The Unquiet American

The mysteries of Guy Waterman’s suicide.

If you started a book (or finished one) just prior to the war, pick it up now. You very well might see it through different eyes.

The book that proved this to me was Chip Brown’s Good Morning Midnight, the story of Guy Waterman, a former political and corporate speechwriter turned dean of the homesteading movement in rural Vermont. On Feb. 6, 2000, Waterman, who was 67, marched up his favorite trail in New Hampshire and deliberately froze to death. Brown begins his book with a scene of Waterman’s friends heading out to retrieve his body, and the search occasions a look back at his life. But Good Morning Midnight isn’t a biography; it’s an investigation. Not a whodunit, but a whydunit.

Solving this mystery is no easy task, but Brown is helped by Waterman’s own compulsively detailed records (he kept tabs on every blueberry he picked for nearly 20 years), his exceptional deliberateness (a friend called him “the most intentional person I’ve ever known”), and the openness of his widow, Laura. Like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, which was also the story of a man who froze to death in the wilderness, Good Morning Midnight benefits greatly from the author’s empathy—and occasionally suffers from it, too. Brown’s searching reflections on Waterman’s psychology—including entire paragraphs of rhetorical questions—can be distracting. (In the acknowledgements, Brown credits his own father, who read a draft of the book, with editing down his son’s “sonorous twaddle.”)

Born May 1, 1932, Guy Waterman was the baby of the family, the fifth child of accomplished parents, including a father—known to his kids as “Hawee”—who helped found and run the National Science Foundation. Brown persuasively attributes Guy’s rebellious streak to his desire to rival, at least in originality, his father’s achievements.

“Little Guy” did not lack for talent: He played jazz piano in clubs while still a teenager, memorized long passages of Milton, and, after marrying his first love, Emily Morrison, found success as a speechwriter. He wrote for junior Republican senators, including Richard Nixon, and, later, for executives at General Electric. Nevertheless, he was unhappy, drank heavily, and grew miserable. He and Emily stayed together only for the sake of their three sons.

In 1963, though, Waterman’s fortunes turned. After reading a series of articles in Sports Illustrated detailing a harrowing ascent of the Eiger, a mountain in the Swiss Alps, Waterman was inspired to try climbing himself. He weaned himself off whiskey. Before long, he became an accomplished climber and instructor in New York’s Shawagunk and Adirondack ranges and New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

While Waterman’s time in the mountains helped him regain his health, it didn’t save his marriage. He divorced, and a few years later, he started a new life with a fellow climber named Laura Johnson. They married, bought some land near East Corinth, Vt., and built a farm for themselves. In July 1973, they moved off the grid to a one-room cabin with an outhouse, a shed for firewood, and a vegetable garden. For heat, they relied on a wood-burning stove; for light, oil lamps. The couple grew their own food, survived harsh winters, and went on to write two well-received histories of hiking and climbing in New England, Forest and Crag and Yankee Rock & Ice, as well as two essential paperbacks for hiker-environmentalists, Backwood Ethics and Wilderness Ethics.

The Watermans lived on their farm until Guy’s death. Before he died, he arranged for Laura, who knew of his suicidal intentions, to move to a new house. Brown notes that “one of [Laura’s] more probing friends would bluntly say to me later, that the heart of the matter was a stark bargain struck by a wife who had traded silence and consent … for the quid pro quo of a house.”

Brown does a masterful job unearthing the roots of Waterman’s suicide—his “sad cure.” He illuminates the bushwhacker’s hidden bouts of depression, his isolating commitment to self-reliance, his unforgiving sense of individual accountability, and foremost his sorrow over the loss of two of his sons. He’d moved to Vermont when his boys were barely out of high school and didn’t see much of them afterward. The two oldest, whom he’d taught to climb, disappeared on separate occasions in the Alaskan wilderness. Both were still in their 20s. Guilt-ridden as well as heartbroken, Waterman nevertheless refused help and seems to have determined to make his sons’ fate his own.

Initially, I’d read Good Morning Midnight to understand a man’s undoing. Returning to it after the war started in Iraq, however, made me realize how troubled I’d become about what America stands for. The second time through, I read in the hopes that Guy Waterman might restore some faith in my countrymen. In a strange way—and despite his suicide—he did.

Really, Waterman’s preoccupations were quintessentially American: from dogs and ice cream (he took a pint of Ben and Jerry’s with him on a failed suicide attempt in 1993) to peak-bagging (climbing every mountain of a certain height) to baseball and blues piano. But I reacted to something else in Waterman’s story, too—in particular, the American themes of reinvention, self-sufficiency, and participation in the ongoing, democratic debates over how to make the best of what’s still around.

Though Waterman was never as original a prose stylist as Annie Dillard or Edward Abbey, writers who managed to articulate a deep appreciation of natural beauty and the deepening resentment over its destruction without purple lyricism or guilt trips, he became an able historian and, as I discovered reading his Wilderness Ethics, a credible spokesman for the back-to-nature crowd. He engaged in all the wilderness management debates, profound and petty, and treated them with real wit. He even wrote a wry assessment of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax as an eco-anarchist manifesto.

Most significantly, Waterman helped draft guiding principles for how to spend time in the heavily trafficked wilderness of New England without degrading the elements that drew people to it—solitude, silence, ruggedness, and natural splendor. These principles contributed to a coherent ethic now widely promoted throughout the United States and world as “leave no trace.”

From his own books, Waterman does not come across as an overlooked literary genius, but he does emerge as a resourceful man who led by example; this is another reason his suicide so troubled his admirers. Waterman may have, as Brown puts it, “bungled” the answer to his own central question—when we fight to preserve wilderness, what exactly are we really trying to preserve?—but he can still inspire. He fought the good fight for our nation’s natural heritage.