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Mountain Time

Universally praised and now in its fourth edition since its original publication in 1984, Mountain Time offers an insider's incomparable view of a natural jewel that has become a geographic mecca and household name—Yellowstone National Park. Mountain Time is about nature and wildness, personal revelation and public attitudes—about what happens when people meet wilderness. Schullery opens a window on the life of a national park ranger—an occupation that sandwiches encounters with recalcitrant elk, eccentric human beings, and dangerous, endangered bears in between an appreciation of timeless natural wonders.

The spirit that infuses Schullery’s Mountain Time is related to Thoreau’s Walden . . . he has that quality rare to a nature writer—humor. There is much more, all of it paraded in a friendly and carefully assembled prose.—The Christian Science Monitor

Schullery is not pious, nor sentimental, nor grim. He is funny, a natural storyteller. The combination of a keen raconteur and a subject as powerful as Yellowstone is unbeatable.—The Los Angeles Times Book Review

Excerpt from Mountain Time: The Preface

A wise friend of mine, a biologist, once told me, “Whenever things are going particularly badly I take a walk in the sage above the cabin and sit there thinking about the park in geological terms. That helps keep what happens in the next hundred years in perspective.” She’s right. I do the same thing myself now, not as an escape, you understand, but as a restorative and as a stimulant. Workdays, schedules, deadlines . . . all this human busyness fades a bit from the perspective of mountain time. Mountain time is without zones, midnights, or seventeen jewel works. The slower something moves, the longer it lasts. Mountains outlast trees, trees outlast people. Mountains grow old, soften, weaken, and shrink, like people do, but much more slowly.

Sculptors and their admirers speak of carving a monument into the “living rock” of a cliff face. Poets and whimsical ecologists speak of the “pulse of the earth.” The analogies are common, but ascribing life to a hill or a ravine is more anthropomorphism than I can handle. Mountains don’t have to have life. They have time, and they have it on such a scale that I don’t even register in their geologic memory unless I take tools to them and change them faster than they would be changed without me. Another wise friend once counseled some Yellowstone visitors that collecting rocks in the park was worse than picking flowers because “it takes a rock a lot longer to grow back.”

Mountain time is simple enough, and poetic enough, that we don’t have to call it life. Metamorphic rock is exciting and dynamic enough; anthropomorphic rock is unnecessary. There is life enough on the mountains—vegetation, wild animals, tame animals, people—a fast dance of life, scratching away at the surface with taproots, hooves, mandibles, Vibram soles, and road graders, all for the sake of spending a little time in the mountains.

Yellowstone was a surprise to me. As a man in my early twenties, after a childhood of steady moving (ten schools in ten years), the last thing I expected to find was a sense of place. Like many young people whose parents moved frequently, my place was with my family. Sense of place was a cliché, and not only did I not expect to find such a thing in Yellowstone, I didn’t know I needed it. But apparently I did, for within days of my arrival I felt an attachment growing—a vague comfort with my surroundings.

At the same time, growing coincident with this feeling of being home, I found a sense of wonder. Yellowstone spoke to me, sang to me, of a wild, strong, unexperienced, and good life. My previous trips to the West, little more than hasty vacations, had given a hint of this. I’d known for years that the high West had something for me. I’d felt on those earlier trips an attraction, and was vaguely aware of a need to be in the West, but I could never have identified the cause, much less trace it to this joy of surroundings I now felt soaking into me. Not only was I home, I was in love.

It seems that one barely has time to enjoy the discovery of a new love before the old fears creep in: Can it last? Will it go stale, or be lost to another? Love of wild country carries those risks. No sooner was I awakened to the joys than I began to learn the threats: the enormously complicated economic, social, political, and biological forces that constantly threaten Yellowstone. The thought of the chaotic flow of desires and motivations that compels millions of people to enjoy, use, and exploit Yellowstone gave me a sense of cause. I had come home, not only to a place, not only to a love, but to a responsibility.

Had Yellowstone, a hundred years old and thriving, been a person—a grand old lady, to follow the prevailing cliché—she would have been amused at this young ranger with his sudden commitment to defend her honor. And, because at a hundred years of age she had seen many young men transformed by her charms, she could have told me that I had a lot to learn.