Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Out in the woods

On July 21st 1996, my wife and I were headed off for my honeymoon. On that same day, back country ranger Randy Morgenson, a legend within the ranger community, left his Kings Canyon camp and disappeared. This coincidence probably added to the chill Eric Blehm's Last Season gave me, but I suspect any who love the National Park system will find much to like in this book.

The book is split between the story of the search and rescue operation started after Morgenson's disappearance and a biography of the man who disappeared. Raised in Yosemite National Park, he became a lover of the outdoors from an early age. The backcountry was one of the few places he found happiness and success. He failed as a student, as a husband and as a writer. Thanks to his father's position at Yosemite he struck up a correspondence with Wallace Stegner, who he clearly tried to emulate in his writing.

While he didn't succeed in that by which most lives are judged, he did succeed in helping to protect the wilderness and in helping others enjoy it. That explains the rigor and devotion displayed by the other rangers in their search and rescue. Blehm is excellent in explaining and detailing the theories, challenges and tools of search and rescue. While beautiful, the back country is a dangerous place that can kill or maim in a moment's notice.

Blehm alternates chapters between the search operation and the biographical background. I liked this format as both stories interested me, but it could put off some readers. The search story is all tension and excitement, while the biographical sections tend to the reflective. This can be jarring, especially for those looking for outdoor adventure reading. Morgenson's character is also more than a little imperfect. While he doesn't run over others lives to the exent of the subject of Into the Wild, he picks nature over family in most cases and the damage is apparent. Unlike that character, he also gave quite a bit back over the decades of his service in the wilds.

The book also highlights the service of National Park rangers, a group that is truly underpaid and treated shabbily, although one can say this about any number of government employees. While reading the book, I regretted that I was at the Oregon Coast and not in a National Park where I could hop on a trail and just start walking.

No comments: