Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent takes the top slot on my fall reading list. While I settle into the school year pulse of the world around me, I fantasize about rough-and-tumble adventures in the expansive national parks of the American West. This book offers a grim foray to the harrowing extremes of survival in the minimalist desert of West Texas.
With the reserve and precision of a first-rate detective, the author retells 17 gripping true stories from the 1980s to the present about deaths and eleventh-hour rescues in Big Bend National Park. Set in the mountainous northern Chihuahuan Desert, these stories show how vulnerable we are as humans. From preventable tragedies caused by heat stroke and hypothermia to ill-fated encounters with lightning and homicidal bandits, Death in Big Bend proves that reality is more incredible than any fictional adventure.
The most intense story in Death in Big Bend is that of Bryan Brock, a climber who became stranded mid-air in an uncharted canyon. Against the advice of his climbing partner, Brock rappelled down a knotted rope without the equipment to get around a knot. Brock was left dangling with the onset of a freezing winter night only a few hours away. His climbing companion performed superhuman feats of navigation and endurance to summon a rescue team. Brock’s rescue story is told at an adrenaline-pumping pace as you wonder, “Will they make it in time?”
The tale of Shannon Roberts is the most bizarre in the book, reading like the brainchild of Yukio Mishima and Truman Capote. While chasing a drug smuggler on foot, a ranger discovered partially buried human remains under a dome of chicken wire. Tent stakes and duct tape were scattered near the mostly decomposed body. After discovering that the victim, Shannon Roberts, was a suicidal man with an unrequited crush on a young male friend, the investigation became focused on a theory of assisted suicide. The confession that closed the case, recounted at length in the book, was a gruesome fusion of naivete and depravity.
Laurence Parent’s extensive research and interviews create an insider’s rendering of each of these tragic events. His descriptions are unembellished and thorough, warmed by personal reflections from the family members of victims and punctuated by details from law enforcement reports. His characters are real people – inexperienced hikers, unlucky outdoorsmen, and stalwart park rangers and volunteers – whose lives intersected suddenly in life-or-death situations.
Many of these stories will make you grimace. A couple will make you altogether paranoid. But every story in Death in Big Bend will make you reflect upon the rapidity with which life’s certainties can evaporate. For those with a morbid fascination about survivalism, these accounts will take you to the edge. This is a recommended read for backcountry trekkers, adventure junkies, true crime fans, and survivalist voyeurs like me.