As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, What is the use of a book‚Ä¶without pictures or conversations? Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, Cheryl Strayed’s long hike through the wilderness (a Prepub Alert pick) leads me down a winding path. [See also Molly McArdle's Q&A with Strayed.‚ HM]
Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Knopf. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780307592736. $25.95. MEMOIR
In the mid-1990s as her world collapsed, both from within and without, Strayed (Torch) decided that walking the Pacific Crest Trail would be a way forward. Devastated by the death of her mother and the subsequent undoing of her family and marriage, Strayed saw the 2,663-mile route through desert, mountains, and raw wilderness as something of an ideal‚ offering promise, salvation, a path toward the way (though she had no idea what any of those things would look like, if they could be found). The decision to walk an 1100-mile segment of the trail was as impulsive and self-isolating a choice as any she had made during her free fall following her mother’s death. Detailing everything from the landscape, to the toll hiking took on her body, to the exquisite joy to be found in Snapple after a long day, to the bevy of people washing in and out of her life on the trail, she tells her story in an intimate voice, as if to a wise and accepting friend‚ one smart enough to stay silent and just nod encouragingly as her story spills out. Strayed’s tale of self-destruction and self-reconciliation is an addictive one‚ an insightful, literary, and powerful combination of the inwardness of memoir and the fast pace of adventure quest.
Bell, Laura. Claiming Ground. Knopf. 2010. 256p. ISBN 9780307272881. $24.95; pap. Vintage. ISBN 9780307474643. $15. MEMOIR
If your readers enjoyed Strayed’s book for its examination of wilderness and the ways it speaks to us, suggest Bell’s sharp and exquisite memoir. Like Strayed’s, Bell’s story is deeply personal, exploratory, and concerned with the effects of the wild. In the mid-1970s, Bell, just out of college, took a job herding sheep on a Wyoming ranch, where she is absorbed by the vastness of the land. She had company‚ mostly the men who worked alongside her, many of them alcoholics‚ but she was often alone in the wilderness, and she describes this time and place in luminous detail. Isolation played a large role during this time in her life, and the clarity and comfort it afforded Bell will likely echo with Strayed’s readers. So, too, will themes of finding oneself and coping with loss. As Bell develops new relationships, takes on different work, and becomes a wife and mother, she also suffers tragedy and has to find her way back to center. While not as immediate, anecdotal, or fast-paced as Strayed’s tale, Bell’s take on land, identity, and loss should resonate.
Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. Anchor: Random. 2007. 224p. ISBN 9780307387172. pap. $14.95. TRAVEL
Strayed’s instinct to go into the wild to find solace and self is also at the heart of the tragic story of Chris McCandless, reported in clarion-clear prose by narrative nonfiction master Krakauer (Into Thin Air). While McCandless’s story does not share the ice cream cone‚ happy ending Strayed found, the two books share a similar pace, intimate voice, and sensibility. McCandless set out on his own self-isolating path, cutting off all contact with his family and heading toward the Alaskan wilderness via a rambling route of adventure and reflection. Like Strayed, he encountered a changing cast of characters, and, also like Strayed, he took a reckless approach to his quest. He went into the wild with too little knowledge, too few supplies, and far too much arrogance, and he did not survive. While not a memoir, Krakauer’s wise and at times tender account of McCandless’s undoing is amazingly reflective‚ offering great insight into Krakauer himself, McCandless, and the drive for adventure and the hope and certainty that something ineffable can be found out there. The movie directed by Sean Penn is not to be missed.
Campbell, Bonnie Jo. Once Upon a River. Norton. 2011. 352p. ISBN 9780393079890. $25.95; pap. ISBN 9780393341775. $15.95. F
Campbell’s novel‚ character-rich, detailed, and with a strong sense of place‚ achieves both a crisp, graceful lyricism and a gripping pace‚ a combination that should please many readers. It should also please Strayed fans who are willing to step away from hikes, memoirs, and narrative nonfiction for an excursion into fiction. Campbell (American Salvage) tells the story of Margo Crane, a teenager who, in the mid-1970s, sets off on her own quest, leaving behind her broken family and finding something close to peace. Abandoned by her mother, raped by her uncle, and dealing with her own inadvertent role in her father’s death, Margo takes to Michigan’s Stark River in her family’s boat. She is guided by a scrap of paper containing her mother’s address and a sense of connection to, and belief in, Annie Oakley, whom she has read about in books. Her journey is about survival and self-discovery, the bonds of family, and following the path that unfolds before her. And when it comes to walking paths, the wounded but intrepid Margo makes a remarkable companion.
Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. Broadway. 1999. 304p. ISBN 9780767902526. pap. $15.99. NAT HIST
For readers who want more stories of epic hikes, Bryson’s (At Home: A Short History of Private Life) illuminating portrait of the 2,184-mile Appalachian Trail makes for great parallel reading. Similar in concept to the Pacific Crest Trail but less grueling, the Appalachian Trail runs up the eastern coast through mountains, valleys, and lakes from Georgia to Maine. Bryson walked some of the trail with his high school friend Katz, a man even less equipped to undertake the journey than Bryson himself. Together, the two stumbled along, but the book is not so much about the walk they took as it is about the trail itself and the people and places they encountered along the way. Bryson is witty‚ sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes cuttingly sarcastic. He is also a fine observer of natural history, ecology, and local history. His detailed commentary on the sociology of the trail and its flora and fauna are brilliantly interwoven with his hike. For readers who want even more, there are many books detailing hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail. A good suggestion for a unique account is Angela and Duffy Ballard’s A Blistered Kind of Love: One Couple’s Trial by Trail.
Heat-Moon, William Least. Blue Highways: A Journey into America. Little, Brown. 1999. 448p. ISBN 9780316353915. $29.95. TRAV/MEMOIR
Strayed’s adventure was at its heart a need to go forward, to walk away from the turmoil of her life and toward whatever was apart from it. In the late 1970s, Heat-Moon was in a similar position. He had lost his job and separated from his wife, and he needed to stop drifting and figure out a way to move forward. He converted a van into a portable home, took Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for company (Strayed took, among others, a book by Adrienne Rich), and set out to follow the blue lines in his road atlas‚ lines that marked the back roads of America, byways into small towns. His trip covered some 13,000 miles and lasted for months. With notable grace, he describes the landscape he traversed as well as the people he met. He also writes about social issues, the restaurants in which he ate, and the history of the places he visited. His account is a classic work of travel literature that is by turns sublime, insightful, and funny.
The Pacific Crest Trail. 50 min. Anne Goetz & Brian Armstrong. dist. by National Geographic. 2010. $19.93.
With stunning images of the Pacific Crest Trail and reports from hikers, this video offers a good sense of the experience of the hike, the scenery, and the personalities of some of those who elect to undertake the journey. Given that most readers of Wild will never have the opportunity to hike the trail’s 2000-plus miles, watching this film is a great way for them to see its deserts, ice passes, and dizzying mountain heights. Notable for its cinematography (it’s full of simply stunning shots of the beauty of the trail, including aerial views), this film is perhaps the best choice for viewers who want to see the landscape that Strayed encountered on her walk.
Walking the West: Hiking 2600 Miles from Mexico to Canada. 60 min. Myles Murphy. dist. by Myles Murphy Productions. 2002. $24.95.
Winner of the 2002 award for best documentary at the California Independent Film Festival, this film follows two hikers, one from New Zealand and the other from Ireland, who walked the entire Pacific Crest Trail (well, almost) in just under five months (they aimed for 21 miles per day). In part they did it to escape their stress-filled jobs. In part they did it because they had always wondered about it. And in part they did it because they did not know any better. During their adventure, they faced rattlesnakes, became lost, and coped with injury and exhaustion. They also experienced joy, thrills, and self-affirmation. The film is notable for its focus on the demands of the trail as well as the thrill and lure of such a wilderness undertaking.