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Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent is a fascinating book. With journalistic precision, the author retells 17 gripping true stories about people who died or were rescued in Big Bend National Park.
Set in the mountainous northern Chihuahuan Desert in far West Texas, these stories invoke a harrowing sense of how vulnerable we are as humans. For those with a morbid curiosity about survivalism, these accounts will provide a satisfactory buffet of grim entrées. From lightning strikes to heat stroke to hypothermia to homicidal bandits, Death in Big Bend examines the danger of underestimating the changing conditions of the desert while proving that real life is more incredible than any fictional adventure.
Death in Big Bend's most intense story is that of Bryan Brock, a climber who got stranded mid-air in an uncharted canyon when his rappelling gear got stuck on a knot in his rope. Without the proper tools to get around the knot and without the strength to go back up, Brock was left dangling with the onset of a freezing winter night only a few hours away. His climbing companion performed superhuman feats of cross-country navigation and endurance to get back to the park headquarters and request a rescue team. Brock's rescue story is told at an adrenaline-pumping pace as you wonder, "Will they make it in time?"
The chapter about the death of Shannon Roberts is the most bizarre in the book, as if it's the brainchild of Yukio Mishima and Truman Capote. While chasing a drug smuggler on foot, a ranger discovered partially buried human remains, the exposed parts shielded by a dome of chicken wire. Tent stakes and duct tape were found near the body. The victim, Shannon Roberts, emerged as a suicidal 43-year-old man with an unrequited crush on a young male friend. Following suggestions that the death was an assisted suicide, investigators tracked down a naïve criminal who offered a grisly confession.
Laurence Parent's extensive research and multitudinous interviews with park officials provide an insider's rendering of these tragic events. His descriptions are unembellished and thorough, warmed by personal reflections from the family members of victims and punctuated by exact 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.
Some of these stories will make you grimace. A couple will make you downright paranoid. But every story in Death in Big Bend will make you reflect upon the rapidity with which life's certainties can evaporate. This is a recommended read for backcountry trekkers, adventure junkies, and fans of the true crime genre.