Editor’s note: This story is based on interviews with three members of Alex Gumm’s family, five of Gumm’s closest friends, Kauai police officers who tried to solve Gumm’s missing person case and the private investigator hired by Gumm’s family to chase leads.
KILAUEA, Kauai — A willowy, young guitarist with a radical spiritual practice, Alex Gumm didn’t tell anyone he was going to Kauai.
He didn’t even say goodbye when his parents dropped him off at a bus depot in Maine to begin his enigmatic journey.
In fact, he didn’t say anything at all. Gumm had recently shaved his head and taken a vow of silence, all but shunning the world outside his mind.
With only a backpack in tow, Gumm landed at Lihue Airport on Feb. 22, 2018 on a solitary spiritual quest, seeking something he couldn’t find in the aging New England mill town he called home.
He spent his first night on the island at a Kapaa hostel, sleeping on an open-air lanai draped in humidity and overlooking the sea. In the morning, he called for a taxi that never arrived.
Then he vanished, never using his cell phone or bank account again.
He has been missing for 928 days.
Gumm was 25 years old when he simultaneously arrived on Kauai and vanished from public record, a feat not easily accomplished in the digital age.
The story of his disappearance is part of a larger pattern of people going missing in Hawaii — sometimes intentionally in a bid to escape the hyperconnectivity of the modern world and other times for reasons more sinister. There are people who travel to Hawaii seeking a final-destination spot to end their life, a phenomenon known as suicide tourism. Others bolt to the islands to escape punishment for their crimes.
There are 86 unsolved missing person’s cases on Kauai, which has a population of 72,000. The cases span a timeframe of 45 years.
Some are likely to remain open indefinitely, as they include people who were last seen swimming in the ocean moments before they vanished in a rip current.
Other disappearances have led detectives to believe that the person reported missing does not wish to be found.
Police say this appears to be the case with Gumm, who severed his personal relationships before he arrived on the island.
Gumm’s hometown friends, who hacked into the computer he left behind, say his last Google searches indicate that he had been researching how to forage wild plants and find drinking water. They believe he sojourned to Kauai to withdraw from society and live a solitary life off the grid.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Kauai police said there was an increasing trend of people moving to the island to be voluntarily homeless. The climate is temperate and there are plenty of farms where hard work can be traded for food and shelter. Beach parks provide free outdoor showers. Hitchhiking is generally acceptable. You can hunt, fish or gather for a meal and cook it on the beach over a driftwood fire.
“People can live off this land still,” said Kauai Assistant Police Chief Bryson Ponce. “There’s still fish in the sea and animals to hunt and berries in the mountains. There’s a way to survive here without having a job or cash if you’re resourceful enough to know how to do it.”
Drifters from other states who live this way by choice — Gumm left about $8,000 untouched in his bank account when he went missing — represent a small but growing portion of the island’s homeless population, police said. A good deal of them are seasoned back-to-nature idlers from California or the Pacific Northwest who misinterpret Hawaii’s temperate climate, erecting a new life off the grid only to find themselves unprepared to tackle seasons of heavy rain, moist heat and mosquitoes.
“We used to be able to know by name who the people in our transient population are,” Ponce said. “And it’s grown so much that we have no clue now. There are a lot of people coming to Kauai and blending in. There’s people that look alike just because of backpacking and camping out. You could see somebody and be mistaken, it’s somebody else.”
The phenomenon is not new. A band of young people from the mainland famously accumulated on a stretch of coast on the island’s rugged north shore in 1969 to create the hippie haven known as Taylor Camp. The treehouse community was condemned and dismantled by the state in the 1970s. But the island’s reputation as a hideout for counterculture holdouts endures.
Other Hawaiian islands also attract free-spirited transients. The Big Island has no shortage of alternative living communities. An old hippie colony on Maui still serves as a gathering place for nudist beach parties. Even urban Oahu, with its dense populace and skyscrapers, draws misfits seeking retreat from the social order.
With only about 10% of the island accessible by car, Kauai’s vast undeveloped acreage is considered by many drifters to be the ultimate counterculture fantasyland, a place where anyone could sign off from their former lives and go undiscovered.
What’s more, in new age mythology peddled on spiritual blogs and YouTube channels, Kauai is described as the site of Lemuria, an ancient continent inhabited by aliens from the Pleiades star system. Cults and spiritual seekers have long made the pilgrimage to the island believing they could find this esoteric Eden.
Kauai police, however, say it’s not uncommon for newly arrived transients wanting to commune with nature or fulfill some spiritual quest to quickly find themselves sorely ill-equipped to survive off the land.
Free spirits seeking escape from convention are drawn to Hawaiian Islands other than Kauai. In 2008, Deborah Anne McNeely was one of them.
Kauai’s boundless wilderness also has a history of hiding outlaws.
When government authorities set out to banish the legendary cowboy Kaluaikoolau, also known as Koolau the Leper, and his family to the leprosy colony on Molokai in 1892, he evaded capture for years deep in the Kalalau Valley.
More recently, law enforcement officers endured seven days of bushwhacking to find a federal fugitive who was hiding out in the wet and muggy mountains of east Kauai. The same man, a Kauai resident, had previously been arrested for parole violations after he led police on a 23-day manhunt in the jungle.
“I can never really describe how strange it was to watch someone, like, just disappearing right in front of your eyes.” — Shane McKenzie, Alex Gumm’s best friend
With no signs of foul play, Gumm’s withdrawal from society seems to reflect a lifestyle decision, said private investigator Brian Fujiuchi, who worked on Gumm’s case.
A former Kauai police chief, Fujiuchi said there’s not much police can do when an adult elects to detach from his former life. If police were to locate Gumm, they could do little more than assess his wellbeing and implore him to contact his parents to let them know he’s alive.
“It’s what we call voluntarily being lost,” Fujiuchi said. “If you don’t put up red flags, if you’re not some crazy person going around burning things down or burglarizing places, you could blend in and live here for years without ever being noticed. Somebody could literally go out in any remote valley, set up camp and live there for a long time without anybody knowing about it.”
A lack of urban development on Kauai has kept alive the possibility for a way of life in harmony with communal living and artistic expression.
One of those places is Kalalau Valley, a verdant bowl of waterfall-drenched wilderness sequestered from the modern world by the spines of soaring peaks. Far removed from buildings, roads and cell phone service, the valley has long been a magnet for squatters seeking spiritual awakening or, at least, a measure of distance from mainstream society.
It’s where wayward travelers with romanticized ideas about tuning into nature have lived for months or even years at a time, spurning their clothes, growing their own food and bathing in cool natural pools.
But the freedom from society’s mores that draws people into the valley can also be dangerous.
Kalalau Valley is where 22-year-old Jesse Pinegar from Utah was last seen camping in 2008. It’s where the body of 43-year-old Sean Michael Rollnick of no known address was found in 2016 with injuries consistent with falling off a cliff. And it’s where the body of 24-year-old Oregon resident Daniel Marks, missing for 14 years, is presumed to rest.
A world traveler who loved electronic music, Daniel Marks was last seen on the rim of Kalalau Valley by a pair of tourists from Colorado.
It was Dec. 11, 2005 and it was getting dark. Daniel Marks, an avid hiker, wrapped up a conversation with the tourists he’d just met and disappeared from the overlook, a popular place for a photo op, in the direction of the 4,000-foot drop-off to the valley floor.
The couple from Colorado reported the incident to police.
“When the helicopter went up over the ridge and I looked down, I said to myself, ‘I’ll never find him. Never. It’s just too vast,’” — Ron Marks, Daniel Marks’ dad
The Hawaiian word kalalau translates to “the one who wanders.” The valley cannot legally be reached by car or plane or motorboat, although unauthorized “pirate” boats offer summer trips to the beach fronting the valley during the short summer season when the ocean is calm. It is lawfully accessible only by a 22-mile round trip hike or by kayak when the ocean is flat enough.
The valley’s otherworldly beauty and its remote location has long been a draw for hippies. It’s also a permitted wilderness retreat at the end of the teetering, 11-mile Kalalau Trail, loved by backpackers.
Entering the valley from its towering rim, however, is something only wild goats might attempt.
Ron Marks, Daniel Marks’ father, concluded almost immediately that his son must be dead when he saw the vertical sea cliffs he reportedly tried to descend.
“When the helicopter went up over the ridge and I looked down, I said to myself, ‘I’ll never find him. Never. It’s just too vast,’” Ron Marks said.
A retired federal judge from Ohio, Marks spent more than $100,000 searching for his son, chartering a half dozen helicopter flights over the valley and hiring The Rocky Mountain Trackers, a group of search and rescue professionals from Colorado.
But it was he who uncovered the only evidence of his son’s deadly misadventure: a broken water purifier, cutlery and a faded scarf neatly placed on the trunk of a downed tree on the valley rim near the cliff drop-off.
Although the facts of his son’s disappearance remain mysterious, he has come to this conclusion: His son went to Kauai alone seeking adventure. When he saw Kalalau Valley, he wanted in. Tragically, he miscalculated the danger of the landscape.
“The rumor is that the weed in the valley is exceptional,” Ron Marks said. “Maybe my son just wanted a little bit of the good weed? I don’t know.”
Two months after his son vanished, Ron Marks bought a headstone. It’s about a mile and a half from his house in rural Ohio, a place Daniel Marks left as soon as he was old enough.
Ron Marks’ daughter Susan disagreed with the headstone placement.
“Dad,” she said, “Just let him be there on Kauai and let a tree grow through him. Let him stay where he wanted to be.”
But Ron Marks did not waver on the matter of his son’s final resting place.
“If we ever find him,” he said, “I’m going to take him home.”
When Shane McKenzie learned Gumm had taken a flight to Kauai and no one had heard from him since, his mind leapt to a dark place.
“I thought he went to Kauai to kill himself,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie and Gumm grew up together on the East Coast, bonding over skateboarding, guitar and conspiracy theories.
When McKenzie moved to Los Angeles to develop his music career, Gumm, who never quite fit in with his family, followed him in pursuit of his own big break. Artists in every sense of the word, the young men designed a life around creating and performing music.
Through McKenzie’s eyes, Gumm was kind, contemplative and something of a wizard on the guitar.
Success in the music business may not have seemed so out of reach to Gumm because he’d grown up watching McKenzie’s mother Dale Bozzio — lead singer of the 1980s new wave band Missing Persons — as she fanned the flickering flame of her stardom.
But McKenzie says it wasn’t fame Gumm was after. Gumm wanted to achieve musical excellence. He wanted to create brand new sounds.
In LA, Gumm went by the name Albert Johnsun. His style on the guitar evolved from rock and roll to something more ambient and spiritual as his behavior grew increasingly erratic. He took to sleeping in the frame of McKenzie’s bedroom door. He recorded his solo work only on a full moon. He told some friends that he believed he was a descendant of the race of extraterrestrials that inhabited Lemuria, the mythical birthplace of civilization. Onstage he wielded a quietly seductive presence.
One night McKenzie said his friend stepped off the stage looking defeated.
“They didn’t come,” Gumm told McKenzie, sounding disoriented.
Gumm was talking about aliens. According to McKenzie, Gumm thought he was going to ascend into another universe during his performance.
Something broke in Gumm that night, according to McKenzie. He stopped picking up the guitar. He adopted a strict, plant-based diet. He pulled away from his relationships. He spent more and more time alone.
“I can never really describe how strange it was to watch someone, like, just disappearing right in front of your eyes,” McKenzie said.
In 2017, Gumm returned to Maine to live in the historic Victorian manor that his parents own and operate as an inn. Keeping to his own small wing of the house, Gumm meditated and studied philosophy and world religion. He stopped using his bed, preferring to sleep on the floor.
His mother understood his yearning for a different way of life. She had felt a similar dissatisfaction with the status quo in her youth and craved something more meaningful. So she tried to nurture her only child’s interests, giving him literature about a Buddhist monastery in a forest not far from Boston.
Gumm’s father was openly disappointed. He couldn’t come to terms with his son’s aversion to the things he had hoped they could bond over, like Christianity and football.
On Feb. 20, 2018, Sally McLaren and Ben Gumm learned their son had plans to get out of town only when he broke his vow of silence to say he wouldn’t be around to help tidy up the guest rooms.
There have been no official sightings of Gumm in more than two years, but there have been some credible ones.
The most promising tip derives from a woman who said she encountered a young man at a homeless camp at Salt Pond Beach Park in March or April of 2018. She offered him a bowl of seafood chowder that she brought to the campsite for anyone who might be hungry. He politely declined the soup, citing his plant-based diet.
The man had an arm tattoo that matches the description of the Kundalini symbol inked in blue on Gumm’s left forearm. He was reading a religious text, possibly the Bible.
Fujiuchi, the private investigator hired by Gumm’s parents to post missing person fliers on Kauai and follow up on credible leads, said he conducted dozens of interviews by phone and in person with people who claimed to have seen Gumm. He looked for Gumm in places where people said they thought he could still be. But every tip was a dead end.
Sightings of Gumm stopped in midsummer of 2018, leading some to believe that Gumm retreated to a more isolated pocket of the island, such as Kalalau Valley.
Another possibility: Gumm may have left the island.
When Gumm vanished, his parents filed a missing person’s report with Kauai police and hired Fujiuchi to follow leads. They gave interview after interview to news reporters, raising awareness of Gumm’s disappearance across the United States.
But they didn’t go looking for him in person. Chasing him down, they believed, would only push him farther away.
“It’s what we call voluntarily being lost.” — Brian Fujiuchi, private investigator
Fujiuchi said he believes there’s no question that Gumm was on Kauai for at least several months after he arrived in February 2018. Although he’s since abandoned his bank account and cell phone, he said it’s possible he could still be on Kauai. But, he said, it’s just as possible that he’s anyplace else.
Despite the active missing person case in Gumm’s name, Gumm would have been able to travel seamlessly without flagging any authorities. After all, Gumm’s an adult who’s not considered to be dangerous or in danger. He’s not suspected of any crimes. He has every right to fall off from society.
A group of Gumm’s childhood friends launched their own investigation in 2019, buying Facebook ads asking people on Kauai for tips. They reached out to Gumm’s friends in LA for insights into his state of mind. They rummaged through Gumm’s bedroom and probed his computer for clues.
When they exhausted all their leads, the five friends hopped on a plane and flew to Kauai. If anyone could find their wayward friend it was them, they believed. They viewed the exercise in tracking him down as a great adventure.
Looking down from the airplane, the men surveyed Kauai, a lush jot of land in an endless sea, and reasoned they’d find Gumm playing guitar on a beach somewhere within the first couple of days. They’d take him to dinner and convince him to return to his former life. After that, there’d be time for surf lessons in Hanalei Bay before they’d all head to the airport and bid the island goodbye.
In reality, the men were wholly unprepared to scour a remote island for signs of their friend.
Over seven days in November the men explored homeless camps, thrift stores, food pantries, monasteries, skate parks and remote beaches. Along the way they met a disoriented homeless woman who said Gumm pitched his tent next to hers for a while and a soft-spoken, bohemian guy who claimed to have witnessed Gumm’s deft guitar-playing.
These tips solidified for the men the idea that their friend had indeed been on Kauai and might still be there. But no one they met had seen him for several months. They followed a half-dozen seemingly credible leads, but none of them amounted to much.
By their last day on the island, the search party had passed through every town on Kauai. But they had barely set foot in the maze of jungle and jagged mountains that occupies most of the island’s acreage.
The men left the island feeling more confused about their friend’s whereabouts than when they had started.
Like countless others who’ve followed some enigmatic pull to Kauai, Gumm’s friends found themselves unprepared and their plans half-baked. Kauai ripped their fantasized notion of paradise wide open.
The island is a chimera. It’s both small and rife with infinite places to hide. The climate is both temperate and tempestuous. The notion that one can go missing there seems improbable but it’s been proven repeatedly to be so. There are dozens of missing person cases on Kauai without answers.
Two and a half years have passed since Gumm’s disappearance. Occasionally, a new tip materializes. Gumm’s parents will get an email or a Facebook message about a possible Gumm sighting and a private investigator or concerned citizen will follow the lead.
But these tips, and the flashes of hope they bring Gumm’s friends and family, have grown fewer and farther between.
“I’m still invested in what happened to him because I want to figure it out,” said Ian Davis, one of the men who searched for Gumm on Kauai. “We live in a world that has been shrunk by technology. It has to be possible to find out what happened to him.
“But I don’t feel anymore like, ‘Hey, I’ve got to find my friend.’ I think that part of it changed for me when I realized, like, he’s probably so different now. Even if he’s still alive, it’s never going to be the same.”
If you have any information about the disappearance of Alex Gumm, please email Ben Gumm and Sally McLaren at email@example.com or Ian Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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