September 21, 2011

Revew: The Last Season--When a Park Ranger Goes Missing

In the summer of 1996, an experienced backcountry ranger went missing.

Ranger Randy Morgenson was in his early fifties. He had grown up hiking and climbing at Yosemite National Park, where his father worked for The Yosemite Park & Curry Co., the park concessionaire. He was also an expert cross-country skier.

He had studied public-lands recreation management in college, served in the Peace Corps, married, and worked many seasons at Yosemite and Sequoia & King's Canyon National Parks.

He loved the wilderness and respected its power in an almost animistic way. He was the kind of man who would seriously consider whether a tree wanted its picture to be taken. He hated to hear anything in the natural world described as a "resource." He even preferred to say "treeline" rather than "timberline" because "timber" sounded too much like a "resource."

At the same time, he was known as courteous and helpful to visitors, even when confronting their destructive behavior. He had participated unflinchingly in search-and-rescue and body-recovery missions. Everyone looked up to him.

But backcountry rangers are like the adjunct professors who teach more than half all all university classes.. They do the work, but they have no job security from one year to the next. They have no pension plans and far fewer benefits than permanent employees. And Randy Morgenson was past the middle of his career.  His marriage was going downhill.

One day, he missed his radio check, part of the routine for backcountry rangers who camped out and worked alone. And the next day.  His colleagues grew worried. Eventually a full-scale search was mounted: ground teams, airborne searchers, search dogs, even a Navy helicopter with forward-looking infrared radar. All backcountry campers and hikers in his patrol area were questioned if they had seen him.


Given that the conclusion is beyond his control, Eric Blehm has written a masterful nonfiction thriller in The Last Season.

I raced through the last two chapters two evenings ago and had weird park ranger dreams for half the night afterward. That is the price you pay for reading such an absorbing book.

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