Her mornings start with a cup of coffee, a quick Internet search of the news in Iran and a fresh tingle of hope: Maybe this will be the day her son is finally freed from a prison cell a world away.

Her nights end in exhaustion and anger, but mostly sadness that another day passed without hearing her boy's voice or knowing with certainty that he is still alive.

In the long hours in between, Cindy Hickey fires off scores of e-mails and puts in dozens of calls to family, friends and government officials from Minnesota to Tehran in hopes of ending the nightmare that began in July with a hiking trip in the mountains of Iraq. Now it drags on, with her son and friends stuck in one of the world's toughest prisons, reportedly based on accusations of espionage.

"It's surreal," Hickey, 49, said the other day from her home in Pine City. "Is this really my life? And how long is it going to be this way?"

More than eight months have passed since her son, Shane Bauer, 27, his girlfriend, Sarah Shourd, 31, and their friend Joshua Fattal, 27, were detained by Iranian authorities and jailed for allegedly crossing an unmarked border. For Hickey and relatives of the hikers, the struggle to free them has brought only heartache and frustration.

Other than a one-minute phone call with Shane in March that was filled with "I love yous," Hickey said she has had no contact with her son, who is being held with his friends in Tehran's Evin Prison.

Fearing their children are pawns in a high-stakes game of international politics, Hickey, Nora Shourd and Laura Fattal are now pleading with Iranian authorities for permission to fly to Tehran to visit their kids and bring them home.

They applied for visas several months ago and have been told that Iranian officials may soon approve their request.

"I'd be foolish to say there isn't some risk," Hickey said. "If we're allowed to travel, we'll travel. As a parent, you get to the point where you'd do anything you feel needs to be done to get them back."

A hike in July

Even now, after months of trying to figure out what happened, Hickey said she still finds it hard to fathom.

Her son, a freelance journalist working out of Damascus, Syria, was simply taking a break for an eight-day hiking trip in northern Iraq.

Sarah, who lived with him and taught English in Damascus, was going, too, along with Fattal, a friend from the University of California, Berkeley, where all three graduated.

Bauer, who speaks fluent Arabic, knew his way around the Middle East and had covered sensitive stories in dangerous spots, including an assignment in Baghdad in 2009.

"I didn't have worry on my radar at all," Hickey said of the trip. "Shane does not do things without investigating them. And he was told by many friends this was a very safe place, a beautiful place."

So she was stunned when she got a call July 31 from the U.S. State Department and was told the hikers had been detained for allegedly crossing into Iran illegally.

Hickey called Sarah's mother, who lives in Oakland, and Josh's mother, in Philadelphia. They later learned that after being stopped, Shane had been able to call a friend and tell him what was happening.

Iranian officials initially said the hikers were detained after allegedly crossing an unmarked border. In the months since, several reports, including a BBC story April 9, have surfaced saying that the Iranian government had "credible evidence" that the hikers had links to U.S. intelligence agencies.

Hickey said that's "totally ridiculous. If you know the three of them, it would not be possible they'd be working for any intelligence group. We're mothers. We know them. If our kids crossed the border, they did it by accident."

Hickey and Massoud Shafie, an attorney in Tehran hired by the families, also said that they've never received "official word" that the hikers have been charged with espionage.

Shafie, in an interview with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said his clients' file only mentions "their illegal border crossing."

Making the rounds

Initially, the families thought the hikers would be released within days. But as weeks passed, they grew more anxious. They couldn't sit back.

They established a website -- www.freethehikers.org -- and wrote letters to Iranian authorities. They met with government officials, including Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. They made the rounds of the major news networks and told their stories to news outlets worldwide.

They worked with officials at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to secure two half-hour visits with the hikers last fall. In December, they hired Shafie, hoping he could help.

So far, little has worked.

They fear strained relations between the U.S. and Iran and concerns about Iran's developing nuclear program is hampering their efforts.

"I get really frustrated that this is getting rolled into politics," Hickey said.

She tries to be patient, but the stress of the ordeal has taken a toll.

A retired nurse who works at home creating conditioning and nutritional programs for horses and dogs, Hickey once spent much of her day outdoors tending to her sled dogs, horse and donkey. Since July, she has been wedded to a laptop and cell phone.

"I'm not a TV watcher by nature. I'm not a computer person," Hickey said. "But I spend my time there these days because I have to."

Most mornings, she writes her son by e-mail or by letter. Some days, she sends books or reporters' notebooks with the words "I love you Shane" scribbled on the cover. She doesn't know if he gets them.

"But as a mother, I'm going to do it, no matter what," she said. "I can't imagine sitting in prison and not getting any word from the outside."

She checks in, too, with Shane's father, Al Bauer, and daughters Nicole and Shannon, "to make sure they are OK."

When it seems overwhelming, she goes for long walks in the woods or hops on her horse, AJ, for a ride. It helps, she said, that Nora Shourd, a triage nurse in a geriatric clinic in Berkeley, took a leave from her job and moved in with Hickey and her husband, Jim, a few months ago.

"I don't have to explain to Nora why I'm quiet or why I'm feeling tense," Hickey said. "She knows."

The two talk and e-mail daily with Laura Fattal, brainstorming for ideas that might lead to a break in the case.

"It's really a 24/7 job," Fattal said, "because there is always something else we think we can do."

When the hikers' friend released a video last fall showing them dancing and singing days before their capture, the mothers grew hopeful. They said it proved that their kids were vacationing, not spying.

When Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested swapping political prisoners with the U.S., the mothers perked up again. It was a hint, they said, that their children were alive.

It's also helped to talk with Reza Saberi, whose daughter, Roxana, a journalist from Fargo, was imprisoned at Evin for more than four months in 2009 on espionage charges before being released.

"I told them that they should not worry," said Reza Saberi, who believes the Iranians will be cautious in dealing with the hikers because they don't want to be portrayed worldwide as torturers when the three are freed and tell their stories.

And there are bad days

Still, the thought that their kids are in such a notoriously dark place haunts.

"I spend a lot of time saying 'Oh my God, I wonder if Sarah has enough blankets?'" Shourd said. "The prison they are in is a horrible place. We can't protect them from that ... I just think about how every moment of their day is like and how difficult that must be for them. They are kids so full of energy and life. ... I hope there are things they can do in prison that keep them intellectually alive and emotionally stable."

Good days are few. Hickey's happiest moment came in March, when Shane, who spent his childhood in Onamia, Minn., called home for the first and only time. The conversation lasted only a minute, but it was long enough for a mother.

It started with "Mom, this is Shane, I love you and miss you."

"Just to hear his voice was important to me," Hickey said. "My main goal was to instill in his mind that we were doing absolutely everything we could to get him home.

"It sounded like Shane," she added. "The thing that resonated most from that phone call was 'I'm worried about everybody else -- you, Dad, everybody.' That's Shane. That's who he is.

"But he also was very confused about why he was there. He doesn't know. We don't know. Nobody knows."

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425