Kate’s Review: “The Cold Vanish”

48717769Book: “The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands” by Jon Billman

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: For readers of Jon Krakauer and Douglas Preston, the critically acclaimed author and journalist Jon Billman’s fascinating, in-depth look at people who vanish in the wilderness without a trace and those eccentric, determined characters who try to find them.

These are the stories that defy conventional logic. The proverbial vanished without a trace incidences, which happen a lot more (and a lot closer to your backyard) than almost anyone thinks. These are the missing whose situations are the hardest on loved ones left behind. The cases that are an embarrassment for park superintendents, rangers and law enforcement charged with Search & Rescue. The ones that baffle the volunteers who comb the mountains, woods and badlands. The stories that should give you pause every time you venture outdoors.

Through Jacob Gray’s disappearance in Olympic National Park, and his father Randy Gray who left his life to search for him, we will learn about what happens when someone goes missing. Braided around the core will be the stories of the characters who fill the vacuum created by a vanished human being. We’ll meet eccentric bloodhound-handler Duff and R.C., his flagship purebred, who began trailing with the family dog after his brother vanished in the San Gabriel Mountains. And there’s Michael Neiger North America’s foremost backcountry Search & Rescue expert and self-described “bushman” obsessed with missing persons. And top researcher of persons missing on public wildlands Ex-San Jose, California detective David Paulides who is also one of the world’s foremost Bigfoot researchers.

It’s a tricky thing to write about missing persons because the story is the absence of someone. A void. The person at the heart of the story is thinner than a smoke ring, invisible as someone else’s memory. The bones you dig up are most often metaphorical. While much of the book will embrace memory and faulty memory — history — The Cold Vanish is at its core a story of now and tomorrow. Someone will vanish in the wild tomorrow. These are the people who will go looking.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

I love National Parks. I’m not really an outdoorsy person in the sense that I don’t like camping, but I do love hiking, I do love nature, and I do love epic landscapes. And National Parks give me all of that and more! While it’s hard to pick a favorite, I will say that my most recent National Park trip, Rocky Mountain National Park last summer, was beautiful and breathtaking. But one of the weird/surreal moments during our trip was standing at the top of a trail head and seeing a Missing Person poster for a man who had disappeared in the park earlier in the spring. It was a grim reminder that while the National Parks are treasures and wonderful opportunities for education and exploration, they are not without their dangers. Enter “The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands” by Jon Billman, a book I had been looking forward to ever since I read his Outside Magazine article that inspired it. Missing people in public lands is scary, guys. And Billman does a great job of demonstrating why while personalizing some of the missing, and how in some cases they vanished with nary a trace.

Billman’s main focus is on the disappearance of Jacob Gray, who disappeared after going for a bike ride in Olympic National Park. Jacob had been showing signs of mental illness and depression, but his family members don’t believe that he was suicidal. His bike and stuff was found but he never was. Billman follows the family members, especially father Randy, as they continue the search in the park well beyond the initial date missing. It feels a little voyeuristic, but at the same time I did like that we got to see the fallout for the family members after the searches, or lack thereof (more on that in a moment) stopped and it was left up to family and friends to go on. The search takes Randy and in turn Billman far and away from the park, and they have to parse through conspiracy theories, rumors of serial killers, and even Bigfoot sightings in hopes of finding a lead. It’s emotional and very sad, but also quite compelling to see how these searches can go. There are other stories dropped in as well, such as a woman who went missing while on a run (who may have been killed by her husband… or maybe it was a serial killer who had means and opportunity), another hiker who went missing in Olympic National Park around the same time that Jacob did, and a hiker who disappeared while on a trail in Mesa Verde. It’s strange and distressing, but Billman is sympathetic and respectful in his accounts. On top of that we also get a look into cadaver dogs and how they’re trained, various histories of some of the settings, and some deep dives into Bigfoot theory. So many Bigfoot theories.

For me the most interesting aspect of this book was not so much about the missing person cases themselves (though some are admittedly fascinating as hell), but how the bureaucracy when it comes to doing official searches gets so gunked up when people disappear on public lands like this. Billman talked about this in his article, but it’s no less frustrating when he talks about the issues specifically in Jacob’s case. For example, there was question as to whether he disappeared in the park itself, or if he crossed the river and the disappeared in the Olympic National Forest. Both places wanted to shirk the duty onto the other, and then there was a large delay in getting any official search parties on the ground when time is of the essence. The unclear jurisdiction issues are one of many issues. Another one that confounded me was that there was no database of missing people in various public lands and parks. One would think that you’d want to have records of this, but it seems the government is barely keeping on top of the number of people missing, much less who they are and other pertinent info. It just kind of reiterates how messed up our government can be in some ways, and it doesn’t make me want to do any heavy duty hiking or camping in remote areas any time soon if it’s to be done on public land. I’ll stick to the paved trails, thanks.

Overall, “The Cold Vanish” is fascinating and eerie, and digs a little deeper than a typical ‘missing persons’ themed book.

Rating 8: A look at missing people and the mysteries of so called ‘conquered’ wilderness, “The Cold Vanish” is strange, bittersweet, and compelling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cold Vanish” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists as of yet. But if you liked “Into the Wild” or other books about disappearing into the wilderness, this would be for you.

Find “The Cold Vanish” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

One thought on “Kate’s Review: “The Cold Vanish””

  1. I am a relative of Jacob Gray’s and my family is incredibly upset about the publication of this book. First off, Billman did not interview or talk to any of the family and get permission to use our full names and location. Secondly, he defamed Jacob as a person.

    Jacob was not a mentally ill loner with no friends. This representation of Jacob has devastated his family and friends to no end. Jacob was a wonderful person. He loved everyone deeply and was compassionate. He took his job at the retirement home seriously and his disappearance devastated the residence and his former boss.
    During the search, they constantly asked if he was found yet and were heartbroken with the negative outcome. He spent time with each resident, joking with them and listening to their stories. When he delivered food to residents who were bedridden, he would sit at their bedside and spend an extra 10 minutes to talk with them. This was not required for his job as a dishwasher/kitchen helper.
    While working at the retirement home, he was also attending college. He was trying to figure out a career that would help the most people. He considered law enforcement, Rescue, and even becoming an EMT. But he decided to major in Kinesiology and transfer to university for a career in physical therapy. He loved muscular function, exercise, and was completely obsessed with his health. He was one of the most disciplined people I knew. To him, the health of his mind and body was the most important thing to him.

    Two months before his disappearance, he started showing signs of mental illness. His family tried to help him and did everything we could, but American systems in mental/medical health care, law enforcement, and even park protocol are not helpful to desperate families trying to find help for a beloved member of the family. All these systems caused a huge hindrance in getting Jacob help or finding Jacob. It was eye-opening for the family.

    Billman grossly misrepresented Jacob, his parents, and his family. He falsified information for a story and never contacted the family for approval. He has defamed Jacob’s memory and name and has caused great distress to his family.

    As a relative, I am greatly devastated by what was written about Jacob. I cried after reading some of the book since it did not reflect the love, compassion, humor, personal discipline, and protectiveness that was Jacob Gray. He was not only my cousin, but he was also my best friend growing up.
    The book is a work of fiction, not non-fiction, and has caused tremendous pain to a grieving family. I just wanted to let you know and will be posting this message on other reviews who thought the book was professionally researched.

    Both the publisher and Billman are making a profit off our family’s pain. We as a family had no idea that this book was published until recently. They did not reach out to the family to alert us to the publication and get approval nor did they fact-check with those part of Jacob’s life. This in our opinion is completely wrong and all profits should go to supporting Search & Rescue and improving park protocol. We want to see improvement in search protocols for those who go missing in national parks.

    If you want to see the truth, please visit the Find Jacob Gray FB page. There’s a lot of upset relatives and friends commenting right now.


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