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Mike Yochim Literally Writes This Love Letter To Yellowstone With His Eyes

Stricken with ALS—aka Lou Gehrig's Disease—author of new book on Yellowstone gives MoJo an interview to talk about park and stories that need telling

Michael Yochim watches bighorn sheep on the crest of Yellowstone's Specimen Ridge in 2004. Less than a decade later,  he received  the diagnoses that he had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Photo courtesy of the author
Michael Yochim watches bighorn sheep on the crest of Yellowstone's Specimen Ridge in 2004. Less than a decade later, he received the diagnoses that he had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Photo courtesy of the author
In his new book, Michael J. Yochim, former Yellowstone ranger and guide, takes us on a personal journey through America’s oldest national park to places he’ll never physically reach again. For many this sounds like a familiar lament for those who grow old.


Essential Yellowstone: A Landscape of Memory and Wonder is filled with keen insights, fine writing and, in a way, it functions as an existential roadmap for explorers seeking adventure in the modern world. 

Under ordinary circumstances, I would highly recommend it, calling it a book that shines within a class of others that turn to Yellowstone as a sort of muse.

But on the dust jacket, the reason why Essential Yellowstone soars instead as a heroic tome, delivering a lesson in grace and humility, becomes clear. We are informed that Mike Yochim “retired from the National Park Service after being diagnosed with ALS. He wrote this book using only his eyes and assistive technology that tracks their movement on a computer screen.”

Absorb that last bit again, just for a moment. Yochim can no longer walk or move his appendages. If a mosquito landed on his nose he couldn’t swat it away, he can’t lift a morning cup of coffee to his lips and he can't utter a spoken word. He needs help breathing and dealing with other normal bodily functions. He can't even triumphantly clutch a hard copy of his own one-of-a-kind book.
Yochim, photo courtesy Janet Hesselbarth
Yochim, photo courtesy Janet Hesselbarth
Yochim is, by his own acknowledgment, nearly incapacitated. He has the terminal illness, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, that is mercilessly progressive, irreversible and has left him dependent upon the care of loved ones to keep him alive.

And yet, in Essential Yellowstone Yochim takes us on hikes and skis into the deepest Yellowstone outbacks, which reside farthest from most main highways in the Lower 48 states. He moves us by sharing his perspective about the meaning of wildness and encounters with carnivores, he offers observations about natural history that span time and space, he emphasizes the cherished importance of good friends and, above all, he expresses his pure love for Yellowstone as both enigma and paradox.

Not only has Yochim painstakingly written tens of thousands of words, letter by letter, filling 300 pages, with his eyes—a feat arguably more arduous than reaching any summit—it is through his vision that we see his heart revealed. 
Like the late theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawking, who succumbed to ALS after dealing with the disease for years, Yochim shows us how the human mind is a powerful, unconquerable vehicle and its brilliance transcends physical prowess. When he was well, Yochim put in the trekking miles; he possessed incredible endurance weathering the elements, though it is the message of advocacy in Essential Yellowstone that will endure as a finer legacy than having one's name logged in the registers of Greater Yellowstone's vaulted peaks. 

I’ve been a fan of Yochim’s writing for a long while and we share affection for Yellowstone because we, like thousands of others, are part of an informal club of people who held down jobs there, either with the federal government or as concession employees. If Yellowstone or any other wild place gives you something, then you should feel obligated to give back by being a park protector, and not taking solely in service to your own ego, Yochim says.

Parts of Yochim’s book left me choked up as he tells the stories of trails and destinations he will never reach again though in memory they live large. And I laughed out loud at passages where his wicked, self-deprecating wit refused to be shaded by his grim prognosis. He sees the end but he doesn't know when it might arrive.

Reflecting on cutting bruin tracks and crossing paths with grizzlies, feeling the ground shake beneath his feet when backcountry geysers erupted, and hearing howls of wolves return to landscapes where the songs had once gone mute, Yochim summons us to let spirituality, whatever form it takes back into our lives. It involves honoring that which we hold to be sacred.

“Whatever the reward we come to realize that Yellowstone and other wild places are not the exception, but rather the authentic, the original, the real. We return for more, satisfying a deep-seated hunger within us, and in so doing, begin to connect with something visceral, something we have longed for,” he writes. “Through such experiences we can be transformed into wiser, more knowing and caring persons, ones that understand that, for many world religions, these connections are ultimately glimpses of the divine.”

Yochim and friend Michelle Reynolds Gray catch the Great Eclipse in 2017. Photo courtesy Jim Yochim
Yochim and friend Michelle Reynolds Gray catch the Great Eclipse in 2017. Photo courtesy Jim Yochim
In a recent email exchange, Yochim told me he is racing to finish another book, this one about climate change, that illustrates how it is transforming Yellowstone and other national parks. [Read our interview with him, below]. He knows it’s possible he may not live long enough to see it into print yet it’s the one thing he can do to raise awareness and still make a difference. 

Yochim has already achieved this with Essential Yellowstone, for it’s a read that will stay with you. Toward the end of this masterfully eloquent volume, Yochim reminds us to embrace the Yellowstone that remains his transcendental place of escape.

“Nature’s commonality and sometimes centrality in the world’s religions should not come as a surprise to anyone who has spent time in the wild, but especially in the Yellowstone wilderness,” he writes. “There, nature’s power, forces, and interconnections are on full display, and the presence of grizzly bears and other large animals opens—or should open our eyes wider to them than in places that lack such creatures.”
“There, nature’s power, forces, and interconnections are on full display, and the presence of grizzly bears and other large animals opens—or should open our eyes wider to them than in places that lack such creatures.”  —Michael Yochim
Thank you Mike Yochim and Riverbend Publishing; just as this fine book has given you freedom to wander from the shackles, it liberates us, beckoning defenders of Yellowstone to comprehend what our own eyes don’t always see. That’s a rare gift and we are eternally grateful.

The Mountain Journal Interview With Yochim

Todd Wilkinson: This book is profoundly personal and it reads to me like a valentine to Yellowstone. True?  If yes, or not, how would you characterize the stories you are telling and the message you are sending?

Michael J. Yochim: To some extent, the book is a love story, of one person's discovery of Yellowstone and his growing and evolving relationship to the place. I am certainly not the first person to have such an experience there, nor will I be the last, but people enjoy reading of such experiences. A valentine for Yellowstone? I'm not sure that is the best analog, since it conjures images of grade school. Maybe sharing a pitcher of Moose Drool between old friends would be better? Or a love letter to a lifelong companion? I like that image much better, because it includes wisdom, shared experience, and love. It has more depth, which I think separates Yellowstone from most other national parks, at least those outside of Alaska. Yellowstone's resources take more time to discover, but once you do, you see that there are stories to learn and share.  
Atop Avalanche Peak with Yellowstone Lake in the distant background, the author joins Brian  and Jill Yochim on a hike.  Photo courtesy Brian and Jill Yochim.
Atop Avalanche Peak with Yellowstone Lake in the distant background, the author joins Brian and Jill Yochim on a hike. Photo courtesy Brian and Jill Yochim.
Wilkinson: What is it that you want readers not to take for granted about Yellowstone, about their ability to move through the park, and absorb?

Yochim:  I think it's that the continued preservation of any natural place is not guaranteed, even a place of such international renown as Yellowstone, and certainly not in the time of climate change.  That, BTW, is the single biggest threat to the future of all our parks. Climate change in the national parks is the subject of the book I'm working on now, and the Yellowstone chapter is one of six involving parks I'm examining in detail in it. If we continue with business as usual pumping carbon into the atmosphere, Yellowstone's temperatures are projected to rise ten degrees Fahrenheit, which would likely transform its vegetation radically, probably even to sagebrush desert scrub in places. 

Wilkinson: How did Yellowstone cause you to see, and think about the world differently? Hawking even with ALS took us through the history of the universe. You're taking us on an adventure through Yellowstone.....thoughts?

Yochim:  On first thought, the preserved nature in Yellowstone makes a person realize how much humanity has transformed the rest of our country. But the careful student of Yellowstone learns that there are many more lessons Yellowstone can teach us, lessons about our place in the world, about what we want Yellowstone to be, about the rewards of humility, restraint, and curiosity in our dealings with the natural world, and heck, other people and other nations too! 
"...the careful student of Yellowstone learns that there are many more lessons Yellowstone can teach us, lessons about our place in the world, about what we want Yellowstone to be, about the rewards of humility, restraint, and curiosity in our dealings with the natural world."  —Yochim
Wilkinson: In an interview with Howard Lovy of Foreword Reviews following publication of your earlier book, A Week in Yellowstone's Thorofare: A Journey Through the Remotest Place, you were asked if we must choose between human development or maintaining and expanding wilderness lands, or can we have both?  And you implied that you are fine with having wilderness even if you will never set foot inside it. Often today we see people who consider themselves conditional advocates for conservation but only if they are able to use it.  

Yochim: What I said was that it's also about taking personal responsibility for what we do when we're in nature. Development and wilderness protection are not part of a zero-sum game. With 7.4 billion of us on the planet already, and 9 billion expected by 2050, we have little choice about whether to develop. It’s how we develop that is crucial; do we sprawl, as we have done in so many parts of the country, or do we adopt smart growth practices? Things like infill development, zoning for more livable communities, and redevelopment can provide for a growing population while preserving farmland and open space.

But it’s more than just being smart about how we develop, it’s also about taking personal responsibility for what we do when we’re in nature, especially in wilderness, just as we do in our communities.

As I wrote in my book, wilderness can’t be all things to all people. Wilderness is about restraint, from that which we exercise when we set it aside, to that which we exercise when we’re in it, from following Leave No Trace principles to refraining from activities prohibited in wilderness, such as mountain biking or snowmobiling. It’s about recognizing that if we limit our personal freedom, we gain a societal freedom, a place for everyone to escape, to find beauty, to experience wildness, to share with others we love.

Wilkinson: If you don't mind, let me ask a few questions relating to ALS. How long did it take you to write the book?

Yochim: This book took three years to write, start to finish, but that includes several rounds of revisions as the book's purpose and intended audience evolved. The book began as an effort to capture some of my experiences in Yellowstone, for my family. As I continued to write and live, not succumb to ALS, I began realizing it might be of interest to a wider audience, so I had to go back through the earlier chapters and adjust the tone and information for a larger audience. I'm super happy with the folks at Riverbend Publishing; the book is beautiful and it's a good fit with their other titles. 

Wilkinson: Your recollections are clear and incisive.  Do the visuals of Yellowstone somehow live larger now and has ALS changed the way you you go into the zone of writing about it?
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Yochim: ALS, I think, lends both urgency and the perspective of time and distance to my writing.  Urgency, because time is drawing short for me, just as it does for all ALS sufferers. In fact, one of the things that delayed this response is that the ALS sufferer I'd befriended in California shortly after my diagnosis just lost his own battle with ALS. The distance and time away from Yellowstone has given me perspective on the values of Wonderland, especially time to reflect on the meanings it has for me and others.

Wilkinson: Can you share some insights about the progression of ALS, which you learned you had in 2013? You write in the book, "ALS is a death sentence, a malady in which the brain gradually loses the ability to control the body's muscles because the neuronal connections to them are destroyed. Eighty percent of the disease's victims die within five years of diagnosis, usually by respiratory arrest, the diaphragm becoming paralyzed like all the other muscles. Some people live longer, but the disease has a 100 percent death rate. My life, in short, would soon begin changing dramatically."

Yochim: As the guy who just died said one time, if you look at the definition of "unrelenting" in a dictionary, it would refer you to the ALS progression. The other thing I'd say is that there is never good news with ALS, and even when there is, it's likely there will be something to diminish it soon afterwards. For example, the first new treatment for the disease in a generation, Radicava, became available a year or two ago. Since then, questions have emerged about its efficacy, in part because the clinical trial to get it approved had a small sample of patients in its final phase. Because the drug, which is actually an infusion, only slows the progression by a third, it will not take much to determine if it's ineffective, or not worth its annual cost—$146,000. 
In 2006, Yochim, second from right, skiied with friends into the Yellowstone backcountry and are pictured here having lucnh at hte Pelican Springs Cabin. Joining Yochim were Stacey and Kerry Gunther (Yellowstone's chief grizzly bear biologist) and Steve Swanke, far right. Photo courtesy Michael Yochim
In 2006, Yochim, second from right, skiied with friends into the Yellowstone backcountry and are pictured here having lucnh at hte Pelican Springs Cabin. Joining Yochim were Stacey and Kerry Gunther (Yellowstone's chief grizzly bear biologist) and Steve Swanke, far right. Photo courtesy Michael Yochim
Wilkinson: You and I and others share a passion for trying to communicate why Yellowstone and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem matter.  But some can only see it as a cliche or a superficial, artificial construct as in a fenceless zoo or nature-themed version of Disneyland. What's holding people back "from getting it?"

Yochim: I think there are probably many factors causing this, but high on the list are Yellowstone's distance and the digital era. Yellowstone's a long way from anywhere, which is both its saving grace and its weakness. The distance has spared it from the impacts of sheep grazing, for example, that still affects the Yosemite high country, but makes it difficult for many to get there and experience it firsthand. But the biggest thing is probably the digital era, which is tough to compete with, for any park. People are barraged with information, making it difficult for them to find the compelling stories, and for the storytellers to find them. 
One of Yochim's favorite frontcountry places is any spot around Yellowstone Lake. This view of the moody, ever-changing liquid heart of Yellowstone, taken from Lake Butte Overlook, explains why. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
One of Yochim's favorite frontcountry places is any spot around Yellowstone Lake. This view of the moody, ever-changing liquid heart of Yellowstone, taken from Lake Butte Overlook, explains why. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
Wilkinson: Your favorite corner of the park—and why?

Yochim: I'm going to give you two favorites, one in the backcountry, the other not. The backcountry one is the Thorofare, because it's the big wild, remote and beautiful destination. The front country one is Yellowstone Lake, because it's dramatic, especially in a thunderstorm and at sunset!  

Wilkinson: What's your greatest wish for Yellowstone and how do we make it a reality?

Yochim: That the society that gave us America's best idea decides to take climate change seriously and thereby gives future generations the same gift. I'm going to sound partisan here, but given the Republican Party's ongoing denial of the reality of climate change, I think voting straight ticket Democrat in the upcoming election is our only hope to bring about the meaningful changes necessary to forestall the greatest existential threat of our generation, a problem that we are largely dumping on future generations.  This is why the working title for my manuscript is Requiem for America's Best Idea: National Parks in the Era of Climate Change to make clear what is at stake here. 
Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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