Teton Tales and Other Petzoldt Anecdotes. Paul K. Petzoldt, with Kevin Cassidy. ICS Books, Merrillville, Indiana, 1995. 214 pages, black-and-white photos. $14.95.
This is oral history, transcribed; and as the title implies it has a narrow focus that will delight some readers and deter others. Over the years, Petzoldt himself has had the same sort of ambivalent impact on the people he has met and worked with, delighting some and taking pride in his effect on the others; we must note that in these stories he does nothing to amend that. I am reminded of the first (and only) time I ever met him, on the trail in Garnet Canyon. As we were introduced, I told him that I was glad for the chance to meet him at last, having heard so much about him over the years. “Just remember the bad things,” was his sardonic reply.
This reader was one of the delighted, while recognizing that the editing of this book did not include enough in the way of background for, or continuity between, the stories. Had I not been already familiar with many of the places, people, and events (apocryphal or not) described here, I might have missed many of the allusions. The chronology as well is a bit confusing, with some references made to things we will not read about for many chapters to come. But these are characteristic drawbacks of stories that, though told many times, have not yet been written down; and it is in that oral tradition that we should receive this book
Petzoldt’s chapters on his first climb of the Grand and his serendipitous embracing of a guiding career are particularly enjoyable, as are his insights into the ambience of the early Jackson’s Hole; but some of his stories are less relevant to the theme of the book and seem to have been tacked on as afterthoughts or filler. His exact relationship with Glenn Exum and the ultimate disposition of the guide service which Petzoldt founded is never quite made clear; and there are a number of assumptions made about the reader’s familiarity with this neck of the woods which, in the long run, will only serve to limit readership to those who can fill in the blanks. A bit of editorial intervention might have averted these problems, but from the conversational tone of the book it is difficult to tell how many liberties have already been taken with Petzoldt’s language, and how much more it could withstand before ceasing to be his voice. In fact, it is hard to tell whether truth and fiction might not be commingling here; as with most oral histories, some of the tales border on the tall. That, of course, is one of their attractions.
In the end, I am saddened not by this book’s shortcomings but by its strengths: the evocation of a time and of a world that no longer exists, a world that most of us would like to have lived in, and of which only the palest shadow now remains in the signs that greet visitors to Jackson’s Hole: “Yonder lies the Last and Best of the Old West.” It reads like an epitaph.