Phantom Storyteller

To be thought of and honored long after we’ve left this world is a yearning that often grows as the years swiftly collect. Out of the millions of untold stories, we wonder if ours will be worth telling to a world with so many distractions.

For Danielle Nadler ’05 (mass communications), recounting the life of one man became more than a new project; it became a calling.  

'I don’t write books'

As an alumna of The Advocate, MSUM’s campus newspaper, and one of the founders and the managing editor of Loudoun Now, a startup community newspaper in northern Virginia, Nadler has years of experience telling stories, covering news, and drawing information out of interviewees. Her knack and love for investigative journalism lends itself well to her preferred categories of writing—hard news and education coverage.

Writing stories is second nature to Nadler, and her down-to-earth, affable personality handles the rigorous schedule of a journalist with ease, but writing a book didn’t cross her mind until one friend’s destined encounter in the wilderness.

“My friend called from California and said, ‘I met a guy while I was hiking today and you have to write a book about him.’ I told him, ‘That’s not the kind of writing I do. I don’t write books, and I wouldn’t even know where to begin.’ But he made me promise I’d call him,” Nadler said.

That happenstance meeting eventually led Nadler to contact the man who at first was closed off. But as their friendship grew throughout the interviews, the barred walls came crumbling down, allowing readers to glimpse into the incredible and tragic life of a man so many knew so little of.

“I called him on a Sunday night, and within 20 minutes I felt like I had to write his story. It almost didn’t feel like a choice, it was so powerful, and he was so good at telling it,” Nadler said. “He had everything you want in a great story. He was so kind and gradually became willing to be vulnerable about some of the tougher parts of his life. I just really fell in love with this story.” 

Telling His Tale

In “Without a Trace: The Life of Sierra Phantom,” Nadler tells the true tale of the solitary man known as Sierra Phantom, who lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California for 50 years after living in an orphanage and serving in WWII. The story begins with his transition from surviving off the land to relocating to an apartment in the town of Bishop, Calif., living alongside the population of less than 4,000 people.

Although journalists are taught to stay in control of interviews because of time and space constraints, Nadler allowed Sierra Phantom to guide the story during their conversations.

“He always thought it would be cool to write a book, but he said he wasn’t very good at knowing where the commas and periods go. I told him I would love to add the commas and periods,” Nadler said.

As any good storyteller knows, unearthing compelling stories begins simply by taking an interest in others, caring to ask questions and starting conversations.

“If we take those opportunities we might be able to document a story that would otherwise go untold,” Nadler said.

That opportunity is just what Nadler took, and she’s thankful she did. A year and a half into the endeavor, before the book was even completed, Sierra Phantom passed away quietly in the small mountain town.

“I got to talk to him on his deathbed, and I promised to tell his story,” Nadler said. “He was an orphan, never got married and never had kids, so I realized, especially in the last few months, how important this was. Having his story out there and him being willing to tell it is almost proof of his existence, showing he made a mark on this world.”

For Nadler, all the years of hard work produced a tribute to a dear friend. After the success of its debut, hitting No. 1 on Amazon’s best-selling new releases list last December and No. 3 in the travelers and explorers category, Nadler knows the mysterious, adventurous and often-solitary life of Sierra Phantom will be discovered and remembered for years to come.

“I thought it would just be a few friends and family who would read it, but I’ve been getting emails from people from around the nation who don’t know me and just fell in love with this mountain man’s legacy, so that’s really meaningful,” Nadler said. “His story is amazing, and I was lucky enough to weave it together.”


This story was first published in Moorhead Magazine, Fall 2017.

Make Sure Your Story Is Heard

Let us know how your life has been changed by being a Dragon: tell us your MSU Moorhead story today!

Send Us Your Story

More Stories from Dragons

View All Dragon Stories