Book Review: The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America's Wildlands by Jon Billman
If you don’t know anyone who’s vanished, it’s hard to comprehend how it feels. As it happens, I do; several years ago, the husband of a close friend (who was suffering from mid-stage dementia) walked out of their house in a quiet suburban street and vanished. I took part in days of searching parks and forestry within walking distance of their home - the entrance to a national park was less than a kilometre away. No trace of him has ever been found. (His name is Michael Newbon. You can look him up, if you’re interested).
The questions never end. Neither do the searches. My friend will never have answers; she passed on from cancer three years ago never knowing what had happened to the love of her life.
Perhaps the worst pain of all is that of a parent whose child vanishes, and that’s at the core of this book; the story of Randy Gray, whose son Jacob Gray disappeared in Olympic National Park. Randy committed himself entirely to the search for Jacob, and the author accompanied Randy on several trips following leads from all sorts of sources; Bigfoot researchers, tips from psychics, Randy’s own surmises on what his son might have wanted to do with his life and where those wishes might have taken Jacob.
While working on Jacob and Randy’s story, the author’s awareness of just how many people vanish in the wilderness was raised, and a number of other cases are mentioned in this book, some resolved, many not. Some were the victims of serial killers, many fell foul of Mother Nature and succumbed to hypothermia or injuries, others vanished in circumstances which honestly seem inexplicable. Some survived in the face of overwhelming odds to tell their own stories.
In the US, there is definitely a problem of competing bureaucracies and authorities not equipped for SAR efforts being the ones to call the shots. There is clearly a need for a centralised database of persons missing in National Parks and Forests, and an overarching authority with a defined policy which goes into action immediately someone is reported missing, because if there is one thing very clear in this book it is that when overwhelming and properly organised resources are committed early, that’s when the missing are most likely to be found.
Billman takes something of a deviation in the middle of the book with Sasquatch researchers and psychics entering the narrative, but I can tell you from experience, if you are desperate for answers, even the most unlikely of straws are sometimes grasped at. The Sasquatch researchers at least didn’t seem to be in this seeking to make any money or grab at fame, providing resources, time and effort without thought of reward. I do not think as kindly of the psychics, and agree with a quote from the book “To my knowledge, psychics have never solved a missing persons case.” I think they’re ghouls praying to get lucky… if they did chance to correctly predict a location they’d be on the national news milking it for every penny they could.
Jacob’s story ends, as so many of the missing do, with a tragedy, but I was left with the impression of a life that mattered. Young as he was, he inspired enormous efforts on his behalf, not least from his father who obviously loved him very deeply. I’m aware that there are family members and friends of Jacob who are upset about his portrayal in this book, but to me he comes across as a young man with a great zest for life and an inspiring wonder and love for the world around him. His family were portrayed as loving people who were deeply distraught by his disappearance, and they obviously devoted enormous amounts of time and effort to searching for him. I’m glad they were able to get closure and I hope that they are able to take from this book what I think the author intended from it; a determination to demand that the authorities do better by those who go missing in the world’s vast wildernesses.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this title via NetGalley.