“Gila Lost and Found: Search and Rescue in New Mexico” by Marc Levesque

Gila Lost and Found recounts the author’s experiences as a Search and Rescue (SAR) field coordinator in the Gila Wilderness. It’s part a “how to survive” and part an adventure book, although some parts read like entry attempts for the Darwin Awards – an annual prize given posthumously to those who die the stupidest, most preventable death. The tone is that of a wise, good-natured uncle who’s seen and done it all.

Most of the book describes cases in which hikers get lost or injured and have to be rescued. The hikers are a diverse bunch, including testosterone-fueled septuagenarians, unprepared out-of-state teenagers, families, dogs, and a pair of pack goats. Levesque is an excellent storyteller. He also shows remarkable patience and restraint faced with the litany of human follies that make his job so much harder.

A third of the way through the book, he mentions the true story of George and Joseph Cox, aged five and six. In the year 1856, the boys wandered into the woods of Pennsylvania and never returned. For two weeks, a thousand-strong search party scoured the area, to no avail. Then a local man named Jacob Dibert had three dreams in which he found George and Joseph. The following month he led a search party to the exact spot where the boys’ bodies were located.

Such tragedies strike every now and then, and Levesque has been witness to several, including the death of the well-known writer Richard Mahler. Most of the cases, though, have happy endings thanks to the heroes of this book, the SAR volunteers. Time and again they come up with brilliant solutions to seemingly intractable problems. They coerce the weary up cliff faces; they put themselves in the shoes of the lost and imagine their way to a rescue; they measure out flat terrain so a helicopter can land. Overall, they come across as unflappable, smart, and courageous, as does Levesque himself.

Also fascinating is learning just how complex the rescue missions are, and how many different organizations and decisions are involved. At various points, state police, local police, border patrol, and SAR volunteers all need to be coordinated. News to me was that large search parties of volunteers can often be more of a hindrance than a help – they scuff up vital footprints and sometimes get lost themselves.   

The final section provides lists of tips for hikers and campers. The first list is about being prepared for the wilderness, the second about survival in dire straits. If you read the first, there’s a good chance you won’t need to read the second. In any case, whether you’re planning a six-day trip in the field or a couple of days on the sofa, my advice is to read this book. It might save your life.   

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