The Gone Ranger

'There were three bizarre theories for his disappearance, beyond the possibility that he had met with a tragic accident: That he committed suicide, that he had taken off and started a new life, and that he sensed his own death was coming," says author Eric Blehm. The disappearance to which Blehm refers is that of backcountry ranger James Randall Morgenson, the real-life character in Blehm's new book The Last Season. Morgenson disappeared in 1996 after 28 years of working as a ranger for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in the High Sierras. On Monday, April 10, Blehm will discuss and sign his book at The Book Works in Del Mar. There are backcountry ranger stations approximately every 20 miles along the John Muir trail that runs south to north in Sequoia and Kings National Parks. Blehm explains that the men and women who have served as rangers for as long as Morgenson "became like an elite special forces group. They were the most trained in everything. They were flown in or packed by mule to where they would stay for up to four and a half months." Morgenson, who was 54 years old when he left his ranger station for the last time, grew up in Yosemite. "His father was a renowned naturalist who worked for Yosemite Park & Curry Company [a concessioner]." The only trace Morgenson left was a note he had fastened to the canvas flap of his tent at the remote Bench Lake Ranger Station on July 21, 1996, which read, "Ranger on patrol for 3--4 days. There is no radio inside the tent -- I carry it with me. Please don't disturb my camp. This is all I have for the summer. I don't get resupplied [sic]. Thanks!"

"I used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain logbooks and was given access to his personal diaries by his wife," says Blehm. "I use a lot of his writing interwoven throughout the book. Fellow rangers came to call his journal entries 'Randy's Gospel.' They still have many quotes from it posted at ranger stations throughout the park, including Bearpaw Meadow Ranger Station in Sequoia." One quote, posted over the toilet paper roll in the restroom, reads: "Sitting on a rock for the noon radio check, halfway down the South Fork, I feel no questions, no troubles, just a great oneness with all welling up inside me. This moment is all that is, all that ever will be. Memories can never equal the experience, and at best we can only attempt to visualize the future. The best we can do is absorb the most possible from Great Moments Like These."

Morgenson learned about expedition planning, high-altitude climbing, and guiding from the Sherpa in the Himalayas during the late 1960s as a volunteer for the Peace Corps. On separate occasions he visited the Everest region and Annapurna with a fellow volunteer. "He got into Zen Buddhism and Hinduism," says Blehm. "[In his journal] he called some people 'trail pounders,' or those who don't have enough time to see what's going on around them."

Among the clues that led the National Park Service's search and rescue team in different directions were the books Morgenson had been reading at the time of his disappearance. In one of these books, Everett Ruess, a Vagabond for Beauty by W.L. Rusho, Blehm says, is a very "telling" quote: "I shall go on some last wilderness trip to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return." Morgenson had given another book, Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon, to a friend one week before he vanished. This book is about "a guy who was having marital problems and took off on a road trip across the country," says Blehm.

Through his research, Blehm discovered that Morgenson's wife of 21 years had served him with divorce papers in May and that her primary reason was an affair Morgenson had had with a fellow ranger. They had no children. By the time he received the papers, the affair had long been over. "Basically," says Blehm, "he had no wife, no girlfriend, and his life as a ranger would be coming to a close in future years [because he was getting old]."

In The Last Season, Blehm relays the words Morgenson had written on a loose piece of paper at McClure Meadow in the northern part of Kings Canyon National Park in 1990: "I live in a valley at 9700 feet in the High Sierra. I won't tell you where it is, for what I have to say about it may entice some of you to come, and there are enough already. Fortunately many of you prefer your screaming, blackened sulfur dioxide cities. Splendid! Let not I be the one to draw you out. The more of you who remain, the more lonely will be my mountains, which is just the way I prefer them. Nor would I tell those of you who are seeking this country where I live. Find it yourselves, and it will be all the sweeter." -- Barbarella

The Last Season, Discussion and Booksigning with author Eric Blehm Monday, April 10 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The Book Works 2670 Via de la Valle, Suite A230 Del Mar Cost: Free Info: 858-755-3735 or www.book-works.com

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