I have a horror-based fascination with the entire concept of missing people (I fully blame Soul Asylum’s music video for Runaway Train in the early 90’s; that video, which played on repeat throughout my teenage years, is seared into my brain). So when I was going through my emails and came across a Book Riot email that contained a review for The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands by Jon Billman (Grand Central Publishing, 2020), my eyes flew open and I added it to my list immediately. I’m not much of an outdoorsy person or adventurer, but I’m also kind of fascinated by stories of outdoor adventures gone wrong, so I knew this book would be right up my alley, and it was.
A brief warning, however: this book talks a lot about death, and about unresolved loss, meaning, missing people whose cases are never solved, who simply vanish and their families never get any answers about what happened to them. It’s heavy, and devastatingly sad. Wait until you’re ready to carry their stories until you pick this book up.
Writer Jon Billman follows the case of Jacob Gray, a young man who went missing in Olympic National Park, to delve deeply into the subject of the people who go missing in the wilds of American (and some Canadian) national parks. What happens when someone is reported missing? If you’re expecting a massive search complete with teams of park employees and helicopter patrols, one that doesn’t rest until the missing person is found, you’re only partly correct – a small part. It really depends on where the person goes missing.
Mr. Billman follows Randy, Jacob’s father, in his determined search for his son up and down the west coast. Along the way, he interviews the people he meets who spend their time searching for the missing: volunteers, bloodhound owners, professional trackers, Bigfoot aficionados (no, really). He and Randy even meet up with a cult (the Twelve Tribes; I’ve run into this group in Nashville) in the hopes that Jacob, who was religious, had joined up with them. Mr. Billman’s quiet, compassionate observations, always lacking judgment, paint a moving tribute to the many families devastated by the disappearance of a loved one into the vast wilderness of public lands.
This book was fascinating. It’s one that I couldn’t wait to return to every night, to see where Jon Billman would follow Randy Gray next, to learn who he would talk to and the stories he would learn about. Who would be found? Who would be found alive? What happened that these people disappeared, and how did the families who never got answers cope? Mr. Billman didn’t just interview these people over coffee, either; he strapped on a backpack, laced up his hiking books, and followed them over rocky terrain and down steep slopes; he camped with them overnight in bear country and slogged in squishy socks through rain-soaked forests. He lived the life of someone desperately searching for a loved one, and that adds such a depth to this book.
The Cold Vanish will go on my list of one of the best books I read this year. It’s that good. Highly recommended.