Say I drop you off on the top of a mountain and fly away in my helicopter. You’ve got your clothes and maybe some water, an energy bar or two. It’s summer, the scenario goes, in Colorado. The day is warm but it’s a two-day hike to the next closest town and that hike goes over several high mountain passes. You’re staring at one night alone. How are you going to eat, what are you going to drink? How are you going to stay comfortable when the sun goes down?
(Ask the same question to the average person 150 years ago—minus the helicopter—and the percentage of people who would be confident in such a situation was probably much, much higher.)
But, back to this hypothetical situation and you. Think you’d give a little gulp?
Not Randy Morgenson. He probably would have felt a little lift of ecstasy. The outdoors were like a drug, his salve, his place.
His ethos boiled down to this: get out there. No trail. No boundaries. No rules. Just you and a rugged piece of open country. Maybe a few mountains. Go explore. Go live. Go survive. Go tough it out. Do it on your own. Find out what you’re made of or, possibly, who you are.
To Randy Morgenson, that idea was a dream.
“All of your life, someone is pointing the way, directing you this way and that, determining for you which road is best traveled,” he wrote in his 1973 logbook, when he was a ranger for the National Park Service in California. “Here is your chance to find your own way. Don’t ask me how to get to McGee Canyon or Lake Double-Eleven-O. Go on your own. Be adventuresome. Don’t forever seek the easiest way. Take the way you find. Don’t demand trail signs and sturdy bridges. Don’t demand we show you the mountains. Seek them and find them yourself…This is your birthright as an animal, most commonly denied you. Be free enough from intentions to find goodness wherever you are and in whatever is happening. Here for once in your life you needn’t do anything, be anywhere at a determined time, walk in a certain direction. You can now live by whim.”
Live by whim.
Eric Blehm’s “The Last Season” is a contemplation of a legendary park ranger who yearned to live by whim. This is a book about the space, if the space exists, where man begins and nature begins. This non-fiction account of Randy Morgenson’s fascinating life is deftly told and deeply intriguing. If Morgenson hadn’t died, I’d like to think Blehm would have been equally compelled to write the story (but that’s probably a dream).
Morgenson’s death—and the conjecture about his state of mind at the time—are what make the last section of “The Last Season” such a page-turner. By that point, we have grown to know Morgenson so well that the massive search for his body is equal parts pounding and breaking hearts. The analysis of how he died requires some clever sleuth work and imagination.
Blehm’s book covers so much territory—Morgenson’s family, his upbringing, his spirit guides, his relationships, his marriage, his stellar record and his unique view of the world. His mother, for instance, said Randy could make a swarm of mosquitoes “seem like the most romantic thing in the world.”
Blehm’s account neatly inter-cuts the search for Morgenson (he disappeared in 1996) with background about Morgenson’s family and his relationship with his wife, Judi. The storytelling is brisk, straightforward and as good as anything Jon Krakauer or Timothy Egan have written. Blehm draws heavily from Morgenson’s own writings. You will feel like Randy Morgenson was an old (if a bit unusual) friend by the time he goes missing.
If you liked “Into the Wild,” you’ll enjoy this one, too. In some ways, I liked “The Last Season” better. Like Christopher McCandless, Randy Morgenson isn’t always likable or approachable. He’s an enigma, at times, too.
Read “The Last Season” to spend time with a guy who relished the outdoors, who needed to be out there, battling the elements, in order to survive. It was just something in the way he was put together.