The greatest western I’ve ever read

10-17-Love— is John McPhee‘s Rising From the Plains.

It’s one book among five collected in Annals of the Former World, which won a Pulitzer in 1999. In all five, McPhee follows a geologist around; and all five of the geologists are interesting characters.

None, however, is more interesting than J. David Love, who grew up on a hardscrabble ranch in the center of Wyoming and became one of the most accomplished geologists in the history of the field.

And yet Love is still less interesting than both his parents — one an endlessly resourceful Scottish builder and re-builder of the family ranch (also possibly, McPhee suggests, a one-time member of Butch Cassidy’s gang), and the other one of the finest diarists ever to put pen to paper in a time and place that was still the Old West.

I’ve read and re-read Rising From the Plains so often that the pages are browned at the edges, simply because I love the writing and the characters in the stories that braid through the text (which is actually about geology, though you can ignore that).

I bring all this up because last night, on my sister’s Netflix, we watched Episode Eight (1887-1914), of The West, a Ken Burns documentary that ran on PBS so long ago that the picture is in 3×4 low-def, shaped to fit old vacuum-tube TV screens. In the episode is a section titled “I Will Never Leave You,” which is about the trials endured by the Love family at their ranch. It features photos of the Loves I had never seen, along with interview footage of David Love, then in his 80s, telling stories I had read countless times, yet loved to hear again, straight from The Man Himself.

The old ranch house was still standing when Love and McPhee visited it for a last time, sometime before the mid-80s, when Rising From the Plains was published. John Perry Barlow, who knew Love, told me a few years ago that the place is now long gone.

But Wyoming, which the Loves loved, and which David knew more deeply than anybody, lives. And visiting Love’s home turf (which he said was “100 miles from wood, water and women”) is one of the very few to-dos on my bucket list.

A few bonus links: