Of Good Men and Great Places

 

Willard Wyman's novel High Country is a compelling journey through the true American West

By Bob Gillespie
 

Willard Wyman's novel, High Country, adds a pair of memorable characters to the literature of the American West. Legendary packer Fenton Pardee takes on the struggling Hardin family's 15-year-old son, Ty"it's the Depression summer of 1937"to work with Pardee's mules carrying supplies for the Forest Service and fire crews and guiding hunters into Montana's Swan Range.

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Willard Wyman
This is high country, not High Noon, not the usual western adventure set in parched lands that men cross to get to some place better. Grounded in the history and culture of the packers, a region-shaping industry conducted in majestic territory most of us have seen only in coffee table books, High Country is a paean to the mountains of Montana and California and the story of Ty Hardin's apprenticeship to those mountains, the horses and mules, and the men who work the packers' trade: gentling and shoeing mules, threading up canyon walls, checking cinches, finding campsites and water and sweet grass, building a corral with lashes instead of nails to leave the land as they found it.

Hardin connects with the country, learning all that the peaks and valleys, the rain and snowfields and rivers, the horses and mules and grizzlies will teach""keep a tight rope," "warm from the inside," "a mule's only human," "Wait. Good things can happen." High country plants in Hardin's character exactly what high country demands from him: strength, endurance, patience, and deep respect for the hauntingly magnificent terrain and the animals that have made it their home for ages.

The loose ladies at The Bar of Justice in Missoula further Hardin's coming of age. These men are not solitaries; they're aware of the Depression and, as the story moves on through more than 50 years, the war, the UN, the Bomb. Other women of great heart, in particular Pardee's wife, Cody Jo, fill the packers' hollow places with music and dancing, love and marriage.

Their lives loop around a core intuition or recognition: the country finds its way into mind and body. Hardin appears to his former schoolteacher to be "a natural part of a landscape more imposing than any god mankind could invent."After crippling personal losses prompt Hardin to make a self-renewing move westward to the higher country of the California Sierras, an elderly Basque sheepherder helps "bring the country into his bones."

"I think your 'West' is these people," says the schoolteacher's husband. "I think it's something inside them"that's 'the West.'"

High Country dramatizes the proposition that the great spaces of the American West determine personal fate and philosophy"and national character. Even though mules cede their role to jeeps and trucks in World War II, Hardin's commanding officer believes we won that war because of men like Hardin. When Pardee dies, according to Jasper the cook, "he'll take a lot of what opened up this country with him."

Pardee and Hardin, Jasper, Special Hands the Nez Perce, Buck, who'll go where he's pointed "and hope it don't rain," are nature's noblemen"it's as if they'd intuited Emerson's seminal injunction to connect with nature"and Wyman's prose represents their uncluttered focus with authority. Like a string of mules picking their way up switchbacks at a careful gait, the writing takes in rocky ridges, the fragrance of rain on rocks and the smell of leather and sweat, the snow on high peaks that have looked down on clouds through eons.

The pace quickly picks up in storm and flood. A mule goes down on her flank in a bog, and the packers race to get her legs under her before a rain-swollen river sweeps them away. Times in Missoula are lively, too. Take the packers out of the mountains, they easily stray into scrapes.

Their characteristic speech, folksy, self-deprecating humor disarms discomfort and danger. Jasper nearly plugs Hardin, sure he's a grizzly about to tear into the tent where Jasper is hiding. No, he wouldn't shoot wild, the cook says. "Fenton'd raise hell if I put a hole in his tent." Nostalgia slips into the tone as increased government regulations come in after the war, and backpackers, guest ranches, and bed-and-breakfast establishments find their way into the Sierras by the 1980s.

The Swan Range of High Country is the same mountain range where A.B. Guthrie Jr. set his acclaimed 1947 novel, The Big Sky, but Wyman's mountains are grander, and the packing enterprise is new in the literature. Everybody, including the Pulitzer committee for fiction, ought to pack home this quintessentially American story about unique people who work hard, love well, and simply have their being in a great good place.