The Last Season
Books are damn hard to write.
And let me be clear. I don't rank guidebooks, such as the ones I've written, with novels, be they fiction or non-fiction. Guidebooks are little more than encyclopedic accounts of a place. I would venture that most anyone, paired with a good editor, could get the job done.
At the same time, there's just so much sweat and imagination and painstaking work and reflection that goes into a novel, fiction or non-fiction. That's why I'm so impressed with Eric Blehm's The Last Season, an account of the disappearance of Randy Morgenson, a backcountry ranger who spent 28 seasons in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks before vanishing into a void.
It's a mystery that perhaps will appeal largely only to parkies, but it's one masterfully told.
Regardless of your opinion of Ranger Morgenson by the time you finish cruising through Mr. Blehm's 327 pages, you have to be impressed with the task the author shouldered. What's amazing, at least to another writer, is that Mr. Blehm spent eight years researching this book. Eight years!
Ranger Morgenson obviously got under his skin, so much so that he couldn't shake the trials the ranger encountered both in the backcountry, with the National Park Service, and in his personal life. I would hazard a guess that writing the book became a cathartic experience for Mr. Blehm, one he no doubt was happy to see come to fruition when it was published earlier this year.
In piecing together Ranger Morgenson's life, Mr. Blehm takes us back to the ranger's boyhood in Yosemite National Park, where his father became something of a celebrity as a self-taught naturalist. And then he takes us forward, through the young man's infatuation with the backcountry, his scholastic endeavors that he eventually tossed aside to spend as much time as possible in the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, and his love of a woman.
In taking us on this journey, Mr. Blehm relies on numerous interviews with Ranger Morgenson's fellow rangers and becomes almost an intruder as he peruses the ranger's backcountry journals. Through it all he creates an image of a man who seemingly seeks to channel both Ansel Adams and Wallace Stegner, two environmental giants of the 20th century that Ranger Morgenson knew on a personal level.
It's both an intriguing and mystifying image, one that led me near the book's end to wonder whether the ranger wasn't a misplaced 19th-century romantic who no longer could bear the 20th century's company. Mr. Blehm helps create that impression by salting Randy Morgenson's writing throughout the text, such as the following that opens Chapter 3: "Only this simple everyday living and wilderness wandering seems natural and real, the other world, more like something read, not at all related to reality as I know it," the ranger wrote in his journal at his backcountry station at Charlotte Lake, Kings Canyon National Park, in 1966.
Prefacing the first chapter, Mr. Blehm drops this bombshell from Ranger Morgenson: "The least I owe these mountains is a body."
In telling this story, Mr. Blehm at times pulls back the drapes of a window, at least partially, into the culture of the National Park Service when he describes the birth and evolution of backcountry rangers.
"The administrators in the Park Service often refer to them as 'the backbone of the NPS.' Still, they were hired and fired every season with zero job security. Their families had no medical benefits. No pension plans, And there was no room to complain because each one of them knew what they got into when they took the job. They paid for their own law enforcement training and emergency medical technician schooling. They were seasonal help. Temporary. In the 1930s, they were called 'ninety-day wonders' who worked the crowded summer seasons."
Too, the author sheds ample light on how Ranger Morgenson viewed humankind's intrusion upon the earth.
"We are the greatest bulldozers to walk erect," the ranger wrote into the summit journal on Sept. 8, 1971, when he reached the top of Mount Solomon, a 13,034-foot-high peak. "Will we ever permit, in a small place as here, Mother Nature -- truly our Mother -- to do her thing, undisturbed and unmarred. Will we ever be content to play a passively observant role in the universe, and leave off this unceasing activity? I don't wish man in control of the universe. I wish nature in control, and man playing only his just role as one of its inhabitants.
"I want every blade of grass standing naturally, as it was when pushed through the soil with spring vigor. I want the stones and gravel left in the autumn as spring meltwater left them. Only these natural places, apart from my tracks, give me joy, exhilaration, understanding. What humanity I have has come from my relations with these mountains."
The Last Season takes us into the mountains, both through one man's eyes and our's as interlopers curious as to what happened on July 21, 1996, when Ranger Morgenson headed out on what was to be a patrol of three or four days and failed to return.
But if we listen carefully as Mr. Blehm unfolds this story, we can learn much not only about Ranger Morgenson, but also about how much we care, or should care, for the marvelous landscape of not just Kings Canyon National park, but all national parks, and for the rangers who patrol them.
"This is a first-rate detective story, but it is an even better love story – an account of the love for wild places that animates some of us, leads us ever deeper in and higher up." —Bill McKibben, author The End of Nature and Wandering Home
"Like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, The Last Season is filled with suspenseful storytelling that synthesizes years of exceptional research. Beyond documenting an intriguing search-and-rescue incident, this is the legendary tale of Randy Morgenson, an unsung witness of wilderness devotion, a true conscience and disciple of the backcountry, whose last wish may well have been to pay off a debt to the mountains and meadows he protected." —Aron Ralston, author Between A Rock and a Hard Place
"The story of a wild man of profound vision and sustaining conscience. Blehm has superbly captured that soul and given it voice; it is one we all should listen to carefully." —Page Stegner, Author Outpost of Eden: A Curmudgeon at Large in the American West
"At the heart of The Last Season is an inquiry you needn’t have left pavement and hot showers to appreciate. It delves into the character of a man, the story of a marriage, the compromises that make our lives work, and the outcomes of one man’s refusal to make them. I couldn’t put it down." —Jordan Fisher Smith author Nature Noir: A Park Ranger’s Patrol in the Sierra
"An intriguing, bittersweet wilderness detective story." —Greg Child, author Over the Edge: The True Story of Four American Climbers' Kidnap and Escape in the Mountains of Central Asia
"This is a hell of a story, a tale of lost souls and human frailty and very real sadness, but it’s also a one-of-a-kind look into a truly rarefied American subculture, the specialized world of elite backcountry rangers – their ethics, their techniques, even the motivations that keep them deep in the woods, as the years turn into decades and life flows on by. I have a feeling Eric Blehm’s The Last Season is going to be around for a long time, earning a place in every home library devoted to the California wilderness experience." —Daniel Duane, author Caught Inside and Looking For Mo
"Impeccably researched and compassionately told, The Last Season is a compelling story of one man’s passion and pain." —Jennifer Jordan, author Savage Summit
A beautifully crafted work that would be a compelling read simply on the basis of a remarkable true story. However, Blehm goes far beyond merely recounting dramatic events and through meticulous research and sensitivity succeeds in getting into the hearts, minds and very souls of his characters. Interest in the out-of-doors isn't required to enjoy THE LAST SEASON, but this book also provides an insightful look into the lives of backcountry rangers˜a dedicated and largely unknown group of defenders and lovers of the American wilderness. —Jim Burnett, author, Hey Ranger! True Tales of Humor and Misadventure from America's National Parks
"The Last Season is an exciting yet tragic saga that follows the mysterious disappearance of wilderness ranger Randy Morgenson. This true story is a "must read" for any serious Sierraphile." —Gene Rose, Sierra author, historian and lecturer
"Eric Blehm’s The Last Season is a terrific mystery and a heartbreaking story of one man’s love of wilderness. It will keep you reading into the night, and remain with you long after you have finished." —Nora Gallagher, author Practicing Resurrection
"Very artfully written, The Last Season allows the reader a highly-intimate – almost voyeuristic – insight into the life and mysterious disappearance of this enigmatic and, some would say, larger-than-life backcountry park ranger. I highly recommend it." —Butch Farabee, author Death, Daring, and Disaster – Search and Rescue in the National Parks
"A mesmerizing tale of one man’s struggle for fidelity – to the woman with whom he enjoined his life, and to the wild world of which he was steward. How many of us have felt in our bones that pull between worlds and the passions they inspire; Blehm sinks our teeth right into the marrow of that conflict." —Amy Irvine McHarg, wilderness activist and author