just feet from the roadway about six or seven hours after he left.
Once an agile man, Donald Mariacher lost much of his physical strength when he retired and decided, for reasons his children said they don't fully comprehend, to spend much of his life inside his home. He lost his footing in the woods that cold, spring morning and couldn't get back up.
"It was the only time ... I've seen him incoherent," Mike Mariacher said. "He was thinking faster than he could talk."
Donald Mariacher stopped shaking after his children gave him a bottle of water. He never told them why he left the house, Mike Mariacher said.
Because of that episode, it came as little surprise to another of Donald Mariacher's sons, Russell Mariacher, that his father had walked off again.
The family hopes to find closure, "and I think we know what that means," Russell Mariacher said.
So far, all the children have been able to confirm is that their father was spotted walking on the berm of Perry Highway in a blue denim shirt, possibly with a white undershirt, and beige or yellow shorts sometime between 11:30 a.m. and noon.
Margaret "Midge" Ramsey, 72, who lives on nearby Drake Road, said she was driving on Perry Highway that morning when she noticed Donald Mariacher struggling to walk up the steep hill that leads away from his house.
"I hadn't seen him for years," she said. "I wish I'd paid more attention to him."
State police, assisted by various agencies throughout Mercer County, brought in tracking dogs and helicopters. Between the official searches, family members and neighbors have scoured the area on their own.
On Wednesday, Mike Mariacher and his wife, Michelle, grabbed sticks they collected from the woods, walked up a hill and down an access road and then poked around the lines of several trees.
Trooper Troy Owen, a criminal investigator with the state police barracks in Mercer, said police have not found any evidence to indicate that he might have been the victim of "foul play."
Troopers are investigating several theories, including the possibility that Mr. Mariacher might have hitched a ride with someone or that the heat, possibly combined with a medical problem, might have confused him and caused him to stumble into the trees.
Trooper Owen said the state police leave every missing person case open until they find the person.
The Mariacher children hope they won't have to wait too long before learning what happened to their father.
"You hope every time the phone rings, somebody's going to say they found him," Mike Mariacher said. "If he never turned up, every time that you drove down the hill, you'd be looking in the woods -- maybe he's there."
The state police, possibly with the aid of searchers on horseback, plan to resume their official search at 9 a.m. Friday. Anyone with information about Donald Mariacher's whereabouts is asked to call state police at 724-662-6162 or Mike Mariacher at 330-774-0758.
Liz Navratil: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. First Published July 19, 2012 4:00 AM