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The Cold Vanish
Seeking the Missing in North America's Wildlands
By Jon Billman
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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.
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A magicians' trick.
In mathematics, arriving at zero.
You dream about missing persons, even though the nightmares don't belong to you.
Rational professionals I've met in my research—law enforcement and search-and-rescue personnel—tend to believe that our world is still a big, wild, and remote place, and logic and reason are at the core of missing persons cases. A very difficult puzzle laid out on a massive table, but there are rules and clues, and the puzzle can be solved. I agree with them most of the time.
I've been obsessed with writing about missing persons in wild places. In the April 2017 issue of Outside magazine, I wrote a feature about a college student, a runner missing in southern Colorado, that attempted to answer questions about who goes missing, why, how many are out there, and what the hell happens once you're gone. That story elicited more feedback—much of it polarizing—than anything I'd ever written.
You can't discuss missing persons in the wild without broaching the subjects of conspiracy theories and the paranormal. Though many do, I'm not advocating for Bigfoot as an explanation for any of these cases. Same goes for UFOs and portals to hidden dimensions. What I am insisting is that rhyme and reason so often fly out the window when someone vanishes in the wild. So many cases defy explanation, and often dumb luck is as useful a tool as a FLIR (Forward-Looking Infrared Radar)–equipped helicopter and a team of trained tracking dogs when someone—or a body—does get found.
In early April 2017, a young touring cyclist named Jacob Gray stepped off his bike and disappeared in the northern district of Olympic National Park in northwestern Washington. What ensued was a mystery that echoed other cases I'd researched. What was different for me is that Randy Gray, Jacob's father, allowed me unlimited access into the courageous search to find his son. The feature I wrote on Jacob Gray for Bicycling magazine was the catalyst for meeting Jacob's family, but it soon became apparent that their generosity, and the huge, strange purgatorial underworld of the vanished, deserved a book.
The Outside story was a work of investigative journalism; Jacob and Randy Gray's story is more personal to me than most of the reporting I've done, and in more than a few places I fail at journalistic objectivity. I made four trips out west to rendezvous with Randy. He invited me to his hometown of Santa Cruz, California, on Christmas Day 2017, and we loaded up his Arctic Fox slide-in camper with food and gear and lit out in search of Jacob. We spent days and weeks together living out of the Arctic Fox, as well as a barn on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington used as a home base for Bigfoot researchers, a Native American reservation on the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, a cult compound in Canada, and an illegal wilderness tent site on a mountain in Olympic National Park. We napped on ferries, on beaches, and on Sitka spruce logs. We talked with heroin junkies living in Port Angeles, Washington, and on the fringes of Chilliwack, British Columbia. We went swimming in the Pacific Ocean and the Sol Duc River. We stumbled across three brand-new missing persons cases on Vancouver Island.
I couldn't help but become Randy's friend. It's infectious when, sitting around the little galley table in the Arctic Fox, eating tacos, Randy would map plans to help the search for other missing persons, like Kris Fowler, who went missing on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016. Or Randy would sketch designs for a new type of swiftwater rescue tool based on a type of lifeguard surfboard he'd seen in Hawaii; some days the current and boulders in the Sol Duc River nearly beat him to death, and he designed a rescue boogie board to help mitigate that. He bought and installed a new toilet in the Bigfoot Barn because the old one wasn't flushing quite right, and it was the least he could do in exchange for free rent. He spent hours on his phone helping friends and family with their problems. All this positive energy while shouldering what many psychologists believe is the heaviest burden a human can bear.
I don't think I could rise to the occasion to find my missing son the way Randy Gray has, to be as open-minded and full of generosity, love, and optimism while bushwhacking through a dense level of hell.
The disappearance of Jacob Gray in the wild represents one of hundreds—thousands—of persons who have vanished in remote places. Trying to find them often leads to a clusterfuck, and we don't even know how many of the vanished are out there. There are more every day.
THE OLYMPIC PENINSULA
Jacob answered, "My life of wandering has lasted a hundred and thirty years. Those years have been few and difficult, unlike the long years of my ancestors in their wanderings."
Much depends on a red bicycle. The bike is heavy and too small for Jacob's athletic five-foot, eleven-inch frame. Ideally for a journey of this scale he'd ride a large, but the medium is what he has to roll with. After all, he figures, bikes are like surfboards—you don't always have the perfect one for every condition. The important thing is the wave, the ride. And this one was free. The red Specialized Hardrock says Milwaukee Tools on it because his dad, Randy Gray, age sixty-three, won it in a raffle. Jacob—like his house-builder father, handy with a Skilsaw—fashioned a plywood rack behind the seat and bolted two milk crates to it side-by-side.
Instead of cycling-specific shoes with stiff soles and ski-binding-like clipped-in pedals favored by seasoned touring cyclists to allow for more power transfer to the cranks, Jacob's bike is outfitted with stock flat BMX-style rattrap pedals that accommodate his running shoes and hiking boots. Not built for speed, not lithe, not pretty, a size too small, but hell-for-stout, as the builders say. And as utilitarian as a pickup truck. He'd recently sold his Volkswagen sedan and now the bike is his transportation, which suits him just fine.
Jacob's preferred gear shop is the Port Townsend, Washington, Goodwill. He loaded his third-hand yellow-and-red Burley child trailer with pots and pans that still have the thrift-store price tags on them. His grandfather's wool Hudson's Bay blanket is heavy but warm, even when wet. A full roll of duct tape, a toolbox, camp stove, deck of cards, a Holman Bible, a tent, fuel bottles, a case of vintage Mountain House dehydrated meals, two first-aid kits, carabiners, climbing crampons, a bow and a quiver of arrows, a rain poncho, a sleeping bag, spin-cast fishing rod and reel, and enough tarps, rope, and bungee cords for a one-ring circus. The bike, trailer, and supplies weigh as much as the 145-pound twenty-two-year-old does soaking wet. Which he is.
The weather is snotty, which it never isn't in northwestern Washington in early April, but that doesn't slow him down. Jacob, a keen surfer who grew up on the beach in Santa Cruz, California, is ionized by water, as Randy puts it—whether surfing on it or riding in it. His dad talks of getting a dose of negative ions via whitewater, no matter how cold. Jacob is known to frequently trunk it—not don a wetsuit even when conditions warrant, which in the cold currents off Santa Cruz is most of the time. Jacob loves water, the colder the better.
What Randy's ion theory lacks in scientific proof, it more than makes up for in shaka vibes. "Even if we don't go surfing, we'll get a mocha and go down to the beach and watch the sunrise," Randy says. "That's our thing, Jacob and me." The two will sometimes sleep on the beach, with no sleeping bag, just watch the sunset and curl up in the sand like sea turtles until dawn.
Jacob has nowhere he has to be, and all the time in the world to pedal there. He doesn't tell anyone where he's going, not even Wyoma Clair, his grandmother, whom he'd been temporarily living with in Port Townsend. On April 4, 2017, he quietly leaves Wyoma fifty bucks on the table and heads out into the headwind and rain in the middle of the night.
When it hits social media that a cyclist is missing, there are reported sightings, few and mostly credible, but not very helpful. The cycle touring season hasn't ramped up yet, as most cyclists wait for the weather to temper. Car and truck traffic is light on Highway 101 at night. So it's logical that no more than a couple motorists report seeing a young man on an overloaded bike pulling a trailer westbound through the driving rain. A man claims to have seen Jacob twice on April fifth, in Indian Valley and along Lake Crescent. On Thursday, April sixth, a woman reports having seen a man towing "a red trailer" climbing Fairholm Hill at one o'clock in the morning.
No one gives it much thought. Touring cyclists are legion here soon, and Jacob is just the first robin of spring.
Later that morning, a local Port Angeles woman named Stacey passes Jacob as he churns up the Sol Duc Hot Springs Road, about two miles upriver from the 101. The park entrance shack is closed for the season, but the steel gate is open because the park itself is open, as is the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. Coming down-mountain later that afternoon, Stacey notices the rig, laid down 6.3 miles upriver from the 101; she's curious enough that she snaps a quick photo of the abandoned contraption, a flash of red-and-yellow aluminum and nylon against the lush universe of rainforest greens. It isn't a good place to camp or stash a bike for long, highly visible there under a Sitka spruce tree, not ten yards from the road, twenty yards from the river.
On the afternoon of April 6, an Olympic National Park worker radios his dispatch. "Dispatch, 7-4-1 Ron on North Plain. I've got a bicycle that has went off the Sol Duc Road about, ah, mile marker 7, and I can't find anyone around it. You might want to send a ranger up here so we can see what's going on."
ONP Dispatch: "Copy, thanks for the info, 16:30."
Dispatch connects him to Ranger John Bowie.
Ranger: "Ron, I'll head that way. Is that bicycle down the bank a ways, or is it easy to get to?"
"It's easy to get to. It's got a little carrier on the back of it too. It looks like it crashed off the road."
"Okay, so it didn't look like maybe somebody hid it there to go off for a hike?"
"It doesn't look like anybody's hit it, he just went off the road. I'm gonna stay here until you get up this way."
Standing next to the bike, which is just off the tarmac, Ranger Bowie can hear the roiling Sol Duc River even though he can't see it. There is a recurve bow and some target arrows poking out of the trailer. He sees four arrows stuck in the ground between the road and the bike and trailer; the arrows seem stuck there deliberately, in a row. A little strange, but he's seen it all, probably meaningless. Bowie does a quick look-around and doesn't find the cyclist. At six p.m. he calls Ranger Brian Wray and asks him to check it out in the morning.
On Friday, April 7, just before nine a.m., Ranger Wray arrives at the bike. No cyclist. No anyone. The four arrows are still there, stuck in the ground. No sounds but the rush of the Sol Duc River and spring birds—you could lie in the middle of the road and it's more likely you'd die of cold exposure before getting run over by a car.
Rangers perform what's called a "hasty search." Some search-and-rescue personnel hate the term hasty search, preferring to call it the Reflex Phase of a search. "Hasty" implies half-assed, a lazy afterthought. At any rate, rangers don't find anything other than the bike, trailer, and gear; they don't know anything more than anyone else about where the cyclist could be. This is becoming a head-scratcher even to trained rangers.
Searchers use the acronym POS and sometimes joke that it stands for "piece of shit." It stands for probability of success, finding the missing. At this point the POS still remains high—the bike's owner will come walking out of the bush and greet them with a hello.
But what nags at the rangers is the positioning of the bike, trailer, and gear. Nothing is locked up or secured. There seems to have been no attempt to hide anything from the infrequent motorists. Rangers don't think there's much they can do other than kick through the ferns for evidence of any sort, and walk the riverbanks, looking for something washed up on the bank or snagged on one of several logjams. Still, is anyone even missing, just because they aren't, at the moment, logically, where they should be?
Searchers speak of "scenario"—why and how did the target come to be missing? It appears that Jacob—or someone—has been organizing gear. A tarp is partially spread out. But no logic points them in any one direction.
The four arrows are puzzling to the rangers. A bow and practice arrows are quite the tools to pack on a bicycle outfitted for a multi-day tour. They ponder the significance of the number, four—the four arrows stuck in the ground in a line, when the remainder stay in the quiver, next to his recurve bow and fishing rod, are a head-scratcher.
Wray photographs the scene. It's time to more closely inspect the cyclist's belongings. Wray secures the bow and arrows in his duty SUV. At approximately 9:20 a.m. he calls the district ranger, Michael Siler, to get one of his bosses up to speed. The ranger looks through the other gear in the trailer. It's surprising he doesn't find a kitchen sink.
Wray finds some iodine tablets—good for emergency water purification—but figures this cyclist would have a water filter and bottles, which are not there. Logic points him toward the river, twenty yards or so away. It makes sense that the cyclist bushwhacked to the river for water. He—it's assumed the cyclist is a he—slips on a rock and ends up in the cold, swift current. He can't swim, or he hit his head and is unconscious, drowns. Or the current is such he can't get out and succumbs to hypothermia in the thirty-something-degree water.
Or, he hitched a ride up to the lodge where he could soak his damp bones for an hour before catching a ride back to his bike.
Mountain lions live in the park, but an attack on a human would leave messy evidence. Same with a black bear, though a bear attack on a human is extremely rare here. More probable is an abduction, but that doesn't make the top of any lists.
Park rangers see the full spectrum of human behavior—it's possible the rider decided bike touring is not for him or met someone interesting and caught a lift to Seattle.
Though it's more probable than human abduction, it's less likely that the owner abandoned the bike to go on a trail hike—there isn't a trailhead in the immediate vicinity, he didn't secure his gear, and a hiker won't get very far before hitting snow.
The bike, trailer, and gear along the Sol Duc Road is now what searchers call the "LKP"—Last Known Position. Rangers do not find a phone among the gear, but do find a paper list of phone numbers—they're on to whose stuff this is. And they know where he was; now where the hell is Jacob Randall Gray?
I got home from climbing, it's just a normal day, get unpacked, feed the dog or whatever, then I start wondering, Where is she? Make some calls, drive around a little bit. It gets to be like eight p.m., nine p.m., ten p.m., that incredible anxiety builds up. You're just worried. I hope she didn't break her ankle, I hope she didn't run out of gas, those normal things where you're like, this sucks. But you're not going, "I hope my wife wasn't grabbed by some psychopathic serial killer."
Erwin Schrödinger was an Austrian physicist who in 1935, in response to a quantum mechanics problem, stated simply that if you stick a cat in a sealed box—along with something that can kill the cat (in his case, a radioactive atom)—you won't know if the cat is alive or dead until you open the box. Before you open the box and look inside, the cat is both alive and dead. Until a person is found you don't know if they're dead, their remains entombed forever under a rockslide or hidden in a crevasse, scattered by wolves or, more likely, birds. What then, when you open Schrödinger's box, and there's no cat inside at all—what if it's empty?
Furthermore, you don't know for sure if a person is missing at all. While it's not likely, there's an outside chance they're alive and perhaps living in South America under a new identity (this happened recently, which I'll get to). A missing person is Schrödinger's cat.
I first stepped through the missing persons portal in July of 1997. Olympic marathon hopeful Amy Wroe Bechtel disappeared at age twenty-four while running on the Shoshone National Forest in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, 150 miles from where my soon-to-be-wife, Hilary, and I lived at the time. Her car was found up-country near midnight, along with her keys and wallet, but the woman had vanished without a clue. Law enforcement, family, and residents spent nearly two decades suspecting her husband had gotten rid of her, and some still do. I don't.
In 2017 I wrote a feature story for Outside magazine called "Leave No Trace" in which I was challenged by my editor to come up with a number representing just how many people are still missing out there, in the wild (magazine editors love figures). Neither the United States nor Canadian governments are keeping track. The Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service, doesn't seem to know. Same with the Department of Agriculture and its U.S. Forest Service. And this isn't getting anywhere close to the Bureau of Indian Affairs—Indian reservations have an epidemic of people, especially women, gone missing. All to say, coming up with figures for people vanished in the wild is harder and far less exacting than Chinese algebra. And uncertainty, of course, leads to speculation and conspiracy theories and, in this case, cryptozoology.
Virginia Woolf wrote in The Waves, "On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points." I felt like an empty-ambulance chaser with four-wheel drive. But I was getting paid to try.
My intrigue only grew. I tend toward insomnia and the analog, and each night in bed I listen with earbuds to Coast to Coast AM on a tiny radio. The program, which explores all sorts of mysteries of the paranormal, airs from one to five a.m. in my time zone. It's syndicated on more than six hundred stations and boasts nearly three million listeners each week. Most of the time, the white noise talk of space aliens and ghosts lulls me to sleep, but not when my favorite guest, David Paulides, is at the mic.
Paulides, an ex-cop from San Jose, California, is the founder of the North America Bigfoot Search (NABS), established in 2004. His obsession shifted from Sasquatch to missing persons when, he says, he was visited at his motel near an unnamed national park by two out-of-uniform rangers who claimed that something strange was going on with the number of people missing in America's national parks.
He wouldn't tell me the place or even the year "for fear the Park Service will try to put the pieces together and ID them." I wonder how actual those park rangers might be—it's curious that park employees would say, let's go tell the bigfoot guy we have a missing persons problem, but it makes good lore.
In 2011, Paulides launched the CanAm Missing Project, which catalogs cases of people who disappear—or are found—on wildlands across North America under what he calls mysterious circumstances. He has self-published six volumes in his popular Missing 411 series, most recently Missing 411 Hunters: Unexplained Disappearances. Missing 411: The Movie, a documentary codirected by his son, Ben, and featuring Survivorman Les Stroud, was released to mixed reviews in 2016. Missing 411: The Hunted, about hunters gone missing, came out in 2019.
Paulides makes his living off both Bigfoot and missing persons—selling self-published books that read like seed catalogs for the missing, making documentary movies with the tone and editing tricks of horror flicks, and speaking at events like Colorado's Mile High Mystery Conference—but he does his homework. Paulides's Missing 411 series of books aggregates hundreds of wildland missing persons cases in the U.S. and Canada. Paulides is coyly careful not to present theories as to what is behind all the disappearances, but the books fact-check out, even if he traffics in confirmation bias and foments tinfoil hat theories about space aliens, string theory portals, and cryptoids. He didn't come out and offer a number, so we played a sort of editorial numbers game. Paulides, who claims to have researched more than a thousand cases, agreed with me that 1,600 missing in the wild is not a stretch.
That number has been quoted many times since my article came out in 2017. It's a number that drives fact checkers and mathematicians nuts, a rounded guesstimation. It sounds wiser, more profound than it really is; in actuality, like most things involving missing persons, it's ham-handed at best and maybe even a little irresponsible in its inability to accurately quantify such an important phenomenon. But it would be impossible to come up with an exact number. In most states—Washington is one—after seven years a missing person is considered deceased, dead in absentia, so they're no longer missing. Before seven years, someone who wants you declared dead needs evidence you're not alive. After seven years they need evidence you're not dead.
I've had a couple years to live with the figure, and today I'll argue that 1,600 is wildly conservative. I'm surprised Paulides hadn't coined a number much larger long ago; he'd have gotten away with it. Consider Oregon's national parks and national forests alone. Just since 1997, 190 men and 51 women have vanished. Then there's all the non-public wildlands in Oregon. There's Portland, a city with a bad homeless urban-wildland interface camping problem. More Oregonians go missing every week, and by the time you read this, the math—cloudy to begin with—will be off.
- "[A] compassionate and riveting non-fiction dive into wilderness disappearances."—MacLean's
- "The Cold Vanish is part mystery, part glance into a world of heroes and charlatans, death, and loss that most of us, fortunately, do not know, and don't want to know, but perhaps should. The Cold Vanish is informative, and in a sad way, captivating and well worth a read."—National Parks Traveler
- "Colorful side characters, like psychics and Bigfoot hunters, provide some light moments, but what makes a lasting impression is the story of Randy and his ultimately dashed hopes of finding his son alive. The author's personal involvement makes this tale all the more affecting."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "A compassionate, sympathetic, and haunting book sure to make you think twice before stepping out into the wilderness alone."—Kirkus (starred review)
- "Required reading for anyone concerned about the missing, Billman's authentic and encyclopedic book leads us across the landscapes of the vanished with a journalist's acumen and a searcher's sympathy. It's both true and useful, a storytelling textbook I wish I'd read before my own son went missing."—Roman Dial, author of The Adventurer's Son
- "Most of us prefer to measure and celebrate nature in terms of its tendency to delight, to inspire, to instill awe. But there is another metric by which the power of wilderness can be calibrated, which lies in its capacity to take us between its teeth, tear us asunder, and swallow up whatever is left with such ruthless efficiency that no trace remains. Thanks to Jon Billman's talent for wielding words with the chilling precision of a scalpel, The Cold Vanish lays open nature's capacity to evoke terror in a way that will give you pause the next time you think about venturing into the backcountry. Haunting, spooky, and propulsive." —Kevin Fedarko, author of The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon
- "It's a rare book that makes the hair stand up on your neck and pierces your heart all at once. With The Cold Vanish, Jon Billman has created a breath-taking genre all his own: the search-and-rescue of wandering souls. I was captivated from start to finish."—Alyson Hagy, author of Scribe and Boleto
- "A harrowing collection of real-life wilderness ghost stories, proving that - even in this era of GPS and Instagram - it is still quite possible to get lost out there."—Bill Gifford, New York Times bestselling author of Spring Chicken
- "A shocking, gut-wrenching, thriller-paced investigation into America's "silent mass disaster" of people who have disappeared through the invisible membrane at the edge of even the shortest hike. . . The Cold Vanish belongs in the front rank of outdoor narrative nonfiction, with Krakauer, Matthiessen, Chatwin. And throw in Stephen King, there is horror here. Written with understated compassion, The Cold Vanish will take you deeper than you ever hope to go into the wild, and it will break your heart."—Peter Nichols, bestselling author of A Voyage for Madmen, The Rocks
- "Through deep research and personal investigation, Jon Billman has crafted the definitive account of the baffling stories of people who go missing in the wilderness. The Cold Vanish is provocative, disturbing, compulsively readable-and a brilliant achievement."—David Roberts, author of The Mountain of My Fear and Deborah
- On Sale
- Jul 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing