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A Grand New Book Honors One Of The Mightiest Places In The American West

'Voices of Yellowstone's Capstone: A Narrative Atlas of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness' is a must-have trove of words, pictures and maps

Mighty mountains need no books to declare their magnificence. 

Human beings cannot do them adequate justice through the written word, visual interpretations or oral stories told around campfires. Towering expressions of nature, grander than anything Homo sapiens could manufacture—or even conceive of making given the fragile life forms interwoven into them—fit into the definition of ineffable. And no matter what religious faith or culture or era of time that people hail from, this is just one of the reasons why, without need to rationalize, we still regard mountains as being sacred. 

Their creation predates us, they will outlive and out-endure us; their haunting allure will ground our descendants—as they did our—ancestors in the same kind of awe we feel today; and no matter how much self-importance we ascribe to ourselves, the mountains will always be bigger than us.

It is this kind of transcendental honoring that lays the foundation for a truly remarkable book, unprecedented in its honoring of place, Voices of Yellowstone's Capstone: A Narrative Atlas of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. While it is a collection of great  e writing, breathtaking visuals and edifying maps, this amazing book represents a dream project for its editors Traute N. Parrie and Jesse A. Logan who persevered and brought it to life in collaboration with the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation.  

Never before has such a volume captured the myriad ways that people have related to the  Absarokas and Beartooth, a combined massif that runs along the east side of Yellowstone and vaults even higher in an extraordinary massing of peaks, sparkling lakes and glaciers in the northeastern corner of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem along the Wyoming-Montana border. A very sweet addition is the cartography created by Logan. Click here to read an excerpt essay by Shane Doyle on the connections between the Crow Nation, the Absaroka-Beartooths and Yellowstone, the latter being part of the tribe's traditional homeland. 
Sun rays fall upon Twin Lake in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Photo courtesy Merv Coleman
Sun rays fall upon Twin Lake in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Photo courtesy Merv Coleman
Today, much of it is protected as part of the federal Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, which rivals any for its wildness as established by the number and different kinds of solitude-needing animals that persist there and will need the untrammeled terrain as the effects of climate change deepen. 

Mountain Journal cannot more enthusiastically recommend that you add Voices of Yellowstone's Capstone to your bookshelf; for whether you've been to the Absarokas and Beartooth or not, whether you live nearby them or not, this book conveys the spirit and allure of beloved high country anywhere on the planet. 

Right now, with the legacy of public wildlands under siege, with some wrongheaded policies regarding wilderness-caliber lands as expendable, and with new protection statuses being pondered and debated, the A-B Wilderness demonstrates why protecting more is always better than protecting less. Better for ecology; better for laying the groundwork for a place-based economy; and better in serving as a rare expression of humankind's ability to exercise restraint in the consumption of places so that others who follow can still sense their spirit. 

"If truth be told, in these times when the Earth's natural systems are unraveling at a frightening pace, I tend to find myself fond of almost any landscape broad and diverse enough to still spin the cloth of life," notes Gary Ferguson, who spent decades in Red Lodge, writing in the book's foreword. "Yet of all the big wild places still out there, the Absaroka-Beartooth is particularly enthralling."

Below is an interview that MoJo did with Parrie and Logan.  As they note, and as MoJo agrees, if possible, buy the book directly from the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation or from from your favorite independent local bookseller. They are essential parts of the lifeblood of our communities.

MoJo Interviews Traute Parrie and Jesse Logan

Before a standing-only crowd, Jesse Logan and Traute Parrie hold their labor and love and momentous literary contribution celebrating one of America's most heralded wildlands.  Photo courtesy Don Carroll
Before a standing-only crowd, Jesse Logan and Traute Parrie hold their labor and love and momentous literary contribution celebrating one of America's most heralded wildlands. Photo courtesy Don Carroll
Todd Wilkinson
: What was the origin of this book? And why now? 

TRAUTE PARRIE: After my retirement as a Forest Service District Ranger here, I was asked to serve on the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation. My forte is project work, so I suggested instead that I would like to do an atlas, modeled after Rebecca Solnit's 3 narrative atlases, which are about 3 iconic American cites, but which I wanted to try to apply to this Wilderness.  Steve Caldwell replied that it just so happened that Jesse was interested in doing an atlas, based on his interest in cartography.  Jesse's vision was possibly more science and resource based, whereas I was interested in that, too, but also in demonstrating humans' role in this landscape, over time, and our interconnectedness with not just the place, but all its inhabitants, human or otherwise. 

TW: And why now? 

PARRIE: We started in 2016, hoping to have the project in time for the 40th anniversary celebration in 2018.  In addition to celebrating this incredible accomplishment of Senator Lee Metcalf 40 years ago, and in raising awareness about specific resources that are specifically dependent on the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness ecosystem, we wanted to raise awareness about particular threats, including things associated with increasing recreation use - like the increase in invasive species, or pushing species into ever smaller ranges, and of course climate change.    This was before the full impact of the the Trump administration's public lands policies were in play, and over the course of developing the book, it became more important to create personal connections on the part of the reader to not just this place, but public lands in general, and encourage them to practice active stewardship.  

TW: Why, from your perspective, does the A-B matter and if it wasn't protected as Wilderness how would it be different today? 

JESSE LOGAN: The importance of Wildlands and I capitalize the word to point out and honor their importance, in some restricted sense boils down to personal values. But, beyond that, of profound importance to the human psyche. Volumes, literally, have been written about this genetic memory that reaches back far beyond even the myths of indigenous peoples. I’m in the middle of reading Gary Ferguson’s The Eight Master Lessons of Nature, which speaks directly to that point. Gary, by the way, wrote an eloquent Forward to Voices of Yellowstone’s Capstone.

TW: How would the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area be different if not designated Wilderness? 

LOGAN: For the Beartooth portion of the Wilderness in particular, it would be crisscrossed with ATV trails in summer and paved (quite literally) with snowmobile tracks in winter. To gain an appreciation for what I’m saying, some July day take a stroll to Goose Lake following the 4-W (ATV) road one way, and then exit via the Wilderness trail the other. I need say no more. 

TW: You have an extraordinary range of voices and it covers an arc of history. How did you bring this all together? 

PARRIE: We started with the arc, and of course were very enthusiastic about soliciting pieces for the book. We got more stories than we could publish in the book, and ultimately had to focus on essays that are specific to the A-B Wilderness, even though that goes against my point that the boundary is somewhat arbitrary, if necessary. I'm not the only one who contends that we risk complacency when we designate wilderness and then act as though that's enough.   
"I'm not the only one who contends that we risk complacency when we designate wilderness and then act as though that's enough." Traute Parrie, former Forest Service district ranger and co-originator of the book   
What does it mean both for wilderness and humans, when we lose the everyday experience of engaging in wild places?  But in the end, we had to drop some of the seemingly peripheral stories, as good as they were.  As we reviewed the completed essays, we also wondered about how to provide consistency, and decided that would come from the visual connectors provided by Jesse's maps.  Finally, we decided to select essays that speak for those that can't speak for themselves.  

TW: Jesse, your essay is about wolverines.  What makes you relate to them and how are you and they similar? 

LOGAN: I could only hope I was similar to a wolverine! I relate to them as I would to any larger-than-life, mythological creature – only they happen to be for real. I have occasionally been fortunate enough to track wolverines, and I’m invariably astounded by where the go and how they travel. As I wrote in my essay, “the incomparable mountaineer.” Such things are dreams made of! 


TW: To people from outside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Northern Rockies reading this, please describe the mystique that the Absaroka and Beartooth mountains command. 

PARRIE: Oh boy.  I think mystique is a very personal experience, but from my perspective, some of the things that contribute:  Both the Beartooth and Absaroka Ranges are these imposing ranges that rise dramatically from either the plains in the case of the Beartooths, or the valley in the case of the Absarokas.  In addition, the Beartooths are the largest contiguous area over 10,000' in the lower 48, which helps reinforce that impression of a monumental range.  The ranges are particularly rugged, and relatively inaccessible - you have to earn your time there.  And once you get there, you're in the midst of an intact ecosystem, complete with apex predators.  As Jesse has said, "this place doesn't need rewilding - it already is [wild]!"  So it's a place you don't just stroll into.  It requires your attention, and hopefully, your reverence.  
Writers Gary Ferguson, Doug Chabot and Shane Doyle sign copies of the book. They are among the 28 authors, 17 artists and nearly 50 photographers whose work is featured in the Atlas.  Read Doyle's essay in a special excerpt now up at Mountain Journal.
Writers Gary Ferguson, Doug Chabot and Shane Doyle sign copies of the book. They are among the 28 authors, 17 artists and nearly 50 photographers whose work is featured in the Atlas. Read Doyle's essay in a special excerpt now up at Mountain Journal.
TW: You are a lifelong observer of mountain environments, as professional government researcher, outdoor recreationist and conservationist.  What are some of the things you see happening in the A-B that serve as a harbinger for other higher-elevation settings in the West? 

LOGAN: Issues already being covered extensively in MoJo are all present in the Absaroka-Beartooth. The press of exponentially expanding humanity on finite wildlands, the threat of politicians dismantling our public lands, and shifting recreational values that seem more consumptive than reflective. These issues can be debated, and perhaps mitigated, but the threat of a rapidly warming climate is something that society, and in particularly American society at this juncture seems unable or unwilling to confront. There was no a-priori intent of including climate change as a topic in the Atlas, but climate change plays a critical role in essentially every essay that deals with natural history. 

TW: Few may realize it but Greater Yellowstone has some tangible examples on the ground today of exactly that, yes? 

LOGAN: So far as a harbinger, the threat of global warming to the magnificent whitebark forests of the greater Yellowstone was among the first predictions of global warming’s devastating impacts. Unfortunately, these theoretical prediction unfolded almost exactly as the models predicted. Of course, now, the catastrophic loss of Yellowstone’s whitebark is only one of a many suchg impacts. The importance of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, both as a harbinger of change and a potential sky-island refuge for whitebark, is described in Taza Schaming’s essay and my sidebar that follows it. In a very real sense, Greater Yellowstone whitebark was the harbinger of change, and the Beartooth sky-island offers a ray of hope for the future of this keystone and foundation species. 
The rugged Beartooth Mountains. Photo courtesy Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation
The rugged Beartooth Mountains. Photo courtesy Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation
TW: Traute, please share one of your most memorable experiences that illustrates your bond to place?

PARRIE: As you might expect, it's the unplanned experiences that are most memorable, that are a result of pure serendipity.   A couple of experiences come to mind.  I retired from the Forest Service in the fall, to give myself one last field season, and spent as much time as I could with the various work crews.  On one trip with the trail crew in the backcountry, I took a solo evening hike in a high basin, and upon coming around a corner came face to face with a wolf, who stopped in her tracks, as did I.  After checking each other out, she turned around and loped off.  This was nearly a replication of a similar account I had in my last summer on the Bitterroot National Forest, where I had stayed through the field season knowing I would follow my husband south in the fall.  I had a job to do at the Spot Mountain Lookout and started my hike at 5 a.m. to take advantage of the cooler weather, and at 7, about halfway to the lookout, had a black wolf cross my path.  My own personal farewells.  

It's also pretty special to experience the night sky on one of the high plateaus of the Beartooth, say Froze-To-Death, and wake up in the morning in a snow covered tent, looking across at a jewel-looking Mount Wood, knowing that I've been there.  I have to say I like to hike high, and visually stitch together the different places I've hiked.  I always see places I don't know yet.  

TW: Jesse, though it’s tough for you to admit it, you are kind of a legendary figure to young people a third or a quarter your age heading into the A-B.  What are you hoping to impart to them? 

LOGAN: Well, I’m not so sure about “legendary,” but I do have many Gen-X, Y and Z friends that I spend time with in the backcountry, and I treasure these friendships. What do I hope to impart? A sense of reverence for wildness, I suppose, but I gain far more from these associations than I could ever hope to give. My gift to them is the opportunity to slow down, not only to a human time scale, but also to that of a septuagenarian. That, and stories that span a seemingly few short years, but also encompasses generations. What I gain is a look through fresh young eyes at a landscape that has been central to my very being, and through these eyes, see thing that either my vision has grown too dim to discern, or I that may have escaped me all along. Wilderness and wildness has the power to span generations. What I’m struggling to articulate is well expressed in our Atlas by the insightful, profound actually, essays by Todd Burrett and Jonathan Marques at one book end, and the beautiful recollections of 80-plus years in the wilderness by Hank Rate at the other. 
East Rosebud Creek. Photo courtesy Larry Mayer
East Rosebud Creek. Photo courtesy Larry Mayer
TW: A question for either of you: what in your opinion, is most unique about this book?

LOGAN: I think the thing that sets this book apart is its strong sense of community. We moved to Montana from Logan, Utah after I retired from the Forest Service in 2006. Logan is a sweet little town nestled against the Bear River Mountains, which themselves are a sweet little mountain range. We had a strong sense of community in Logan, but it was focused narrowly on Cache Valley. We found something quite different here. We spend summers in Emigrant and winter in Cooke City, and our community stretches from Cooke to Gardiner, on to Emigrant and Livingston, over to Bozeman and down to West Yellowstone, and from West Yellowstone further down to Jackson and over to Cody, on up to Red Lodge and Billings, and finally back to Livingston and Emigrant. This is a community united by the landscape we call the Greater Yellowstone, and by wildness. Our book is very much a reflection of that reality. It’s this large sense of community that you speak to in Mountain Journal
As Jesse has said, "this place doesn't need rewilding - it already is [wild]!"  So it's a place you don't just stroll into.  It requires your attention, and hopefully, your reverence.  —Traute Parrie
Wolverines, grizzlies, wolves, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, lynx, fisher, and bison are among the species that live within the vast perimeter of the Absarokas and Beartooths. Which makes it wilder that most national parks in America.  Artwork (charcoal on archive paper drawing) by Rox Corbett
Wolverines, grizzlies, wolves, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, lynx, fisher, and bison are among the species that live within the vast perimeter of the Absarokas and Beartooths. Which makes it wilder that most national parks in America. Artwork (charcoal on archive paper drawing) by Rox Corbett

TW: The book is a great homage, though like climbing Granite Peak, the highest summit in Montana located, not coincidentally, in the Beartooths, you willed it into existence. 

LOGAN: If you consider the book team of myself and Traute, Scott McMillion who did a masterful job of editing, Adrienne Pollard’s spectacular design and layout, cartographers Wally Macfarlane and Michael Albonico who helped me past technological hurdles with maps and Elise Atchison’s copy editing that kept us honest; then add to that the 28 authors, 17 artists, the almost 50 photographers, and the 28 donors, it adds up to well over 100 individuals that were directly involved with the creation of this work, mostly drawn from the abundant pool of talent in the Greater Yellowstone community – MoJo country, really. This sense of the larger community is captured by the voices contained in our book. Disparate voices, yes, but united each in their own way by the common bond for the place we call the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

TW: By its contributors, the book also reflects the global appeal of the Absaroka-Beartooths. 

LOGAN: Although artists from our regional community contributed most of the work found in our narrative atlas, it also includes contributions form those as far away as New York City and Switzerland, reflecting the global importance of Yellowstone country, the world’s first national park and a World Heritage site. 

At the time Traute and I were struggling to find a unifying theme for our book, I was reading, and profoundly influenced by, Drum Hadley’s Voices of the Borderlands. Although I have never visited the Boarderlands spanning Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico; through Hadley’s authentic prose-poetry, I feel a strong affinity to that landscape and to those people. I hope our book reflects that same sense of landscape and community for the Greater Yellowstone and its capstone, the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

EDITOR'S NOTE: To learn more about the history of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, read these essays published in Mountain Journal by Billings author and journalist Ed Kemmick.


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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