The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks

by Terry Tempest Williams


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Longlisted for an Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence

A Washington Post Notable Book of the Year

America’s national parks are breathing spaces in a world in which such spaces are steadily disappearing, which is why more than 300 million people visit the parks each year. Now Terry Tempest Williams, the New York Times bestselling author of the environmental classic Refuge and the beloved memoir When Women Were Birds, returns with The Hour of Land, a literary celebration of our national parks and an exploration of what they mean to us and what we mean to them.

From the Grand Tetons in Wyoming to Acadia in Maine to Big Bend in Texas, Williams creates a series of lyrical portraits that illuminate the unique grandeur of each place while delving into what it means to shape a landscape with its own evolutionary history into something of our own making. Part memoir, part natural history, and part social critique, The Hour of Land is a meditation and a manifesto on why wild lands matter to the soul of America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250132147
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 07/03/2017
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 187,274
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 5.70(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS is the award-winning author of fifteen books, including Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and When Women Were Birds. Her work has been widely anthologized around the world. She lives in Castle Valley, Utah, with her husband, Brooke Williams.

Read an Excerpt

The Hour of Land

A Personal Topography of America's National Parks

By Terry Tempest Williams

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Terry Tempest Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71226-6



By definition

In big bend national park, the Rio Grande is so low because of drought, locals are calling it the Rio Sand. The river that separates the United States and Mexico is shallow enough in some places that a person can walk across the river in ten steps, maybe less. American children skip stones across its surface — one, two ... the third skip lands abruptly on the other side. The same stones are picked up by Mexican children who skip them back across to the other bank in Boquillas Canyon. The game continues back and forth until parents intervene. On one side of the Rio Grande, tourists stand. On the other side, men and boys are herding goats. Breach the border and you will be arrested, American or Mexican, it doesn't matter. Border police could be anywhere. Black phoebes fly across the river, occasionally touching water like the stones skipped across international lines. In the twenty-first century, borders are fluid, not fixed, especially in our national parks.

Earlier in the day, I met a veteran from Desert Storm, the first Gulf War. His name was Bill Summers. Bill was a tall man with hair cut short; lean and muscular, rugged-looking in his camouflage fatigues — the kind of handsome that can't be brought down by a few missing teeth. I had noticed him picking up trash along the Ross-Maxwell Scenic Drive; his backpack, with his sleeping bag and bedroll, was propped against the hillside by the side of the road.

We ran into each other at the Panther Junction Visitor Center on the interpretive trail. "Purple-tinged prickly pear — now there's a mouthful," he said.

"Yes, it is," I said, "especially, if you try to say it fast."

We began talking about cactus, how well adapted they are to drought conditions and arid country.

"I've been a volunteer in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park," he said. "The plants around the craters are also skilled at surviving harsh conditions." A brown shirt with the Hawaiian park's insignia was neatly tucked into his fatigues.

"How long did you volunteer there?"

"Three years."

"And you're here now?"

"Hoping to be. Just turned in my application today, ma'am."

"Does it look like they'll hire you?"

"It's lookin' that way."

"Why Big Bend?"

"The desert suits me, ma'am. Not a lot of people around here."

We moved to the next plant — cholla.

"The Devil's Stick," I said.

"That could do some serious harm to a man's leg," Bill replied.

"How long have you been volunteering in the national parks?"

"Since I returned home from Iraq in 1991. Served some time in the Grand Canyon; I've been all over. Our national parks are the most important thing we've got going in this country," Bill said. "As the human population increases, the wild places not only become more valuable but more threatened. It's another way for me to protect our homeland, ma'am."

Bill Summers reminded me of my friend Doug Peacock, a vet from the Vietnam War. Doug and I met on a trail in Glacier National Park in 1982 and shared a similar conversation. Doug served two tours as a medic in the Army Special Forces, a Green Beret. A decade later, he would describe in his memoir, Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness, how a topographical map of Yellowstone National Park kept him half-sane in an insane war. Every night, he'd pull out the map and run his fingers over familiar country, transporting himself out of the jungle and into the mountains. He left Vietnam on the first day of the Tet Offensive, January 30, 1968.

Peacock returned home with wounds no one could see, and he disappeared into Yellowstone. Then he took a job as a volunteer on a fire lookout in Glacier National Park, where he not only watched for smoke, he watched for grizzly bears, and when he found them, he passed whole days in their presence. He didn't fear them, he was in awe of them. As he came to know individual bears, his heart slowly began to open to the beauty of the world. The grizzlies returned him to a life he could believe in. As payback, Doug Peacock would become one of the grizzly bears' fiercest advocates.

* * *

"Where are you from?" Bill asked.


"Now, there's a place to live."

"We live near Arches and Canyonlands."

Bill nodded. "Gorgeous parks. Been there."

"So, Bill, when you're a volunteer in a park, what do you do exactly?"

"Anything that's needed, ma'am, everything from backcountry rangering to trail maintenance to assisting people in trouble. You name it, I've done it, and believe me, with the Park Service hurting for funds, there's a lot to be done."

The conversation shifted to Big Bend.

"Have you been to the border of Boquillas near Rio Grande Village?" I asked.

"Not yet."

I told him about the kids skipping stones across the border.

"I read today that Congress is trying to introduce legislation to build a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexican border," he said.

"Can you imagine a wall in Big Bend?"

"Personally, I don't think much of fences, ma'am, and that goes for walls, too."

He bent down and rubbed his fingers across the small waxy leaves of the next plant. "Have you smelled creosote?" he asked. "Mighty fine scent."

"Last night, after the rain, the air was fresh with it."

"People don't come to places like these to see a damn wall." Bill shifted his weight and stuck his hands in his pockets. "I think there needs to be more emphasis on taking care of what's here, not what's over there."

Our conversation grew more personal. He asked whether I had ever worked for the Park Service. I told him that I, too, had been a volunteer in the parks — Grand Teton National Park, in 1974. I was a year out of high school. I took early-morning bird walks down by Blacktail Ponds along the Snake River, but I kept seeing birds that had never before been reported in Grand Teton, so the park officials grew suspicious of me.

"I only lasted a season," I said.

Summers laughed.

"In fact, one of the birds in question was an acorn woodpecker. I saw one today in the Chisos Basin and it was like seeing an old friend."

Bill told me he grew up on a farm in central Florida. "Course any farm boy's itchin' to leave, so I joined the military, enlisted in the army and took advantage of what they could give me. Then Iraq blew up and I went over. Came home pretty messed up. Paddled around the swamps in South Carolina to clear my head. There was a lot going on with me, wild places can unwind a mind. You calm down a bit. I found my way to the national parks. It was a free place to live without being bothered. And then, I learned about volunteering. The Park Service gives you a place to live and enough money for food and incidentals. That was more than enough for me."

"I have a friend who served in Vietnam and worked in Glacier National Park — grizzly bears saved his life ..."

"That wouldn't be Doug Peacock, would it, ma'am?"

"You know him?" I asked.

"Doug Peacock's my hero. George Washington Hayduke." Peacock served as the model for the character of Hayduke in Edward Abbey's novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. Bill turned around. "I love that book. Love Ed Abbey. They've been a real source of inspiration for me."

Bill Summers's eyes steadied for the first time. "You see, ma'am, I guess it's a small world out here in the big open for us veterans. Tell Mr. Peacock hello for me next time you see him." He paused. "And tell him, thank you."

* * *

America's national parks were a vision seen through the horrors of war.

On June 30, 1864, not long after the Civil War's most deadly battle, at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant into law, protecting for the first time — for all time — land secured for the future. Yosemite Valley and the ancient, giant sequoias of the Mariposa Grove located there were written into law as America's inaugural nature preserve ceded to the state of California, later to be expanded and established as a national park in 1890. Though this war-weary president would never see the glory of El Capitan or the beauty of its reflection in the Merced River, he had experienced them through the images of photographers — Carleton Watkins, Timothy O'Sullivan, and Eadweard Muybridge. These magnificent lands were alive in Lincoln's imagination and he believed they might offer a unifying peace for a divided nation.

The irony was this: Fourteen years prior to the signing of the Yosemite Land Grant, another war had been fought here — the Mariposa Indian War, from 1850 to 1851.

It is a chapter buried in America's history. In the midst of the California Gold Rush, the Mariposa Battalion, a volunteer militia company under the banner of California, had gone to battle against the Ahwahneechee Indians who lived in the Yosemite Valley. The Ahwahneechees resisted the invasion but were eventually defeated. In an act the military leadership deemed respectful, they named the lake where the war was fought after Chief Tenaya, leader of the Ahwahnee, but to the chief, this well-intentioned gesture served as a final humiliation. In the name of Manifest Destiny, Tenaya and his people were removed from their home ground and assigned to a reservation near Fresno, California. This reservation was short-lived as Congress did not ratify any of the eighteen treaties made with California Indians between 1851 and 1852. As a result, Miwoks, Monos, and Yokuts remained living in their traditional homelands with no claim to the land, always on guard against white settlers.

This is a book about relationships inside America's national parks, and as is always the case with relations, the bonds formed, severed, and renewed within these federal lands are complicated. They are also fundamental to who we are as a country. Whether historical or ecological, political or personal, the connective tissue that holds together or tears apart our public lands begins with "We, the People."

Our national parks receive more than 300 million visitations a year. What are we searching for and what do we find? As we Americans and visitors from abroad explore the 400-plus sites within the national park system that includes national parks, monuments, battlefields, historic sites, seashores, and recreation areas located in all fifty states, perhaps it is not so much what we learn that matters in these moments of awe and wonder, but what we feel in relationship to a world beyond ourselves, even beyond our own species.

I was raised in the state of Utah, where five national parks and seven national monuments are commonplace. We took them for granted: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef were in our backyard, the land where our families gathered and we roamed free. We hiked the Zion Narrows and escaped a flash flood.

On that same trip, my brother and I camped against a red rock wall and in the morning when we awoke, a boulder had fallen between us. We cross-country skied in Bryce Canyon, convinced the pink and yellow pinnacles of stone were lit from the inside out, especially at night. In Capitol Reef, we picked peaches from orchards planted by Mormon pioneers. We knew that Arches and Canyonlands were an acquired taste, a bare-boned landscape more akin to Mars than to Earth. Natural Bridges had the darkest, star-struck skies, the place where I almost died falling off a cliff, with 136 stitches running down my forehead like a red river and a lifelong scar to prove it. We learned early on we live by wild mercy.

But it was standing inside Timpanogos Cave (a national monument) as an eight-year-old child that marked me. We hiked up the steep mountain trail that rises a thousand feet from the valley floor in a short mile and a half. We were hiking with our church group from Salt Lake City, just an hour north. We reached the entrance of the cave and were ushered in by a park ranger. Immediately, the cool air locked inside the mountain enveloped us and we wore it as loose clothing. Immense stalactites and stalagmites hung down from the ceiling and rose up from the floor, declaring themselves teeth. We were inside the gaping mouth of an animal and we were careful not to disturb the beast. We passed through Father Time's Jewel Box and the Valley of Sleep, traversing the cave on a narrow constructed walkway above the floor so as not to disturb its fragility. But it was the Great Heart of Timpanogos Cave that captured my attention. When everyone else left the charismatic form, I stayed. I needed more time to be closer to it, to watch its red-orange aura pulsating in the cavernous space of shadows. I wanted to touch the heart, run the palms of my hands on its side, believing that if I did, I could better understand my own heart, which was invisible to me. I was only inches away, wondering whether it would be cold or hot to the touch. It looked like ice, but it registered as fire.

Suddenly, I heard the heavy door slam and darkness clamp down. The group left without me. I was forgotten — alone — locked inside the cave. I waved my hand in front of my face. Nothing. I was held in a darkness so deep that my eyes seemed shut even though they were open. All I could hear was the sound of water dripping and the beating heart of the mountain.

I don't know how long I stood inside Timpanogos Cave before our church leader realized I was missing, but it was long enough to have experienced how fear moves out of panic toward wonder. Inside the cave, I knew I would be found. What I didn't know was what would find me — the spirit of Timpanogos.

To this day, my spiritual life is found inside the heart of the wild. I do not fear it, I court it. When I am away, I anticipate my return, needing to touch stone, rock, water, the trunks of trees, the sway of grasses, the barbs of a feather, the fur left behind by a shedding bison.

Wallace Stegner, a mentor of mine, curated a collection of essays and photographs called This Is Dinosaur, published in 1955 by Alfred A. Knopf. The book made an impassioned plea for why Dinosaur National Monument in Utah should not be the site of the Echo Park hydroelectric dam that would flood the lands rich with archaeological history adjacent to the Green and Yampa Rivers.

In the first chapter, called "The Marks of Human Passage," Stegner wrote:

It is a better world with some buffalo left in it, a richer world with some gorgeous canyons unmarred by sign boards, hot-dog stands, super highways, or high-tension lines, undrowned by power or irrigation reservoirs. If we preserved as parks only those places that have no economic possibilities, we would have no parks. And in the decades to come, it will not be only the buffalo and the trumpeter swan who need sanctuaries. Our own species is going to need them too. It needs them now.

The dam was never built. Today, six decades later, Dinosaur National Monument remains an oasis of calm, home to the Fremont people, who once inhabited these desert lands, and the Ute people, who still live here in lands adjacent to the oil and gas boom currently under way in the Uintah Basin, now the site of America's first tar sands mine.

As we mark the centennial of the National Park Service, my question is this: What is the relevance of our national parks in the twenty-first century — and how might these public commons bring us back home to a united state of humility?

The creation of America's national parks has been the creation of myths. I grew up with the myth that when Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 it was void of people. No one told me that our first national park was the seasonal and cyclic home of Blackfeet, Bannock, Shoshone, and Crow Nations. I was told instead that the steaming basins with geysers and fumaroles, hot springs and boiling waters were avoided by Indians — it was superstitious ground; Indians kept their distance. Like any good story with the muscle of privilege behind it, it seemed believable. And I never asked the question, "Who benefits from the telling of this particular story?"

The truth is, the federal government did not want visitors to Yellowstone to encounter Indians. Full stop. And so they either banned tribes from the new preserve or relegated them to the margins, where they could continue to hunt game — unseen. This was the era of "Indian removal" and westward expansion. Reservations were being established at the same time as national parks.


Excerpted from The Hour of Land by Terry Tempest Williams. Copyright © 2016 Terry Tempest Williams. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents




3. THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK, NORTH DAKOTA: All this is what the wind knows

4. ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, MAINE: —the stones, the steel, the galaxies—


6. EFFIGY MOUNDS NATIONAL MONUMENT, IOWA: Death yes but as a gathering

7. BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, TEXAS: Any wind will tell you

8. GATES OF THE ARCTIC NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA: There is no private space

9. GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE, FLORIDA AND MISSISSIPPI: What more shall we do to others. To otherness

10. CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK, UTAH: We are in some strange wind says the wind

11. ALCATRAZ ISLAND, GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, CALIFORNIA: The bodies are all gone from it, the purchases have been made

13. GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA: It is so extreme this taking-the-place-of, this standing-in-for, this disappearing of all the witnesses—


not be the end—not yet—






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