It’s been seven years since Annette Swanson last saw her son. She still doesn’t know why.
In the wee hours of May 14, 2008, Brandon Swanson was driving home from a friend’s house in Canby, Minnesota. The Marshall teen’s car veered into a ditch and got stuck, so he rang his folks for help and they hopped in their truck to come meet him.
Brandon said he was near the town of Lynd, though his car was later found in the opposite direction, near the border of Lincoln and Lyon counties. The 19-year-old stayed on the phone with his parents for 47 minutes as they tried in vain to find him. Growing frustrated, he decided to walk back to his friend’s house, staying on the line.
“His dad was on the phone with him,” Annette recalls, “and [Brandon] said ‘oh shit,’ and that was the end of the conversation.”
Years of chased leads, countless man hours, and a wellspring of hope have failed to reveal what became of Brandon after that call ended.
“They call it ambiguous loss,” Annette clinically begins. “It’s that state of having a loss in your life — in our case it’s the loss of our son — without knowing what happened. It’s extremely challenging. It’s really hard to grapple with and to come to terms with. I think for Brandon’s father and I, and for his sister, we’ve kind of figured out how to live in that gray area. But it’s really not someplace you want to live.”
That’s why the search for Brandon resumes Saturday. Really, it never stopped, Annette says, although they occasionally need to “press the pause button.” Much of the targeted area is farmland and searchers can only access it during certain times of the year, like after the fall harvest.
Ken Anderson, founder of Emergency Support Services, has helped lead the search efforts since 2008. His volunteer organization works underneath the county sheriff’s office and the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. The windy prairie, coupled with the fact that Brandon could have walked more than six miles from his car in any direction, make this search especially difficult, he says.
Year after year, once the snow melts across western Minnesota, canines continue to pick up a scent — possibly Brandon’s — which serves as a beacon.
“As long as that scent is still there we have something to work with,” Anderson says.
Authorities initially thought Brandon may have fallen into the Yellow Medicine River. However, search efforts later moved toward Mud Creek near Porter, Minnesota. Although occasional tips still trickle in, they reportedly haven't uncovered any new information about Brandon's disappearance.
Anderson would not discuss how many people are involved with the search, but Annette says the amount of support the family has received from strangers and volunteers is “overwhelming.”
“Honestly, to think that Brandon is still in their minds after all these years — of course he’s in ours — it’s almost hard to fathom,” she says.
While Annette remains hopeful her family can one day “bring him home,” the Swansons intentionally aren’t as involved in the search efforts as they once were. Anderson still feeds them updates, though Annette has asked to be kept on more of a need-to-know basis.
“Maybe that sounds odd or takes people aback, but there was a time we were really hands on,” she explains. “It really takes a toll on you mentally and emotionally, and we really want to be able to put energy into our family.”
This weekend the Swansons are heading to Waseca where their daughter lives with her husband and kids. The trip was already planned, but Annette admits quality grandbaby time is a welcomed distraction as crews traverse the fields looking for a trace of her son.
Not a day goes by she doesn’t think about her missing boy, who she remembers fondly as the family’s devil’s advocate, always up for a debate. It was a long journey, learning to exist in that answerless “gray area,” she says. But Annette still wonders what happened the night her son vanished.
“There’s something about the not knowing part,” she says. “There’s a part of you where your brain can really come to a place where I think I know that Brandon’s not alive, but you don’t know until you know. The one thing as humans we search for are definitive answers to be able to make sense of things. And that’s something that we don’t have.”