Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Book Review: Encounters in the American Mountain West by Ian R. Mitchell



Historian and mountaineer Ian R.Mitchell has written some of my favourite books on the Scottish hills – Mountain Days and Bothy Nights & A View From The Ridge (both with Dave Brown), Scotland’s Mountains Before the Mountaineers, On the Trail of Queen Victoria in the Highlands and more. His latest book, though, sees him venturing far afield to Utah, where he first went to give a talk at a wilderness conference and where he became hooked on the landscape and the people and fascinated by the history of Mormonism. Indeed, the strangest aspect of the book is the respect Mitchell – a left-wing atheist (hence the subtitle A Sinner Amongst The Latter-Day Saints) – has for the Mormons who he finds polite and friendly. Whilst he does make it clear he has no time for their religious beliefs Mitchell is also attracted to them as a once-persecuted and once-communitarian group. Having been to Utah a few times myself, though nothing like as often as Mitchell, I can vouch for both the courtesy of the people and the splendour of the landscape.

The book covers the author’s many trips to Utah during which he explored the state mostly by car though sometimes on foot. Each journey and chapter is given a theme to link various episodes together. These range from The Mormon Trail, which tells the story of the Mormons and how they ended up in Utah, through The Trail of the Ancient One, about the Anasazi who lived in the area a thousand years ago and left impressive ruins, to The Miners’ Trail, about the almost forgotten history or organised labour in Utah, something much more akin to Mitchell’s own views than Mormonism. I particularly enjoyed The Cactus Ed Trail, about one of my favourite outdoor writers, Edward Abbey, though Mitchell is wrong in saying that Abbey ended up in a cushy desk job teaching literature. That actually came quite early in his career and he soon abandoned it. I also liked The Trail of the Mountain Men, as this includes some mountain walking, including a venture on Utah’s highest summit, King’s Peak, which I climbed quite a few years ago. There’s also one chapter on Scotland, The Brigadoon Trail, which describes Mitchell taking groups of young Mormons hillwalking and sight-seeing in his home country.

As well as providing much fascinating information about Utah and its landscape and people the book is entertaining and often amusing. The author’s adventures and experiences are well-described and often intriguing. At times he ventures out of Utah into Wyoming, where he feels threatened and uncomfortable. Having walked right across Wyoming on the Continental Divide Trail and travelled across it four times by car I can assure everyone that the state is much more friendly than portrayed here!

You don’t have to have been to Utah to enjoy this book.  Anyone interested in mountains, wilderness, history and good writing should appreciate it.

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