Exploring Wyoming’s Murie Center

 

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Postcard of Jackson, Wyoming (circa 1924) courtesy of the University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center.

By Bill Deverell

 

My mother always said, “it’s good to go away, and it’s good to come home.” Our last few days in Wyoming were magnificent. John and I met up with our friends Sage and Sassy, from the ranch, on Thursday in Jackson. That was fun, just hanging out. Sage is, well, a sage. She knows Wyoming, she knows the fissures of class and tourism and tectonic economic change, and she has a way with words. Sassy — she of the new purple hair — is fun and ever lively, a great Wyoming pal for my city-boy son. The town is more crowded this summer than I’ve ever seen it. Lots of factors to explain that. Cheap gas. Stock market up. Eclipse coming. National Parks inundated. European and Asian tourism looks (and sounds) to be up. The little town struggles with it all. Housing is a mess: anyone not really wealthy struggles to find places to live within reasonable distance. Many workers in town live well south of Jackson or up and over Teton Pass in Idaho. I grew up in Colorado, and I recognize the “Aspen Syndrome” or the “Vail Paradox.” Tourists come and keep coming. Fine dining and shopping pops up to cater to them 12 months a year. But where do the workers who stock those shelves or cook those lamb chops or make those lattes live? And how much must you pay them to give them even a faint shot at reasonable housing? This isn’t a new set of challenges to Jackson, to be sure, but the pressure and the scale of the challenges only seems to be more pressing each time I go there.

On our last day in Wyoming, John went off to camp and the high-ropes course at Teton Science School. After my last day at the gym (if you go to Jackson, if you like gyms and gym rats, and if you don’t mind getting intelligently beat on in a training-session hour, go to Wright Training and tell Crystal Wright I sent you), I had the distinct pleasure of spending mid-day with folks from Teton Science School as they showed me the Murie Center, inside Grand Teton National Park. I knew of it, but I had never been there. What a revelation. The Center, which is a former dude ranch from the early 20th century, later became the home of two pairs of husband and wife conservationists: Olaus Murie and his wife Margaret (Mardy) Murie, and Olaus’s half-brother Adolph Murie and his wife, Louise, who was Mardy’s half-sister, if you can believe it.

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Olaus and Mardy Murie. Photo courtesy of the Murie Center.

These folks belong in the same hushed sentences, and in similar legacy lore, as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, David Brower, Wallace Stegner, Ansel Adams, and lots of Udalls. They are heroes and heroines of the latter-day conservationist movement in America. Because of Olaus and Mardy, the Wilderness Society was headquartered here in the years after World War II, and it was here, in these cabins and on the Muries’ very front porch, that the Wilderness Act (1964) was imagined and conceived. That Act made law and landscapes out of a simple, profound declaration: that there exists, and ought to always exist, places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The Muries, their ranch, their ideas, and their courage made that happen. In honoring their legacy, the Murie Ranch was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006. More recently, Teton Science Schools has forged an innovative relationship with the Murie Center to keep those intellectual flames burning. As TSS states, “The Murie Center is dedicated to bringing people together to inspire action that protects nature – an opportunity and obligation passed on through the legacy of the Muries. The Murie Center continues to play an important role in ensuring the betterment of the future for all life, because when nature thrives, people thrive.”

My few hours there were inspiring beyond measure. Plenty of “history happened here” feelings to keep an historian happy. But — more than that — a spiritual feeling about the place, too. Commitment to work, commitment to nature, commitment to a beloved partner (what a love affair Olaus and Mardy had!), commitment to leaving this world just bit better off — here’s a place to breathe all that in and be renewed by it. My new friends from TSS and I are thinking about what we might do together there at the Murie Center. How I would love to bring students there — graduate students doing western history doctoral work, undergraduates, or even a freshman seminar. Stay tuned, I think we’ll find a way, and I want especially to thank Josh from TSS for his warmth and hospitality in making my visit happen with such decency and kindness.

John and I soon departed. Off to Salt Lake by way of up and over Teton Pass (glorious), on through Idaho (same), and to downtown Salt Lake to stay where we always stay. Dinner at Red Rock, and the great Farmer’s Market in Pioneer Park the next morning before heading out again. On to St. George, arriving in plenty of time for dinner (again!) at Painted Pony, which is uniformly, always superb. Up this morning, point the car south on I-15, and, by early afternoon, home in Pasadena.

A glorious trip.

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Just thinking in Wyoming. Photo by Bill Deverell.

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