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Thursday, September 02, 2021

Haunting and Memorable, The Cold Vanish Explores Alarming Number of Missing Persons Lost in North America's National Lands

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Did you know that each year in the United States about 600,000 people go missing?  Most vanish in populated places.  The majority of them are found alive and in a short amount of time.  While these statistics are comforting in a way, the one Jon Billman is concerned about is this—around 1600 people are currently missing from North America's public lands (including national parks, national forests, and BLM land).  And this, Billman says, is likely a vast understatement.  For various reasons, hundreds go missing on federal land every year; many are never found.  

In The Cold Vanish, the writer uses the story of Jacob Gray (link contains spoilers)—a 22-year-old from California who disappeared in Washington's Olympic Peninsula while on a solo bicycling trip—as a springboard to explore these disappearing acts.  Who is most likely to vanish on public land?  Why?  And what is being done to locate the missing?  Billman discusses obstacles to finding people in the wild (vast acreage, inclement weather, difficult terrain, bureaucratic red tape, etc.) as well as the lengths that volunteers (including a group of dedicated Bigfoot hunters) have gone to to find missing hikers, bicyclers, and explorers.  Since so many of the circumstances surrounding these disappearances are strange, even inexplicable, Billman also talks about the more out-there explanations embraced by some: aliens, Sasquatch, and other otherworldly explanations.  The levity of this discussion is over-balanced, however, by those about how a missing persons investigation affects the family and friends who are left behind with no answers and no closure.  It's heartbreaking. 

Although there has apparently been a bit of a hubbub over Billman's portrayal of Jacob Gray, including some "facts" of the case that Billman may have gotten wrong, I found his coverage of Jacob's case to be both sensitive and absorbing.  On the whole, The Cold Vanish is very informative, compulsively readable, and highly compelling.  Also, sad and disturbing.  Although I read the book quickly, what I learned has stayed with me.  Haunted me.  My biggest takeaway: always maintain a healthy respect for Mother Nature, which will kill you just as soon as cradle you.  When exploring, stay on established paths, don't venture out alone, take a cell phone, and always—always—be prepared with emergency supplies.  Not doing any one of these, as Billman so clearly points out, can be deadly.

*Thanks to Lark for recommending this book to me.  You can see her excellent review of The Cold Vanish here.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of books by Jon Krakauer, especially Into the Wild, as well as Carried by Michelle Schmidt and Angie Taylor)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (a dozen or so F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, blood/gore, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find


  1. This one's haunted me too, Susan. Not sure why, although Jacob's story was heartbreaking. I saw some of the adverse comments on Goodreads, I don't know enough to comment on those, but like you I thought the author handled it with sensitivity. And thanks for the 'readalike' recs, I'll look those up.

    1. Same. I'm not sure what all the hubbub from the family is about. Who knows?

  2. Reading and hiking are two of my absolute favorite things, so this story definitely fascinates me. I need to pick it up. Great review!

    1. Be careful out there when you hike! It's terrifying how easily people can fall and get lost when hiking.

  3. What an interesting book! I used to work for the Grand Canyon, and all the tales of people going missing are so incredible. You're right, so many people go into public lands and forget about how powerful mother nature is.

    1. Really? I bet you heard some crazy stories. My husband has a friend who's younger brother fell and died at the Grand Canyon. Horrible.

  4. I had no idea that many people went missing each year! It's staggering. What an interesting concept for a book.

  5. This sounds fascinating. It's always fascinated/terrifed me how many people go missing and no trace is ever found. I know there was a case of a really experienced park ranger who went missing and was eventually discovered to have died in an accident. It blew me away how easy it is for something to happen even to people who are familiar with the area and what can happen. I'm adding this book to my TBR.

    1. True! Even really experienced hikers get into trouble. It's scary.

  6. Can't get this one on my TBR shelf fast enough!!! Thanks for telling us about it.

    Having seen for myself, TWICE, just how quickly and unknowingly one can step off the trail and find themselves (is that the word?) stuck on a steep, slippery slope or down in a dry riverbed with no way to climb out, I can see how people disappear, never to be found. Oh and let's not forget the time we went out to watch the meteor showers and fell behind the group afterwards and were wandering around in the pitch dark in a dry creek or riverbed. Luckily we were next to a major freeway so no chance of getting lost, but still! None of these predicaments had been foreseen and we are all experienced hikers!

    Anyway, I can't wait to read this book.

    1. Oh my goodness! Sounds like you've had some adventures :) I went on a hiking date in high school that ended with some unintended bush-whacking. Not fun.

  7. I just finished reading it and also clicked over to the FB page. I'm really surprised that some of the family/friends are in such an uproar about how Jacob and his family were portrayed. I didn't walk away with any negative feelings or ideas about them. I thought Jacob sounded like a great, adventurous guy and I was impressed by how much his dad loved him and the lengths his dad went to to look for him.

    Whatever. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time reading this book.

    My only question is WHY are people leaving their keys, cellphone and water in the car at the trailhead to go hiking??? Why??? That makes NO sense.

    1. Right? I don't get the outrage either. The impression I got of the Grays is that they loved their son very much and did everything they could to get answers and closure.

      It really is weird that people would leave all their stuff behind when they go hiking. Why would anyone do that? Clearly, aliens are behind the whole thing...

  8. I’m here from Jinjer’s link to your review, which is excellent! I just placed a hold on this book as you roped me in with the description & Jinger was correct it sounds fascinating!

    Turn the Page

    1. Welcome, Tina! I'm so glad you found my blog. I hope you enjoy the book. Be sure to come back and let me know what you think of it.


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