Sunday, August 10, 2008

Book Review - The Last Season by Eric Blehm

Eric Blehm’s The Last Season examines the life and death of Randy Morgenson, a backcountry ranger in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon mountain range who mysteriously disappeared in 1996. Despite a massive search effort in the days after Morgenson’s disappearance, no trace of the ranger was found until 2001. Even despite this grisly discovery, the circumstances that led to the ranger’s death will likely never be known.

Central to Blehm’s study is the fascinating, and sometimes contradictory, figure of Morgenson himself. Blehm shows how Morgenson, depending on one’s point of view, could be considered either a dedicated naturalist – the author gives numerous examples of the ranger’s genuine and sincere love of and respect for nature - or an environmental zealot (Morgenson refused his mow his lawn because he viewed the grass as a “meadow” that should be left undisturbed). Although Morgenson could sometimes take a condescending tone in his journals toward how people would, by his standards, disrespect nature, by all accounts he conducted himself with complete professionalism in his encounters with hikers, including several incidents where he risked his life to assist lost or missing visitors.

What Blehm makes clear is that by the time of his disappearance, Morgenson found himself at a crossroads. An affair with a female ranger had left his marriage heading toward a divorce, and he had apparently become increasingly fatalistic about his life. Without inserting his own opinion into what happened to Morgenson, Blehm explores the various theories as to what exactly happened to the ranger, including how these personal issues may have contributed to his death.

The majority of Morgenson’s colleagues, perhaps understandably, maintain that the death was purely accidental; indeed, the official ruling shares this assessment as well. Yet Blehm does show there is enough circumstantial evidence to support the argument that Morgenson took his own life. Some of Morgenson’s comments are chilling in retrospect (“the least I owe these mountains is a body”), and various rangers reported that their colleague seemed “out of sorts” and “in a funk” prior to his disappearance. The possibility of foul play is also briefly mentioned, but is quickly dismissed as a valid explanation. Ultimately it’s up to the reader to weigh the evidence and form an opinion as to what actually transpired.

The Last Season also touches on other interesting topics that separate it from the glut of also-rans in the adventure/nature genre. Certainly at its core this is a story about Morgenson and how he essentially dedicated his life to protecting his portion of the High Sierra. Yet it’s also about the lengths Morgenson’s colleagues went to in the days following his disappearance, and how they came to terms with this death. It’s about friendship and the lengths people will go to in honoring and remembering a loved one. It celebrates humanity’s place in nature, but also shows nature’s indifference to people. Well written and carefully researched, The Last Season is part biography, part detective story, and part cautionary tale. As a study of Morgenson, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the ranger’s life, death, and legacy.

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