The New West: New book a Yellowstone love letter written with the eye

Michael Yochim watching bighorn sheep on Yellowstone’s Specimen Ridge in 2004, nine years before he was diagnosed with ALS. PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL YOCHIM CREDIT: David J Swift By Todd Wilkinson EBS ENVIRONMENTAL COLUMNIST

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 reach again.

“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, as if the book shines among others like it.

But on the dust jacket, the reason why “Essential Yellowstone” ranks instead as a heroic tome, delivering a lesson in grace and humility, becomes clear. We are informed that 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.”

Just for a moment absorb that last part again. Yochim can’t 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 no longer utter a spoken word.

Yochim is, by his own acknowledgment, nearly incapacitated. He has a terminal illness, 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. The cover of Michael Yochim’s new book “Essential Yellowstone: A Landscape of Memory and Wonder.” COURTESY OF MICHAEL YOCHIM And yet, in “Essential Yellowstone,” Yochim takes us on hikes 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, 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 does Yochim painstakingly write tens of thousands of words, letter by letter, filling 300 pages, with his eyes, 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 thing and its brilliance transcends physical prowess.

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.

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 […]

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