Re-reading an old favorite book is much like renewing an acquaintance with an old friend. The experience is rewarding and fulfilling.
This happened to me recently when I picked up John McPhee’s classic book about Wyoming geology, “Rising from the Plains.”
It’s been said there are no boring stories, just boring writers. With that thought it mind, it would seem a book about geology would be interesting only to geologists.
This early 1990s book ranks as one of the most interesting and most important books ever written about Wyoming. And the author, Pulitzer Prize winner McPhee, was presented an honorary degree last year by the University of Wyoming, partially because of it.
McPhee uses the life of a famed geologist, the late David Love, as the centerpiece of this book. Love grew up in Fremont County and was long considered the dean of geologists in the Rocky Mountain region.
The author captures the Western spirit of Love’s life and that of his parents as they carved out a unique existence on a ranch in an area of eastern Fremont County near Castle Gardens.
The book is full of references to the unique geology of Wyoming. McPhee writes in a style that vividly lets you imagine the extreme risings of mountain ranges, the descent of valleys and the rolling together of various landmasses.
Intertwined with the geological stories (told mostly through Love’s words) is the life story of the famous geologist and his mother, who came west in 1905 after graduating from Wellesley College.
McPhee writes: “Their mother rented a house in Lander and stayed there with them while they attended Fremont County Vocational High School. Lander at that time was the remotest town in Wyoming. It advertised itself as ‘the end of the rails and the start of the trails.’”
The Love Ranch was one of those outposts that were so far from everything else that anyone passing through would stop. It was smack in the center of the state. Often, people would sleep in the bunkhouse and join the Loves for dinner.
McPhee writes about one memorable meal:
“People like that came along with such frequency that David’s mother eventually assembled a chronicle called ‘Murderers I Have Known.’ She did not publish the manuscript, in her regard for the sensitivities of some of the first families of Wyoming. As David would one day comment, ‘they were nice men, family friends, who had put away people who needed killing, and she did not wish to offend them – so many of them were such decent people.’
“One of these was Bill Grace. Homesteader and cowboy, he was one of the most celebrated murderers in central Wyoming, and he had served time, but people generally disagreed with the judiciary and felt that Bill, in the acts for which he was convicted, had only been ‘doing his civic duty.’
“At the height of his fame, he stopped at the ranch one afternoon and stayed for dinner. Although David and (his brother) Allen were young boys, they knew exactly who he was, and in his presence were struck dumb with awe.
“As it happened, they had come upon and dispatched a rattlesnake that day – a big one, over five feet long. Their mother decided to serve it creamed on toast for dinner. She and their father sternly instructed David and Allen not to use the world ‘rattlesnake’ at the table. They were to refer to it as chicken, since a possibility existed that Bill Grace might not be an eater of adequate sophistication to enjoy the truth.
“The excitement was too much for the boys. Despite the parental injunction, gradually their conversation at the table fished its way toward the snake. Casually – while the meal was going down – the boys raised the subject of poisonous vipers, gave their estimates of the contents of local dens, told stories of snake encounters, and so forth. Finally, one of them remarked on how very good rattlers were to eat.
“Bill Grace said, ‘By God, if anybody ever gave me rattlesnake meat, I’d kill them.’
“The boys went into a state of catatonic paralysis. In the pure silence, their mother said, ‘More chicken, Bill?’
“‘Don’t mind if I do,’ said Bill Grace.”
And these stories are just a few that are included in this wonderful book. It is must reading for people who are interested in a well-written story about Wyoming’s recent and long-distant past.
Bill Sniffin is a longtime journalist from Lander. Email: email@example.com.