“Searching for a missing person, after that first week, is a believer’s game” (219).
The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands is a gem of a book, written by Jon Billman, a fiction and journalism professor at Northern Michigan University. He also writes for Outside magazine, where I found the article that was the germ of the idea for The Cold Vanish. Billman tells the stories of a myriad of the disappeared, people who seemingly stepped off a trail at Mesa Verde or Yellowstone or Olympic and were never seen again. He intertwines their (shorter) stories with the book-length account of Randy Gray, father of Jacob Gray, a young man who parked his bike on the side of the road in Olympic and vanished into the woods of northern Washington. Although the disappearance is Jacob’s, the story really belongs to Randy, as we see the lengths he goes to in order to keep hope alive and continue the search for his son. Randy is a character – a Christian hippie surfer and building contractor, full of boundless energy and humor, enthusiastic, and generous. He is also willing to explore (if not exactly embrace with open arms) any theory that might locate Jacob and give him and his family some closure. My favorite anecdote about Randy: “Randy Gray cannot tell a lie, and so declares the two avocados rolling around somewhere in the back of the Arctic Fox when the customs agent asks if we have any produce. The agent pretends she doesn’t hear him, hands our passports back, and welcomes us to Canada” (274).
One of the stories really struck a chord with me. I’ve been to Mesa Verde, and walked the trail Billman mentions from the interpretive center to Spruce Tree House – “more of a sidewalk – it’s wheelchair accessible for less than a quarter mile, where visitors can view the [Anasazi cliff] dwellings from the shade of the overhanging cliff” (119-120). Yet 51-year-old Mitchell Dale Stehling disappeared while walking that trail and was not found until last year (his remains were located after the book was published, in August 2020). No other park visitor has stayed missing from Mesa Verde since the park was founded, and the area encompasses just over 50,000 acres. How could someone disappear off of a trail adjacent to the park’s gift shop?
The accounts of the disappeared have many explanations, some plausible, some completely off-the-charts crazy. I love a book like this that takes a journalistic viewpoint and presents the theories without passing comment; a book about conspiracy theories *not* written by a conspiracy theorist. In that respect, The Cold Vanish resembles another of my favorites in this genre, Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide by Robert Michael Pyle. In that book, acclaimed naturalist Pyle explains why the flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest would be conducive to the existence of the Sasquatch – should such a creature exist. Like Pyle’s book, Billman’s presentation is open-minded and even-handed, and he makes valid observations and connections about why someone like Randy Gray might entertain the wild ideas of psychics and Bigfoot hunters. “Randy is the ultimate optimist. He’s wildly curious. The seeker from the Who song. ‘What else do I got?’ he says. ‘What else can I do?'”(217). Billman makes the reader understand Randy’s quiet desperation for any tenuous thread to follow.
He also explores other stories and disappearances: people who choose to go missing, the hunt for the Utah survivalist “Mountain Man” Knapp (who evaded authorities for seven years by breaking into remote cabins and stealing food and guns), and the serial killers in the Great Basin and in the Yosemite area who sought victims in remote wilderness areas. One of the best anecdotes is about Alan Duffy, a bloodhound trainer and handler who teaches his dogs, Mindy Amber and R.C., to search for the missing with a single verbal cue – either “Gizmo!” for cadavers, or “Find!” for a living person.
The book will leave you full of wonder at the majesty and hidden depths in what might seem like a benign, unspoiled setting, but which really harbors dangers that amateurs and enthusiasts ignore to their peril. You will also ponder the number of missing persons cases still unsolved: where are the (still) disappeared in our national parks and wild places, and will they ever be found?
The Cold Vanish is also available from HCLS as an eaudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.
Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch. She loves gardening, birds, books, all kinds of music, and the great outdoors.