Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent (2010)

Big Bend is one of the most beautiful and rugged places I've ever been, and I'd love to go back -- even after reading the harrowing and fascinating book Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent (2010), lent to me by the lovely and awesome Joolie.

Parent emphasizes that the vast majority of park visitors have a great time and a smooth visit and are certainly never injured or killed. And yet, there are apparently a lot of ways to die in Big Bend. Some of them include: struck by lightning, being unprepared (like hiking for 15 miles in 100+ degree heat with no liquid except a Pepsi and some vodka), getting shot by unknown robbers, drowning in rapids, rope too short -- die hanging from a cliff, heat exhaustion makes you loopy and you lose the trail and wander into the desert, several flavors of suicide, pay someone to murder you, and freak snowstorm. I must admit I was a little surprised not to have any mountain lion / bear attacks in there, but apparently those are pretty rare.

Parent tells each story with a mixture of a ranger's "just the facts" narrative and a journalist's empathetic eye. By combining incident reports and investigations with after-the-fact interviews with survivors and their families, Parent almost always strikes just the right balance in bringing us these stories of mistakes, accidents, malice, and bad luck. Having personally experienced a death march through the desert in October brought me particularly close to the stories of the poor folks who died wandering in that hot and treeless expanse. [I might look fine in this picture, but I swear I felt like I was going to pass out and that I wasn't thinking very clearly.]

The book is peppered with a few stories of survival, and all the incidents give the reader a sense of the impressive skills and dedication of the park rangers and volunteers. Even when there is no chance that an individual has survived, the amount of work they put into finding the body, documenting what happened, and learning how to improve the safety of park guests is really amazing. Reading this book didn't make me any less eager to go back to Big Bend, but it did give me a sense of the risks and responsibilities any hiker or camper has when they take themselves out into the wilderness.

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