Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Timberline U.S.A.

Timberline U.S.A.: High-Country Encounters from California to Maine

Donald Mace Williams
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 240
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Timberline U.S.A.
    Book Description:

    As a youth in Denver, Donald Mace Williams developed an affection for high mountain country. After a journalistic career spent mostly on flat lands, he set out to rediscover what was special about country above timberline. He hiked the high alpine in four of America's major ranges-the Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Cascades, and northern Appalachians-and in his narrative of his travels, he tells us what he saw and learned and who he met. Having visited some of these areas when younger, Williams compares his psychological and physical responses as an older man and how his ideas about how to treat the environment have evolved. A recurring theme is the compromises that people such as he make between the pull of mountains and freedom and the responsibilities of making a living in the lowlands. Mainly, he observes and experiences what is distinctive about the timberline environment. Throughout his book, Williams gently informs readers regarding timberline history, nature, weather, and archaeology; high altitude physiology; and environmental concerns. Frequently, he recounts encounters with interesting and varied people he meets on the trails: a young British hiking companion who has come back to Colorado to repeat a climb on which, a year previously, his two fellow climbers died; a pilot who climbs isolated peaks in the Sierra Nevada in search of bouillon-can scrolls signed by famous early mountaineers; a "Literate Farmer" who pauses on a mountain trail in Vermont to discuss Robert Frost. Donald Mace Williams is a retired journalist who has worked for such newspapers as The Wichita Eagle, Newsday, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas, has published one previous book (Interlude in Umbarger: Italian POWs and a Texas Church); poems in Western Humanities Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and South Dakota Review; and a short story in Southwest Review. He now lives in Texas.

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-489-5
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Part I The Rocky Mountains

    • Chapter One
      (pp. 3-15)

      Timberline, the level on a mountain at which summers become too cold for trees to grow, has fascinated me since I was a child. At first it was because the name resounded with adventure, especially as uttered by my older brother, Bob, whose awe of the wilderness infected me early. Later, when I lived in Denver in my midteens, hiking above timberline on weekends and sometimes studying the alpine displays in the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, I came to appreciate also the strangeness of timberline, the separateness from the land where most people lived. Foothills, I learned, become mountains...

    • Chapter Two
      (pp. 16-28)

      From Eldora, altitude 8,700 feet, it took me eighteen minutes to drive the five miles along the gouged, rocky road that led to the trailhead. I fretted about being late, but the silver Honda with a MEEOW license plate that Paul had described wasn’t among the dozen cars in the parking lot. It came along after a few minutes, and I met my day’s companions: Joan Frisch, who was in her fifties, with short blond hair and an immediately apparent vitality; Megan Chanter, Paul’s pixieish girlfriend, also from Lancaster University; and Paul, as described: very tall, very slender. He had...

    • Chapter Three
      (pp. 29-45)

      In a research center on top of Pikes Peak, 14,110 feet above sea level, in a building that reminded me of Headquarters, Company A, I waited for Dr. John Reeves to come out of the bathroom. It was a tense, rushed scene. Doctors bent over instruments and in the voices of movie howitzer officers fixing coordinates against a charging enemy called out numbers to technicians, who entered them on pads with ballpoint pens. I caught a couple of the doctors flicking their eyes at me, an outsider, but none had time to nod, much less speak. Several men and women...

    • Chapter Four
      (pp. 46-66)

      Alexander Drummond was not, I think, a recluse, and perhaps no more of an environmentalist than Jim Palmer and Susan Austin, but he lived in a big cabin without electricity, high in the foothills above Ward, Colorado, by himself. I say he was without electricity—he had a generator, he told me as we sat on his glassed-in porch, “a man-hating machine, which fails me whenever I have company.” When he was alone, he didn’t mind if it failed. The absence of power drew his evenings close about him. “Especially in the wintertime, when it’s dark by five-thirty and usually...

  2. Part II The Sierra Nevada

    • Chapter Five
      (pp. 69-85)

      Except that they reek of the lawless moments spent on them by fellow employees who are not supposed to smoke in the building, the darkest and least-used stairs at my place of employment make a fair conditioning ground for mountain hikes. They, like mountains, are cold in winter and hot in summer, and though the uniform height of the risers and the levelness of the treads are unmountainlike, the climb is plenty of work, and the descent provides realistic jolts. As I had done before my Colorado climbs, I spent twenty minutes on the stairs three times a week all...

    • Chapter Six
      (pp. 86-98)

      Though the highest ridges and peaks around Kearsarge Pass seemed uninviting to me, in an earlier day it was exactly their hostility, together with the fact that they were comparatively little known, that invited climber/explorers whose boldness later made them luminaries. Bob McGavren, the cordial pilot I met on my way up the pass, told me that some of them left their signatures on those heights. He found the signatures—he and a friend who climbs long-neglected peaks to read the registers, the literal registers, of far-off days. A few weeks after I met McGavren on my little day hike...

    • Chapter Seven
      (pp. 99-116)

      I cruised the roads north of Independence, trying to find the trail Bob and I had taken in the summer of 1948 on our only backpacking trip together into the Sierra Nevada. We had ridden a bus from Los Angeles to Bishop, one of the few towns at the eastern foot of the mountains, and hiked up a steep trail that started near a power plant on a creek—that much I remembered. We had camped on the far side of a pass alongside a west-flowing creek. We had cooked wonderful biscuits made from a mix our mother had prepared...

    • Chapter Eight
      (pp. 117-140)

      I remembered the road east into Mineral King Valley because I had driven it once, forty years before. It is not a road that you forget in such a short time. Also, I had read accounts of the Walt Disney organization’s fight to build one of the world’s biggest ski resorts in the narrow valley, and I had read about the obstacle that helped defeat the plan: the same road, a twenty-five-mile writhe, one and a half cars wide. Being therefore prepared for what lay ahead, I set out to count the curves. After I turned off State Highway 99...

  3. Part III The Cascades

    • Chapter Nine
      (pp. 143-154)

      Even a mere turboprop plane like the one I took for the thirty-minute flight from Fresno to San Jose seals you into a can of virtual reality, a world in which the same processed air that takes off with you lands with you, the attendant’s speech on safety accents the prepositions like a voice out of an ill-programmed synthesizer, and the oxygen masks wait in their artificial wombs for a glitch in the artificial atmosphere to drop them into service. I sat in a row with an exit at the window end. A memorandum in the seat pocket in front...

    • Chapter Ten
      (pp. 155-168)

      East and west do contrast in the Cascades, though not as much as in the Sierra Nevada. We had driven only a half mile over Washington Pass, altitude 5,477 feet, when we noticed that the glaciers that plumped whole sides of peaks to the west had been replaced by room-sized chips of snow like those I had seen in the southern Sierra, except that these were five thousand feet lower. Several miles farther east and down, the timber became more like that of the Colorado foothills and less like that of the wet west side of the Cascades, which, except...

  4. Part IV The Appalachians

    • Chapter Eleven
      (pp. 171-186)

      Having acted on my innocent western assumption that where there were highways there would be a motel room, I found myself driving north from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, heading for north-central Maine at 1:26 of a summer Sunday morning without a place to stay or much hope of getting one. I would find nothing along the coast, the man in a full motel at Portsmouth had told me, and I shouldn’t head inland too soon, either, because that would take me to Sebago Lake, where everything would also be full. Go to Portland, he said, and turn inland. Even then he...

    • Chapter Twelve
      (pp. 187-201)

      The first known climber of Mount Washington was Darby Field, who was thirty-two and lived around Durham in southern New Hampshire. He probably hoped to find valuable ore on top—the year was 1642, a century and a half and more before the day when Europeans and Americans, possibly because they needed mental and physical relief from the Industrial Revolution, would begin to think of mountain climbing as a sport. He was accompanied, according to Laura and Guy Waterman (Forest and Crag), by at least one Indian from his part of the state. (Those from around the mountain did not...

    • Chapter Thirteen
      (pp. 202-212)

      The Mount Washington hike seemed to have ended my two summers’ vacation-time visits and revisits to timberline. I had set foot on more or less the tops of all four major ranges, as planned, and now was going on only to Vermont to interview a noted high-altitude physiologist and climber in Burlington. (I say “only to Vermont” because Stephen F. Arno, in his comprehensive Timberline: Mountain and Arctic Forest Frontiers, allows the state no more than “a few acres of timberline vegetation,” all of those in the Green Mountains.) But an interim purpose developed on the road from Mount Washington...