Books for the Mountain Life

Book Shelf

If I’m not selling ranches or training for some harebrained endurance event, chances are I’m reading.  For the last few years, my goal has been to read at least 40 books annually, and the vast majority of that reading is non-fiction.  While I enjoy a wide variety of topics, my favorite subject is the history of the American West.  Given my profession and the fact that I live three blocks from the eastern flanks of the Rocky Mountains, I’m constantly surrounded by rich history of explorers, cowboys, Native Americans, miners, and ranchers.  I’ve found that the more I read and study, the more meaningful and interesting my work, travel, and explorations around the West become.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you are a fan of the Rocky Mountain lifestyle – jagged peaks, wild rivers, wide-open wilderness, mountain towns, and outdoor adventures.  Below are several book recommendations that will contribute to your understanding and appreciation of the western United States, and hopefully enhance your enjoyment of time in and around the Rocky Mountains.

Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose – To fully understand and appreciate the history of the American West, one must start at the beginning – Lewis and Clark’s first transcontinental exploration of North America.  Without the forethought of President Thomas Jefferson and the bravery and effectiveness of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the United States of America could very well not extend much beyond the Mississippi River.  The dynamic duo’s expedition opened the doors for further exploration, commerce, and well-trampled trade routes that allowed America to firmly claim the continent. (Further reading:  Peter Stark’s Astoria describes the first commercial transcontinental expedition, financed by John J. Astor and carried out just a few years after Lewis and Clark’s journey.  Very entertaining and informative.)

Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands by D. Silvestro – It’s safe to say that I’m obsessed with Theodore Roosevelt.  He lived a amazingly full life that included accomplished careers as an author, scientist, explorer, soldier, and police commissioner, not to mention his 7.5 years as our 26th President.  One of the most interesting periods of TR’s life was his time as a ranchman, living and working in the Badlands of what is now South Dakota.  This book focuses almost exclusively on those years, and gives great insights into how wild and crazy the West was during the late 1800s, when it was still the true Frontier.  (Further reading: Check out The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris.  It’s my favorite book and covers TR’s life from birth through just before he assumes the office of the Presidency.  No joke, it’s a life-changing book.)

Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan – This is the intense, sad, yet wildly entertaining story of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s that devastated portions of Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas.  Similar to the Lewis and Clark story, it will give you a new appreciation for just how damn tough these frontier-living Americans were, and, conversely, just how cushy most of our lives are.  It also serves as a cautionary tale about how quickly irreversible damage can be caused by disrespect for the environment, irresponsible development, government corruption, and basic greed.  If you don’t know how to read, you can check out Ken Burns’ documentary on the subject – The Dust Bowl.  (Further reading:  Read The Big Burn, also by Egan.  It’s the story of an enormously devastating Idaho forest fire, the creation of the National Forest Service, and the work of TR and his right hand man, Gifford Pinchot.  Great read.)

Beyond the 100th Meridian by Wallace Stegner – This is the story of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed, self-educated Civil War vet who was the first to descend the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.  Did you get that?  A one-armed man in a wooden boat running the rapids of the Grand Canyon, when no one had any idea if such a trip was even possible.  I’ve descended the Grand Canyon, and even in inflatable, basically unsinkable boats with dam-controlled water flows, that trip is no joke.  And as if the exploration portion of Powell’s life wasn’t enough, he went on to become an expert on Rocky Mountain watersheds and was a staunch advocate for the responsible, sustainable settlement of the American West.  The government failed to heed Powell’s warnings, and now many of the consequences he warned against are coming home to roost, particularly in California.  (Further reading: If you are interested in water and development in the West, read Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner.  It is the definitive account of the modern water policies that have allowed the land west of the 100th Meridian to be developed.)

For more reading suggestions, please visit my personal blog Mountain & Prairie, where I periodically review and recommend a wide selection of books about the American West.