Yellowstone Autumn: A Season of Discovery in a Wondrous Land
W.D. Wetherell
166 pages,
hardcover: $24.95.
University of Nebraska Press,
2009.

An engaging blend of history lesson, fly-fishing essay and philosophical treatise, Yellowstone Autumn describes a veteran writer's three weeks of solitude in Yellowstone National Park. Walter Wetherell makes the trip from New England to commemorate his 55th birthday -- his official entry into late middle age, as he sees it.

Standing outside his cabin during his first night alone, Wetherell marvels at the sound of a bugling elk, "one of the few sounds in nature worth traveling two thousand miles to hear." But his transition from modern life isn't easy. He has trouble making decisions: "Since anything is possible, the choices can be a bit overwhelming, and there is nothing stopping you from changing your mind." So he does -- many times. He has difficulty relaxing, then gets angry about his inability to relax. And just as his daughter had predicted, Wetherell suffers through spells of homesickness.

In the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and Edward Abbey, Wetherell contemplates his relationship to the land, people and wildlife, including old bison bulls, his wife, thermal pools and his own body. He broods over his membership in the "sandwich generation" -- squeezed between the demands of growing children and aging parents. He reads the historical accounts of the region's early explorers and inserts himself into their stories with imaginary journal entries: "Jake Smith came up to me this morning while I was splashing lake water in my face; he stuck a willow branch in my hand, ordered me to catch some trout for breakfast."

Although it's October, temperatures soar into the 90s, and Wetherell laments the effects of global warming on the park: "We go to Yellowstone like we stare up at the stars -- to see a place unspoiled -- and if we are messing up its weather, then soon there will be no reason to go at all." But despite the heat and his mental meanderings, Wetherell succeeds in fly-fishing 20 rivers and two lakes. And when he returns home, it's to realize, gratefully, that Yellowstone "had supplied me with a deep reservoir of solace to help me through the coming year."