When Alexis Rizzuto was planning the vacation she took this past fall, she didn't pore over travel guides or look to glossy magazines for inspiration. Alexis is an editor at Beacon Press, so she just took a look at the amazing books she's been working on. Our blog editor, Jessie Bennett, spoke with Alexis about her trip, and about the books and authors who inspired it, in particular Michael Lanza's newly published Before They're Gone: A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks.
What books inspired your trip or came back to you while you were on the trip?
I would not have taken this trip if it weren't for Before They're Gone by Michael Lanza. And our upcoming book, Dirt Work by Christine Byl, because she was out on these very trails breaking them for the rest of us. I met our author Brad Tyer, so Opportunity, Montana is another connection to this trip. We were in a different part of Montana than he writes about, but, still, the reason that we went to Montana is the reason he went to Montana: because we wanted to see pristine wilderness and beautiful wildlife. At that time, I hadn't yet realized about the whole extractive resource colony aspect of Montana, but now I appreciate the beauty of it even more.
And our Steve Hawley book, Recovering a Lost River. We took a rafting trip down the Snake River in his honor. And of course, Mr. Hornaday's War. We not only made a pilgrimage to Mt. Hornaday, but when I saw my first bison in Yellowstone, I almost cried. From then on, we mostly saw bison in herds, but the first bison I saw was alone out on a prairie, and having in mind what I had just read in Stefan Bechtel’s book about the bison slaughter and their recovery, I felt so grateful that this bison was still there, a survivor.
How did Michael Lanza help you plan your trip?
He helped me from day one. He inspired the trip, and then I said, "Okay, I want to go see some of these places that you wrote about. What do you suggest?" I said I would maybe like to start with Yellowstone and he said, "Well, if you want to see Yellowstone, you should add on Glacier National Park and the Tetons as well." He told me what time of year to go, too—September, because the students have to go back to school so there won't be as many families. It wouldn’t be as crowded, and it's still warm then. But the farther north you go, the cooler it gets, so he told us to start north while it's still kind of warm in Glacier and then work our way south to Yellowstone and then the Tetons. And he told me how many hours it would take to drive between these places and where to stay when we got there... I mean, everything. He gave me a whole itinerary.
St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy Alexis Rizzuto. See more photos here.
This is such a bonus to being an editor here!
Yeah, like, "I don't want to exploit you, but..." I was so clueless. I had never been to that part of the country before; I had no idea what to do. I was asking him for basic advice, and he just gave me every detail I could have possibly needed.
How long was your trip?
It was two weeks.
What kind of gear did Michael tell you to bring?
Well, we weren't camping--we were just hiking.
But did you get bear repellent?
(Laughs) Yes, we did get bear repellent.
Did you have to use bear repellent?
Thank God we did not. But I thought about that story in the book, about his kid, Nate. He's stalking around with the bear repellent, and Michael turns around and Nate has it aimed at him. He told me that there was an instance where one of his friends discharged the bear repellent in a garage, and even days later you couldn't go into the garage without your eyes watering--it's really serious stuff.
So we did have it and we did have it at the ready at all times because there were plenty of bears there. We only laid eyes on one, but we would be walking down a trail and somebody would be coming back the other way and they would say, "Oh, we just saw a grizzly up there." And there was another trail we were on where a park ranger came by and said, "We're closing this part of the trail because of bear activity." And then we were on another trail--we were pretty much by ourselves on this one trail--and we came across some large, very fresh piles of bear poop, right in the middle of the trail. And then we heard rustling in the woods. We hightailed it out of there. And just as we were coming out of the trailhead, a park ranger was driving up, and the first thing she asked us was, "Did you see any bears?" We said, "No, but... you know we just saw some pretty fresh scat. And we thought we saw something in the woods." And she said, "Well you probably did--there's a mother grizzly here with her two cubs."
But it's not like there aren't warnings. At every trailhead, there's a billboard, saying, "You are entering grizzly territory. Here's what you do..." And the main thing to do is make noise. Clap, yell, sing. We had bells that we would shake, I had stuff to clank against my metal water bottle. We made sure that we were making noise, because if they hear you coming they'll just go away. They don't want to see you.
We went on plenty of trails that said, "Prime grizzly territory: be bear aware." (Laughs) That was the catch phrase in the Tetons area, I think. They had these big stickers everywhere saying, "Be Bear Aware," put away your food, and don't do anything that would attract them.
Don't carry pic-a-nic baskets?
Right. (Laughs) So Michael gave us advice about some things to bring, but since we weren't camping, it was just basic hiking gear and protection. And he gave us some ideas about where to stay. We stayed in the parks, in cabins mostly. It was really nice to wake up and be in the park. You’d fall asleep to the sound of great horned owls and wake up to the morning light on the mountainsides.
Both he and Christine Byl suggested a particular trail in Glacier. You get to this trail by going up this road called "Going to the Sun Road." And all the guidebooks say, "Oh, you have to do the Going to the Sun Road, it's spectacular. Everybody does it. Millions of people a year do it." We renamed that road the "Going in My Pants Road." Because you're on the side of a mountain. There's like a 5,000 foot sheer drop right next to you. And there's a low rock wall that's all that's between you and pitching off the side of the mountain. Millions of people do it every year, and nobody dies, so obviously it's okay, but I was clinging to my husband, I could not look out the window. I was like, "Oh, my God, we're going to die." He was actually feeling the same way. So we get to the top of the Going to the Sun Road, and the High Line trail is the trail that both Michael and Christine said, "Oh, you have to do this trail." We looked at this trail, and we're like, "There's no frigging way we're going to do this trail."
Was it for more experienced hikers?
No. There were kids on it. But it was basically the same thing as the road, only narrower and with no rocks between you and the fall. And they said, "You'll see great mountain goats up there, and you'll get great views up there, and everyone should do this trail." But the thing was, the other trail that we picked, we saw mountain goats, we saw beautiful views. Yes, it was a trail that children and old people were also on. But, who cares? It was so beautiful. Wildflower meadows and frolicking animals, sparkling lakes. They call the area the American Alps.
Proof that Alexis saw a mountain goat on the wimpy trail.
Children and old people are for me a very good sign that I can handle it.
Yeah! It was one of the most beautiful hikes we had, even though it wasn't the serious hiker trail. I didn't care. We saw everything we came to see. So I told Michael, "Your children will laugh at me for being such a wuss." They could do the High Line trail in their sleep.
Did it give you more of an appreciation for all of the stuff that they did in the book?
Yeah, oh yeah. Definitely. And my husband got so sick of me because everything we did, I said, "Well Michael Lanza did this," and, "Michael Lanza writes about this in his book." "I learned about this from Michael Lanza." He was like, "Michael Lanza! Michael Lanza! Michael Lanza! Why don't you marry HIM?" (Laughs) Actually, they’ve met and get along very well.
But, I was able to tell Alex, for instance, well... it's not a happy story, but not all the stories in the book are happy. It's about climate change. And one of the things we saw firsthand was that the glaciers in Glacier National Park, as Michael admitted, are really not that impressive any more because they're already such a small percentage of what they used to be. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between a glacier and a bunch of snow in a bowl in the mountains. But the other thing I was able to tell Alex about and to see firsthand, which was heartbreaking, is the lodgepole pines are being infested by pine bark beetles because the winters are not cold enough to kill their eggs. It used to be that the winters were cold enough to kill most of the eggs so that when the pine bark beetles hatched in the spring, there weren't enough of them to wipe out entire forests, but now, there are. And these forests--we saw entire, entire mountainsides, brown.
There were two kinds of tree deaths that we saw. One of them was good, one of them was bad. And I learned this from Michael Lanza, too. The good tree deaths-- we would see the remains of the dead trees --those were from forest fires. And, actually, that's good because among the skeletons of the old trees there was lush growth of the younger trees coming up. And the forest fires enrich the soil, and actually allow the pine cone seeds to germinate. They only germinate at the temperatures brought about by forest fires. So we would walk through forests like that and, yes, there was destruction, but there was also life and hope and the proper cycle going on.
But then, when we would see one of these pine bark beetle forests, it was just heartbreaking, because you could imagine what the mountainside looked like when it was green. And now there's not a shred of life on it.
The wildlife was amazing. We saw herds of bison, we saw elk, we saw a black bear, we saw mountain goats, amazing bird life--we saw a pair of sand hill cranes, up pretty close, closely enough that we heard their calls and watched them fly off. I'd never seen sand hill cranes. I don't think they're endangered, they're not that rare, but I had never seen them before. We were on a place called Antelope Flats where we saw a herd of pronghorn antelope. And there was a whole flock of western meadowlarks, which are a beautiful bird. They've got a bright yellow chest, and their song was amazing. [Ed's note: You can listen to meadowlark song at the Cornell All About Birds website.]
We got up close and personal with some mule deer. First we encountered the male on his own. He walked right up to us, we could have fed him, he was so close. And then he went away, and we continued down the trail and there was the female with two fawns. And they also didn't care that we were there. There was a newsletter they hand out in the National Parks where it explains that there are certain distances that you are supposed to maintain between yourself and certain kinds of wildlife. So, obviously, a grizzly bear you're supposed to give a large amount of space. (Laughs) For bighorn sheep, the space is a little shorter. But you're supposed to give deer space as well. But these deer, they were on the trail, and we wanted to give them the kind of space we were supposed to give them, but they just weren't leaving! So we ended up waiting for quite a while, then we just squeezed past them. They didn't care.
The other beautiful thing is the breathtaking landscapes. Being from the East, you're just not used to the space, and the breadth, and the hugeness of the mountains and the canyons and the plains.
It's hard to use superlative words and have them actually mean anything these days, but I just kept turning to Alex and saying, "This blows my mind."