Sometimes you read a book and it sinks into your soul so deep that it becomes a part of who you are before you turn the final page. I found such a book in 1982.…or maybe the book found me. I’d been an avid backpacker all my life, but when the weather got too miserable or time too short, I’d satisfy my craving for the outdoors by reading. My bookshelves grew heavy with field guides and exploration memoirs that served as a tolerable substitute for the woods whenever I couldn’t enjoy the real thing, though I never imagined I’d someday read something that managed to equal the thrill of actually being there. It was a paperback entitled In The Shining Mountains, by David Bird Thomson. When I first spotted it on a bookstore shelf, the cover summary promised “A tale of a would-be mountain man in search of the wilderness”. That description struck a cord in me, so I purchased the book at the cost of about four bucks. What I got in return was priceless.
The author was born in 1947, came of age in the 60’s, and published his book in 1979. It is a first person account of his quest to find a piece of untamed wilderness in the Rockies where a person could build a cabin and live off the bounty of nature in a manner reminiscent of the original mountain men. What he found instead was overpriced real estate, pollution, greedy developers, and decimated wildlife. His reaction to this depressing state of affairs was to recapture the spiritual sense of the mountain man through a series of solo backpacking journeys into remote sections of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. This guy didn’t stick to groomed trails and prepared camping areas; he simply chose a compass bearing and plunged headlong into raw nature. He traveled with a light pack and supplemented his limited food reserves with edible plants, fish, and small game. The trips are described in such exquisite detail that I could swear I was hiking beside him. I could feel his hunger, his sore muscles, his loneliness, his fear and awe during a grizzly encounter, the cold, and the wet. But beyond all this, I could savor the intense freedom he enjoyed in those isolated regions, and rejoiced at the wonder of it. My own backpacking trips, which usually involved travel along established trails with a decent food supply, never reached the same level of pure adventure described in these solo pilgrimages. Reading his words I experienced a vicarious thrill that was nothing short of startling.
I’ve reread In The Shining Mountains a few times over the years, and with each subsequent reading I always found new details to rekindle the excitement of my initial exposure. The mystery of this book deepened for me when I tried to locate other works by this same author. Even though Thomson introduced himself as a writer by trade in the first chapter of In the Shining Mountain, it was apparently the only book he ever published. I performed computer searches and scoured the stacks of book stores, but his name never surfaced again. My first reaction was to imagine his life had changed direction, and that maybe he had gotten caught up in a demanding job or family responsibilities that curtailed his writing. Then I speculated that perhaps he just grew tired of writing because the craft became too tedious for someone who craved the outdoors as much as him. Whatever the reason, In the Shining Mountains seemed to be his sole literary gift to the world. I just left it at that for awhile.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it was about Thomson’s tale that generated such an intense reaction in me, but somehow the book influenced my entire perception of man’s place in the natural world. It provided me with a feeling of total escape from civilization that I’ve never been able to replicate despite a lot of miles on the trail. When the book was first published, one of its reviewers described Thomson as “A Thoreau for the 1980’s”. I couldn’t agree more.
This past spring, 30 years after I first read his book, I had a notion to look up Thomson’s name once again, hoping perhaps he had resumed writing after a long hiatus. As before, a computer search returned nothing new in the way of publications. However, further down on the search list I was stunned to see references to web sites for missing persons, and there I saw his name featured prominently among folks who vanished without a trace. His disappearance dates to July of 1979, the same year In the Shinning Mountains was published. I doubt Thomson even have a chance to collect his royalties from the sales. The police bulletins explained he was last spotted in Minnetonka MN, hitchhiking along the side of a highway with his pack on his back. There are records that he held jobs briefly in Denver CO and Casper WY later that same year, after which all clues dry up. He was simply gone at age 32.
Gone where? Retracing his steps from Minnesota to Colorado to Wyoming, it seems obvious he was headed back towards the mountains he loved. I’d like to imagine he finally found a remote patch of wilderness to call his own and is living there still in splendid isolation. I refuse to dwell on less romantic possibilities for his disappearance.
Edward P. Walsh
A) Thomson, David. In the Shining Mountains (1st edition). Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1979
B) Thomson, David. In the Shining Mountains (paperback edition). Bantan Books, 1981.