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Sierra Magazine
Field Guide: One Man's Utah

By Editor-in-chief Joan Hamilton

Over the years, author and historian T. H. Watkins has helped keep Sierra on course. When we first met him in the late 1980s, he was the editor of The Wilderness Society's magazine, Wilderness, in Washington, D.C. He never wrote for Sierra, but he kept an avuncular eye on our work. He hailed our feistiest political coverage, cheered our public-lands articles, and professed "fetid envy" over an issue we devoted to 21 ecoregions in the United States and Canada. A comment from Watkins like "bad idea" (we had asked him and others to write about their most embarrassing experiences in the great outdoors) could cause us to rethink our plans. "Hell of a job" gave a lift to our day.

Watkins' own mentor was famed author Wallace Stegner, with whom he worked in Berkeley, California, in the 1960s on a small, now-defunct magazine called The American West. "I was just lucky enough to encounter him early in my professional life," Watkins says, "and just smart enough to listen to what he had to tell me." Watkins later moved on to American Heritage and Wilderness, but his course as a wildlands defender had been set. He wrote many books along the way, including a 1,000-page biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Interior secretary, Harold Ickes, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for biography in 1991.

Perhaps the saddest day in Watkins' career came in 1996, when his beloved Wilderness folded for financial reasons. After 21 years of living east of the Mississippi, Watkins decided it was time to come home to the West. He now teaches at Montana State University in Bozeman, and has begun research on his 29th book, a biography of Stegner.

A few months ago, Watkins and I talked about one of his favorite places—Utah. He goes there for solitary hikes, four or five days at a stretch, allowing plenty of time for sitting, waiting, watching. Just thinking about those trips fills him with messianic zeal. "Whenever I'm flying to Los Angeles," he confided, "I'm entirely capable of getting out of my seat to lean over some hapless fellow passenger to see whatever I can of southern Utah. When the angle of the flight path is just right, I'm tempted to grab people and shout, 'There! Right down there! The Dirty Devil River! The Henry Mountains! The Escalante! Look! Look! Isn't that great?' "

When I asked him if he would be willing to write an introduction to the gallery of Utah photos in the printed issue, he instantly said yes. His only caveat: "Be forewarned, I am helplessly addicted to this place."

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