I’ve been a cowboy and a ranch hand, and I’ve ramrodded a rodeo ranch. I’ve worked in sawmills, in highway construction, and as a bartender (where I learned a lot about people). I worked as a switchman-brakeman on the Northern Pacific Railroad. I jumped off two runaway trains. And survived. I’ve been charged by a one-ton buffalo, close enough that I could feel the wind of his passing. I’ve fought stallions that were striking at me with both front feet, flinging their hooves in rage at my nose. I had an adult grizzly boar swim to my feet across a pond in Montana’s Mission Range. I came face to face with a wolverine in Alaska once. He left my face intact, which I much appreciated. I came within a pace of stepping on a black bear once, asleep under a boulder in Blodgett Canyon, west of Hamilton, Montana. I went over a waterfall in a kayak on the Middle Fork of the Salmon (justly called the River of No Return). I plunged into a deep whirlpool and very nearly drowned. There is nothing like coming up from the mouth of oblivion to make you notice just how blue the sky is. Crazy or not, I’m glad it happened, all of it. But then, I love to tell tales. Where would I be without my stories?
You asked about jobs. My career has been as a writer, a cameraman, a director, and a wildlife film producer. In the 1970s I co-founded a company called Montana Media that had the first truly portable video equipment in the state. Until then video equipment was heavy and cumbersome and could be found only in TV studios. We had mobile cameras—among the first in the U.S.—but our camera packs still weighed over 30 pounds—hardly light. But they could be transported in jeeps, on horses, or on our backs. Nothing like today’s ultra-light, 5-pound professional rigs, but the equipment made it possible for us to film ranchers and cowhands and wild critters out in the boondocks and the wilds, which was our goal. We were video pioneers: half our equipment was still in the prototype stage, and we had to constantly repair it in the field. We cobbled together several grants to produce “cultural programming” on Montana personalities: cattle ranchers, loggers, truck drivers, and naive artists. It was lovely being young and directionless, while focused and intent at the same time.
That led to my owning a full-blown video production company in Missoula in the 1980s, called Far West Communications. I shot everything from fashion shows to car commercials to wildlife films to documentaries on abused children. But the best part was always the wildlife work—the sheer joy and excitement and challenge of it. I've filmed grizzlies in Alaska and Montana, alligators in Louisiana, bobcats in Arizona, coyotes in the Dakotas, burrowing owls on the sunburnt plains, and chamois goats and ibex in the Kathgar Mountains of eastern Turkey, on the Soviet border. I was a good aerial cameraman, too. I spent a lot of time hanging out of helicopters and small planes filming racing elk, charging buffalo, and streaking mustangs. Was it dangerous filming from light aircraft, sometimes a tad foolhardy? Well, yes, yes it was. But beauty demands risk and danger. You go where the beauty takes you.
But where my heart truly lay was with the birds: eagles, owls, loons, cranes, and all types of waterfowl and wading birds. There is no joy like sitting in a blind on the Platte River, with 5,000 cranes resting on the water before you and being the only human around for miles. At dawn, the cranes awake and lift off in great sheets, hundreds at a time. At sunset they return to roost on the sandbars, dropping like flights of descending angels. Just to be there, with all that splendor and wonder. Who could ask for more? Another time, I set up a blind in North Dakota to film burrowing owls, which reside in abandoned prairie dog holes. When the owls emerge from their underground dens, they don’t just walk up the passageway. They bounce up the tunnels, chattering avidly, cocked heads askew, looking like brightly feathered dolls with a lot of attitude. It’s hard to imagine a funnier, more endearing sight.
After I sold my interest in Far West, I became head of video production for North Dakota Game and Fish, based in Bismarck. I produced a weekly wildlife vignette, North Dakota Outdoors, which was broadcast on commercial and PBS stations in North Dakota and nationally by the Outdoor Life Network. Half the shows were on people in the wild—hunters, fishermen, horseback riders, outdoor recreationists—and half were on wild critters. I was at times director, narrator, head writer, editor, and on-camera reporter. It was the best thing I’ve done. It was also the most fun. The things you love the most are always the best and the most fun, no matter how hard they seem at the time.
I was lured away from that job by an offer I couldn’t refuse. I became head of video production for Ducks Unlimited (DU) in Memphis. DU is the world's premier protector of wetlands, and wetlands are more vital than most people realize. Per square foot, wetlands are the most productive environment on earth. They support the entire skein of life from the bottom of the pond to the top of the sky. Wetlands breed frogs and amphibians, shelter turtles and alligators, nourish small mammals such as muskrats and rabbits, and provide homes to all kinds of birds: cranes, osprey, wood ducks, robins, hawks, avocets, and more. It was a great job with a great organization, but my stay there was brief. The weather was too hot and muggy in Memphis for a Western boy, and I was missing the long, eye-luring distances of Montana. Time to go back to the Big Sky. I wanted to be my own man again, alone and untethered. I thought it was time to pick up the pen—that is, the word processor—once more. So I’ve returned now to my first love: fiction. It’s been my passion since I majored in creative writing at Stanford. After a spell in Montana I moved to the Oregon coast, and I am now writing novels and developing a feature film called A Cowboy in China, which is about my father’s adventures in WWII.
You asked about my Presidential Scholar experience. What I knew then, or thought I knew then, is so different from what I know now. I grew up on a ranch in the Bitterroot Valley, south of Missoula. I had only been out of Montana a couple of times. I was a green lad from the hills, not worldly or sophisticated at all. My parents were bright, clever people—any abilities I have as a writer or storyteller come from them—but they hadn’t gone to college. They were ranchers and horse trainers. Most of my relatives were working people. I come from a hard, tough, honest, working class background. The Presidential Scholar award came as a total surprise to me. I read the announcement in the newspaper before I received my award letter (somehow my telegram was delayed). The trip to Washington was a revelation in itself. It was the first time I had ever been on a commercial aircraft. I was astounded to meet famous people: Thurgood Marshall, Cyrus Vance, Peggy Fleming, Stan Musial, and, of course, President Lyndon Johnson.
What advice would I give young Presidential Scholars today? I'd say cherish every moment, savor every second, and wring every drop of wonder and joy out of whatever you do. Life goes by quickly, and you have only a little time to explore and marvel. That’s a cliché, I know, but often the truest things are clichés: life is short; good work is its own reward; kindness counts; friendship is precious. Adventure makes you grander, risk makes you smarter, and danger expands your soul. And love is the most important thing of all. Grab the things you love and run fast, keeping your eyes wide open. I did, and I'm glad.