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The Last Seasonby Eric Blehm
Synopses & Reviews
In the spirit of Jon Krakauer's bestselling Into the Wild, Eric Blehm's The Last Season examines the extraordinary life of legendary backcountry ranger Randy Morgenson and his mysterious disappearance in California's unforgiving Sierra Nevada.
The granite spires of the High Sierra have historically been a refuge of inspiration and adventure for the likes of John Muir and Ansel Adams, as well as for the pioneering rock climbers of the 1960s. But these mountains are as perilous as they are beautiful: here is where the Donner Party was trapped and where scores of unlucky hikers must be rescued every year. The Last Season tells the inspiring, poignant story of Morgenson, who, over the course of twenty-eight summers living alone in this craggy wilderness, became a celebrated ranger in the National Park Service's most adventurous unit. For the solitary, introspective Morgenson, who grew up in Yosemite Valley and as a young man honed his mountaineering skills in the Himalayas, this was more than a job — it was a calling. He became fiercely devoted to preventing outside forces from encroaching on the wilderness he loved.
But over the years, the isolation Morgenson had once cherished took its toll, and he grew increasingly estranged from his wife and friends. When, at the height of his struggles, he went missing without a trace in Kings Canyon National Park, where he had long patrolled, many suspected suicide or foul play. Morgenson, after all, had once said, "The least I owe these mountains is a body." As one of the Park Service's most intensive search-and-rescue operations unraveled, some wondered if they were searching for a man who did not want to be found.
Destined tobecome a classic in mountain literature, The Last Season is a work that is as captivating in its writing as it is compelling in its sense of adventure. It is the result of eight years of research by Eric Blehm to uncover the truth about one of the national parks' greatest mysteries. Blehm's reconstruction of a desperate search-and-rescue operation woven with Morgenson's riveting biography takes readers deep into the heart of the High Sierra and into the little-known and much-romanticized world of the backcountry rangers — revealing in the end the mind and spirit of a complicated, original, and wholly fascinating man.
"Blehm (Agents of Change) offers a thorough if cumbersome account of the life of Randy Morgenson, a National Park Service ranger in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains whose zeal gave way to disillusionment before he disappeared on duty in 1996, after 28 summers on the job (although his body was found, how he died remains a mystery). The book begins with the day Morgenson left his camp for a three-day patrol and then failed to make scheduled radio contact. From there, the narrative weaves the events of the ensuing search with descriptions of ranger life, tales of past incidents in the area and Morgenson's increasingly fraught personal history. Blehm's exhaustive research is impressive, although the author struggles to find the proper balance of background information and narrative pace, spending, for instance, an entire page on a peripheral reference to the California Conservation Corps when a sentence or two would have sufficed. He does, however, succeed in creating an empathetic portrayal of Morgenson and a revealing look at the taxing, underappreciated calling to which he dedicated himself. Readers are left with an intimate sense of an intelligent if flawed man whose love of the mountains ended up costing him his marriage, his ambitions and his life. 16-page b&w photo insert not seen by PW." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"It's not easy to get lost in the mountainous parks of the American West. Trails are generally well-marked, and even if you take a wrong turn, you should be able to scramble up to a vantage point and catch sight of the path again. The forested Midwest, however, can be a maze. Often there is no high ground, and trail markers may be scarce or nonexistent. Such, at any rate, was the experience of Jason... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Rasmussen, whose story Cary J. Griffith tells in his gripping 'Lost in the Wild.' A medical student in Milwaukee, Rasmussen had planned to do some big-time hiking in magnificent Nepal before Sept. 11 shut down the air lanes. Instead, he settled for a spot within driving distance, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. He was strong, he could read a map and use a compass, but he had never walked anything so disorienting as the Boundary Waters' Pow Wow Trail, with its dearth of signs and frequent intersections with old logging roads. First, he got lost, and then — leaving his tent, sleeping bag, stove and most of his food behind while he reconnoitered with only a day pack — he couldn't find his way back to his belongings. This was in late October, with nighttime temperatures dropping below freezing. What had started out as a consolation prize for a thwarted trek-of-a-lifetime was turning into a shambles. To add to his book's interest, Griffith interweaves a second story set in the north country, that of Dan Stephens, a young canoe guide who led a party of Boy Scouts and their fathers into Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park in August of 1998. Stephens was an exemplary outdoorsman, so his clients were dumbfounded when he went off to find a missed portage route and didn't come back — he was supposed to be looking out for them, not the other way around. What they didn't know was that he had lost his way, misjudged a leap from one boulder to the next, hit his head and knocked himself out. By the time he came around the next day, his charges were paddling furiously back to civilization for help. On his own, Stephens faced two daunting tasks: regaining his faculties (he was just lucid enough to know he wasn't fully lucid) and keeping himself from starving. Soon author Cary J. Griffith is juggling not only two lost men but also two search parties and two sets of distraught parents. But with admirable economy and a flair for suspense, he stays in charge, showing how even well-prepared wilderness travelers can compound an initial blunder until they are in extreme danger — and what someone in their boots can do to increase his odds of surviving (e.g., be prepared to eat bugs). The disappearance of someone even more seasoned than Rasmussen or Stephens is the subject of Eric Blehm's 'The Last Season': Randy Morgenson, a ranger in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks who had 28 summers of backcountry experience to his credit. Some considered Morgenson the Park Service's best backcountry ranger, and when he went missing while on a routine patrol in the summer of 1996, his friends were at first astonished, then suspicious. He'd been depressed over the imminent end of his marriage, and suicide seemed a possible explanation. Like Griffith in 'Lost in the Wild,' Blehm explains the art of search and rescue: A thought-ordering process called the Mattson Method helps rescuers line up available information about the lost hiker, his last-known whereabouts and the surrounding terrain so as to narrow down the possibilities. (One of the method's features is secret balloting by those who know both the land and the hiker as to where he is apt to have strayed.) Blehm ably evokes the world of seasonal backcountry rangers, whom the Park Service slights even as they put in long days protecting the land they manage and coming to the aid of backpackers in trouble. Over his career, the zealous Morgenson is known to have packed out '600 gunnysacks full of "human detritus." Predominantly full of glass and cans, each sack weighed around 35 pounds — 21,000 pounds of garbage that Randy had removed from the backcountry.' Morgenson is a complex 'character,' a man who had trouble measuring up to the sublime landscape in which he lived and worked. But 330 pages is too much of him: too many ups and downs in his marriage; too much emphasis on his avocations (writing and photography); too much attention paid to his parents, who ran various businesses in national parks; even too much searching. This is a part-time park ranger we're talking about, not John Muir. 'The Last Season' would have been more effective if a tough-loving editor had taken out a Swiss Army knife and cut the manuscript by at least a third. Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Readers will experience the daily hopes of rescue and the eventual letdown when the search efforts must be called off. While the book is a tribute to one man, the descriptions of backcountry rangers — lives will fascinate many." Library Journal
"A vibrant and ultimately tragic story of a man whose life was full of passion until the very end." Booklist
"As Jon Krakauer did with Into the Wild, Blehm turns a missing-man riddle into an insightful meditation on wilderness and the personal demons and angels that propel us into it alone." Outside
"Blehm mounts the search for Morgenson with a thriller's pacing....A potent testament to the enduring power and allure of wild open spaces." Men's Journal
"Blehm...deftly interweaves the story of Morgenson's life-long devotion to wilderness with a riveting account of the hunt for him." National Geographic Adventures
"A rambling, yet compelling portrait of a man who perhaps loved the wilderness too much." Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Eric Blehm is the former editor of TransWorld SNOWboarding, the author of Agents of Change: The Story of DC Shoes and Its Athletes, and the coauthor of P3: Pipes, Parks, and Powder. He lives in Southern California with his wife and son.
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