A strong 5 stars. Eric Blehm’s The Last Season is a biography of seasonal ranger Randy Morgenson, a veteran of nearly three decades in the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. A committed naturalist and environmentalist, he was drawn to the solitude of high peaks. He was also a talented photographer and budding but frustrated writer. One morning he didn’t answer his regular radio check-in, leading to a huge search and rescue (SAR) effort and unanswered questions for his coworkers, friends, and long-suffering wife Judi.
The author skilfully interweaves biographical segments, natural history, and accounts of the SAR. The pacing is just right–the SAR sections are edge-of-my-seat suspenseful, and the rest is alternately enlightening, educational, and pastoral. Blehm’s extensive research gives him authority, whether he’s recounting Morgenson’s history, discussing SAR techniques, or describing the geography of the park.
Blehm lets Morgenson speak frequently, quoting short and long passages from his logbooks and personal diaries. Morgenson’s love of nature comes through very strongly; he clearly felt a distinct call to the Sierra Nevadas above all else, to the detriment of his marriage. He was a strong and distinct person, sometimes a curmudgeon, sometimes a son-of-a-bitch, and sometimes an inspired prophet, but always interesting.
As a hiker, backpacker, and outdoorsman, The Last Season was a very meaningful read for me. It is written by an author who loves the wilderness about a man who loves the wilderness. Blehm’s writing invites a feeling of kinship with both the author and the rangers of the parks. While the book does not gush with prose about the beauty of the locales, I know the emotions and feelings that these remarkable places inspire, and he evokes those emotions regularly. Morgenson’s borderline obsession for environmental preservation will stay with me, over and above “Leave No Trace” ethics that I already practice–it’s going to be damn hard to pass a piece of litter in the woods without thinking of his career-long haul of 21,000 pounds of litter removed from the backcountry, much less choose a campsite without considering the impact of my tenting location!
I will also take from this book a stronger sense of enjoyment in the wilderness. It’s safe to say that one of Morgenson’s legacies is that the outdoors are full of things to be enjoyed, from the minute to the colossal in scale, wanting only patience and attention to be revealed–a very valuable lesson in a culture with a terminal obsession for the fastest. I will think of this book on many trails to come, I’m sure.