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A fascinating tour of Wyoming through the geological ages
on July 27, 2003
I'm not a slow reader, but I rarely read a book in the same 24 hours. This one was an exception. I was immediately drawn in (and by a subject that is not of more than general interest to me), and I more or less did not put the book down until I'd read to the last page.
As a teacher, I'm first of all impressed by how McPhee makes an academic and scientific subject (geology) not just interesting but gripping. For the most part, he personalizes it, introducing an eminent field geologist, David Love, who takes him and us on a tour around Love's home-state, Wyoming, describing over 2 billion years of the geological past as revealed in the cuts along Interstate 80 and in a side trip to Jackson Hole, outside Yellowstone Park. Love is very much a product of his upbringing on an isolated ranch in central Wyoming, his mother educated at Wellesley, his father an immigrant from Scotland who quotes William Cowper and Sir Walter Scott.
Love is independent, old school, hands-on, tireless, scrupulous, an innovative thinker who has made a significant impact over a lifetime in his field, choosing to work for the US Geological Survey after a short period of unhappy employment for an oil company. McPhee captures his very individual point of view, his dedication to science, and his Western perspective in character sketches and fragments of conversation between them. He has a dry sense of humor, colorful turns of phrase, and a toughness that goes along with long periods of field work and sleeping rough under the stars. He's also a grand-nephew of John Muir.
The book actually begins with his mother's wintery journey by horse-drawn coach from Rawlins to central Wyoming, where she has accepted a teaching job at a one-room school. It segues between the story of his parents' courtship in the first decade of the 20th century and his travels with McPhee over 70 years later, finally devoting a long section to Love's own boyhood, growing up on his parents' ranch, with an older brother, among cowboys raising both sheep and cattle. The accounts of surviving blizzards and floods that nearly wipe them out, the visitors passing through who may or may not be hunted killers, even an appearance (possibly two) by Butch Cassidy make this compelling reading for anyone with an interest in the early days of ranching in the West.
There's a brilliant section late in the book as McPhee describes Love's fascination with Jackson Hole while he's still a graduate student at Yale, and after many years of walking the ridges and summits around it, developing a scenario of how it was formed over the eons. McPhee's rendering of this scenario in words is vivid, and in the mind's eye, you can see mountain ranges and seas rise and fall in all manner of climates from tropical to ice age, until the topography assumes its present configuration, which is still changing.
I highly recommend this book. As companion volumes, I also recommend Loren Eiseley's memoir "All the Strange Hours," Geoffrey O'Gara's book about water rights in the Wind River basin, "What You See in Clear Water," and James Galvin's novel, "Fencing the Sky," in which a modern-day cowboy fugitive travels much of this same terrain on horseback.