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Yellowstone Always On His Mind
March 13, 2020
Yellowstone Always On His Mind
Until his last breath, former ranger, hiker and nature advocate Mike Yochim raced to finish a book aimed at protecting America's first national park
On his last day alive, Mike Yochim worked on his book. It dealt with a heavy topic—climate change in the national parks—but he wanted it to be his final contribution to help protect the park he loved most. Photo courtesy James and Jeanne Yochim.
by Todd Wilkinson
Let there be no doubt that Michael J. Yochim had Yellowstone on his mind February 29. He was alone in a room reviewing the last words he ever wrote, for a book about climate change’s impacts on national parks.
The working title: Requiem for America’s Best Idea.
Friends and family members see a kind of cosmic rightness that Yochim passed away on the rarest date in the calendar—leap day, which happens only every four years.
To his final breath, his parents James and Jeanne said this week,Yochim pushed himself to rally behind a cause—the protection of places that had given him sublime joy. While he had lost the ability to speak and move, he still believed in the power of written words to inspire.
Last summer, I interviewed Yochim in a back and forth exchange about his penultimate book Essential Yellowstone: A Landscape of Memory and Wonder. He knew his life, following a seven-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) was rapidly drawing short but he was determined to complete the manuscript for Requiem.
Using a remarkable device that enabled him to move his eyes and string together letter characters onto a digital page, Yochim “wrote” every morning, edited at night and never abandoned his trademark wit. It's how he had put the 300-page manuscript for Essential Yellowstone together.
The average life span for a person confirmed to have ALS is two to five years. Yochim was into extended time. Though fatigued and taking a longer afternoon nap, he had remained solidly lucid in his thought process and grumbled, through the aid of his digital interpreter, about the state of American politics, most of all the disavowing of science, his Dad said.
Nothing wrong with that except Yochim provides a different context in that he felt indebted and compelled to give back.
He died writing about the places he loved in order to save them, informed by his having been out there. He represents, his friends say, the antithesis of a self-focused user/taker. With a perspective more enlightened than most, he believed the salvation of Yellowstone and the larger ecosystem encompassing it will not be secured without it being held in greater reverence.
Yochim was introduced to Yellowstone as a two-year-old toddler along with his twin brother, Jim, on a classic camping vacation in the 1960s. Over the years, the twins and their brothers Paul and Brian were exposed to many different national parks in the West.
Back in Missouri, the Yochim boys haunted a woodlot near their boyhood home and Mike always pushed limits, James and Jeanne said. Working in Yellowstone was a dream realized. Unpretentious, Yochim had the kind of personality that didn’t let on he had earned a Ph.D. in geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the same institution where one of his heroes, Aldo Leopold, had taught ecology.
Often stir-crazy, Yochim was among a relative few who can lay claim to hiking all of Yellowstone’s 1200 miles of trails and completing the park's more epic treks several times over.
Muscle twitching and struggles with slurring his speech led to the ALS diagnosis in 2013, around the same time an important book of his was published, Protecting Yellowstone: Science and the Politics of National Park Management. His mobility was in swift decline. A year later, at age 48 and after working 22 years in Yellowstone and earlier another five in Yosemite, he went home to Missouri for good and remained under the permanent care of his parents.
The autumn he said goodbye to Greater Yellowstone—2014— Yochim and three close friends embarked on a trip of ceremony—a canoe paddle along the southern shore of Yellowstone Lake coursing toward an area managed as motorless wilderness in the big tarn’s southeastern arm.
Most of all, Yochim appreciated entering the roadless Thorofare, one of the most remote places in the Lower 48 and formed by an intersection of national park and forest. This photograph offers a view of the headwaters of the Yellowstone River looking west from the top of Younts Peak in the Teton Wilderness of the Bridger-Teton National Forest south of Yellowstone. The North Fork and the South Fork of the Yellowstone river collect snowmelt from Younts Peak and meet just to the west of the mountain where the famous river begins its journey northward through the park. The area is home to many solitude-needing species free from large numbers of people. Photo courtesy Yellowstone National Park.
It was the closest they could get to reaching the heart of Yochim’s favorite part of Yellowstone—the Thorofare region, subject of his book A Week In Yellowstone's Thorofare: A Journey Through The Remotest Place. Joining him were pals Joshua Becker from Minnesota, Eric Compas, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, and Sean Miculka, a Park Service veteran in Yellowstone.
Each of the compadres had accompanied Yochim on separate trips into the Thorofare region but this was their first together. The foursome set out in September, all well aware it marked Yochim’s farewell.
Setting up camp without having to say a word, they fell into the familiar routine of chore duty and sat around into the night telling stories. The interlude, Miculka said, was just like old times as they held onto the moment.
“Mike really wanted to savor not just that trip but recall with us all of the Thorofare and Lake trips he had done,” Miculka told me. “He knew he would be seeing it for the last time and wanted to soak it in so he would reminisce in his mind’s eye.”
Indeed, Yochim would wander Yellowstone in his mind, his parents said. He drew upon every memory that, packaged with others as a whole, were layered with sensual associations—olfactory auras of the pines, thermal areas, sage and campfire woodsmoke; the sensations of brisk wind on the face; eyes clutching patterns of stars; sounds of animals in crepuscular hours. They could carry him away.
In 1898, John Muir published an essay in The Atlantic magazine after he visited Yellowstone and had this thought from the top of Mount Washburn:
“The sun is setting," Muir wrote. “The Absaroka range is baptized in the divine light of the alpenglow, and its rocks and trees are transfigured. Next to the light of the dawn on high mountain tops, the alpenglow is the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God. Now comes the gloaming … do not let your town habits draw you away to the hotel. Stay on this good fire-mountain and spend the night among the stars. Watch their glorious bloom until the dawn, and get one more baptism of light.”
Yochim was drawn to the same kind of illumination. Miculka says there is a lot of poetic writing and scholarly literature about Yellowstone and its wilderness, but few of the writers—not even Muir—possessed the firsthand depth of experience Yochim did. “Probably more than any other writer I’ve encountered, he would give you so much background on everything you were seeing. It made those trips with him special.”
In the days since his passing, wake and memorial, friends flipped through the notes of Yochim’s field journals, amazed at his insights.
Part of Yochim’s mystique, Miculka says, was his knack for carving out enough time for his expeditions and still getting as much done in his profession as a park researcher, naturalist and later a guide for visitors.
While on park staff, Yochim became a policy expert on snowmobiling in Yellowstone and the push to manage user numbers to protect air quality, quietude and the overall experience of wonderland in winter. He wrote a book about it.
“We always marveled how Mike found the time to do all these trips. He worked really hard and had a lot of professional ambition, but he made sure he had a rich time-in-the-wilderness life,” Miculka said. “Where the rest of us distinguish between work life and weekend life, he didn’t.”
I had often remarked to Yochim over the years that he should have become a journalist and his reply was that I who missed who missed out by not working for the Park Service.
As Yochim’s physical condition deteriorated, he became more convinced that parks need to be more accessible to people with disabilities—for whom the experience of solitude should be just as nurturing and readily available as to those with abled bodies. That didn’t mean opening up the backcountry but being smarter about how such encounters could happen in the front country.
Yochim was concerned, having witnessed trends in recent decades, about how technology is rapidly shrinking back the size of wilderness-caliber landscapes—in particular lands beyond the park where mechanized vehicles are enabling more people to venture faster and deeper into them. It makes them feel qualitatively smaller, he said last summer.
Yochim’s multi-day trips in Yellowstone were ambitious for a reason. “He acknowledged that experiencing the best parts wilderness brings is challenging," Mikulka explained. "If you are seeking something that special, it doesn’t come easily. If you make it easy, then wilderness loses some of what it is."
During our interview in August 2019, Yochim said human humility, in deference to land and other creatures, is what's missing from modern conversations about outdoor recreation. "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," he wrote with deliberation. "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."
Miculka admits Yochim could be difficult because he expected so much of other people—to carry their own weight and follow through. “He expected a lot from his friends. But as I got to know him, I quickly learned that he expected as much if not more from himself. His work on behalf of wilderness protection speaks to that," he said. It explains his determination that enabled him to finish two books and nearly another in the short time since his diagnosis.”
Colleagues cheered Yochim on as he toiled to complete research for Requiem. The book examines the impacts of climate change now in progress and forecast to dramatically alter Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Canyon and Olympic.
Retired and active Park Service employees shared thoughts and documents. Many expressed concern about directives coming down the pike from Washington DC to not talk openly about climate change and its causal link to humankind’s burning of fossil fuels. Yochim said the Trump Administration has had a chilling effect on morale and esprit de corps in the Park Service.
He wanted his book to not only educate the general public about threats to those five crown jewel parks but to articulate what his Park Service comrades were afraid to highlight for fear of losing their jobs or facing some other kind of reprimand.
Yochim’s good friend, Bill Lowry, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, was at the Yochims' when i spoke with his parents. Lowery is getting Requiem into tighter ship-shape replete with the epilogue Yochim was composing. In his final days, Yochim was hoping to find a publisher and joked that he wouldn't have to deal with the pain of receiving rejection letters.
On February 29, leap day, Mike Yochim passed in the late afternoon as his father was nearby in the kitchen getting their supper ready. He slipped away peacefully. Who knows what part of Yellowstone was calling to him.
What we know is that Yochim's ethos was simple. He wanted people beyond his own time to encounter wildness as he knew it—a place wild enough to be hospitable to the wildest of creatures. On the day Requiem is published posthumously we’ll learn what resided in some of Yochim's last selfless transcendental reflections.
Meantime, his Dad said, his last request, to make a return to Yellowstone, will be honored. Yochim wanted his ashes spread in his two favorite places. Mike Yochim (Nov. 8, 1966-Feb. 29, 2020)
Yochim and family in healthier times on Avalanche Peak with Yellowstone Lake in the distance below. Photo courtesy Brian and Jill Yochim