Michael Yochim’s ALS diagnosis didn’t stop his tribute to America’s national parks
Fenton native Michael Yochim spent decades working for the National Park Service. While he did shorter stints at the Grand Canyon and Sequoia national parks, his heart was always with Yellowstone.
“He had this house in Gardiner, Montana, right outside Yellowstone, that he thought he was going to live in and retire in,” said Yochim’s longtime friend, William R. Lowry. “He loved to hike; he loved to backpack. And within a year or two, he couldn't do those things.”
In 2013, Yochim was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. A year later, he made the tough decision to leave Yellowstone to move in with his parents.
Despite the frustrations of his circumstances, Yochim “had a remarkable ability to keep his focus on what he wanted to do,” Lowry recalled on St. Louis on the Air.
What Yochim wanted, Lowry explained, was to raise awareness about how climate change is affecting his beloved parks. His reflections on the topic, and how it relates to his battle with ALS, are showcased in his new, posthumously published book, “Requiem for America’s Best Idea: National Parks in the Era of Climate Change.”
“Just as I don't have much time left, we don't have much time left to protect the parks from the worst of climate change,” Yochim wrote in the book. “Ultimately, both are stories of loss — the one inexplicable and inexorable, the other unnecessary and still preventable.”
Yochim drafted the entire book letter by letter, line by line — using only his eyes and an eye-tracking machine. He would get up in the morning, work for two hours, take a break, be fed through a portal in his stomach, take a nap and write again in the afternoon for another couple of hours.
“It was just exhausting work, but he was determined to get this done,” Lowry explained.
The book was nearly finished when Yochim died in 2020. It was Feb. 29 — a leap day. “A rare day for a rare person,” Lowry said.
Before he passed, Yochim asked Lowry to continue his work in case he was unable to publish the book himself. “There was no way I was gonna say no,” said Lowry, a professor emeritus of political science at Washington University. “Not only did I love Mike, but I love the parks too.”
So Lowry edited Yochim’s work. And through Yochim’s family and friends, with some help from the National Parks Conservation Association, the book was published this month by High Road Books, an imprint of the University of New Mexico Press.
Lowry hopes that readers will not only learn more about how climate change affects the natural world, but also feel inspired to visit the parks — to explore what they have to offer and create memories of their own. It was memories of the parks that gave Yochim comfort and solace in his final years.
“That was another reason to write the book,” Lowry said, “because he wants to save these places so that we all have these parks that we can think about — and [that] provide us some peace.”
Yochim was drafting a book-related email to Lowry when he passed. In it, Yochim describes a time in his parents’ garden when a fledgling house wren landed on his finger.
“Such a neat encounter with nature's wildness right in the backyard,” Yochim wrote. “Will we act in time to give future generations the same experiences?”
What: A Special Event to Celebrate Michael J. Yochim - Requiem for America's Best Idea
When: 7 p.m. March 15
Where: Left Bank Books' Facebook Live Page or YouTube Page
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.