Jon Bell, a full-time freelance writer, turned his love of Mount Hood into a comprehensive book about the mountain. His journalism background shows in how he approaches his 11,245-foot subject from every conceivable angle, including on foot with his wife and dog.
On Mount Hood: A Biography of Oregon’s Perilous Peak, was published by Sasquatch Books in 2011. It offers a satisfying mix of interviews and facts about one of the state’s most recognizable features.
Jon takes the reader along on his quest to learn more about the iconic mountain that dominates the Portland metro-area landscape. His authorial voice—as he asks questions, delves into history and demystifies geological phenomena—is professional and personal. Well-muscled sentences push the reader to consider the peak’s past, present and future and how its presence has affected us as human beings.
On Mount Hood is a relevant read for anyone who has ever climbed Mount Hood, skied there, gasped at its immensity from the plane window, noted “The mountain’s out today,” or tasted tap water in the Portland metro area.
Jon, a former business writer for the Portland Tribune, has been freelancing since the late 1990s. His work has appeared in Backpacker, the Oregonian, Oregon Business, the Portland and Puget Sound Business Journals, Oregon Coast, the Rowing News, the Home Building News and the Portland Physician Scribe, among others.
1. Tell us about On Mount Hood. What’s it about?
Since the book came out in June 2011, I’ve had a lot of people ask me that. People often think it’s strictly a history book or a climbing book or a natural sciences book. But it’s really none of those—and all of those. Simply put, On Mount Hood is an anything and everything look at one of the Northwest’s most famous mountains: adventures and tragedies, history and geology, people and places, trivia and lore. It’s also a story of the mountain told through personal experiences, my own and those of countless other people, and a story that shows just how influential and inspirational the mountain is to people who live in the region or have otherwise crossed paths with Mount Hood.
2. What inspired you to create this book, Jon? How did writing it change your perception of the mountain?
There were a couple inspirations behind it, really. Mount Hood is just an inspirational mountain to begin with, especially for someone like me who grew up somewhere else and far away from grand mountains (Ohio). When I moved to Oregon in 1997, I was immediately smitten by the mountain, as so many people are, and started to explore it almost immediately through hiking, visiting Timberline Lodge, driving around it, camping near it and, eventually, climbing it. With the mountain so close to home, it’s easy to make it a big part of what you do in your free time. In 1999, I read a book called “The Measure of a Mountain” by Bruce Barcott, which is a narrative all about Mount Rainier. I loved it, and when I got to the end of it, I felt like I really knew a lot about the mountain, as if I’d read a biography about it. At the time, my wife suggested I write a book like that about Mount Hood, but back then I wasn’t yet writing professionally, so I just sat on the idea for a few years while I built up my experience. The idea never went away, and when I pulled it out of my head a few years ago, I was somewhat surprised but also glad to find that, aside from coffee table books, guidebooks, and a few fairly old books about the mountain, there wasn’t a contemporary narrative out there about Mount Hood. So, I set out to write one.
Perception wise, writing this book helped me not only get to know the mountain better, but to also realize how big of an impact it has on people and on the region in general. Mount Hood has literally changed the lives of people who have visited the mountain, fallen for it, and never left. And so many people seem to have some kind of connection to the mountain, whether they’ve climbed it or skied on it, stayed at Timberline or even just heard about some of the climbing accidents while watching the news from across the country. The mountain has such a rich history, too, and it’s also connected to everything from the weather and the water to the trees. So for me, really realizing how far the mountain’s reach goes was pretty eye-opening.
3. On Mount Hood is an enticing blend of facts, quotes and essay-like passages about your own climbing experience. Where did you start, in terms of compiling information, and how many interviews did you conduct by the time the book was finished?
Over my years of exploring Mount Hood, and as a writer, I always kept pretty detailed journals of any excursions I made to the mountain. Because I spent so much time up there hiking and backpacking, cross-country skiing, climbing, and just about everything else, I had a pretty good start when it came to personal anecdotes by the time I set out to write the book. As someone who always read about the mountain, I was familiar with a lot of the names of people who would make good interviews for the book, and once I started talking to people, every one of them would recommend at least a few other people to talk to. The hardest part was having to put up some boundaries and just say, okay, I can’t fit in any more stories for this chapter, even though I know they’re out there. By the time I’d finished the book, I’d probably directly interviewed at least seventy-five people.
4. Was there one fact, anecdote or interview that surprised you the most?
There are so many that I came across, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. And I don’t know that there was anything that really surprised me, other than the fact that so many people had so many unique connections to or stories about Mount Hood. Probably my favorite is that of Andrew Canfield, an Air Force pararescue jumper who was part of the 2002 rescue operation to help some climbers who’d been injured in a terrible accident on the South Side climbing route. He was in the helicopter that ended up crashing famously during a rescue attempt. Andrew himself was thrown from the helicopter and rolled over by it—twice—as it tumbled down the mountain. The fact that he lived to tell the tale is amazing enough, but his whole back story leading up to that incredible moment was fascinating as well.
5. After reading about Bull Run, which supplies the Portland metro area with water, and its vulnerability in the event of an eruption, I have to ask. Did you rush out and buy a supply of bottled water?
Well, no, but it is interesting. Even though where I live now isn’t supplied by the Bull Run, I did live in Portland for ten years and drank Bull Run water, which to me is some of the best tap water I’ve ever had. The watershed could be threatened if there was an eruption, but according to geologists I interviewed, such an eruption wouldn’t happen without warning. The pipelines out near the watershed that bring the water into Portland have been buried underground as a safety measure, and the city does have a backup well field. So, knock on wood, the bases are hopefully covered.
6. Jon, you’ve been a successful freelance writer since 1999. What’s the biggest challenge, or does it depend on the project? I’d love to hear about one of your most memorable assignments.
For me, the biggest challenge has always been related more to the business of full-time freelance writing and landing the next assignment or project that’s going to keep me solidly busy and employed. It takes some real effort to make pitches, to market yourself, to get your name out there. And like a lot of writers, self-promotion and marketing is not really my strong suit, even though it needs to be. That’s always a challenge.
My most memorable assignments are ones that usually come about as a result of something I’m out and about doing anyway. I love backpacking and climbing in the Cascades, so anytime I get to write about those kinds of excursions, I’m thrilled. I did a story once about climbing Mount Adams in a single day. It was fun and the experience itself was just rich with material. I got some nice photos, starting with a sunrise departure, the conditions were prime, and on the 12,276-foot summit, just across from a group passing around a bottle of champagne, was a guitar and mandolin duo laying down a little bluegrass background music. Vignettes like that make for some great stories.
7. What advice would you give aspiring freelancers, especially in this economy, when there are a lot of creative professionals competing for the same kind of work?
Keep at it. Know that it takes a lot of work and time, but it can be done. I basically had to write my book—from proposal to finished manuscript—after hours, which wasn’t always easy to do. It made for some long and quiet nights behind the computer when I would have rather been outside or doing something fun with my family, but in the end it really paid off, at least when it came to a real sense of accomplishment for a project that really was and is a passion of mine. There’s also a lot of change going on in the industry as the shift from print to digital continues, but I still think there’s a good mix of both out there. I also think there are a lot more avenues for new writers to pursue these days as well. Great writing will always be great, no matter the format. Finally, keep your writing balanced. I would love to write about climbing mountains or paddling lakes all the time, but that’s not going to pay my bills. I do a lot of other writing that may not be as exciting but that is more lucrative. The key, though, is to be able to make a living but also to enjoy that living. So I always try to mix in the kinds of stories I love to do with the kind of writing I have to do. Striking the right balance helps put me right where I want to be.
This interview was first published in Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life, which was released by Forest Avenue Press in October 2012.