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for people who care about the West

In defense of bibliopedestrianism

A writer’s love of reading while walking in Nevada’s Great Basin desert.

 

In the desert West, behavior that might elsewhere be considered inexplicable, idiosyncratic and even indefensible is tolerated – sometimes even encouraged. But as my 10-year-old daughter Hannah becomes more socially aware, more concerned about what is normal, and more worried about whether our family qualifies for that distinction, I am barraged with unanswerable questions.

Why do I correct baseball radio announcers who can't hear me, and tell chicken-crossing-the-road jokes to our hens? Why do I use fishing poles to fly kites? Why have I nicknamed my chainsaw ("Landshark") and my weed-whacker ("Cujo")? Why do I insist on saying what kind of animal's butt the poop came from? And why, of course, do I so often wear no pants? Sometimes I wish my kid would ask about something simple, like mortality, God or where babies come from.

Recently, Hannah asked: "Dad, why do you read while you walk?"

Every year, I hike about 1,300 miles around these high desert wilds outside Reno, and I probably read my way through 800 of them. I became a bibliopedestrian so long ago that I've forgotten my reasons for doing it. But, in search of an honest answer for Hannah, I've been excavating those reasons.

For starters, walking and reading are similar in many ways. Both are forms of exercise, one working out the body, the other the mind. Both are excellent when pursued in solitude. Each gets us from one place to another, and yet the main purpose is always the journey rather than the destination. They enlarge our sense of the world, expanding the territory and helping us to place ourselves within it. A good book, like a good hike, takes us away from home and into a series of challenges and surprises that ultimately gives the concept of home its meaning. And reading and walking have another thing in common: Although most of us know how to do both of them, we seldom seem to do either. As Mark Twain put it, "The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read." Might we say the same about a person who has healthy legs but refuses to walk?

While Karl Marx made some perceptive pronouncements about the value of books, it was the wiser Marx, Groucho, who observed that "outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." A book, like a dog, is good company, and I just don't cotton to heading out on a hike without taking both along with me. I also like the contrasts a carefully chosen book can create with the landscape through which I move. There's nothing like being on the river with Twain or at sea with Melville or by the pond with Thoreau while I'm shuffling through the sagebrush and alkali dust. When it gets hot, I love Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams or Rick Bass's Winter. When it gets cold and windy, I go to the Hawaiian Islands in the poetry of W. S. Merwin.

Even John Muir, who is surely among the most celebrated of walkers, packed books on the trail. Muir was also familiar with the "book of nature," a trope known to many cultures, both ancient and modern. Liber naturae, the book of nature, is the idea that the natural world is a form of sacred text, and that the revelation of its meaning depends upon our willingness to read it carefully. Seen in this light, the world of the book and the book of the world are intimately related.

Of course, I'm no Muir, and I'm more Groucho than Karl. And this is a wide-open desert with a thousand hazards. It is true that I have on a number of occasions read myself into trouble while on the hoof – stepping onto harvester ant mounds, or into ground squirrel tunnels, or invading the personal space of Great Basin rattlers. But most of the surprises that come from simultaneous reading and hiking are good ones, because looking from the world to the page and back again becomes a game of peekaboo: Now you don't see it, now you do. One afternoon, I looked up from a book to see a pronghorn buck chiseled against a rocky ridgeline above me. That evening, as it became too dark to see the page, I lifted my head to witness the thinnest possible crescent moon, in close conjunction with Venus, floating just above the summit ridge of my home mountain.

When we read a travel guidebook while walking in a city, or a natural history field guide in a forest, we are considered normal. It is understood that we need the book to recognize and name the things of this world, and to prevent ourselves from becoming lost within it. As I explained to Hannah, good writing plays the same orienting role: It can help us discover where we are, and reveal why our connections to each other and to the world we walk through each day are so precious in the first place.

Though Hannah still insists that I'm "totally not like other Dads," she seemed to be ultimately convinced by my reasoning. "Yeah, Dad, I can really see that. Thanks," she said. "Now, what about that no-pants thing?"

Michael P. Branch writes the "Rants From the Hill" column at hcn.org.