David Stanley first encountered Glacier National Park in the early ’60s when, at 18, he landed a summer job on a trail maintenance crew. That would be the first of six summers doing what he describes as “the most physically challenging job” he ever held. He went on to a career in academia and retired as an English professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, where he still lives. American literature and folklore was Stanley’s specialty, but he also chaired the Environmental Studies Program at Westminster. In that latter position, he taught classes dealing not only with the literature of the natural world, but also the history of wilderness in general, the movement toward its preservation and America’s national parks.
Stanley never stopped visiting Glacier. A result of his interest is a new book he edited, The Glacier Park Reader, which was released in September. It is part of the National Park Readers series being published by the University of Utah Press, which Stanley also initiated.
The Reader is an anthology of stories encompassing the Glacier experience, with contributions spanning from 1910 to 2015. Stanley has gathered his material from a broad array of sources: magazine articles, essay collections and other anthologies. Many of the contributors may be unfamiliar to the casual natural history audience, but several classic names stand out: John Muir, George Bird Grinnell, Dorothy M. Johnson, Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams are all found between these covers. If even these names are unfamiliar, then the Reader is an excellent introduction to some of the finest writers of the West.
Stanley has divided his anthology into seven sections based on subject. For example, after his introduction—a mostly concise overview of the history of the park—the book begins with five stories from and about Native people. A highlight of this section is the story “The Last Great Battle of Eagle Head,” originally published in 1978. It is a story told by the Blackfeet warrior Eagle Head to his grandson, George Comes at Night. Eagle Head tells the tale of climbing Chief Mountain, an iconic landmark sacred to the Blackfeet, where many young Natives have sought visions. The story remains the only published narrative of a vision quest on Chief Mountain as related by a Native American.
The book ends with a half-dozen contributions concerning the park in modern times. In between are scores of stories divided among sections pertaining to Visitors, Characters, Adventurers and Animals. Ed Abbey’s essay “Fire Lookout,” from his 1977 summer inhabiting the Numa Ridge lookout, is noteworthy, if only for his call to limit automobile access to the park. This is a conversation happening with even more hand-wringing today. The ever-cranky Abbey writes:
“All through the summer bumper-to-bumper traffic crawls up and down the Going-to-the-Sun highway. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we’ve got to close the parks to private cars if we want to keep them as parks. The parks are for people, not machines. Let the machines find their own parks. Most of America has been surrendered to them already, anyway. New Jersey, for example. Southern California.”
The center of the book contains photographs from Glacier through the years. One of the best parts of this section, indeed of the entire book, is a selection of more than 20 plates of handwritten and illustrated postcards that the legendary cowboy artist Charles M. Russell sent to friends and acquaintances. Russell and his wife, Nancy, built a cabin on the shore of Lake McDonald in 1905, five years before the park became a park, and would summer there every year until 1920. In our modern era of outdoor photo porn that comes to us live via social media at any hour or season, Russell’s illustrations are a delight. The accompanying notes are, as well. They wax poetic on the beauty of his surroundings, but also display a wry sense of humor through poking fun at people he observes. It is a shame that much of his correspondence from Glacier has been lost, because what we have here is so entertaining.
The Glacier Park Reader is an excellent book to read while preparing for a trip to the park. Or, even better, take it along into the backcountry for reading while basking in the glory of your surroundings. It’s a book that can be picked up and read from at random, which is probably the best way to experience it anyway. For lovers of the outdoors, and of Glacier Park in particular, this book is perfect.