“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”
– Randy Morgenson, Charlotte Lake, 1966.
Have you ever had a moment where you read something and it feels like you wrote it? The Last Season by Eric Blehm was exactly that for me. Growing up in a valley at the base of the Sierras I was easily able to transport myself into this narrative. The wilderness has always felt like home to me. Disconnecting from technology, being alone with your thoughts, and breathing in the fresh mountain air. These are probably the reasons I was drawn towards a career in archaeology. I was never meant to stay in one place for too long. This I know and have learned about myself over the years.
The Last Season tells the true story of the life and disappearance of Randy Morgenson who, over the course of twenty-eight summers spent in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, became arguably the most celebrated ranger in the National Park Service’s most adventurous unit. For the solitary, introspective Morgenson, the job was a calling, and he became fiercely devoted to protecting the wilderness he loved from visitors—and those visitors from the wilderness. But the intense isolation and a series of personal setbacks took their toll, and when Morgenson vanished without a trace in 1996, many suspected suicide or foul play.
The Last Season is an intriguing adventure narrative, complex psychological portrait, and compelling mystery. Was Morgenson murdered by one of the two disgruntled park visitors he had felt threatened by just the summer before his disappearance? Did the guilt he suffered after being unfaithful to his wife and his growing despair with the state of the Park Service drive him to take his own life? Had he simply met with some unfortunate accident and been unable to call for help because of the parks’ substandard radio system—a problem he had complained about numerous times in the past and documented in his yearly reports? Or could Morgenson’s isolation and increasing despondency have prompted him to walk out of the wilderness and begin a new life? He had, after all, hinted about doing just that.
Eric Blehm spent eight years piecing together the portrait of Morgenson from journals, letters, photos, and interviews with his wife, friends, and colleagues. He hiked the same trails Morgenson hiked, scoured park archives and peak registers, and read the same books Morgenson had read in the months leading up to his disappearance. (The last book Morgenson had been reading held the chilling line “… I shall go on some last wilderness trip, to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return.”)
I’ve always been a fan of a good mystery novel. Combine mystery with a true story and I’m pretty much hooked. Eric Blehm perfectly captured Randy’s persona through accounts of his writings and interactions with friends and colleagues. While reading the book, I truly felt like I knew Randy as a person. I could easily place myself in his shoes as a Park Ranger and I appreciated how the real Randy was portrayed, flaws and all. It is clear that Eric Blehm put a lot of time and research into recounting this incredible story.
I enjoyed the sense of the “hunt” and suspense as the rangers broke up into groups searching for Randy. The author does a great job at tugging at the heartstrings of the reader by intertwining the personal relationships between Randy and the individual rangers. This search was very personal for the rangers as it was one of their own who was potentially lost out there.
One of my favorite aspects of the book was the length and detail that was put into describing the Sierras. From the author’s creative perspective to excerpts taken from Randy’s journals and report logs the wilderness, I was instantly transported into the Sierras and could visualize the exact setting.
The only part of the book that was a little hard for me to get through was once I hit Chapter Nine. The story took a sidestep away from Randy’s disappearance to cover background information about the National Park Service and the start of Randy’s affair. I think this information is an important piece to the book, but I found myself having a hard time getting through it because I wanted to keep reading about the search for Randy. I really wanted to know what happened to him and it was hard for me to focus on a different subject matter.
If you’re an outdoor enthusiast like I am and you enjoy a good mystery, The Last Season by Eric Blehm is a great read!
“It is easy in this pompous age to scan the big things of the world and forget to see the small miracles of life around us; the morning light, the flowers, those intimate details of the world that combine to make it beautiful”
– Ansel Adams tribute to Clark Morgenson
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