Nome, Alaska — It’s been a week and a half since Joseph Balderas went missing in the foothills outside of Nome.
Alaska State Troopers suspended their search for the 36-year-old man on Monday, but his family, friends, and even those that never knew Balderas continued on.
It takes nearly an hour to get to mile 44 on the Nome-Council Highway. That’s where Joseph Balderas’s truck has been parked since he was reported missing June 27.
On a clear day, you’d see the Bering Sea to your right and the mountains on your left, but today, it’s raining.
It’s day 9 of the search, and the rain feels a reflection of the increasingly somber mood. Salina Hargis is Balderas’s sister. She flew in from her home in Hawaii and has been out searching everyday since Friday.
“I mean, it’s hard, because you come out here, and I don’t know if he’s hurt or where he is, if he’s cold, if he’s hungry, if he’s sick,” Hargis said. “We just don’t know.”
That’s been the most frustrating part for a lot of people—not knowing. What they do know is that Balderas talked about going running or fishing in the area. Hargis described her brother as “very adventurous.”
“He was always adventuresome and outdoorsy,” added Elvio Sadun. “He’s from west Texas, but said that he had thought that maybe he would end up spending time in Alaska.”
Sadun went to law school with Balderas at the University of Minnesota. He flew up from Los Angeles with two friends to join the search.
They’ve helped make up what many are calling the largest search and rescue effort Nome has seen in decades. Early on, the Coast Guard sent a Jayhawk helicopter from Kotzebue, which joined a Wildlife Trooper helicopter, as well as chartered and private, fixed-wing planes.
The biggest wave of support has come from community members. Every day, dozens of locals fill up their trucks and ATVs with gas that costs $5 per gallon. Sadun said they’ve tried it all.
“We’ve had to form and then ultimately reject a lot of different narratives,” Sadun explained.
“I think each time we’re kind of optimistic, like, ‘Let’s recreate a run he might have done or let’s recreate a fishing excursion or a hike or whatever.’ And then each of these times we try that and exhaust it and then we have to come up with a different idea, different theory,” Sadun said.
Today’s theory is one of desperation. We stick to creeks and riverbeds, thinking that if Balderas is still alive, he’d try to reach a water source. We walk north on the tundra above a creek and eventually turn back, walking through the water. There’s no sign of Balderas.
The rain lets up halfway through the day. Snacking on trail mix and bags of chips, people shed layers and hang them up to dry for a few minutes.
The plan is to spend the last hour scanning the riverbed near his truck for a four-piece fishing rod he is thought to have taken with him.
It’s an eerie feeling, walking for the whole day and not seeing any sign of him. You think he’s going to be around here somewhere, or at least his fishing pole, and you just don’t see anything.
The feeling of failure sinks in on the drive back to Nome. Balderas’s three law school friends are leaving on the evening flight, and one of them—Cyrus Jamnejad—stares out the window in defeat.
“As we have one hour before we fly out of here, it doesn’t feel good at all. It feels awful,” Jamnejad said, “and knowing that the family is going to still stay here and we didn’t find him like we had hoped we would, it’s terrible.”
Balderas met a lot of people during the last year and a half he worked in Nome as a court clerk. Many of his friends in town showed up to search, but even people that never met Balderas came out day after day.
Jamnejad said that’s what impressed him the most.
“It’s been amazing how many people didn’t know him, but came out of a sense of kindness or responsibility or duty,” Jamnejad said. “One kid who heard that someone went trail running and was missing—he goes trail running and says, ‘That’s what you do for those people in that situation.’”
Day 9 was the last day of organized search, but his friends and family say they’ll never stop searching on every run, every fishing trip, every hike through the mountains, because, they say, Joseph Balderas would have done the same.