Without A Trace: The Life of Sierra Phantom

Without A Trace: The Life of Sierra Phantom

by Danielle Nadler
Without A Trace: The Life of Sierra Phantom

Without A Trace: The Life of Sierra Phantom

by Danielle Nadler


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It started as just another interview. Young journalist Danielle Nadler agreed to call an old man who had lived 50 years in the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Through their weekly conversations, the mountaineer boasts of his decades of outdoor survival only to eventually reveal his personal tragedies that drove him to life in the wild. Without a Trace drops readers into the California mountain town of Bishop alongside the man locals call Sierra Phantom just as he surrenders to life with an address, and searches for a renewed purpose and community with which to share it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781683507895
Publisher: Morgan James Publishing
Publication date: 07/17/2018
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 13 - 17 Years

About the Author

Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for relevant story telling. As soon as she had a journalism degree in hand, she moved west in search of warmer weather and more exciting headlines. Her reporting has garnered first-place press association awards in California, Nevada, and Virginia. In 2014, she helped launch Loudoun Now, a community newspaper in Northern Virginia, where she serves as managing editor. Danielle currently resides in Leesburg, VA with her husband.

Read an Excerpt



(adj.) A species living outside its native habitat.

May Day 1935, Lake Washington

* * *

MOST KIDS CAN TELL YOU not long into elementary school how they got their name. Maybe their old man named them after a grandparent, or their mother called them after her favorite city or character from the history books. But his childhood was different. For him, those parts of life, the stuff usually shared around the kitchen table, were mostly not known. The little that was documented was kept in a manila folder that followed him wherever the State of California, and later the State of Washington, moved him.

He started out as John P. Glover. He was never told what the P stood for. By his second orphanage it became J.P. Glover and then just Glover by his third. When he was old enough to come up with something better, he did. He settled on the kind of name that doesn't get dropped into an introduction without being followed by a request for the story behind it. It was May Day 1935 when his birth name first appeared in print beyond that incomplete government file. An article in a community newspaper just outside of Seattle made mention of the boy. It wasn't for anything that would qualify as a Page 1 story. Not a car crash or house fire. Nothing to do with the Great Depression, which had left a quarter of the state's population unemployed that year. It was a couple of insignificant paragraphs tucked back near the classifieds, no doubt meant to fill a news hole during a slow week. But in Glover's mind, those few lines, permanently stamped in black ink onto dingy newsprint, documented something much greater.

It all happened at the Luther Burbank School for Boys' May Day Field Day, an annual gathering that had become a platform for the orphans to flex their physical capabilities and have a bit of fun. The boys could enter as many events as they wanted. Each first-place win earned them two points, and they got one point for second place. Whoever tallied the most points got a trip into town with the headmaster for a movie or an ice cream or a trip to the comic book store — whichever they might want to do for an afternoon.

At first, Glover signed up for one swimming event just to give it a go. He settled on the fifty-yard freestyle, for no reason other than it was set to begin within the next few minutes. Just before the starting gun blasted, as the five other boys crouched in athletic stances ready to launch themselves into the water, the eight-year-old tapped the shoulder of the older boy next to him and admitted that he had no idea what he was expected to do in the event. The older boy shook his head and quickly explained through clenched teeth that the type of stroke didn't matter, as long as he swam the total distance. And then Glover heard the blast.

His feet hit the chilly lake water first, followed by his thin frame and uncombed, dirty blond hair. The sting of cold seemed to jump start him into action. With eyes closed and breath held, his arms and legs began to churn. His feet, from the tips of his toes to his ankle, kicked while his arms flew above the water, then below, again and again like a propeller that had come to life. Every few strokes he allowed himself time to pull in a breath of spring air, which he pushed out below the water, sending bubbles into the depths of Lake Washington to disappear at the surface an instant after the boy had passed.

About three-fourths of the way through the event, as Glover took in another gulp of oxygen, he noticed not one swimmer was near him. He thought he'd been left in everyone's wake, but he didn't care. He had discovered it, some new feeling. Invigoration. He soaked it in as if it were fuel and pushed each inch of his body to keep working until he reached the finish line at the dock. His right hand reached out for the dock just as he looked back to discover the other boys in the race still had another twenty yards to go. He had pulled ahead of every one of them, including those who were three and four years older. He'd beaten them by a long shot.

He entered and won every other swimming event the meet offered that day: twenty-five-yard backstroke, 100-yard freestyle. He even outpaced the competition in a diving contest off a springboard that was bolted to the dock. After each win, someone appeared to hand him another plastic blue ribbon, which he tossed near his towel before hurrying back to the water for the next event. It wasn't about the win, or even the act of swimming. It certainly wasn't about a trip to the comic book store. It was something else. In those few moments when he couldn't hear or see what was waiting for him on the shore — overweight bullies, hairy-chinned headmistresses, chores and thin pea soup — all of his other senses felt more alive.

As he came out of the water after the final event, a man from the local newspaper approached him and wrapped a towel around his shoulders. "You left the other kids in your dust," he yelled down to young Glover as if he thought the water had obstructed the boy's hearing. "How did you do it, son?"

He looked up toward the reporter, his lungs still catching up with the rest of him. "I don't know," he said, honestly.

"How long have you been training for this?" the man yelled, digging for a good quote for his article no doubt.

"I haven't, sir. I wasn't competing against anybody, really," the boy said. "I was competing against myself."

"Oh yeah," the reporter looked down at the boy while his black pen, unsupervised, scribbled over the narrow notebook clenched in his right hand. "Well, waddya mean by that, kid?"

"What I'm sayin' is it's not about being first. I've just always wanted to go faster, to go higher," the boy squinted through the late afternoon sun to look straight into the man's eyes. "To feel free."

At that, the man's pen stopped mid-sentence. He looked down at the orphan as if he was out of words. His lips formed a narrow smile, one that seemed more sad than happy. He bowed his head slightly as he put his hat back in place and walked away.

Glover knew what it was that had stolen any words the man may have been ready to deliver. He had witnessed the kid behind the stormy blue eyes come to life. It was as if there was something magical in that lake water. As though the region's highest peaks, from which the spring runoff had trickled down and come to immerse him that afternoon, were now drawing him in.

From that moment on, Glover maintained an ever-evolving escape plan. He kept his eye out for unlocked gates, unattended trucks, or, at one orphanage years later, an unsupervised rowboat, to help set his strategy into motion. He'd hide biscuits in his bunk for whenever he might get the gall to run. Plenty of nights he gave it a go, but he was usually spotted by a nosy neighbor or a police officer who promptly returned the scrawny kid to his assigned guardians. Between attempts to flee, he'd hide out in the attic's rafters until boredom or hunger drew him out, just to prove more to himself than anyone else that he couldn't be contained. On afternoons when most in the orphanage were distracted with work, he could be spotted lying on his back in the dirt just beyond the property line staring up at the sky, as if it looked bluer from the other side of the fence.

"Being free was all I wanted," he would later say. "It became like a magnet."

More than seventy years later, an older version of that boy sat on a thrift store couch in a California mountain town, with a cigarette perched in one hand and a phone in the other. I sat quietly on the other end of the line and listened. He told me that story, followed by a hundred others, each bringing into view a life lived like none I'd ever heard. His stories, all taken together, are the best explanation for how he got that name: Sierra Phantom.



(n.) An unexpected obstacle or hindrance.

(v.) To catch a fish.

Present day, Bishop, California

* * *

ALMOST EXACTLY A YEAR BEFORE Glover outswam every boy in the tri-county area at that May Day meet, a government employee failed to put out a cigarette in one of California's state buildings. It happened to be a building where they kept the children's services records. Firefighters from four area departments responded but couldn't stop most of the place from burning to the ground and taking Glover's manila folder with it.

It wasn't until he was seventy-three years old, shortly before our paths crossed, that he found himself wishing for the first time that he'd had that folder. He sat in a whitewashed Social Security office on Line Street in Bishop, California, thinking up a way to string together enough official documentation to prove his existence to a government he swore he'd rid himself of.

HIS THIN FRAME took a beating sitting in that metal chair all afternoon. Sierra Phantom hunched over a clipboard stacked an inch thick with forms and enough questions you'd think they were digging for his life story.

"Oh boy ..." his chapped lips let out a cheerless laugh when his eyes moved down the page to a blank space following the words "Emergency Contact."

His calloused fingers found their way into his flannel shirt pocket digging for cigarettes, but he stopped them when he realized what he was doing and instead let out a deep, tobacco-less sigh. His tired blue eyes found a spot on the ceiling while he mindlessly tugged at a messy white beard with one hand and tapped, tapped, tapped the office's cheap blue pen on the clipboard with the other, trying to think of what to scribble in the blanks. Phone number? Address?

He subconsciously stared at a fly trapped behind the plastic guard of the ceiling light. The insect crashed into the plastic again and again but kept going at the same pace, unfazed by its repeated failure to find an escape. Phantom wanted to stand on the chair to free the thing, but he stopped himself after taking a good look around the crowded room. His palms sweat and lungs tightened; everything about the place sent his heart racing. Bleached walls entrapped two dozen metal chairs stacked so close to one another Phantom could hear the pen of the guy next to him swoosh over his own stack of forms. It felt like the heat was set at ninety degrees, which only made the smell of retired people that much thicker. It all made him feel halfway around the world from where he wanted to be.

He took a deep breath in and released it slowly, hoping the frustration might follow the air out, a practice he adopted as a kid. He set his dusty cowboy hat on the chair next to him, let his balding head fall back to rest on the wall behind him, and closed his eyes.

A moment later, his eyes involuntarily returned to the ceiling to find that fly now lying lifeless on the clear plastic.

"You know what? Damn this whole thing," he thought. He stood up, flung his worn-out backpack over his shoulder, and threw the clipboard on the metal chair — the clank triggered every head in the room to bob up. "Sorry 'bout that," he mumbled as he darted past them.

His hiking boots carried him out the room and down a long hallway, the dingy carpet muffling each stomp toward the red exit sign, until half a foot from the glass door, they brought him to a halt.

Even from the cramped office, through the smudged fingerprints on the glass door, he could see the peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that had drawn him in for as long as he could remember. Mount Tom stood taller than the rest and towered thousands of feet above the little town, making it look even more insignificant. The sun twinkled just beyond the peak as it set, as if it were a friend winking.

The old man slowly let in a lungful of air, impure compared to the crisp oxygen held on the other side of the glass. Then, he took off his cowboy hat and let his head drop to his chest in surrender.

Phantom would later call that moment his fork in the road. Standing there alone in that hallway, a stack of unanswered questions at one end and all the freedom of the High Sierra on the other, he struggled to convince himself to stay. Finally, whispering to no one, he said through clenched teeth, "S'pose it won't hurt to hand in what I got," and he turned around to march back to that metal chair.

He flipped through his forms one last time, like a kid giving a final glance over an exam, then handed them to a plump gal behind the desk. "Afternoon, ma'am. Here you go," he said, doing his best to deliver a cheerful sentence to make up for some of the questions he'd left blank.

She freed the papers from the clipboard and tossed them in a metal tray without looking down. "We'll call ya if we have questions," she snapped.

"Well, now, ma'am ... I don't have a phone quite yet," his voice nearly drowned out by the "next" she hollered to the man behind him. Her eyes darted back to Phantom, "What ... OK, just stop back in a week or so."

"How long you think it'll take to get everything processed?"

"I don't know, month or so," she said in more of a question than an answer, before grabbing a clipboard from the next person in line.

He put his cowboy hat in its place. After grumbling under his breath about the gal's rudeness to the gray-haired woman behind him, he started down the hall again toward the exit. His boots pounded the carpet in a slower gait this time, not yet ready to find out what now awaited him beyond the glass door. At least he'd done what he came to do.

He pushed through the heavy door to the parking lot and paused just long enough to grab a cigarette from his pocket and feel the jolt of February air cut through his bones. "Whoowie," he howled and gave his arms a rub to warm them back to life. It always felt ten times colder outside after getting a taste of warmth.

He walked to the rear of the office to pick up his mode of transportation — a Huffy mountain bike old enough to collect its own version of Social Security. He found it at a thrift shop a few years back when he was getting tired of walking into town and he'd since come to consider it more of a companion than a forty-pound hunk of metal. His favorite aspects of it were all the stuff that would deter even a kleptomaniac from giving it a second look. Its rusted joints made it creak with each pedal stroke; the tires were made up of more patches than rubber; the brake pads were a distant memory; and it gave off a stench of Sierra trout that he didn't seem to notice.

Creek-crack, creeek-craack ... Phantom got his wheels rotating slowly toward his temporary home. He made a turn onto Main Street, and all of the little shops, diners, and motels that he used to frequent over the years came into view. It was like a framed picture of his past.

He looked over each of the shops lining the half-mile stretch of pavement. He used to duck into them every few months to make a few bucks, just enough to afford to return to his life in the wild. He had swept up popcorn at the old Bishop Twin Theatre. Painted the bright blue siding at Thunderbird Motel. Helped repair shelves at Joseph's Market. Worked on and off for two summers as a line cook at Jack's Restaurant, right next door to his go-to spot for fishing supplies, Mac's Sporting Goods. All of the shops looked as if they'd stood there as long as Mt. Whitney herself.

HE WASN'T IN THE MOOD to admit it on this evening, but Phantom thought, as far as towns went, Bishop was as good as it gets. People called it the gateway to the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was the final place to fuel up, get a bite to eat, and grab last-minute supplies before any excursion.

He thought of it as a city on the edge, with rich adventure on one side and, really, just a whole lot of emptiness on the other. Head in three of four directions, and you would run into towering pine trees, waterfalls, streams, and crystal clear lakes with wild flowers dotting their shores. "It's like a heavenly playground," Phantom beamed when he described the mountain range. But take 395 south, and you would witness how California earned its brand as the Golden State.

Golden has a nice ring to it, but all it really means is dry — parched. Most of the United States gets enough moisture to cover it with wild grass or some sort of natural weeds or trees, but California chooses her foliage sparingly. It's a land of dust, where ChapStick is just as vital as food and water, and Smokey Bear's fire safety sign always warns "HIGH." And a four-hour drive through the state's most desolate stretch of land is what all these determined tourists must endure to make it to the beauty beyond Bishop. Phantom always thought it a pretty crappy introduction to the Sierra Nevadas. Like a teen pop band opening for Johnny Cash. Guess some might argue it made the main attraction all the sweeter.

For a stretch of at least forty miles, the only sign of civilization is a place they call the airplane graveyard — dozens of retired jets sit as a practical mirage in a twenty-acre dump yard. Then the road carries vacationers past Owens Lake, the sight of which is enough to force anyone to think about the global water crisis. It's really just the dried-up remains of what was once a huge lake. Now, it's the nation's largest single source of dust pollution.


Excerpted from "Without A Trace"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Danielle Nadler.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Non-native,
Chapter 2: Snag,
Chapter 3: Post Front,
Chapter 4: Catch and Release,
Chapter 5: Blind Cast,
Chapter 6: The Hook,
Chapter 7: Source,
Chapter 8: Flutterbait,
Chapter 9: Nibble,
Chapter 10: Dig,
Chapter 11: Trolling,
Chapter 12: Acclimate,
Chapter 13: Chumming,
Chapter 14: Dapping,
Chapter 15: Bendo,
Chapter 16: Shoaling,
Chapter 17: Peg,
Chapter 18: Jump,
Chapter 19: School,
Chapter 20: Overcast,
Chapter 21: Transition,
Chapter 22: Back-wash,
Chapter 23: Keeper,
Chapter 24: Unjustified,
Chapter 25: Advocacy Journalism,
Chapter 26: Kicker,
Chapter 27: Dateline,
Chapter 28: Shoe-leather Reporting,
Chapter 29: -30-,
About the Author,

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