While I was still chained to my desk bored to death, I started reading a lot of outdoor adventuring books. I made a category on my Kindle titled “Adventuring” that made me happy. Here are the four books that most inspired me. (Click the photo of each book for my Amazon affiliate link.)
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)
Edward Abbey’s angry and irreverent 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang would spawn a generation of eco-terrorists, but if you read Desert Solitaire, a collection of stories/essays reflecting on the two seasons he worked as a ranger in Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) you will come to understand why Abbey was so angry. He loves the desert and it’s disappearing, sacrificed in the name of progress and development, what remains tamed and caged up for exploitation by “industrial tourism”. Abbey’s life was full of contradiction and in many ways he’s a problematic person to hold up as a hero, but his poignant descriptions of the desert, its plant, animal and human life, its water, weather and geology are the most beautiful prose I have ever read. I can finish reading this book and then just start reading it again from the beginning. More often I just flip to a random page and start reading. It’s on my Kindle, but I also own a paperback, this last copy I purchased from the information center in the actual Arches National Park when my cousin Eileen took me winter camping in Arches for my birthday because she knew I loved Desert Solitaire. She made fun of me for buying a new copy when I had the book on the Kindle I left back in Salt Lake, but I got to read the first chapter describing his first night in the park by the red light of my headlamp while snuggled into my sleeping bag at Devil’s Garden Campground. An hour or so later, Eileen did the same when she got back from her night hike. So, it was totally worth picking up an extra copy. And since I have a hard copy, maybe I can lend it to you.
Thru-hiking Will Break Your Heart: An Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail by Carrot Quinn (2015)
Everyone’s heard of Wild by Cheryl Strayed. But I think Carrot’s self-published account of her 2013 thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail is better. Wild is more about Strayed’s personal issues, while Carrot’s book is a vivid picture of what trail life is like. Carrot’s book made me think “maybe I can hike the PCT too” and prompted me to set the goal of hiking the JMT this year. This isn’t just another run-of-the-mill trail journal turned self-published book, because you can tell from her writing that she’s one of those people who has always been a writer and has been honing her craft for a long time. You can read more of her stuff here.
Tracks: One Woman’s Journey Across 1700 miles of Australian Outback by Robyn Davidson (1980)
It’s one thing to embark on an adventure such as hiking the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Te Araroa, or even trekking in Nepal or climbing Mount Everest. People have done it before, you can read about it on the Internet, hire a guide. If you have the right preparation you know you can probably do it.
It’s another thing to decide to camel-pack across the Australian Outback with no one else but your dog, an adventure that requires starting from figuring out how to get your foot in the door with some very unpleasant characters to learn how to work with camels.
Davidson struggles with sexism, racism, feeling like a sell out when she funds her trip by allowing National Geographic to write a story about it, among other things. What I like about the book is she doesn’t really portray herself as a likable person. She’s misanthropic. She went on the trip to be alone and resents National Geographic, even though they are funding her, and feels hounded by media coverage. Her adventure is from an era before social media, but she intensely dislikes how the beautiful photos the cute National Geographic photographer takes of her inevitably change her journey and make it feel less authentic and personal to her.
(There is also a 2014 movie version of Tracks that I have not watched yet. Maybe she’s softened up because the Davidson in the book would be mortified by the idea of having her journey Hollywood-ized.)
The Final Frontiersman: Heimo Korth and His Family, Alone in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness by James Campbell (2007)
Journalist by trade, James Campbell writes this loving and sympathetic biography of his cousin Heimo, the last hunter-trapper still living with his wife and two young daughters almost year round in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s also an elegy to a certain way of life. If you loved the Little House on the Prairie books and romanticize about how the pioneers were so self-sufficient and could live off the land, this book is about the last American family actually living that way. I sometimes say that my dream is to live in a cabin in Alaska, somewhere inaccessible except by biplane, and this book tells of how hard that kind of life would be.