Dr. Judith Meyer

A place for meaning

Picture yourself in a national park like Denali, the Everglades or Yosemite. Perhaps you’re driving through a region like the Ozarks or Appalachia.

What comes to mind?

Dr. Judith Meyer, a historical geographer, wants to know how you experience that landscape and why.

“I study the sense of place: the meanings people give to the landscape and how those meanings influence our attitudes toward particular places, especially in terms of how we manage them,” said Meyer, geography program coordinator in the department of geography, geology and planning. “Why do we fight over Jerusalem? Is the Ozarks part of the Yankee North or the Dixie South?

“Understanding the sense of place is important in making thoughtful and effective land-use decisions.”

Meyer’s primary research has been on Yellowstone National Park.

“If you look at 200 years of people writing about their experience in (Yellowstone), certain themes are repeated: ‘it’s beautiful, it piques my curiosity,'” Meyer said. “People express appreciation for a government that protects wilderness while also making that wilderness accessible to the public.”

Students hiking

Photo submitted by Judith Meyer

A path to the past

Meyer has extensively researched Yellowstone’s Howard Eaton Trail. The 157-mile, park-encircling trail’s namesake was a dude rancher and saddle-horse trail guide entrepreneur.

The trail opened in 1923, designed for horseback riding. But over time, park visitors’ interests shifted toward hiking.

In 1970, the National Park Service (NPS) stopped maintaining the trail when park management goals transitioned from providing recreational access to protecting sensitive wildlife habitat and delicate thermal features.

In the summer of 2014, Meyer traveled with a team of students and colleagues to Yellowstone to hike, map and photograph what remained of the trail.

“I think this research tells us that it is possible to have rich, historically appropriate and authentic experiences in the national parks today as long as you educate people on the significance of what they’re doing, its relationship to the past, its impact on the future.” — Dr. Judith Meyer

Comparing then and now

Students at the Continental Divide marker

Photo submitted by Judith Meyer

The group mapped parts of the former trail using Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, which includes digital images and analysis of the landscape.

Along the way, the group replicated photos from the same vantage points as photos taken on Eaton’s tours. This process, rephotography, provides a side-by-side comparison of the past with the present.

Combining rephotography, historical accounts and GIS technology is a unique aspect of Meyer’s research.

“Photography is really powerful, but there isn’t a lot of good representation of it in the field of geography combined with GIS,” said Emma Walcott-Wilson, a graduate of MSU’s geography program and current PhD student at the University of Tennessee. “Dr. Meyer does an expert job of blending GIS and qualitative research.”

Meyer’s group presented a poster entitled, “The Howard Eaton Trail: Crossing Borders and Disciplines to Preserve the Past” at the 12th Biennial Scientific Conference on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

A section of the poster read: “Rephotography of sites along the (trail) show that little has changed about the traditional Yellowstone experience. People stubbornly return to the same vantage points, endure hardship… and engage in many of the same activities.”

The study’s purpose: preserve the trail as a “cultural, historical and scientific” artifact.

Kortney Huffman, GIS Specialist for the City of Springfield, wrote her thesis on the project, completing her MS in Geospatial Science in 2015.

Leslie Quinn and Judith Meyer standing next to Howard Eaton Trail sign at Yellowstone National Park.

Photo submitted by Judith Meyer.

Setting the record straight

Meyer’s research on Yellowstone helps clarify history. For example, conventional wisdom suggests Eaton himself laid out his namesake trail.

“Eaton died the year before the trail opened,” Meyer said. “Naming the trail for Eaton was in part a political ploy to bring name recognition to the newly-established NPS’s infrastructure project.”
She wrote about this myth in Western Historical Quarterly and about the 2014 field course study in the Geographical Review. Both articles appeared in 2017.

Meyer’s future endeavors include a biography of Eaton and his connection to Yellowstone. Additionally, Meyer plans a book, in conjunction with Huffman, showcasing photo-pairs on some of her best rephotography projects.

Naturally, this research requires a trip or two back to Yellowstone.

“When it starts to green up in the spring, I feel a tug, a pull, to return to Yellowstone,” Meyer said. “It’s a bit like the monarch butterfly or humpback whale migration. I feel called back to the park.”

Inspiring others with geography

Emma Walcott-Wilson was a history major, until she took one of Dr. Judith Meyer’s geography classes.

Her major changed soon thereafter.

“Dr. Meyer was so engaging and passionate,” Walcott-Wilson said. “It was exciting to see somebody that thrilled about what they were doing and excited about their students following along.”

Walcott-Wilson earned bachelor’s degree in geography from MSU, earned her master’s at Mizzou, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Tennessee.

In 2016, Meyer invited Walcott-Wilson to present at MSU’s Geography Awareness Week Seminar.

“Working with Dr. Meyer is something I’d like to do more of in the future, especially because one of my concentration areas is national parks.”

Further reading

Major in Geography


6 Responses
  • Susan Blades

    Wow! This is such an interesting and engaging article, Dr. Meyer. Your passion is indeed contagious!

  • Brenda Stewart

    Great article and topic! I’m delighted to learn of Dr. Meyer. This topic has always been something I personally had thought about, and it’s exciting to see the qualitative sciences used for authentication. And I agree with statement above, Dr. Meyer’s passion is contagious.

  • Bonnie Sachatello-Sawyer

    I have always been inspired by Dr. Meyer’s research in Yellowstone National Park. I am so pleased to see her work being recognized by Missouri State University now.

  • Neosha Mackey

    Wonderful article about a professor I’m honored to call a friend. Such interesting research!

  • Shirley Gilmore

    Wonderful article. I love historical geography. I have an MSEd in Geography/Educaton from MSU, 1978. (Of course, it was SMS back then). From this article, Dr. Meyer sounds like the passionate Geography professors from that era who inspired me to get my Masters in Geography instead of History.

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