“As a journalist, you are supposed to stay out of the story,” says Danielle Nadler, Managing Editor of Loudoun Now and author of Without A Trace: The Life of Sierra Phantom. In the book, she acts as the narrator, offering insightful vignettes about her own life, woven between the tales of a man who built a life in the wild..“I was scared the average reader would say - get out of the way of the story,” she says, readily conceding the most challenging aspect of writing this book was motivated by a truth inherent in the act of putting down words upon a page. “I think with writing you have to take risks,” she says thoughtfully.
The Author, Photo Courtesy of Douglas Graham
A man who spent decades in the wilderness of Bishop, California, John P. Glover - a.k.a. Sierra Phantom - had moved to an apartment by the time Nadler met him. She describes Phantom as an “extrovert,” always ready to share a story about his experiences. “Even though he did live in the wild…he would come into town quite a bit,” Nadler says. Did he relish the newfound roots offered by life in an apartment, eager to indulge in the stability having a home can provide? “He always made it seem like he missed the wild…” she says.
When one reaches a certain age, it seems only natural to look back upon the arc of the life lived and possess more than a few regrets. Mistakes made, opportunities missed. A man who lived the majority of his adult life entirely in the wild - shunning the traditional form of living - must have had a few regrets of his own? “I’ve since learned he had a girlfriend when he was in his thirties,” Nadler says, revealing a piece of information that she learned after the publication of her final manuscript. A revelation seemingly doing little to surprise Nadler. “His priority was living by his own rules…I never felt like he could ever trust anyone…”
After reading Nadler’s book, one unavoidable question kept coming to mind. Where did this man derive the will to live? After losing both of his parents at a young age, he was tossed around numerous orphanages and foster homes, making a habit of escaping once trouble arose. Until he landed at the last orphanage at which he would ever stay. She credits the last orphanage – especially the influence of the headmaster, Mr. Berton - with helping to right his way. “You can run into that person at just the right time,” she says, articulating that just by showing you care, one can communicate a sense of value to the child or young adult.
“Foster children, they are known for their storytelling,” a friend of Danielle offers, a conversation she records in her book. “Because they’re moved from family to family and house to house, there’s no one who holds all of who they are, from beginning to end.” Never having married or had children, Nadler readily agreed that his willingness to speak with her about his life was borne out of a desire that his story be told to future generations. “Growing up without a loving family…I think that changed his entire trajectory…” A fact that likely did more to shape him than anything else in his entire life. “As a child, he probably didn’t get the floor very much,” she says, making the case that the seeds of his latent distrust for society were sown in his early years.
Sierra Phantom, Photo Courtesy of Trevor Woods
So what is the legacy of this man who lived in the wild? “His knowledge about the area and his experiences…that’s what he wanted to be known for,” she says unequivocally. A love for nature was also embedded in his existence. “He was really big on protecting the environment…wanted to pass down that love for nature…”
Yet perhaps more can be learned from this man who chose such a unique path. A World War II veteran, his years of service were defining moments, leading to the formation of scars that lasted a lifetime. “He did tell me he had nightmares still about the war…” Nadler says, and the passages in her book covering this portion of his life make note of his reticence in talking about this part of his past.
Scars are powerful, influential enough to cause a change in course. For some, Phantom’s choice of coping mechanism may seem strange; but, living in the wild may have provided him with a sense of peace that he was unable to find in a world filled with human contact. “I think he liked being the local expert…” she says, an assertion that may reveal an additional underlying meaning. His expertise, built up over decades of experience, provided a sense of control he felt was utterly lacking during both his youth and early adulthood.
Photo Courtesy of Danielle Nadler
As she spent years uncovering the truths encompassing the life of Sierra Phantom, she soon discovered the ways in which his story had changed her own. “I think that part of it is just saying yes to things…when opportunities knock,” she says, regardless of whether time or money lines up. Telling the stories of the invisible members of communities also appeals to her. “I notice the people more that others don’t notice.”
Nadler did that long before she wrote this book, however. Nearly six years ago, I was informed by my guidance office that a reporter was looking to write a story about a high school senior who overcame adversity. Receiving her number, I called later that afternoon, sharing my own personal story as she hurriedly tapped away at the keyboard. I remember her being completely taken aback by the words I shared, stunned by the adversity I had faced as a teenager. Days later, she visited my home in order to take photographs to accompany the story, her gracious and kind manner doing much to put me at ease. The story she wrote would be the first time I shared my accident so publicly, a foreshadowing of what was to come.
She references our earlier meeting as she talks about writing stories on those who aren’t often given a chance to share their experiences with a wide audience. “Sometimes the most interesting story is about a senior at Stone Bridge High School,” she says touchingly. Or a story about a mountain man, who as she readily admits, likely relished the elusive quality he imparts to both friends and readers alike. “I think he wanted to be a mystery…”
Originally self-published, her book is about to be re-launched in June by Morgan James Publishing. For local readers, Nadler will be holding a book signing at Barnes & Noble in Ashburn on April 7th between 1 to 5 PM. Come out to learn more about the life of Sierra Phantom, and see how his story may come to change your own. Without A Trace: The Life of Sierra Phantom is available in local bookstores, on Amazon and on Kindle. The audiobook is available at Audible.com.