Impressions of “The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands,” by Jon Billman

The Cold Vanish is about people who go missing, primarily in National Parks, National Forests, and other public lands. These stories are told through a frame mystery of Jacob Gray, a cyclist who disappeared in Olympic National Park. Probable solutions to the specific disappearances include a serial killer, an intentional disappearance, running and getting lost, and mental illness.

Cold Vanish was especially interesting to me because I have been to many of the locations in the story. It is even possible that I met Jacob because we were very regularly frequenting one specific location in the same time period. This closeness was made deeper by the author’s “gonzo” writing style, which is told in the first-person and the “now” of the narrative is always the “now” of the events (so someone who may be found later, would be reported as “now missing,” if he was missing as of the scene being described).

Jacob Grey disappeared near the border of the Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest. This allows the author to explore the legal differences between “National Parks,” which have their own police and act as semi-sovereign entities, and “National Forests,” which are largely protected by county sheriffs. It also introduces Jacob’s father, a surfer from California, who does not believe the National Park’s theory that Jacob (also a surfer) drowned in a river. Throughout many journeys they receive help from bigfoot hunters, find a cult/religious movement (whose hospitality and concern impresses the searchers), and explore homeless camps and drug warrens.

It’s impossible to talk about missingness in National Parks and National Forests without mentioning David Paulides. Paulides is a retired police officer who runs a YouTube series, a film series, and a book series about missing persons in the wild, generally called “Missing 411.” The author meets with Paulides early on in the book and describes other encounters with him as well. The primary difference between Billman and Paulides is a deep focus on a small number of vanishes, rather than attempted cataloging of nearly all vanishings. The authors also differ in other interests (Billman’s focusing on bicycling, Paulides on Bigfoot) and suspicions about the cause of the disappearances.

I enjoyed reading The Cold Vanish. I felt sorry for Jacob and his father. I felt somewhat more prepared for the disorientation that comes from being lost. I felt awe at the sometimes hostile beauty of our National Parks and National Forests.

I first heard a description of The Cold Vanish on the podcast “Mysterious Universe.” I read Cold Vanish in the Audible edition. An excerpt is available online.

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