‘The Cold Vanish’
Obsession with missing person cases prompts new book for NMU professor
MARQUETTE — Sometimes when a person goes missing in the wild, they’re found alive eventually within a couple of days. Sometimes, though, people vanish without a trace into the forests, mountains, woods and badlands. With hardly any evidence to go off of, law enforcement can only do so much before other cases consume their desks. But there are those who continue the search. Family. Friends. And curious investigative journalists.
Author Jon Billman, who has an obsession with missing person cases, depicts a story about 22-year-old Jacob Gray who disappeared in Washington State’s Olympic National Park in April 2017 in his upcoming book “The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands” that will be released July 7.
For the Northern Michigan University fiction and journalism professor and a regular contributor to Outside magazine, this book is something people are curious about, Billman said. While working for Outside on his article “How 1,600 People Went Missing from Our Public Lands Without a Trace,” Billman stumbled upon the news of Gray when he first disappeared. Gray’s story was worth more than just a magazine article, though, it warranted a full book, he noted.
“I think through researching that piece I became really obsessed with how people go missing, why they go missing, where they go missing and then the what happens once they go missing and the fallout with not only family, but friends, law enforcement, search and rescue people (and) criminal investigation. It’s a huge, huge, huge underworld and that’s the story that sent me down the trail of missing persons,” Billman said. “Once I started kicking around in that, I discovered that it’s a bottomless cup of coffee. There’s no end to cases of people gone missing. You can spend lifetimes and never catch up with all the people that go missing in wild places in North America.”
Gray, who was a touring cyclist and was preparing to go on a cross country tour, took off in the middle of the night during a rainstorm and vanished into Washington State’s Olympic National Park. Billman spent a year and a half with Gray’s father Randy grooming the wild landscape of northwest Washington and British Columbia’s Vancouver Island hoping to find Gray. In his book, Billman contemplates all possibilities to explain Gray’s disappearance from drownings, accidents to human trafficking rings, local cults and Gray’s mental health state. Billman said that Gray also was a “keen student to the Bible,” according to his family, and there is evidence showcased in other missing persons stories of Jerusalem Syndrome — a psychotic state in which people go on pilgrimages and become obsessed with biblical issues.
“Jacob was such an adventurous soul, the possibilities were huge,” he said. “What could he be doing? If he just wanted to get away from society and just go on what Randy called, ‘a walkabout,’ and tried to get his head screwed on straight and that’s what the hope was. That he was still alive and eluding family communication.”
Writing this book was intriguing for Billman’s obsession for missing persons, he said, but talking with families who have lost their loved ones was emotionally difficult, because as a journalist, he didn’t want to appear as “an ambulance chaser.” But the most remarkable thing that struck Billman during his research and interviews is the families’ level of hope.
“It makes me optimistic. I see people close to someone missing engage in (an)other gear or several gears. I see them tap into a different power and I think that’s just hopeful that maybe most of us have that in reserve somewhere. Just the emotional strength that these families have it’s pretty inspiring,” Billman said.
The book is investigative journalism and creative nonfiction. Though nonfiction is more difficult to tackle because there’s always the 2 a.m. panic of misrepresenting sources, journalism is vital and important and Billman said he enjoys speaking with real people.
Several other missing person cases are spotted in the book from across the United States, the Upper Peninsula, Nova Scotia, to Australia. The idea of “closure” is what Billman hopes to help discover with these stories. So many questions are left unanswered when a person disappears and that is the toughest concept a human being can bear, he said. The disappearances are not slow and predicted, they are sudden, he said, adding, titling the book with “The Cold Vanish” fit the motif of those missing person cases.
“It’s an old magician’s term, vanish. (It’s like) if you’re going to vanish an elephant or you’re going to vanish a train car, right? I just thought, ‘Wow. That’s what these cases in the wild are like,'” Billman noted, explaining, “It’s as mysterious to an audience making an elephant disappear as mysterious to an audience as some of these cases are to trained, experienced search and rescue people who seen it all. They just defy explanation and many of them turn into cold cases. Jacob just vanished cold.”
The book also showcases stories of characters who spend their lives trying to find the missing including Michael Neiger — North America’s leading backcountry Search & Rescue experienced expert — and top researcher of missing persons on public wild lands ex-San Jose, California detective David Paulides, also a Bigfoot researcher.
The book will be available at Snowbound Books in Marquette July 7 and available online, both physical copy and audible book.
With an “obsession with other people’s tragedy,” Billman said he’s never gone missing himself but ponders over the idea.
“When I’ve been in the mountains, especially when I lived in Wyoming, I would still at times daydream about what would I do, what would it be like (if I got lost)? And then (other) times where you’re lost and you try to remain rationally un-lost, your mind wanders and you think, ‘Well, what if?'” he said.