The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in America’s Wildlands is written by Jon Billman, an acclaimed journalist, author, and professor. Given my love of the outdoors and fascination with missing persons cases, I was eager to read it. I have followed Billman’s work for years, and particularly enjoyed two of his long-form articles: “Long Gone Girl” in Runner’s World and “How 1,600 People Went Missing from Our Public Lands Without a Trace” in Outside.
On the surface, The Cold Vanish tells the story of the search for Jacob Gray—a young cyclist who left his bike on the side of the road in Olympic National Park on April 4, 2017 and mysteriously vanished. But really, the book is so much more. Billman artfully weaves shocking statistics and excerpts from other missing persons cases around his centerpiece story about Jacob Gray. Although some parts of the book are repetitive, which may in fact be by design to help the reader stay on track while navigating the patchwork format, the final product is engaging, frightening, and moving.
There are many things I love about The Cold Vanish. For one thing, it is beautifully written. This is not something I can say about every true crime book I have read. To be honest, Billman had me at his references to Schrödinger’s cat and Virginia Woolf. But seriously now, here is an example of how well-written the book is, taken from page 14 of the hardcover edition. In the excerpt below, Billman discusses a T-shirt he got while at a benefit run for Amy Wroe Bechtel – a runner who disappeared while jogging in the Wind River Mountains just south of Lander, Wyoming:
I can remember the race T-shirt for the Amy Bechtel Hill Climb vividly. A large color photograph of smiling, blond-haired Amy had been hastily screen-printed on the front of a basic white T-shirt, along with the words HAVE YOU SEEN AMY? and a phone number: 1-800-867-5AMY. Amy’s photograph started to mute with the first wash. The shirt was one that got noticeably softer with each laundering, and I wore it often since it was comfortable. It wasn’t long until Amy faded into the white of the shirt, like a ghost, and all that remained was HAVE YOU SEEN AMY? and the phone number, which has long since been disconnected.
When I read this passage now, I still get chills. I am carried away by the symbolism of the fading image on the T-shirt and I connect it with my own impermanence. How long would it take for me to disappear from the memory of my loved ones if I vanished? Or for the search number to be disconnected? When would they give up on me?
Another element of The Cold Vanish I appreciate is how much it taught me. Here are two fun tidbits: 1) You can earn a PhD in Search Theory and 2) “Bewilder” in its archaic form means “to cause to become lost.” But I also learned distressing things that will stay with me. For instance, over 600,000 people are reported missing every year in the US. True, the majority of them are found alive and a few of them leave on their own accord to start a new life. But thousands of others do not leave willingly and are never found. Where have they gone? And what about the people who vanish while on federal wildlands? It turns out it is painfully difficult, if not impossible, to get statistics on how many people have gone missing in National Parks. And the number is likely much higher than we ever thought possible. Also, I was shocked by the bureaucracy loved ones of missing persons have to navigate when someone has the audacity to become lost on federal wildlands. I had no idea the Park Service could be so territorial or unhelpful, but I guess it was my own naïveté that led me to believe it would be different from most other large agencies.
I also enjoy The Cold Vanish because it chronicles the deep friendship that develops between Billman and Randy Gray—Jacob’s father who dropped everything in his life to search for his son. Randy’s exhaustion, despair, and hope come to life in the pages, and this humanizes what it is like for someone searching for their loved one. If Billman did not do such a deep dive into Randy’s experiences as he relentlessly searched for his son, the book would risk becoming a collection of statistics. Instead, Randy’s touching story compels the reader to continue to the end to see if he finds what he is looking for. No doubt Billman’s friendship with Randy afforded him unprecedented access and contributed to the book being so well-researched. But it also appears to be one of those rare friendships that can change your perspective and take you places you never expected to go, showing us that even from unfathomable loss something worthwhile can be gained.
Finally, some readers might roll their eyes when Billman touches on such topics as Bigfoot, UFOs, psychics, and parallel universes…I know I did. Then I realized these topics only come up when Billman explores the type of eccentric people who are willing to keep searching in missing persons cases that defy conventional logic…brilliant but eccentric people like David Paulides. Paulides is a former police detective turned investigator and writer who is well-known for his extraordinarily thorough research on disappearances in National Parks…as well as his work dedicated to proving the existence of Bigfoot. In The Cold Vanish Billman does not say he thinks Jacob Gray was carried away by Bigfoot. Rather, he provides a thoughtful and touching account of the selfless few who helped search for Jacob. And he makes a point of not ridiculing their beliefs even while making it clear he does not agree with their theories…something I think society could benefit more from in general.
I highly recommend The Cold Vanish, and I think if you are intrigued by missing persons cases you will enjoy it as much as I did. Before cracking the cover, though, just keep in mind the peace you feel when you venture into the woods may be forever lost.
Interested in mysterious true crime cases? Check out our article on the disappearance of Mitch Weiser and Bonnie Bickwit and our audio file on the unsolved murder of Betsy Aardsma.
*Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.