A life of words and wilderness

  • WHY I CAME WEST: A MEMOIR Rick Bass 288 pages, hardcover, $24. Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

 

Deeply felt, often metaphysical and sometimes maddening, Rick Bass' memoir describes his long journey West, from the "petrochemical horrors" of Houston to the Yaak Valley in the far northwestern corner of Montana. But his cross-country migration is merely a starting point for the musings in Why I Came West. The book serves as a study in contrasts, particularly those inside Bass himself. He writes of far-flung interests and opinions that at times appear to diverge, but in the end come together - his environmental activism and his personal, spiritual need for wild places intertwining with his love of hunting and his support for sustainable small-scale logging.

A geologist-turned-writer, Bass charts his own life history - his career, his activism, and his emotional ups and downs - as if he's exploring some halfway-mysterious terrain. In his distinctive, and at times baroque, prose style, he tackles the rough-and-tumble realities of the West. Ultimately, the focal point of his story is his personal push for federal wilderness designation for the Yaak's last roadless areas. He describes a mighty, sometimes anger-stoked struggle, and at times questions whether it has been worth all it has cost him. His passion is striking, but his storytelling is often opaque and his attitude pessimistic. By the end of Why I Came West, however, Bass attains a sunny note as he marks the "eve of success" for a wilderness area in his beloved Yaak. The preservation of this area, he believes, portends a political sea change not just in Montana, but for the entire country.

Bass often writes of his desire to return to where he began - not geographically, in East Texas, but in literary terms. He started out as a writer of short fiction, but the 20-odd years he spent held "hostage in assisting in the defense of the Yaak" have kept him from that work. Once the Yaak is officially wilderness, he writes, "I could go back to my other life - if it still waits there for me." At times, Bass's longing for a different life, one in which environmental activism would have taken a backseat to writing short stories, can be frustrating to the reader. Still, Why I Came West makes it clear that Bass is destined to continue blazing a powerful trail of words.

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