Outside journalist Jon Billman investigates disappearances that have occurred in national parks and remote areas of North American wilderness. These are what he calls “proverbial vanish-without-a-trace incidents, which happen a lot more (and a lot closer to your backyard) than almost anyone thinks.” The plethora of curious cases explored here certainly underscores that.
The narrative skips between Billman’s travels with Randy Gray, the father of 22-year-old Jacob Gray, who vanished in Olympic National Park in Washington State after leaving his bicycle by the roadside. Randy becomes understandably obsessed with finding out what happened to his son, and here is the most difficult part of engaging with any story of this kind: the painful, all-consuming need for closure that pushes the loved ones of the missing relentlessly, exhaustingly to find out what happened. They often quit their jobs and undertake searching full time, to the detriment of everything else in their lives. It is a sad, heavy story to sit with.
Billman accompanies Gray as he embarks on his searches for Jacob over a considerable period of time, spanning far beyond Olympic National Park as they travel to areas where Jacob might have gravitated if he’d gone off the grid voluntarily. Jacob’s disappearance and Randy’s search are the primary story, and it’s easy to see why this particular one captured Billman’s interest. Randy is personable, dedicated, and well-versed in the culture of the search, a solid touchpoint for comparing other incidents in this vein.
Billman does well to use Randy’s experience as a lens for this greater issue of the missing, but I thought the focus on it did come at the detriment of exploring the greater phenomena of how many people are missing in the wildlands and the number of confounding different factors that are at play. I appreciated this most when it examined the data and oddities contributing to that.
It does read like long-form magazine articles that were fleshed out into a book, but which didn’t always mesh. Part of the problem is how little information there is to go on in many of these cases, and unless you do a similar deep dive into each one, the information readily available only skims the surface.
But skim the surface of very many we do, and unfortunately the effect is that these stories quickly blur together. A shame, because there are greater points made in understanding the whys in some occurrences. This truly is a phenomenon — tens of thousands of people are missing in the US wilderness. They disappear for very different reasons — one disappearance covered has all signs pointing towards murder, some are suicides, many are accidents compounded by the harsh elements.
And plenty remain frustratingly unanswered or unexplained. Billman delves into the psychology of the searches, organizations that lend aid, and some of the fringier theories around the disappearances, like that Bigfoot is responsible. He also exposes the unfortunate element of bottom feeders drawn to such cases where they sense the possibility of profit: “To my knowledge,” Koester says, “psychics have never solved a missing persons case.”” No shit. And yet that doesn’t stop them trying, if by “trying” it’s understood to mean spinning tales to bilk the heartbroken out of money, made even more heartbreaking as Billman is so adept at showing the human cost and emotional impact behind these stories.
The most disturbing thing I learned — or not learned, but which was chillingly emphasized — was the bureaucracy and red tape hindering investigations. Billman notes at one point that “without family putting pressure on bureaucrats and officials, there’s often not much of a professional search at all.” Which is mind-boggling. The bureaucratic interplay between parks, police districts, and the statistic that most “missing” people are quickly located, so no need to send out the cavalry right away even when circumstances are strange, create a dangerous mix when something is actually very wrong.
Also chilling and with less logical reasoning to underpin it is the fact that frequently, missing people are later found dead in exact areas that have previously been searched. There’s no good reason for why this happens. It’s one of many eerie, unsettling details at play here.
I didn’t always get on with the writing, sometimes it’s a bit too clever and elsewhere the detail was too minute and too much. Which sounds strange when I say that in other cases there wasn’t enough detail, but it often felt like such an imbalance. As far as a compelling piece of narrative nonfiction, it certainly is that, and the data and research woven into the narratives are impressive and illuminating.
The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands
by Jon Billman
published July 7, 2020 by Grand Central Publishing
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.