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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008
On a snowy night in New Hampshire, Congressional candidate Gary Dodds crashed his car, wandered into the woods, and collapsed. Twenty-seven hours later, rescuers carried him out. And then the real drama began.
Any meaningful political campaign starts with a narrative. A story. Movie star ascends to White House. The son of single mother from a place called Hope, Arkansas, gets elected president. The child of a mixed marriage becomes America's first black presidential nominee.
Gary Dodds had his own narrative. It's the kind of hard-knocks-and-bootstraps story that voters love. He grew up rough, without much of a father figure. The old man was a drinker during Gary's childhood in Illinois. Drank himself out of the family. The family relocated to Portsmouth when Gary was around 9; his mom raised three boys on a Dunkin Donuts salary while holding down a part-time job on the side.
Fortunately, help came from the government: food stamps, fuel assistance, low-income housing subsidies. Gary's mother, rather than focus on the hardships, told her kids: Life can be humbling, but find the best in things, be thankful for what you have. According to the Dodds narrative, he took these lessons to heart. He got through high school and plunged into a trade, working as an auto technician. Eventually, he decided he had talent to do more, and in five hard-driving years he got his bachelor's degree and then a master's degree in public administration–all while working full time and starting a family, with Cindy, that included two baby girls.
Dodds continued his upward trajectory after graduating. He began buying worn-down properties and rehabbing them, eventually scooping up investment properties in Portsmouth, on New Hampshire's narrow sliver of Atlantic coast. Some were historic properties he aimed to preserve. He also cofounded Accent, a home-and-garden magazine.
He and Cindy entrenched in the well-to-do seacoast town of Rye, where Gary became immersed in community service. He signed on with the town's planning commission out of concern for the environment. On the board of education, Dodds led the charge to create a weapons-free zone around the town's schools. He was a volunteer firefighter and EMT. A steady churchgoer, he joined several fellow parishioners on annual summer trips to Bolivia to build schools. Unlike his father, he didn't drink.
The depth of Dodds's commitment caught the attention of Deb Crapo, a former state Democratic Party vice chairwoman. "He did anything the community needed," Crapo says. When Dodds proposed the idea of seeking higher office, Crapo encouraged him. Dodds had a story to tell. He came up hard but he succeeded. And in November 2005, he announced his quest for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Congress in New Hampshire's first district.
To John Wimsatt, the call sounded unusual: Find a Congressional candidate missing in Portsmouth's suburbs. As a lieutenant on the Fish and Game Department's advanced-rescue team, Wimsatt responds to many of the 200 or so search-and-rescue requests the agency receives annually. He has plucked drowning victims from lakes; reeled in elderly dementia patients from nighttime wanderings; guided GPS-aided grid searches for missing backpackers; and conducted technical rescue operations to help stranded climbers in the White Mountains. Wimsatt, with his lean build, Native Eyewear sunglasses, and chaw of tobacco, appears built for wilderness.
The town of Dover was an unlikely place to get lost. There were stretches of woods, sure, but this was a far cry from the Whites. There were houses to bump into. Still, Wimsatt treated it like any other call, organizing a line search between the Spaulding Turnpike and the tidal Bellamy River, just to the west. Here, 10 miles upstream from the Atlantic, low tides expose stretches of smooth, clay-like mud. An impression made in that mud will hold its shape for roughly 24 hours, even after rising waters submerge it. Which is how, in mid-afternoon, Wimsatt got his first break: Officials in a helicopter spotted tracks leading into the river. "That was the first clue to start searching on the other side," Wimsatt told me. He dispatched searchers to the opposite bank, where they found similar prints emerging from the mud. But even then, the search turned up nothing. Impatient, Sgt. Mitchell changed gears. Cindy Dodds had told him there were political motives behind this bizarre disappearance? Fine. Mitchell would investigate the Dodds campaign.
Gary Dodds had a compelling life story to tell. But he quickly discovered that a run for Congress requires more than an inspiring history. A relatively unknown candidate running against higher-profile politicians needs powerful public-speaking skills. But Dodds's lack of oratory polish was immediately clear.
In an introductory YouTube video, Dodds sits in front of a wrinkled red backdrop, ticking through his personal story in a halting delivery laced with Bush-type malapropisms ("A sense of community is a wonderful thing if everyone's in it together"). His boilerplate Democratic platform–extract troops from Iraq, balance the federal budget, reform education–offered few details and little to inspire confidence that he was ready to graduate from small-town boards to Capitol Hill. By April 2006, he'd neither generated much electricity nor raised much money. He trailed far behind the establishment candidates.
His performance raised questions. If you struggle mightily on YouTube, how will you fare in a live, head-to-head debate? Was Dodds legitimate? Or was he merely a classic fringe candidate–a narcissistic, self-funded, self-promoter with zero chance to win? Perhaps Dodds recognized his dilemma and began grasping for something transformational–something that would turn his campaign around, make him instantly better known and more sympathetic. Maybe he'd noticed the curious celebrity of people who survived ordeals in the wild. The media (yes, this magazine included) loves a good survival tale, and every wayward hiker–or hypothermic Congressional candidate?–could expect a heroic ride through the 24-hour news cycle.
Many backcountry epics, of course, are precipitated by errors in judgment. People who wind up in trouble–lost, or buried by avalanches, or pinned in raging rivers–often are first guilty of hubris: I can handle this. And when things go wrong, they panic and make poor decisions.