Rants from the Hill: Arid lands bibliopedestrianism

 

I’ll admit that those of us who live in remote desert places tend to be idiosyncratic, though it is unclear to me whether the weird are attracted to the wild, dry country or if we are instead sculpted by it. And when you live in relative isolation—and in a physical environment that conspires with that isolation to scour away affectation and superfluity—you discover some odd things about yourself, among which is that you are odd. But living in this high desert outback also helps correct for the homogenizing tendencies of living in town, where our unique character is too easily distorted by the social requirements of conformity, consistency, and compromise. Out here we tend to revert to whatever we might have been if the demands of the social contract had never burdened us in the first place. I don’t claim that the end result of this reversion is always pretty. On the contrary, neither nature nor human nature inspire much romanticism out here, where a pastoral fantasy is about as sustainable as a lawn. Still, it is liberating to live in a place where there’s nobody close enough to see what you’re up to, let alone suggest that you trim your hedges or go to church.

A recitation of my own weird habits and tendencies would occupy more space than this Rant allows. While I’m not in the habit of expounding upon my innumerable idiosyncrasies, the eldest of our two young daughters has now reached an age at which she has begun to insist that I explain and defend these eccentricities—an exercise that largely defeats the purpose of rural desert living, in which the sanctity of the inexplicable, indefensible, and idiosyncratic is all but holy. As it turns out, however, this concept of freedom is too abstract for ten-year-old Hannah, whose social comparisons have led her to the mildly troubling and no doubt inevitable conclusion that I am “totally not like other Dads.”

As Hannah becomes more socially aware, more concerned about what is normal, and more worried that our family may not qualify, I am barraged with unanswerable questions. Why do I correct the baseball radio announcers when I know they can’t hear me? Why do I tell chicken-crossing-the-road jokes to our hens? Why am I not afraid of scorpions and rattlesnakes but nervous around cows? Why do I fly kites using a fishing pole? How did I ever learn so much about pronghorn antelope without learning anything about Taylor Swift? Why do I have pet names for my chainsaw (“Landshark”) and weed whacker (“Cujo”)? Why do I always have to say what kind of animal’s butt the poop came from? Why do I like to put goldfish into the BLM stock tanks? Why do I so often wear no pants? This kind of interrogation makes me wish my kid would just ask about something simple, like mortality, God, or where babies come from. But, no, it always has to be the no pants thing again.

Michael Branch walking and reading near his home in western Nevada.

Recently Hannah lighted on a new “Daddy is so weird” behavior, which she asked me to defend: “Dad, why do you read while you walk?” Reading while I hike through the desert is a habit I developed so long ago that it never occurred to me that it might require explanation. I could have replied that because I walk about 1,300 miles a year around here, I get bored—but while I do walk that much, I never lose interest in this landscape. I could have said that I have a lot of work to do and can’t afford the time to hike unless I’m also reading, but that’s not accurate either. I might have pointed out that I’m no weirder than the knotheads you see walking around town reading their phone screens until they bump into each other, but my pride wouldn’t allow the comparison. Ultimately, I decided that I should try to give Hannah an honest, helpful answer. To do that I’d first have to scrutinize my odd, peripatetic reading habit.

For starters, walking and reading are two of the most important activities in my life, so perhaps it was inevitable that I’d combine them. And it seems to me that the two are similar in many ways. Walking and reading are both forms of exercise, one working out the body, the other the mind. Both are excellent when pursued in solitude. Both get us from one place to another, and yet the main purpose of each is the journey rather than the destination. If this weren’t the case, why would we re-read a favorite book or repeat a favorite hike? Both activities enlarge our sense of the world, expanding the territory and helping us to place ourselves within it. Of the many meanings of the word walk, “to go away” has been in use since the mid-fifteenth century. Isn’t this precisely what we do while reading? Doesn’t a good book, like a good hike, offer a salutary voyage away from home and into a series of challenges and surprises that ultimately gives the concept of home its meaning? Finally, reading and walking also have in common that while nearly all of us know how to do these things, most of us do not actually do them very much. 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 does not choose to walk?

It was the wiser Marx, Groucho, who astutely 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. For example, I like to read water books while hiking in the desert. 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 a book like Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams or Rick Bass’s Winter. When it gets cold and windy I head south into books by Gary Nabhan or Wendell Berry, or I go out to the Hawaiian Islands in the poetry of W. S. Merwin. And while the cultural dominance of the car has profoundly reconditioned our sense of space and time—as when we ask someone how far it is to a place and receive a reply in minutes rather than miles—I like that I know precisely the relationship between walking routes and pages. If I intend to read a 20-page essay, I choose the perfect canyon bottom stroll, one that will bring me home just as I’m turning the final page; if it is instead a novella I’d like to read, I’ll have enough time to go over the Moonrise and Palisades ridges and loop back Cow Canyon past the spring.

Even John Muir, who is surely among the most celebrated walkers of all time, packed books on the trail. On his famous 1867 thousand-mile walk from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, for example, he carried the New Testament, Paradise Lost, and a book of poems by his Scottish countryman, Robert Burns. And of course Muir was familiar with the “book of nature,” a trope known since the time of Plato, but also present in many world 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 divinity is dependent upon our willingness to read it carefully. For theologians of the Latin Middle Ages—and even for Muir—the world of the book and the book of the world were intimately related to one another.

Of course I’m no Plato or Muir, and I’m closer to Groucho than I am to 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, as when I paused to enjoy an especially engaging poem only to discover that I was standing atop a mound of angry harvester ants. I’ve also stepped into the tunnels of California ground squirrels, a risk that seems especially acute when I’m reading novels. Most concerning, of course, are the Great Basin rattlers, which don’t like to be stepped on no matter what I happen to be reading. As a confirmed curmudgeon with a “Don’t Tread On Me” attitude of my own, I share their point of view in this matter. 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. Once I looked up from reading to see a pronghorn buck chiseled against a rocky ridgeline above me. Another time I glanced up in time to see a pair of coyote pups, not more than a week old, lope silently across a sandy island in the sagebrush ocean. One 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 peak of my home mountain.

When we read a travel guidebook while walking in a city, or a natural history field guide while walking in a forest, we are considered normal. It is understood that we need the book to know and name the things of this world, and to prevent ourselves from becoming lost within it. As I explained to Hannah, I believe good writing plays the same orienting role: it can help us discover where we are, and why our connections to each other and to this world we walk through each day are so precious in the first place. While she still insists that I’m totally not like other Dads, Hannah’s own passion for reading ultimately persuaded her to accept my reasoning. “Yeah, Dad, I can really see that. Thanks for taking time to explain it to me,” she said. “Now, what about that no pants thing?”

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

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