Book Review - That Wild Country by Mark Kenyon
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
Bibliophile. It's an actual thing. And I'll admit I possess this affliction acutely or perhaps, more accurately, it possesses me. Do not be terribly alarmed, it's not nearly as sinister as it might sound. Maybe we should just say bookworm and leave it at that. The point is I love to read books -- especially books about travel, adventure, war, history, and outdoor pursuits. There are piles of books everywhere in my house: on overflowing bookshelves, the nightstand, the dining room table, the coffee table and the chair next to the fireplace.
I like to share what I am currently reading and recently I've had a number of acquaintances asking me for book recommendations. For me, this question can lead to a bit of anxiety - I know what I like but, because everyone's taste is a little different, I really hate to steer folks towards something they are going to hate. So, typically I'll first ask what they are into and work to tailor a variety of suggestions based on that information. It usually works.
Which all leads up to this, my first official "book review"- a term I will use very loosely. So before we get too far let me first ask what you are into. If your response includes the outdoors, wild places, public land, road trips with family and friends, campfires, hunting, hiking, fishing, camping, history or a good old fashioned yarn I'd suggest That Wild Country by Mark Kenyon should be on your list.
I first learned of Mark when the April 2015 issue of Outdoor Life hit my mailbox and I was greeted by the photo of a young, "new media" hunter with a headline that announced "How To Hunt for a Living" followed by the words "Want to be this guy? See page 32" and an arrow pointing to his mugshot. I was intrigued and also a bit concerned. Did "this guy's" parents know he was out hunting? Certainly he couldn't be old enough to drive himself. He was. I've realized age gets harder to determine as you yourself get older and that I tend to grade "young" on an ever-widening sliding scale. These days my physician, my attorney, my accountant and any pro-sport athlete are all, by my definition, young. It turned out that Mark was a Michigan guy who loved to chase Whitetail, a contributing writer for well-respected outdoor publications, and host of a popular podcast called Wired to Hunt (wiredtohunt.com). I started to give it a listen and I liked what I heard.
I next ran across Mark early the following year when we both ended up on the founding board for the Michigan chapter of an organization called Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Through that experience I was able to get to know Mark a little better, often over beers while discussing our shared passion for hunting, angling, hiking, camping and the wild places provided to us by the bounty of public land in America. Beyond those passions it turned out Mark and I shared even more in common, including the writing of McGuane, Leopold, Muir, Dunne and Abbey and the beauty of rugged places in locales from Michigan, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota and Alaska. Even greater was a shared sentiment Mark so aptly describes in this book: "I found myself squarely in the middle as an independent, gun-owning, pro-hunting, nature-loving, freethinking conservationist. Neither political party seemed to wholly represent me. In a climate of increasingly partisan politics, my independent stance felt not only unique, but also slightly disorienting. But my stance on public lands was clear. I was happy to stand side by side with anyone fighting on behalf of our public lands, no mater what other differences we might have."
Mark's life got increasingly busier and more complicated as Wired to Hunt became part of the outdoor lifestyle company Meateater, he set out to write this book and children became part of the equation. Though our communication was limited to infrequent texts we stayed in touch and my anticipation grew for the work that had consumed the last 18 months of Mark's life. I knew this was a book I wanted to read and this past January I finally picked up my copy and moved it to the top of the reading pile. I'm excited to share my thoughts and also a few follow-up questions I was able to catch up with Mark and ask.
Sometimes I find it's easier to define what something is by first defining what it is not. That Wild Country isn't a book about hunting or fishing, it isn't a book about hiking, it isn't a story about friendship or family, it isn't an adventure tale or a travelogue, and it isn't a history lesson but rather it is the culmination of all of these things thoughtfully crafted around the foundational framework of America's public land.
"Every American is a public-land owner, inheritor to the largest public-land trust in the world. These vast expanses provide a home to wildlife populations, a vital source of clean air and water, and a haven for recreation."
You won't get past the inside of the dust jacket before you read these words. The words that set the stage for the pages that follow.
That Wild Country serves up a lot of vegetables (Mark's term) in the form of a thorough historical examination of America's public land history, taking us back to the beginning, Yellowstone National Park, the catalyst for the creation of the public land system we still enjoy today. From there we wind our way through the tangled and often tenuous 150-year history of the 640 million acres of land owned by the American public right up through current events.
But fear not, there is plenty of candy (also Mark's term) sprinkled in along the way. In the book Mark embarks on a whirlwind 18-month journey visiting some of the most influential sites in this American public-land pathway, often times dragging unwitting family and friends into the adventures that include bears, dangerous rivers, sketchy plane rides, tormenting weather and truck stop debacles. Through it all the story is conveyed in vivid prose delivered with a lighthearted sometimes self-deprecating touch. I'll share one brief example that as a fly angler I could relate to all too well. This is an abbreviated excerpt from the first chapter which finds Mark fishing in Yellowstone: "I'd exhausted my entire supply of relevant flies, and all the swear words in my vocabulary...tiny splashes and wave rings broke the surface of the refreshed water in all directions. I tied on a new fly, cast ahead of the feeding trout, and watched as my offering floated unharmed through the middle of the stream-top explosions like a soldier tiptoeing through a minefield."
That Wild Country closes with Mark on an Alaskan mountainside."This trip seemed to have fulfilled a need deep inside of me; it filled a hole that every so often opens within my soul," he writes, while envisioning an older version of himself in that setting with his children. And then quotes Wallace Stegner: "We simply need that wild country available to us even if we never do more than drive to it's 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."
It reminded me of one of my personal favorite Abbey quotes: "We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope..." Beyond being an enjoyable read and an incredible source of information, That Wild Country left me with a hope for our future; for our children and their children. It filled a cup that was running dangerously low. If you value the outdoors and if you have any interest in protecting its future this book is one you need to read.
You can purchase That Wild Country here: https://www.amazon.com/That-Wild-Country-Journey-Americas/dp/1542043042/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
Q & A
Q: Mark, If you had to describe this book in one sentence, what would that be?
A: A thrilling personal journey through the past, present, and future of America’s wild public lands.
Q: You’ve obviously done a lot of writing in the past but more short form, how was writing this book different?
A: This book was the hardest project I’ve taken on in my entire career. Not just writing, but any kind of project at all. It was years in the works, required immense amounts of travel, and even more time spent at the desk metaphorically pounding my head against the wall, desperately hoping to see something half decent drip out onto the page. Writing something of this scale took much more planning, dozens of rewrites and revisions, and a much greater focus on narrative arc.
I wanted to cover a large amount of information, while also pulling readers along for a fun ride – hopefully educating them without ever feeling like they were slogging through historical minutia. That’s not easy and I look back now thinking I probably could have done a better job of it. But I did the best I could in that moment.
Q: In the last chapter of the book you describe your experience in Alaska – what made that one so special/different?
A: Well, because Alaska is Alaska. Everything there is different. The scale, the stakes, the sweep of country that’s unparalleled in the United States. It was an experience unlike any I’d had before or have since. Seeing a place like that, still wild and so vast, it’s like stepping back in time. But it also forces you to think deeply about the future. How do we make sure we don’t lose this last frontier? Not to mention, at the time of that trip, I was spending a lot of time thinking about my own personal future and the upcoming arrival of our first son.
Q: What is the single largest threat to America’s wild places today? What one thing can people do to take action on that?
A: Issue fatigue. There are dozens of tiny little nip and cut attacks on our public lands occurring every month across the country – new drilling, mining, logging, developments and land sales – and most of it is flying by under the radar of the American public. There’s only so much that folks can keep track of, let alone get fired up enough to take action on. This is what concerns me most. Because there are so many different battlefields in the fight for public lands, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the public informed and rallied to defense when necessary. We need to fight the urge to become apathetic and instead, as a public land using coalition, stay focused on what’s happening and step up to plate to fight for these places at each opportunity. Year after year after year.
Q: Who inspires you past and present?
A: It’s hard to argue with folks like Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold when looking to the past. I’m a big fan of Ed Abbey’s unfiltered passion for our wild places as well. As for current inspiration, I look to friends like Steve Rinella and Randy Newberg to keep me fired up and on the right path.
Q: I know you love to read. So, top 3 books and why?
A: Impossible question for me, just too many to choose from. But here are three that are at least near the top. Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey for its fiery call to action. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield for a kick in the ass to help anyone wanting to get important work done. And American Buffalo by Steve Rinella for a great example of natural history and hunting woven together in a great adventure.
Q: You address this some in the book, but now that you have children how has your perspective changed about these wild places?
A: It makes the defense of these places much more personal. My life has been profoundly influenced by our wild public lands – I so badly want the same opportunity for my sons.
Q: Ok, now more on the personal side. Food on backpacking/backcountry trips is always a game of one-ups-man-ship on my trips. Do you have a go-to? What was your best post-trip meal?
A: While on the backcountry trip itself I’m a big proponent of the tried and true Mountain House Meals. The Chicken Fajita Bowl flavor is my current favorite. As for post-trip meal, nothing tops a huge greasy cheeseburger, fries, and a cold beer.
Q: Music seems to be something people give you a hard time about. What does your road trip playlist look like?
A: I have eclectic taste. As my pal Rinella likes to point out, I do enjoy some jazz and crooner types like Billy Joel or Frank Sinatra. But that’s more often playing while I’m working in the office. If I’m on the road heading west its probably some folk or alternative rock. I’m a big fan of current modern-folk bands like Lord Huron, Fleet Foxes, or The National Parks. If it’s an all-nighter in the pitch dark though I’ll be cranking up some EDM.
Q: What’s left on the bucket list for trips/places?
A: I want to bring the family up to Alaska someday soon, and then after that it’s heading south to Patagonia.
Q: What’s next for you? Can we expect another book?
A: Another book for sure!