Lost empire

Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire Peter Stark hardcover, Ecco 384 pages, $27

According to my online dictionary, an extremophile is "a microbe able to thrive in the most extreme conditions." And, according to Missoula-based author Fred Haefele, extremophilia is an "intemperate love" of said organisms. In his new collection, Haefele tweaks the idea from microbe-centric to human-centric, and gives us 17 non-fictional snapshots of people dealing with geographically and mentally extreme landscapes. His brand of extremophilia comes in several forms, including logging, firefighting and hunting—all environments where extremophiles are most likely to be found. Haefele, who is best known for his award-winning memoir Rebuilding the Indian—about the journey of rebuilding a vintage motorcycle at mid-life—embodies the extremophiliac writer in a blending of blue-collar and academic approaches. And he has a penchant for finding an epiphany in each experience.

Extremophilia, which aptly includes a foreword by extreme outdoors writer Steven Rinella, ties together Haefele's smart vignettes taken from such diverse venues as salon.com, Big Sky Journal and Newsday. The stories are quietly swaggering sketches of the edge, arranged as seamlessly as the fragments of an autobiography. Most are only a couple of pages long, testifying to Haefele's aphoristic self-restraint, and a great example of what Goethe meant when he quipped that "genius knows when to stop."

In the first essay, "Confessions of a Faller," Haefele recounts his days felling trees outside Lincoln, Mont., and his nights boozing in the Front Street bars of Missoula. "Fire on the Mountain" is a flashback to the author's stint volunteering as a fire-fighting sawyer and a rumination on his limitations, while "After the Flood" is a propulsive history of Missoula as filtered through flooding. Says Haefele, "I believe the relentless hydrodynamics that shaped this place... have long been part of the collective unconscious of its inhabitants." Constantly in these crisp surveys he caps his powerful storytelling voice with sparks of nuanced insight, and this is what makes his book something far more substantial than an amusing batch of short travelogues. In Haefele's writing, there is the workingman's Montana of cold and heat and exhaustion and the writer's Montana of scholastic wildness and crazy bouts of erudition. Both require an extremophile's perseverance, and he duly provides it.

The Montana ethos pervades Haefele's world without the cloying habit of informing his readership of this fact. With one or two exceptions, Extremophilia is a psychological profile of the American West and its people. Indicative of that is "Billionaires Without Boundaries," a lucid scrutiny of Ameya Preserve in Paradise Valley and the "glitzification" of Big Sky country, as well as a meditation on the wealthy and their need to have three or four houses.

There isn't a real dud in this collection. Even the lengthiest, least engaging of the bunch, "The Lost Tribe of Indian," is redeemed by Haefele's obvious joy in riding a revamped Indian motorcycle and the agony of having it taken away after the manufacturer goes bust. From Evel Knievel's notably unspectacular funeral to a tongue-in-cheek look at "America's first professional tree-sitter extraction team," Haefele's vision is an authentically tuned instrument of irony and pathos, deconstructing personal and regional eccentricities and making them tangible for a universal audience. During a dangerous spill in the Clark Fork in "Under the Rapids," the author reconciles with his estranged daughter, which leads him to question the nature of survival, family and the role of metaphor when everything has already been said.

It's impossible not to finish Extremophilia in one sitting, and maybe worth finishing twice in that same span of time. Haefele's prose is convincingly warm, with incisive commentary and humor as he connects the dots of his experience to say something enormous about experience itself.

Perhaps the most personally illuminating piece is "Prankster, Pass By," which details Haefele's infatuation with Ken Kesey and an encounter with the countercultural icon that almost was, as well as every young writer's journey to find the right voice.

Extremophilia is a wide-ranging, wide-eyed assortment of reportage, anecdote and memoir, with prose so uncluttered and clean you could eat off it. These are tall tales about forestry, motorcycles and literature that all happen to be true. The writing is reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson, but with an ecological bent, and mixed with the wryly blunt style of Denis Johnson.

"A good line in a story," Haefele notes, "is like the right shot at the right time. It fills your heads with its sound."

These stories echo the noise of Haefele's often hilarious and consistently poignant mind. All in all, it's a top-notch collection of understated gems. If you're wondering why you reside in Montana, either look out the window—or just read some Haefele.

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