Mountain Time Background Notes
generations and reckonings
I was born just far enough ahead of the post-World War II Baby Boom to mix into that generation and yet not quite be of it, so I have felt somewhat like a privileged passenger—observing, commiserating, tucking away—on their magical mystery ride of growing up in, growing up from, the 1960s and '70s. Every generation reaches its time of reckoning, and because of the weight of their numbers in our population, everything happens more intensely to the Baby Boomers—or at least they've been brought up thinking that's the way it is. So, in wanting to turn my fiction-writer's eye on the contemporary American West, there they were waiting for me, these latest Boomers in the boom-and-bust land under the shadow of the great mountains.
While whittling these characters as usual from the wind-bent family trees that I've conjured into the actual landscape along Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, I was determined that their situations in the book be emblematic of what people their age were really going through. Thus, Mitch finds himself jelly-sandwiched between grown children who've gone their own way and an aging parent who is losing control of life. Lexa and Mariah, each in and out of one too many relationships, at forty-something are facing the certainties and confusions of living in a world they never made, each in her own way finding out the gains and losses of compromising with that world.
But in trying to tell some truths by making things up—the novelist's job description—I've always believed there ought to be a wild card in the hand, and here in Mountain Time it is the one figure drawn from history, Bob Marshall. Marshall pops up in my plot every now and then as one of the holy ghosts, along with Aldo Leopold and Wallace Stegner and a chorus of other old environmental holinesses, who every so often murmur in Mitch's laptop as he goes about his business of environmental reporting. As readers in the West may know but the world at large doesn't seem to, Bob Marshall was the U.S. Forest Service figure who was one of the founders of our federal wilderness system, and he was a personality who has long intrigued me. (Not so incidentally, the Forest Service Wilderness Area along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana where I grew up is named for him.)
Born in New York city in 1901 to considerable wealth and privilege, Marshall first developed his passion for the outdoors as a grade-schooler when he and his brother played Lewis and Clark in their backyard, which was Central Park. The attribute he brought west with him in his forestry career might be called a magnificent mania for the mountains—when he hiked in the Cascades, and the Rockies, and the Sierra Nevada, and the Brooks Range in Alaska, he would average about 35 miles a day. When he was assigned to the Northern Rocky Mountain Experiment Station in Missoula from 1925 to 1928, the Montanans found him such a demon hiker that they called him "the Rocky Mountain greyhound."
I became fixed on him when Carol and I backpacked into the Bob Marshall Wilderness in l977—an unforgettable set of days, utterly alone with ourselves and the Bob, as the Wilderness Area is called locally. I ultimately tracked down Marshall's notebooks in the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, and was determined to use him in a book sometime, somehow; he was a weird and wonderful combination of geek and poet and overgrown boy and obsessive observer and overachiever on the trail and bureaucratic string-puller—I just found him to be a character nobody would believe if I made him up. Across almost twenty years of tucking him away, here he came, out of my fingertips, to help my made-up characters gain a sense of the immense clock of earth—the patient witness of mountains as they look down at the briefer existences that are our human fate.