The last time Sally McLaren and Ben Gumm saw their son, Alex, they dropped him off at a bus station in Dover, New Hampshire.

Alex Gumm, now 26, hasn’t been heard from since he left for Kauai, the westernmost of Hawaii’s main islands, in February 2018. Four of his friends are headed to Kauai in November to try to find him. Photo courtesy of Sally McLaren and Ben Gumm

He didn’t say much of a goodbye. When McLaren tried to take his picture, he put his hand up to shield his face.

“Call us when you get there,” she said.

But he didn’t call.

Alex Gumm took the bus to Boston’s Logan Airport and then caught a plane to Lihue Airport in Kauai, the westernmost of Hawaii’s main islands.

For two nights, he stayed at a hostel on Kapa’a, the most populous town on the island at 10,000. The total population of Kauai is only about 72,000, slightly more than Portland’s, although the island welcomes more than 1 million tourists every year.

The next morning, Alex checked out of the hostel and called a taxi. It doesn’t appear that he was ever picked up.

He stopped using his phone. He stopped using his debit card. He vanished.

According to his friends and family, Alex was a unique soul. Increasingly, the 26-year-old had developed his own brand of spirituality and had talked before of living off the land or joining a monastery. Either would be possible on Kauai.

His parents said they would be fine with whatever he had chosen. They just want to know.

“I’d like to know if he’s alive and, if he is alive, my thought would be, is this your choice?” McLaren said last month from their home in North Berwick. “If it is, fine. I mean, I’d be heartbroken, but …”

Her voice trailed off.

It’s been more than 18 months since Alex was heard from and the mystery has only deepened.

His parents’ thoughts alternate between dread and hope, but more recently it’s been the latter. A private investigator on the island who is working with the family said he’s received credible reports, as recently as this summer, of people seeing Alex, who has a tattoo of the Kundalini staff of life on his arm.

In addition, two of Alex’s friends from his teenage years, Ian Davis and Hunter Macleod, along with two others, plan to travel to Kauai in November to look for him. They’ll document their search on video with the hope of telling Alex’s story.

From left, Spenser Macleod, 29, Alec Lemelin, 22, Ian Davis, 30, and Hunter Macleod, 25, sit this month in the entryway of the bed-and-breakfast that Alex Gumm’s parents, Sally McLaren and Ben Gumm, run in North Berwick. The four are traveling to Hawaii to look for their friend. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“We’ve sort of planned for any outcome,” Davis said. “Ideally, we want to find him.

“For all we know, we could find him and he might feel compelled to just say, ‘OK, I’m ready to come home.’ ”

***

If Alex Gumm wanted to disappear, Kauai would be an ideal place.

The island has a remote and complex ecosystem, as well as a temperate year-round climate, that has long made it a place of refuge.

In the late 1960s, Howard Taylor, brother of Elizabeth, famously created a clothing-optional hippie commune on the island’s north shore. More than 100 castaways lived at Taylor Camp at its peak. That commune has long since closed – the land is now part of Ha’ena State Park – but its spirit remains, according to Brian Fugiuchi.

Fugiuchi was just starting out as a police officer when the hippies arrived. He eventually become the island’s police chief before retiring in 1996. Since then, he’s been working as a private investigator, and he reached out to Gumm and McLaren in February after seeing a story in The Garden Island, Kauai’s main newspaper. Alex had been missing a year at that time.

“I just thought of this poor family thousands of miles away,” he said in a telephone interview this month. “I know they can’t just jump on a plane every time a piece of information comes in. So, I told them I’d be glad to check out any tip. They needed someone with boots on the ground.”

Fugiuchi told them he doesn’t work for free but wasn’t interested in “nickel and diming” them either.

Alex’s parents warned Fugiuchi that it was entirely possible that their son didn’t want to be found. In the months leading up to his departure, he signaled, albeit cryptically at times, that he was interested in a monastic life. His spirituality was a blend. Some Christianity. Some Buddhism. Some Hinduism. Even some new age mysticism.

“He was very above everybody, you know,” said Macleod, one of Alex’s friends. “Not in an arrogant way, necessarily, just, I don’t know, content.”

His family has since learned from his internet searches before he left North Berwick that he was researching camping equipment and edible plants and berries. It seemed he had a plan to live off the grid.

Fugiuchi said Kauai does have a contingent of visitors who choose that lifestyle. The entire island is about 550 square miles, roughly the size of the city of Houston, but the population is mostly around the edges, near the white sand beaches. There is plenty of undeveloped land in the middle.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are others like him,” he said. “Kauai is small but big if you want to get lost. If a person wants to not be found, it’s very easy. You can be a hermit.”

As of January 2019, Hawaii had 107 open missing persons cases, or 7.5 per 100,000 residents. Of those 107, 25 were last seen on Kauai, dating back to 2000.

The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, overseen by the National Institute of Justice, has a database of 16,683 active missing persons cases, including Alex, but that list is not comprehensive because not all states are required to share data.

Todd Matthews, director of case management and communications for the organization, said he can’t really say if Alex’s case is common.

“There is really no way to know the circumstances until they came forward and say, ‘I’m not missing,’ ” Matthews said. “And that does happen.”

***

Alex spent the first few years of his life in Connecticut before moving with his parents to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where they ran a bed-and-breakfast from 1998 to 2005.

The family then moved to North Berwick and Gumm and McLaren opened another bed and breakfast, Angel of the Berwicks, in 2009 that they still operate.

Alex went to Noble High School but got to know kids from surrounding towns by frequenting a skatepark in Dover, New Hampshire. The skatepark became a second home.

“Alex was the kind of kid that if he made his mind up, he wouldn’t let anything stop him,” his father said. “So, if he couldn’t get a ride to Dover, he’d ride his bike or he’d walk.” The park was 11 miles from his house.

A photo on the wall of Sally McLaren and Ben Gumm’s home shows Alex Gumm and his family attending his sister’s wedding. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Davis, one of the friends planning to travel to Hawaii, said he got to know Alex at the skatepark when they were teenagers.

“He was the most talented of all of us,” he said.

The crew spent many afternoons and weekends there and made videos of themselves at the park, a way to document some of their skills and tricks. Some of them will be used in the documentary they are planning.

“He was super funny and outgoing,” Davis recalls. “But he had a quiet side too.”

Eventually, Alex gave up skateboarding and turned his focus to music. He started to retreat into himself even more, Macleod said.

Alex played guitar and other instruments and joined bands. He was influenced by ’60s rock and loved the Doors’ charismatic front man Jim Morrison, who died at age 27.

Some of Alex’s music still lives online, under his stage name, Albert Johnson. It has an eastern, mystical vibe reminiscent of post-Beatles George Harrison.

There was a period of time where he really got into graffiti art, too. At their home in North Berwick, the walls of the basement are still covered with his work.

Asked about drug use, Ben Gumm said his son smoked marijuana in high school and experimented with mushrooms. He doesn’t know about anything else.

“I wouldn’t call him a pothead,” his mother said.

“Well, he was growing it in the back for a while,” Gumm replied.

***

After high school, Alex didn’t follow peers to college. Instead, he headed west to live in Los Angeles, on someone’s porch, “as they do out there,” his mother said.

He continued to play music in bands out west and had a day job washing dishes at an upscale restaurant.

His parents went out to visit once.

“He showed us all around. We had a good time,” his father said.

Alex did two stints in L.A., coming home for long stretches in between. He later spent six weeks in India – a spiritual journey – but again came home.

During his most recent time in North Berwick, it was clear he had changed, his parents said.

Photos from Alex Gumm’s childhood. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“He wouldn’t eat with us. He stopped going to family events,” Ben Gumm said.

Added McLaren: “He’d see me making something to eat and he’d say, ‘You’re poisoning yourself.’”

His friends didn’t hear from him.

“We didn’t know he had come back,” Macleod said. “We assumed he was doing his own thing.”

One day, though, Alex showed up at the skatepark in Dover that they had spent so much time in.

He could still skate better than anyone, Davis said.

Then, he left as abruptly as he had come.

He had mostly stopped talking to his parents by then, spending most of his time in his room.

In the weeks before he left for Hawaii, McLaren remembers her son saying, “I’m not going to be here much longer. Don’t worry about my room.”

“I said, ‘Where are you going?’ ” she recalled. “He said, ‘You’ll know when I know.’ ”

A short time later, his father had asked him to help with some cleaning. Alex said he couldn’t because he was leaving.

The next morning, his parents offered to bring him to the bus station. He said OK. He didn’t bring much with him, although they said Alex was never interested in material things.

They had no idea that rushed drop-off might be the last time they saw their son.

***

His parents were able to confirm that Alex landed in Kauai on Feb. 22, 2018, and stayed at the Kauai Beach House Hostel, in Kapa’a on the eastern shore.

The staff there remembered him as a quiet young man who didn’t interact with anyone.

Ben Gumm flips through old family photos of his son Alex Gumm. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When Alex was 16 and opened his first bank account, his parents co-signed. He still used that account, so his parents were able to monitor its activity. He hadn’t taken out any money.

Alex’s cellphone also was on his parents’ plan. That how they learned he called a taxi company the day after he arrived. That’s how they knew it was the last call he made.

Ben Gumm said he knows some people are going to look at his son’s case and see a spoiled kid who ran away to Hawaii. He understands that feeling but said he just wants to know his son is safe.

Because of Alex’s interest in Hinduism, his parents thought he might try to join a monastery. Kauai has a handful, including a large one just north of Wailua River State Park.

Acharya Arumuganathaswami, a representative of Kauai’s Hindu Monastery, said in an email that it’s possible Alex visited the monastery’s temple for daily 9 a.m. worship, which is open to the public. None of the monks remember seeing him.

“As to actually joining the monastery, even for a short stay, that is a formal process which I handle parts of and he has not contacted us in this regard,” Arumuganathaswami said.

For weeks, Gumm and McLaren waited for a call. Eventually, they contacted police on Kauai and filed a missing persons’ report.

Months dragged on and they heard nothing. McLaren said they feared he was dead.

The island can be dangerous. In 2018, nine people drowned and one more died while hiking. Through May, nine people had died this year in recreational activities on Kauai, according to The Garden Island newspaper.

But it’s also home to plenty of people who live in makeshift campgrounds, not unlike they did back in the late 1960s.

“If there is a commune, he probably runs it by now,” Gumm said of his son.

***

In the first year of his disappearance, there were few leads.

In February, the island newspaper ran a story about Alex’s disappearance. Fugiuchi read it and contacted the parents.

Since then, there has been more hope that he’s alive.

Fugiuchi said he talked to a woman who said she saw a young man matching Alex’s description twice this summer. She walks every morning near her home, which borders Polihale State Park on the western shore of Kauai.

The first time the woman saw the young man, he emerged from the bushes. Fugiuchi said the woman’s description was that he looked disheveled. Tired and hungry.

“She told him about a church that serves lunch daily,” the investigator said.

The next day, the woman saw the same man emerge from the same bushes, this time with a female.

“They were both stumbling and appeared drunk or drugged,” Fugiuchi said. “So she didn’t talk to them that time.”

There was another possible sighting of Alex this summer at a Walmart in Lihue, on the opposite side of the island from Polihale State Park. Some people claimed they saw someone matching his description at Salt Pond Park on the south side, 20 miles from Polihale.

Fugiuchi said he’s checked out each location himself. Although he hasn’t found Alex, he’s “positive he’s around alive and well.”

“It’s just a matter of timing for me and him,” he said.

When Alex’s friends arrive in November, they might be in a better position to scour the island. Davis said he and Macleod, along with Macleod’s brother, Spenser, and another friend, Alec Lemelin, are committed to spending up to two weeks.

They plan to make a documentary film either way – “even if it’s just telling people about the mark he left,” Davis said.

In North Berwick, his parents wait anxiously. Alex’s room is eerily empty. Some old books and movies on shelves. Bare walls.

Gumm and McLaren said they thought about going to Hawaii last year to look for their son but decided against it. If he went there to get away from them, they are the last people he’d want to see, Gumm explained.

They are putting their hope in his friends.

“I have good days and bad,” McLaren said. “I think the worst, and then there are days I’m feeling more positive. Maybe he’s doing his own thing.”

“I think the best chance is that he’s in a monastery or a program,” Gumm added.

“Do you really think that, Ben?” his wife asked.

“Well, I think there is probably a 50 percent chance,” he replied. “And a 30 percent chance he’s homeless or living off the land. And a 20 percent chance that he’s passed away.”


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