The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of a Vanishing Way of Life Along the Continental Divide [NOOK Book]


In recent years, Los Angeles Times writer and editor Frank Clifford has journeyed along the Continental Divide, the hemispheric watershed that spans North America from the alkali badlands of southernmost New Mexico to the roof of the Rockies in Montana and into Canada. The result is The Backbone of the World, an arresting exploration of America’s longest wilderness corridor, a harsh and unforgiving region inhabited by men and women whose way of...
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The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of a Vanishing Way of Life Along the Continental Divide

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In recent years, Los Angeles Times writer and editor Frank Clifford has journeyed along the Continental Divide, the hemispheric watershed that spans North America from the alkali badlands of southernmost New Mexico to the roof of the Rockies in Montana and into Canada. The result is The Backbone of the World, an arresting exploration of America’s longest wilderness corridor, a harsh and unforgiving region inhabited by men and women whose way of life is as imperiled as the neighboring wildlife.

With the brutal beauty and stark cadences of a Cormac McCarthy novel, The Backbone of the World tells the story of the last remnants of the Old West, America’s mythic landscape, where past and present are barely discernible from one another and where people’s lives are still intrinsically linked to their natural surroundings. Clifford vividly captures the challenges of life along the Divide today through portraits of memorable characters: a ranching family whose isolated New Mexico homestead has become a mecca for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers; a sheep herder struggling to make a living tending his flock in the mountains above Vail, Colorado: an old mule packer who has spent years scouring the mountains of northwest Wyoming for the downed plane of his son; a Yellowstone Park ranger on a lone crusade to protect elk and grizzly bears from illegal hunters; and a group of Blackfeet Indians in northern Montana who are fearful that a wilderness sanctuary will be lost to oil and gas development. In each of their stories, the tide of change is looming as environmental, economic, social, and political forces threaten this uniquely unfettered population.

Clifford’s participatory approach offers a haunting and immediate evocation of character and geography and an unsentimental eulogy to the people whose disappearance will sever a link with the defining American pioneer spirit. Set in a world of isolated ranches, trail camps, mountain bivouacs, and forgotten hamlets, The Backbone of the World highlights the frontier values that have both ennobled and degraded us, values that symbolize the last breath of our founding character.
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Editorial Reviews

Maria Russo
``He (Clifford) documents with rare equanimity the politics of land, water, gun control, religious freedom, conservation and mining that have become more and more entrenched and vicious...Ultimately, though his subject is wilderness and the blend of fear and fascination it inspires...Clifford's subtle and heartfelt book is itself an articulate brief for saving land that humans touch lightly or not at all.'
New York Times
Rick Bass
`The reporting found in `The Backbone of the World' is substantial and of the most wonderful kind, with the numbers, dates and statistics woven carefully into the stories. And the breadth of the book--profiles of a variety of land use practitioners from south to north along the Continental Divide Trail is considerable....Clifford's book captures the tenor and angst of the time, and the voices are reported and presented fairly.
Los Angeles Times
Irene Wanner
In The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of the Vanishing West Along the Continental Divide, Clifford is a compassionate, caring writer who brings much skill and eloquence to his self-apointed asignment...As he ranges from the Canadian Rockies to southwestern New Mexico's Bootheel, Clifford's curiosity provides many eye-opening visions of this magical land, its scoundrels and defenders.
Seattle Times
Publishers Weekly
Somewhere in the middle of America, far from the tourist-welcoming beaches of Los Angeles and buildings of New York, lies a land set back in time. Clifford, the environment editor of the Los Angeles Times, explores that land, the place where nature separates America the Pacific from America the Atlantic, the great wilderness known as the Continental Divide. Clifford seeks to dwell in the Continental Divide, to live and breathe its prejudices and people, to report on a Western way of life forgotten by most of the West. The author writes in stark, unadorned prose a style befitting the ways of life and people he describes. Yet despite his sympathies with the few remaining cowboys and his efforts to help steer cattle or hunt coyotes, he always seems to be left on the outside of the action, a city boy looking in at these rural folk. And this alienation, conveyed in unconventionally barren language, ends up marring the book rather than making it. Despite the abundantly esoteric subject matter, the country folk Clifford encounters remain stereotypes (a token cowboy, an old recluse, rich urbanites looking for adventure), and both his descriptions and his rendering of dialogue do little more than sketch two-dimensional outlines of human existence, a rugged way of life in a wilderness that few know still exists. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In his first book, Clifford, a journalist for over 30 years and currently the environmental news editor of the Los Angeles Times, writes about ten encounters with people who by choice continue to live in the stark wilderness found along the Continental Divide. By living several days with a shepherd in Colorado, the Blackfeet in Montana, cattle ranchers in Wyoming and New Mexico, a park ranger in the remote part of Yellowstone National Park, and others residing along the divide, Clifford is able to describe to the reader how and why these people choose to live in this wilderness. In each instance, their struggle is not only with nature but with the government officials, commercial interests, environmentalists, and tourists who constantly encroach on their way of life. The lack of maps is this book's only drawback. An excellent supplement to the guides available on hiking the Continental Divide, this book also stands alone as an introduction to the issues facing this remote region of the West. Recommended for public and academic libraries. John McCormick, New Hampshire State Lib., Concord Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A balanced report brought back by Los Angeles Times science and environmental editor Clifford after extensive rambles through the raw country of the US Continental Divide. Along the divide, as it snakes its way from New Mexico to Montana, live people who still make a living off horseback. Veteran journalist Clifford's intent is to gain a sense of this "world of remote ranches, one-room schoolhouses, volunteer fire departments, gyppos, trappers, prospectors, and range riders," to find out just why they are there, typically staring economic failure in the face every day. He isn't here to judge-though it's obvious that his sympathies lie with an undamaged landscape-but to witness both what appears to be a doomed way of life and some of the last great wilderness in the Lower Forty-eights. His tactic is to make contact with an individual and in that person's company spend some time, be it with a shepherd on the ragged financial edge above the tony resorts of Vail and Copper Mountain, or with a rancher on a cattle drive, a mule packer, or a group of loggers. These are small-scale operators, and their environmental impact is minor, but what is in jeopardy, and gets Clifford's attention, is the extinction of a way of life outside the thrum, one he can identify as a fancier of the wild, of chaos and old night, places "hostile to life but full of life, elemental and mysterious." And he does an excellent job of summoning these lives. What sticks in his craw are the instances of rural decay, though he admits it is "expatriate's syndrome," when "poor, indigenous people don't behave the way you want them to," people who are more difficult to get into focus than the guy who chirps "You need to be ableto go out a kill something" as he gears up for a coyote hunt. A well-told tale of a place that breaches the centuries-a place to measure what has been lost.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767911283
  • Publisher: Crown/Archetype
  • Publication date: 6/18/2002
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 288
  • File size: 529 KB

Meet the Author

Currently the environment editor for the Los Angeles Times, FRANK CLIFFORD has been a journalist for more than thirty years. Before coming to California, he wrote about the American West for newspapers in Santa Fe, Tucson, and Dallas. A native of Minnesota, he lives with his wife in Los Angeles.

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Read an Excerpt


Once, finding a wilderness trailhead was like looking for the entrance to a secret passageway. You got there by following a homemade map that resembled a child's crayon drawing of barns, churches, and hay fields until you got to the end of a dirt track with weeds growing down the middle. You peered into a green wall of forest, searching for the spot where the trees parted and a wisp of a trail took off. For those of us who get slightly giddy at the idea of a weeklong trip into the wilderness, a proper trailhead can hold all of the pent-up excitement of New York Harbor or Grand Central Station in the grand old days of ocean crossings and transcontinental rail trips. Poised at the edge of the world, you waited for the snap of the conductor's watch and the lurch of the locomotive to bear you off to the exquisite unknown.

I'm looking for Turpin Meadows, a flat spot along the Buffalo River, in the upper left corner of Wyoming about eight miles southwest of the Continental Divide. Turpin Meadows is a popular trailhead and the gateway to the largest contiguous spread of wilderness in the lower forty-eight states. Drive into the parking lot, I was told, and search out a red Dodge pickup pulling a trailer full of mules, driven by an old coot wearing red suspenders. Those were my instructions for finding Dick Inberg, from Inberg himself.

I had not intended to start my journey on the Mexican border only to hopscotch 2,000 miles to northern Wyoming. But fate had intervened in the form of drought and forest fire, temporarily closing off a chunk of countryside in between, and so I was forced to go where nature permitted. The pattern would repeat itself. I'd go where I could: from New Mexico to Wyoming and back, then north to Colorado and Montana before doubling back again. I'd get used to it. I have always had a nomad's indifference to a well-planned future. I like waking up in unfamiliar places. I am a city dweller, a "dude" in the old-fashioned sense of the word. But as Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling, among other famous dudes, discovered a long time ago when they toured the American West, city dwellers often have more in common with country folk than they realize. They are not risk averse. They thrive on the unexpected.

Bruce ward of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance told me about Dick Inberg. He said he had been roaming around the mountains of northwest Wyoming for a long time, and no one knew the territory better. For the past two summers, Inberg had been volunteering for the Alliance, working to complete a section of the Continental Divide Trail through the Teton Wilderness. He invited me to join him in exploring one of the few stretches of this country he had not seen--the lower reach of Two Ocean Plateau, a long barrier ridge that rises above timberline to just over 10,000 feet. He planned to go in from the south, just below Yellowstone Park. He suspected that the only trail that went up the plateau petered out on top amid glacial rubble and shallow tarns. "I want to go and find out just how lost you can get up there," he chuckled over the phone. "Sound like a good plan to you?"

Turpin Meadows is a large campground perched at the head of a narrow valley that leads into the Teton Wilderness. The afternoon I get there it is as busy as a truck stop on an interstate highway. I drive in circles, dizzied by the crush of vehicles and horse trailers and the steady drone of diesels and the thump-thump of generators. There are at least 100 people milling about. Some are camped here, as close to the wilderness as they can get and still live out of a motor home. Others are clients of commercial outfitters preparing to ride into the mountains. They stand by their horses, fiddling with unfamiliar trail garb, chaps, and spurs, applying sunscreen to children's faces, waiting for a signal to mount up. Some of the larger ones require assistance. The horses bear up stoically. They are already heavily laden, camera bags tied to saddle horns, folding chairs and fishing rods strapped to their flanks, and water bottles and sack lunches bulging out of saddlebags.

Ah, wilderness.

Eventually, I spot a large man wearing red suspenders. He is standing in one of the camping alcoves, having a furious argument with another, much smaller man. The two are standing toe to toe, snarling at each other like a pair of lunging dogs. Inberg, 6-foot, 4-inches, with a wide slab of a torso, towers over his pudgy antagonist, but the little fellow doesn't back off. He calls Inberg a scofflaw. Inberg calls him a puffed up little Hitler. They are arguing over a $5 admission fee, which Inberg doesn't think he should have to pay. The other man is the campground "host."

All the while, Inberg's wife, Judy, is pulling gently at her husband's sleeve and attempting to point out that the golden age card he thinks entitles him to free admission is not valid here.

"Dick, Dick, your card is only good at Department of Interior campgrounds. This camp is run by the Department of Agriculture."

There is a pause as Inberg looks at his wife and fingers his golden age card.

"OK, Adolph, I guess you win. Satisfied?"

"Not until I get your money," the little man says, but he is retreating now. "And not until I get his," he says, waving disdainfully in my direction.

Inberg, who appears invigorated by the fracas, extends a big paw in my direction and grins. He has a broad, coarse-featured face with liquid eyes, arching brows, and creases that make him seem like he is smiling, even when he isn't. He introduces his wife and suggests we go over to the corral and meet his mules.

"I want you to meet Stuart. You'll be riding Stuart. The two of you will be spending some time together, and it's a good idea for you to get to know each other. A mule needs to be talked to, see. Ya, he does."

At the corral I meet Trouble, Inberg's mule; Apollo and Hay Boy, two magnificently muscled pack animals; and Stuart, who looks morose and potbellied and reminds me of Eeyore, the dyspeptic donkey in Winnie-the-Pooh.

"The thing about a mule," Inberg says, "you can count on him for life. If he likes you. But if he don't, God help you."

"Hello, Stuart. How you doing? Looking forward to the trip?" I give his fat, sleek rump a friendly pat. He moves away.

At sixty-three Inberg has been riding his mules around the mountains for forty years. The son of a Finnish farmer, he grew up in a little town in northern Wisconsin where hunting and trapping were the normal pursuits of rural kids trying to earn pocket money. He came west in the 1950s, lured by a uranium boom, to prospect in the Gas Hills in central Wyoming. After a few years and not a whole lot of luck, he went into the land-surveying business. He married Judy and built a house in the irrigated farm country outside Riverton. In the early 1960s, he began exploring the Absaroka Mountains that fold around the southeast corner of Yellowstone Park. Over the years, these humpbacked massifs became Inberg's second home. At first, it was just a summer playground where he took his kids to hunt and fish. But in time the Absaroka formed the geography of his life.

He nearly died in an accident a few years ago on the Trident Plateau just east of Yellowstone Park. He still limps from the massive injuries. In his head, he carries around the map of a four-year-long search for his son Kirk, a wildlife biologist whose plane went down in the Absaroka in 1991.

Inberg has another life. He runs his own surveying company and is president of the Riverton Lions Club. But he says he is most comfortable in the mountains. He travels by himself most of the time, though he admits he has become cautious, maybe even a bit superstitious. He wears a belt and suspenders. He coddles his mules, slathering them with liniment at the slightest sign of abraded skin. When he packs them, he uses customized pack straps he made out of trampoline cloth that won't pinch the delicate flesh behind their forelegs. On steep descents, he dismounts and leads his animals. It's easier on them and safer. He rarely travels more than fifteen miles a day. There are places he won't return to. The Trident Plateau is one.

By firelight that evening in Turpin Meadows, he unfolds an oilskin map and goes over the route we will take.

"From right here, we'll go up the north fork of the Buffalo, past Soda Fork, up North Fork Meadows to Trail Creek." He pronounces it "crick." "Probably, we'll spend tomorrow night at Trail Creek, ya. There's good grass for the mules and we won't have to push all that hard to get there. Then we'll follow Pacific Creek to Two Ocean Pass and try to make our way up over the plateau."

If there's snow on the trail or a storm is threatening, we'll have to skirt the plateau's high, exposed crown and settle for a longer, less adventurous course around the southern flank. We wouldn't be the first travelers foiled by Two Ocean Plateau. Jim Bridger, the famous mountain man and scout, was leading a U.S. Army surveying party to the park in the early summer of 1860, when deep snow forced him to detour around it. A "bird wouldn't fly over there without taking a supply of grub along," Bridger told the party's commanding officer, Captain W. F. Raynolds. The setback delayed the first official survey of Yellowstone Park for ten years.

Inberg believes we will have better luck. Besides, if we were to get stuck up there, we have a pannier full of grub--steaks, chops, sausages, beef stew--and a stove to cook it on.

"If we don't get lost, I figure we'll come off the plateau at Phelps Pass and camp over on Mink Creek," he says. "There's a good spot on Mink Creek where I stashed some firewood a couple of years ago. Then the next day we'll drop down into Fox Park. It's a real pretty place, and we might just have it to ourselves. The fishing isn't so hot, and the outfitters don't tend to take many tourists in there. We'll lay over in Fox Park a day or two, and maybe do some day riding into Yellowstone. After that, hell, I don't know. Maybe, come back down around Enos Lake to Clear Creek. We'll figure it out when the time comes."

Altogether, we plan to cover a 100-plus leisurely miles. We'll be following a network of trails blazed by Shoshone Indians who came north on hunting trips into the Yellowstone region. Crossing over Two Ocean Pass, we'll intersect the trail many historians believe John Colter took in 1808 when he became, in all likelihood, the first white man to lay eyes on Yellowstone's fuming wonders. He returned with stories of smoking pits, noxious streams, brimstone odors, and a fifty-foot-long petrified fish. Some people wondered if Colter's account wasn't all one big fish story. Real or imagined, it sounded like a fearful place, and the Yellowstone country came to be known as "Colter's Hell." It wasn't designated a national park for another sixty-four years.

In the morning Inberg and I saddle up after a hot breakfast fixed by Judy.

"Aren't you going to kiss me goodbye?" she asks her husband.

But Inberg, mounted on Trouble, has already developed a case of the 100-mile stare. His mind's eye is fixed way out there on an aspen grove near the juncture of Trail Creek and Pacific Creek where he hopes to find a two-year-old cache of firewood and tepee poles, if he can only recall the hiding place.

"Goodbye." Judy Inberg waves. "Be careful."

The best thing about Turpin Meadows is how fast it disappears once you're on the trail. You round a bend, and a curtain parts on a world not unlike the one Colter and Bridger saw. You are on a sliver of trail grooved into a steep, forested mountainside that falls away to the North Fork of the Buffalo, a shining ribbon of water 500 feet below.

"Come on, you lazy bugger," Inberg says.

He is talking not to me but to Trouble, the mule he raised from a rubber-legged colt. Trouble's pace is set by his own internal metronome, and some mornings the beat is barely perceptible. But no amount of cursing or flogging will change it. Nor is Trouble always in a traveling mood. He may stop at the first stream, turn around, and head for home. But he ran the race of his life once, saving Inberg's life in the process, and the two of them are bonded now like bickering brothers.

"That way is Soda Fork," Inberg says, pointing to a trail that splits off to the east. "That's where they found Kirk's plane."

For most of the morning, we travel in silence, listening to the clink and groan of tack, to muffled hoofbeats on soft earth, the screech of jays, and the tattoo of woodpeckers on hollow trees. The sounds aren't unique to wild places. We aren't hearing howler monkeys or jaguars. You can hear jays and woodpeckers in your backyard, but the sounds usually aren't as true. Wilderness is the great clarifier.

After an hour, the forest gradually gives way to North Fork Meadows, a ten-mile-long dogleg of open country. It is the main access route for fishermen and hunters into the game-rich Thorofare region thirty miles northeast of here. Thousands of people, horses, and mules come through every year, and the trail they have cut, actually a dozen parallel ruts, is twenty-five feet across. In wet weather it becomes a muddy slough. Grooved like a giant storm drain, the trail captures moisture that might otherwise feed trees and grass and sluices it away to creeks and rivers. Much of the native vegetation has been lost, replaced by hardier invader plants that offer little nourishment to wildlife.

Yet, it remains a lovely scene. Nature has a way of camouflaging its wounds. In the perverse way that graffiti can masquerade as art, a scarred landscape can seem as arresting as an unblemished one. To an ecologist, the spare, geometrical contours of a steeply down-cut river channel slicing through bald earth are the classic signs of desertification. Yet, such a damaged place is often startlingly beautiful. Erosion created the Grand Canyon. Travel magazines refer to the close cropped meadows of Yellowstone Park as America's Serengeti, neglecting to point out that the veldlike beauty is the result of overgrazing by wildlife. The Trail Creek campsite where Inberg and I stop for the night has a welcoming spaciousness that belies its sorry condition. The ground where we pitch our tents has been cleared of bushes, rocks, and nettles. The trees have been stripped of low-hanging branches, their trunks burled, and their delicate roots exposed. For years, people have been tying their mounts to the trees. The horses have eaten all the grass and pawed away at the earth, damaging the roots and girdling the tree trunks as they pulled against their halter ropes. Now the ground is barren and the trees are dying.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Table of Contents

Prologue 1
Mythopolis 17
Hanging Tree Ranch 45
The Shepherd 71
The Badger 95
Action Jackson 120
Home on the Range 146
The Ponderosa 171
Tierra o Muerte 199
The Bootheel 224
Oh, Canada 246
Bibliography 263
Sources and Acknowledgments 271
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2002

    From Both Sides of the Line

    Pulling together incidents and insights from his many journeys, Clifford brings us along to view the stunning Divide. He explores not only the physical barrier that marks eastern and western watersheds, but an emotional/mental one as well as he travels with environmentalists, ranchers, loners, rangers, and others with varying, often vitriolic, opinions about the land and whose it is. For various reasons, Clifford is not a welcome visitor with all his guests and he doesn't spare us their anger or his humiliation in these chapters. All along, we know where he stands. We know where they stand too, yet Clifford judges no one but himself - a very generous writer of a wonderful book.

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