Guest Narrative: Yellowstone Inspirations

I invited J. Mark Nickell, a recent guest for Let’s Talk Books at Parnassus Books in Nashville, to reprise his inspiring presentation.  Below please find his narrative and reading recommendations.


In my teenage years and beyond I dreamed of traveling out West. Music has a way of stirring dreams deep in the soul; the acoustical rhythms of the hit song Ventura Highway, by the band America, inspired me to hit the road. Images from travel guides of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park lit my fire. Edmund Morris’s book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, (Deckle Edge, 2010) provided the vision of an active life to live into. So, in 1984, when both time and money converged, a buddy and I made our first trip together out West.

Including that first trip, I now have visited Yellowstone National Park eleven times.  Yellowstone is a gift that keeps on giving.  Every visit sparks some new curiosity about this wonderland.  It was the country’s first National Park established in 1872, after the Hayden expedition brought back images of its unique features from painter, Thomas Moran, and photographer, William Henry Jackson.  The history of Yellowstone and the National Parks idea is chronicled in The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (PBS, 2011), the companion volume to the Ken Burns documentary on PBS.

Yellowstone’s “discovery” by European explorers is credited to fur trapper, John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Colter left the expedition to join some fur traders on the expedition’s journey home.  The impact of the fur trade in the settling of America and the West is discussed in Fur, Fortune, and Empire (Deckle Edge, 2010) by Eric Jay Dolin.

Yellowstone is one of the last places left in its pure state, as it was “in the beginning,” similar to what Lewis and Clark found on their journey to discover an easy route from the headwaters of the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean from 1803-1807.   The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Abridged) (National Geographic, 2002) present a faithful and vivid account of the expedition. Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage (Simon & Schuster, 1997) is a good biography of the expedition with special attention to Lewis.  Weapons of the Lewis & Clark Expedition  (Arthur H. Clark Co., 2012) by Jim Garry is a valuable resource in understanding how the expedition fed itself on the long journey and how weapons were used for diplomacy and for protection.

The experiences from 1984 and following were seared in memory and led me to drill deeper into the world above and the world below, to ponder how this beautiful place called Yellowstone came to be.  The Earth is ever-changing, and its geologic past and present is beautifully described in Annals of the Former World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) by John McPhee.  I didn’t know it in 1984 when I stood atop Mt.Washburn, but I was viewing a giant volcano from one of its rims. The Yellowstone volcano has erupted about every 600,000 years as pressure builds from the “hot spot” underneath—a plume of molten material that causes the earth above the hotspot to rise and fall a few centimeters per year.  Moreover, each successive eruption appears to occur farther northeast than the previous eruption, but that is because the North American continental plate is drifting from northeast to southwest about two centimeters per year.

My Western journeys would not be complete without learning to fly fish in Yellowstone. The clear, cold waters from snowmelt create the conditions for outstanding trout habitat. A River Runs Through It (University of Chicago, 2001) by Norman Maclean is a semi-autographical memoir about his family, and conveys a reverence for nature, a love of the Montana countryside and fly fishing. The book opens with the sentence: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” The writing is beautiful. Maclean taught English literature at the University of Chicago during his working years, but his heart was always in the West. It is easy to see why.

J. Mark Nickell is the owner of the investment advisory firm, J. Mark Nickell & Company, Brentwood, TN.


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