Why Jim Unger came West: a Yellowstone love affair


There are tourists, and then there's Jim Unger, a Pennsylvania resident who headed out this summer on his 41st pilgrimage to some of the places that have become his second home -- the national parks, monuments and historic sites of the West.

It all started in 1971, when Jim and his wife, Sandy, both elementary school teachers, took a two-week vacation in Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks. They were captivated by the experience, enough to return each summer for the next five years, while also deciding that they wanted to learn more about the region.

In 1977, they took their first class – geology -- at the Teton Science School at the foot of the Tetons. Then, for the next two years, they increased the time they spent in the West to four weeks each year, so they could take yet more classes and expand their explorations to Glacier and Rocky Mountain national parks.

They took classes in everything from meteorology to the lives of mountain men, from astronomy to storytelling. They studied bears and birds, coyotes and wolves, deer and pronghorn, insects and amphibians. They learned about the history of the parks and the ecosystems that support them. And then, once they were back home in their classrooms, Jim and Sandy shared what they knew with their young students.

In the 1980s, the Ungers spent three weeks getting to know other national parks in the West, including Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, and Utah's Bryce and Zion national parks. They went to Crater Lake and Mount Rainier, and to Kenai and Denali National Park in Alaska, soaking up stories and lore that they could then pass on to the children in their classes.

When I met them in the early '90s, they were attending a conference in western Wyoming at the college where I taught. They wanted to know what made my corner of the High Plains desert a microcosm of the West's history, so they hiked along the Oregon Trail's ruts, floated the Green River where John Wesley Powell began his historic journey, and were introduced to contentious modern-day land-use issues like natural gas drilling. The next year, they returned to spend a few days with a ranching family near the Wind River Mountains.

The Ungers made friends they'd correspond with and visit on return, and they became avid readers of both fiction and nonfiction about the West. All winter, as they planned their next trip West, Jim and Sandy immersed themselves in reading about it. By spring, they were ready to make their reservations.

Their trips got longer after they retired, stretching to two months in the West. Sandy's last trip, however, was in 2004: Her diabetes had finally made her too ill to travel. After her death, Jim made the hard journey back to Yellowstone to revisit all their favorite places. As he resumed their pattern of Western immersion, Jim told me he began to find purpose in his life again.

Since his first solo trip in 2008, Jim has spent more and more time in the West. His longest trip? Four months exploring the Canadian Rockies, Glacier, Yellowstone, the Tetons and the Black Hills. Sometimes, his sister or son comes along on his travels, which is how they've come to know why these places keep calling Jim back.

Recently, Jim's own health problems have prevented him from hiking the way he did with Sandy. But he has – and cherishes – his memories. "I'll stop at a trail head and spend hours just watching and listening ... to the wind in the grass, the trees, birds, whatever wildlife shows up. And I'll reminisce about when I came before and hiked the trail." Asked if he keeps a journal, Jim said, "No, but I remember every twist and turn of the trail, how it looked, what we saw." He explains that the beauty of nature calms him, gives him a feeling of tranquility, even euphoria, and transports him back to his youth. "Spending time in the West is like a miracle drug," he says.

Jim's words remind me of what Wallace Stegner said in his Wilderness Letter:
"We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."

Perhaps that's why the national parks and campgrounds of the West overflow all summer, every year. People from all over the world are not only curious to see our public lands, they also are searching for some kind of refuge in what is left of our country's wild places, each person seeking a personal geography of hope.

Marcia Hensley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She lives in the Denver area.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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