Monday, July 20, 2020

Review: The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America's Wildlands by Jon Billman

The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America's Wildlands
The Cold Vanish by Jon Billman
St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: July 28th, 2020
Hardcover. 384 pages

About The Cold Vanish:

"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."

The Cold Vanish took me longer to read than I expected it to because I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of stories (and, in a way, lack of stories) there were about missing people--and how many missing people there actually are. I've started hearing more over the past few years about the problems that some areas of the United States and Canada have with missing persons cases, especially in Native American/indigenous peoples areas, but I had never really read anything quite as in-depth as this book, which sheds a lot of light on the aforementioned areas and more. 

The core story at the heart of The Cold Vanish is that of Jacob Gray's disappearance in the Olympic National Forest. Jacob's disappearance left his father, Randy, continually driving back and forth between his home in Santa Cruz, California and the Olympic National Forest in Washington in order to continuously search for Jacob, no matter what the outcome may be. This overarching storyline really tied the story together in the best way possible and really pushed home and exemplified the many problems that are present in the search for missing persons. I also really appreciated the way that Billman described Randy's own journey as a father coping with the missing status of his--it really brought him to life in a way that made me feel connected to him and brought the entire journey and search that much closer to my own heart. 

Interspersed with Jacob's story are a myriad of other cases about missing people, some that have been found--some alive, some not--and some that are still missing. I appreciated the way that Billman managed to bring these stories about each individual person to life and how he included the family members and others associated with the hunts to bring them all home, whether they are bringing them home alive or otherwise. It was both inspiring and heartbreaking to see the efforts that people--both family and non-family alike--will go to keep search efforts alive and going, as a lot of official searches are cut off after a short amount of time if the missing person is not found. It was also incredibly disheartening to read about how lacking so many agencies and departments are equipped to handle missing persons cases. I think Billman did a particularly good job at trying to convey to the best of his ability the feelings and experiences of family and friends who have or have had a missing person experience in their life. The worst part is the not knowing, and a common thread that runs through is that family members eventually reach a point in long missing cases where having a solid answer of what happened is better than not having anything to go off of. Despite Billman's effortless way of writing, The Cold Vanish is a heavy book that left me feeling thankful for everyone in my life. 

One of my favorite components was probably seeing all of the different tracking and search methods used to try to find people, ranging from cadaver dogs, search and rescue dogs, volunteers, experts, helicopters, divers, and so many other types of people that go into helping search fro missing people. Again, there's a mix of sort of impressed awe and heartbreak at everything that goes into it. One of my favorite portions was about R.C. and Duff, the latter of which is a man who believes bloodhounds are the best search dogs because they have the best noses and currently trains bloodhounds for cadaver searching, and the former who is one of his great bloodhounds. The lengths that Duff goes to to train his bloodhounds seems crazy, but it's also pretty impressive and I found his entire portion fascinating, even if it was a bit gross at times (such as making 'fake' dead corpses complete with pig's blood and leftover hair and nail clippings from salons to help the dogs learn the scent of a cadaver). 

Since the format does jump around a bit between missing persons cases, if you're someone who likes to follow one storyline in order without tangents, this might not be for you. However, I felt that the format worked really well and that I liked being able to learn more about other missing persons and all of the different issues that exist in continuing searches. I also thought it might be useful to note that in the Acknowledgements section, Billman writes that a percentage of the proceeds from the sales of The Cold Vanish will be going to the Jon Francis Foundation, which works to educate people on wilderness safety and provide support for families with missing adult members. 

Overall, I've given The Cold Vanish five stars! I started off giving this 4.25 stars on Goodreads, but after writing this review and thinking more about this book, I've decided to bump it up because I've really grown to have strong feelings towards it and think it's really a vital book in learning more about everything involved with the subject of missing persons in North America. I highly recommend it!


  1. I just recently added this one to my TBR, so I'm glad to hear it was a fantastic read!

  2. What?…” disheartening to read about how lacking so many agencies and departments are equipped to handle missing persons cases”. Seriously? They barely have the money to do their primary work - which shockingly is not to be a police/detective agency. Get a clue. And Paulides is a Bigfoot researcher? Yeah he would say anything to make a buck.

    1. Hi there! This is an old review and I have since heard quite a bit about some controversies around this book and author. In reference to the comment I made that you quoted, it was not meant as an attack on the agencies themselves, moreso my saying that it is unfortunate that the government/etc. does not have the money to provide enough for more staffing/capabilities/etc. and to have people who can handle missing persons cases in general, including money to perform their regular work. Regardless of the reason, it is sad for anyone who knows a missing person to be stuck unable to continue searching for them because of a lack of resources. There is no specific blame. Apologies for any confusion there.