‘Docent Dan’ is a natural fit for telling historical stories.
By Kylie Mohr
Each and every day Dan McIlhenny sat on the porch where the Wilderness Act of 1964 was envisioned.
“My favorite picture growing up was the one that Ansel Adams took of the Snake River Overlook,” McIlhenny said. “As a little kid I saw that picture and I said, ‘God, I gotta go there.’ Those mountains just haunt me. So, in a way, I’ve been swooning all my life just like John D. Rockefeller Jr. was about how beautiful these mountains are.”
As the wind ripples through the aspens and the Grand Teton peeks out from behind a tall forest, McIlhenny tells the stories of beloved conservationists Olaus and Mardy Murie to visitors from around the country, and the world, as the docent at Teton Science Schools’ Murie Ranch.
“Docent Dan” shares the Muries’ history, and their achievements, all day long. But he’s more reserved when it comes to talking about himself.
“A lot of people enjoy that, but I usually don’t talk about myself,” McIlhenny said. “I kind of feel like I’m a conduit here where I’m sharing this story.”
McIlhenny, 67, always loved the mountains.
“One of the reasons I’m here is because I love nature,” he said. “As a kid I grew up in the city in Southern California, but what I was longing for was to be in nature.”
As a young man McIlhenny was a student of John Muir, a famous author, naturalist and conservationist whose writings contributed to the creation of many national parks, including Yosemite.
“It’s like the Muries pick up where John Muir left off,” McIlhenny said.
Every summer, McIlhenny said, his father took him out into the wilderness.
“When you take a young person and you can give them the gift of going out into nature like that — the younger, the better — it really sticks with them,” McIlhenny said.
But he didn’t make it to the Tetons until he was a grown man. After a four-year stint in the military, he saved enough money to put a down payment on property in the northern Sierras. He lived there for years.
During that time he learned to be a singer and a songwriter.
“I’ve been writing songs and singing for over 45 years,” McIlhenny said. “It’s been my passion. Even though I’ve had a lot of other jobs besides music during lean times, when other things had to be done to keep food on the table and so forth, music has always been a gift that I could give. I wrote a lot of songs about nature.”
Like “Wyoming Why,” a song McIlhenny composed in 1982 when he and his wife traveled around the country — making it as close to Wyoming as Boise, Idaho. He
Finally, in 2013, McIlhenny and his wife, Valerie Crawford, came to Jackson on a “dream vacation.”
“We were just traveling around the park, and we came down here to the visitors center,” he recalled. “We just saw this gravel road, and my curiosity was peaked and I said, ‘What’s down at the end of this gravel road?’”
The Murie Center was at the end of that gravel road, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of summer traffic. McIlhenny instantly recognized the house because of John Denver, a close friend of Mardy Murie who’d produced TV segments showing the house.
“I said to my wife, ‘I know where I am,’” McIlhenny said.
They sat on the porch for about an hour as the sun dipped low in the sky, coming back the next day for a tour. McIlhenny told the folks at the time that he’d love to get involved in doing fundraising through his music and signed up for a newsletter.
Little did he know the impact that writing his name down on that mailing list would have. A year later his wife happened to see a job listing for an intern/docent.
“And I thought immediately, ‘Intern — they probably want a young college person. They don’t want an old geezer,’ you know?” he recalled.
Despite McIlhenny’s poo-pooing, he finally called at the urging of his wife. The director, Jon Mobeck, told McIlhenny the job was “not age-exclusive. We just need somebody who can tell the stories.”
“And I said, ‘I think I could tell the story,’” McIlhenny said. “So in any case, when we hang up, he said to the staff — I learned this later on — ‘I think we’ve got our docent.’ So I’ve been here for five years since then.”
In those five years McIlhenny has found his calling.
“When you retire, sometimes you’re looking for some kind of purpose in your life,” McIlhenny said. “Personally, I feel like everything I did in my life before was a rehearsal for this.”
He speaks with his hands, drawing in curious people of all ages from all around the world.
“Had you come here when Mardy was alive she would have invited you into her home,” he tells visitors. “She’d connect with you in the heart.”
Although McIlhenny never met either Murie in the flesh, he speaks lovingly of them.
“She was as humble as the day is long,” he said of Mardy Murie.
If you’d come to the Murie Ranch while she was there, he told a family congregated on the porch, she would’ve made a hot pot of tea for adults, lemonade for the children and her “secret weapon,” ginger “cry baby” cookies for all.
Something McIlhenny loves about the legacy of the Muries is that people here in Jackson Hole knew them personally.
“What I find that’s fun about this is that Mardy and Olaus lived in this community a long time, Mardy a lot more,” he said.
“She only died in 2003. In reality, that’s not so long ago. So there’s many people in the community that knew her. And I keep getting these little tidbits of ways they crossed paths.”
Near the end of Mardy Murie’s life, McIlhenny said, the community really rallied around her so she could die in her own home.
“They volunteered their time or they brought money into the equation so that she could fulfill this wish,” he said. “It was a beautiful story of community outreach to her. It was kind of a returned favor, in a way.”
Sometimes family members will translate McIlhenny’s stories for each other. This gets McIlhenny choked up.
“To see, suddenly, a mother from another nationality who doesn’t know what you’re talking about, through the translation, burst into tears because she’s endeared to what Mardy did . . .” he trailed off.
“Do you know what that does to me? It’s so special. I get these rewards all the time. I love my work, I really love it. I’m so honored to be here.”
The docent job includes living on the Murie Ranch for six months. The rest of the time McIlhenny and his wife live in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
In the fall, bears wander through McIlhenny’s backyard to munch on hawthorne bushes.
“It’s a good, wild place,” he said. “This just satisfies everything. I’m just on a constant good vibe about nature and wildlife. It addresses all my means and loves and so forth.”
When he wants to get musical, McIlhenny pulls out his guitar and heads down the road to Dornan’s to play at the Hootenanny.
Whether he’s playing music in front of the mountains, explaining Olaus Murie’s research as an elk biologist to children or describing how Grand Teton National Park came to be, McIlhenny is living out his childhood dream.
“One of my favorite things is to wake up to a blue sky Wyoming day,” he said. “When I go outside I like to look up at the tips of the trees where they are reaching up to the blue sky. It’s one of my favorite things.”