Twenty-five years have passed since Pete Fromm spent, without any prior wilderness experience, seven months alone in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness guarding salmon eggs. The book he wrote 13 years later about that winter, Indian Creek Chronicles, became a classic of nonfiction nature writing. Since then, the Montana-based author has written four novels, four collections of short stories and won a record-setting five Pacific Northwest Booksellers Literary Awards. In 2013 he had a movie made based on his novel, As Cool As I Am. His latest book, a return both to nonfiction and solo wilderness adventures, is a memoir called The Names of the Stars: A Life in the Wild. It may be his best work yet.
The main action in Stars revolves around Fromm's return to the wilderness this time the Bob Marshall—in the spring of 2004 to babysit another batch of fish eggs. Unlike his previous experience, it's only for a month, and Fromm is no longer a footloose young man. He's pushing middle-age, is married and has two young sons. When he is first offered the job, he hopes to bring his sons out into the wilds with him, despite the Bob having the highest concentration of grizzly bears anywhere in the lower 48 states. Issues of liability and Forest Service bureaucracy prevent Fromm from taking them and he nearly decides not to go.
Fromm covers plenty of ground in a relatively short book. He documents his 30-day adventure, which gets off to a rocky start when his primary guide is viciously kicked in the head by a pack mule just as they are setting out. He describes his efforts to babysit the eggs—a project whose goal is to return wild grayling to wilderness streams—and the daily 10-mile hike he must undertake to check the incubation sites. His primary nemeses are weather and terrain, though he does encounter plenty of elk and deer, wolf tracks and, ominously, bears. Black bears, mostly, but grizzlies as well.
Woven as flashbacks throughout the primary narrative is the story of Fromm's life, how he came to embrace wilderness and all the points where fate seemed to intervene. He describes his years growing up in Wisconsin as the only member of his family who seemed drawn to the outdoors, and how his parents' willingness to let him explore on his own helped him plot his life's course. (Some childhood anecdotes would seemingly draw attention from Child Protective Services in today's paranoid, safety-addicted world.) He covers the jobs he had as a lifeguard and ranger; the meeting and courtship of his wife, Rose; and, ultimately, musings on fatherhood and its joys and struggles.
Fromm wrestles with trying to reconcile the man he grew up wanting to be with the man he has become. When he considers abandoning the idea of a month in the Bob upon learning his sons won't be able to accompany him, his wife urges him to stay the course, telling him he can't keep setting aside his own life for them. When Fromm counters that the boys are his life, Rose answers, "But this is part of you too. It's who you are. You need to do this."
Later, in another passage I found particularly meaningful, after he has settled into the cabin that will be his home for the month, he reflects on leaving home and family behind. Fromm writes, "But, too long in any one place, I began to itch. The reason never stated, never thought out, I just had to move. There was more out there, so much more, things I'd never seen or heard or felt, even dreamed of. How, with all that, could anyone sit still?"
Yet, with family and responsibilities, is this right?
I'm not the only person who can relate to this. The West is a hard place to make a living. Many of us scrabble and scrape to cling to nontraditional lifestyles that allow us to live and play in these beautiful landscapes. Then life happens, and the internal questions arise as to where "truth to self" ends and selfishness begins.
Fromm is an excellent companion when it comes to approaching these existential hurdles. His writing is clean and tight, and he delivers his thoughts in a fashion that makes a reader wish these conversations were happening at a table in a bar. Or, better yet, around a campfire, somewhere deep in the woods, with the sound of a stream nearby.
Pete Fromm reads from The Name of the Stars at Shakespeare & Co. Tue., Oct. 18, at 7 PM.