My father was born in Westhope, North Dakota. West and hope—the destinies and desires of thousands of dreamers caught up by the frontier distilled in two words. The town had existed for just thirteen years when "Doc Charley" Durnin delivered tiny, premature Donald Eldon Trimble and kept him alive by incubating him in a shoebox placed in the office oven. March 6, 1916. Baby Don's parents, my grandparents, were authentic pioneer offspring. I heard their stories as a child, and they brought the opening of the West close.
My grandmother Ruby Seiffert was one of the first white children—as the family stories always put it—born in that part of North Dakota in 1892. The Seifferts, Alsatian and Scotch immigrants, had made their way west through Canada, from Ontario to Manitoba, finally crossing south over the line to North Dakota in the 1880s.
One of the family homesteads lay along the curl of Antler Creek within sight of the international boundary, a little stream that ambled between the two countries through box elder, elm, and ash thickets—past a rock farmhouse, a plank bridge, a springhouse smelling of butter and cream. Another branch of the Seiffert family chose a spot along Antler Creek in 1883 when they spooked a remnant herd of buffalo. The guard bull roused his herd when he spotted their carriage from his lookout post on a hint of a hill—and on that rise they built their house.
My grandfather's Trimble forebears followed the American frontier westward from Alleghany County, Maryland, in pre-Revolutionary days—to Ohio, Iowa, and North Dakota. Branches of that clan reach back to the early Europeans' voyages to New England.
My great-grandfather Grant Trimble was the star of many of the family stories, was a terrific character: the flawed patriarch. He came west when he drove horses from Iowa to North Dakota, made a profit, and decided to stay. He platted and built the town of Richburg, North Dakota, in 1898, and an old family photograph shows his center of operations, a storefront for "Trimble's Dry Goods Department" and "Trimble's State Bank." Little-America-style promotional signboards completely covered the building: "The Greatest Sale of Modern Times." "The Wonder of the Age." "They Kan't Ketch Up." "Fat Bargains." "A Happy Shopping Place."
When the railroad bypassed him five years later he platted his brother's farm, which happened to lie next to the railhead, and competed for sales by offering land at a fraction of the price of the railroad's lots. The Great Northern succumbed to his bluff, lowered their prices, and gave him a major portion of the lots in the new town. Great-grandfather Trimble gleefully put Richburg on wagons, building by building, and moved his frontier mini-development to the new railhead town of Westhope a mile and a half away. His oldest son, my grandfather Donald Enoch Trimble, was the first graduate of Westhope High School. (There were only two graduates that spring day in 1909, Trimble and Warner, and commencement was alphabetical.)
In Wallace Stegner's pithy words, the families who came west at this time were "boomers" or "stickers." The boomers followed their dreams, booming and busting but always refusing to knuckle under to the reality of the dry West, always refusing to stay put and "stick." Grant Trimble was a boomer.
This was the homestead era as well, and the Trimbles and the Seifferts claimed land for their own. Public land was simply unhomesteaded land, and that's where the men went duck hunting in the marshes, where young Don Trimble and Ruby Seiffert courted by hooking up the sidecar to my Grandpa's Indian motorcycle and bumping over the Turtle Mountains to Lake Metigoshe for picnics.
For a time, Grant Trimble avoided the bust; he even served as a state senator. The bust came in 1912, when he lost all his money in the wheat futures market. While cleaning out his office Grant found the deed to an apple orchard in Washington that he'd won in one of his business deals and forgotten. It was all he had left. And so the Trimbles moved to Toppenish, a small town in the Yakima Valley.
Unlike the tragic arcs of the boomers dramatized in Wallace Stegner's books, Grant Trimble put down roots in Toppenish. Giving up his wilder dreams, he transformed the Trimbles into settlers—"stickers"—for the remainder of the twentieth century.
In my childhood my paternal grandparents lived at the far west of our family space in the Yakima Valley in Washington. Here, in Toppenish, where my father had grown up, my father's parents and my grandfather's two brothers and three sisters all lived within a few blocks of each other.
The Trimbles had brought their stories with them when they moved from North Dakota. They were townspeople now, but they stayed close, interdependent, with the special affinity of those with a shared past—in their case the boom times back in Dakota. They would spread their Adirondack chairs in a backyard circle and sip iced tea, reliving life on the farms and surrounding prairie as an adventure, reliving the golden memories of their youth.
Those Toppenish backyards contained some of my first wild places. The great evergreen tree that sheltered my grandfather's fishing boat, where I would hide in sharp-needled shade. A cement-lined fishpond. A dusty alley with hollyhocks and bumblebees. These are my elemental, fundamental memories, from a time almost beyond memory. I can tell just how primal because when I recall those explorations, diving deep into that ancient lizard brain where awareness begins with scent, I smell that dust and those pine needles as much as see them.
The Trimbles' experience of moving with the frontier was classically western. They may not have trapped beaver with the mountain men, but my great-uncles' stories of hunting and fishing in North Dakota, the photographs of the family farm that freeze moments of my father's earliest childhood, all tied me to The West, as home and myth, and to the nineteenth century colonization of the frontier and the great dividing of the continent into private and public realms.
From Toppenish the Trimbles looked up to the western horizon every day to see if their mountains were visible—the sublime glacier-covered half rounds of Mount Adams and Mount Rainier. These were ever-present, hovering presences in their lives. My father climbed these mountains as a boy with the Boy Scouts and the Mountaineers Climbing Club.
He took road trips with his pals, saving his money for gas so that he could see the saguaros in the Sonoran Desert, the Grand Canyon, the Great Southwest. When his family visited North Dakota, they detoured to Glacier National Park and to Yellowstone. He loved mountains, he loved the outdoors, and he studied geology in college so that he could work outside—putting himself through school with stints as a hard-rock miner.
After World War II deprived him of his home landscape during a three-year exile in the South Pacific theater, my father was delighted to be back on the road in the West. He had heard that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) was hiring in Denver. At thirty, footloose and in need of a job, this sounded good to him. He moved, within two years married the office clerk-typist—my mother—and spent more than thirty years as a USGS field geologist.
Dad and his fellow geologists and their wives were my primary childhood circle. These scientists did field work in summer in wild country all over the West, then returned home to Denver in winter to work out the meaning of their notes and maps, publishing their theories as monographs. Their work verged on exploration and was less than fifty years after John Wesley Powell had worked in some of the same places.
When I read Wallace Stegner's biography of John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, I realized that Powell and his protégés Clarence Dutton and Grove Karl Gilbert were icons for my father and his friends. And that, in turn, my father's cohort of government scientists were my models, the men I would choose to emulate.
The landscape where Powell and Dutton and Gilbert made their mark was the Colorado Plateau, that great maze of canyons carved by the Colorado River. My father introduced me to these places on family trips. Later I worked in the canyon country as a park ranger. Today my retreat—my Eden—rises on a sandstone mesa with views across public land to a national park in the heart of the plateau. My imagination travels far but always comes home to these canyons.
The anti-intellectual stereotype of masculinity in the West veers in another direction entirely—that of the cowboy who turned up in western movies and television series of the '50s, a man of the land but one who is driven to possess, own, and dominate—quick to take up arms to defend his property. Americans fancy this stereotype. We imagine these mythic heroes as our leaders—and we keep electing to the presidency men who play to that myth.
My father and his friends, by contrast, were men who drank and swore but treasured clear thinking and well-spoken ideas. They socialized as couples, women and men together. With plenty of World War II footage on the black-and-white television screen of our living room, I knew what they had done in the war a few short years before. Now "going out with the boys," for them, meant getting together with their sack lunches at the office to talk politics, argue theories, and banter. They saved their extra energy for climbing mountains and anonymous ridges, intent on deciphering the story of the landscape. Mostly irreligious, geologic time was their scripture.
Their fieldwork mixed the physical and the cerebral. They drove Jeeps and forded rivers and sweat-stained their hatbands. They mused in grand scale, comfortable with the millions and billions of geologic time, but they spent their days in physical contact with the earth, picking up rocks warmed by the sun, collecting rough horn coral fossils and knife-sharp chunks of obsidian, kneeling to measure grain size and the angles of rocks jutting from the surface of the planet. Mapping and photographing and drawing in their journals, these men made art while doing science.
In my childhood, I chose my father's lineage for my connections. Geology was the bedrock underlying patriarchy. Science was our religion, western history and natural history our tribal lore, the public domain of the West our Holy Land. Like my father, I took as my prophets the pioneers and mountain men, the explorer-scientists and writers journeying and journaling across the continent, and paid due respect to Lewis and Clark and to my grandfather's pioneer energy.
A subliminal message ran through this history: that government was good. From Lewis and Clark themselves to Powell and the nineteenth-century surveys, Aldo Leopold, and Bob Marshall's invention of the modern concept of wilderness while working for the Forest Service—the stories that nourished me featured federal bureaucrats as heroes. I grew up with the assumption that civil servants did visionary work.
The visionaries' disciples were the men of my father's generation, not long back from the war, returned alive to family, to good work, and to the canyons and deserts and rivers and mountains of the West. These were the places that gave them their stories. These were the places that make us who we are.
BARGAINING for EDEN
is available at your local independent bookstore...
or visit the University of California Press webpage:
Bargaining for Eden is also available at Stephen Trimble's website:
And listen to Steve's interview with Doug Fabrizio at KUER on "Radio West:"