By Edith McClintock
Normally I associate a great summer read with the word trashy. Preferably a sprawling family saga with sex, power, money, international intrigue, and of course a nice love story. But the Pacific Northwest is paradise this time of year, and I’ve been outdoors this past week celebrating my coming birthday with friends and family and wasting my free time watching the Olympics, so I’m going to recommend a different kind of great summer read.
Today is my birthday and I am hiking somewhere in the North Cascades of Washington, two days out on a hopefully grizzly-free, five-day trip. Last year on my birthday I was hiking in Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park in the Republic of Georgia—an over-night trip that unfortunately included too many rounds of birthday cheers and vodka shots with a group of Georgian, German, Estonian, French, and American hikers. Drinking and hiking is an experience I will NEVER repeat, but in honor of out-of-shape, alcoholic hikers, unfathomable gear, and the pleasures and pains of meandering mountain passes, I’d like to recommend one of my favorite books: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.
The book chronicles Bill Bryson’s return to the United States after twenty years living in Britain and his trek along the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, which stretches from the other Georgia to Maine. Bryson offers plenty of ecological and historical perspectives on the trail, but the best parts are his hilarious descriptions of his hiking buddy, a recovering alcoholic childhood friend from Iowa, their shopping excursions for gear, and their general ineptitude along the trail. It's a classic, and if you haven't read it yet, there's no better time than summer.
Here are a few excepts:
“So I decided to do it [hike the Appalachian Trail]. More rashly, I announced my intention - told friends and neighbors, confidently informed my publisher, made it common knowledge among those who knew me. Then I bought some books... It required only a little light reading in adventure books and almost no imagination to envision circumstances in which I would find myself caught in a tightening circle of hunger-emboldened wolves, staggering and shredding clothes under an onslaught of pincered fire ants, or dumbly transfixed by the sight of enlivened undergrowth advancing towards me, like a torpedo through water, before being bowled backwards by a sofa-sized boar with cold beady eyes, a piercing squeal, and slaverous, chopping appetite for pink, plump, city-softened flesh.”
“Nearly everyone I talked to had some gruesome story involving a guileless acquaintance who had gone off hiking the trail with high hopes and new boots and come stumbling back two days later with a bobcat attached to his head or dripping blood from an armless sleeve and whispering in a hoarse voice, "Bear!" before sinking into a troubled unconsciousness.”
“Finally with a weary puff, you roll over, unhook yourself from your pack, struggle to your feet, and realize—again in a remote, light-headed, curiously not-there way—that the view is sensational: a homeless vista of wooded mountains, unmarked by human hand, marching off in every direction. This really could be heaven. It's splendid, no question, but the thought you cannot escape is that you have to walk this view, and this is the barest fraction of what you will traverse before you've finished.”
“But I got a great deal else from the experience. I learned to pitch a tent and sleep beneath the stars. For a brief, proud period I was slender and fit. I gained a profound respect for the wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn't know I had. I discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists. I made a friend. I came home.”