Five authors on the joys of reading in the wild

Western writers contemplate roaming texts and landscapes.


The question of wild reading is an open book — and that’s a delight. Here are some reflections on the subject from five authors who have been roaming texts and landscapes for decades:

On backpacking trips, my husband and I share one paperback book. When I’ve read a couple of pages, I tear them out and hand them to my husband. He reads them, sets them aside for fire-starter, and on we go through the book. Some of my writer friends are horrified, but I think this ritual is wildly respectful, returning the book to its origins — carbon tangled in tree roots and feral words set free again. But it does mean that I have to replace a lot of books — books that bring alive the places we have camped. Desert Solitaire. Gathering Moss. Roughing It. Fish Camp.

Because I often write about planetary emergencies, I have tried reading up on them in wild places. But I’ve abandoned that plan. It’s unbearable to read The Sixth Extinction while listening to a feeble frog chorus, or to read The Bridge at the Edge of the World while watching a nesting loon; it’s like reading the pathology report in front of a friend who doesn’t yet know she’s dying.

I look for the one great recent book that will not only give me a window into the place I’m in but thrill me with the quality of writing. I was in Vietnam this spring, and Andrew Pham’s The Eaves of Heaven worked pretty darn well. I’m headed down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon soon, and Kevin Fedarko’s The Emerald Mile is the perfect companion. You need a narrative voice that you want to hang out with, a writer who does her homework and gets all the facts right, a lyrical storyteller who will transport you when you realize you’ve decided to camp on a lively anthill, an insider who will guide you into a deeply felt exploration of the spirit of the place and the flavor of the culture.

Sometimes the match is perfect, sometimes the contrast is so huge that it’s just as memorable. I finished Kim MacQuarrie’s The Last of the Incas in a bar in Cuzco, blocks from the battles he was bringing to life in the book. I read Wade Davis’ One River while visiting the Ecuadorian rain forest, and his description of his ethnobotany mentor’s expeditions helped me to make sense of all that impenetrable greenery. I finished Walter van Tilburg Clark’s great novel of western Nevada, The City of Trembling Leaves, while camping in the book’s locales, Mount Rose and the Black Rock Desert. My own experiences amplified the images in the book.

Years ago, I tried actually reading a book while driving — lost in Lonesome Dove while I drove the straight-as-an-arrow interstates across the Texas high plains. It was clearly dangerous, and I abandoned the experiment for books-on-tape. A lot of my “reading” in the “wilderness” is listening — to audio books while driving long distances. Sometimes I have to pull over to the side of the road and stare at the horizon when books accelerate toward their endings. I remember doing so with Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal as I drove in the shadow of Ute Mountain on a stormy day near Cortez, Colorado. 

Roberto Westbrook

I take a very positive view of this odd habit of packing books into the backcountry. My hero in this regard is John Muir, who in 1867 walked a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, carrying with him the New Testament, Paradise Lost and the poems of Robert Burns. Not only do I rarely take a hike without also taking a book, I often read as I hike, a doubly odd habit that is made yet more idiosyncratic by the fact that I sometimes read aloud, even though I’m by myself. I love the way reading in the wild simplifies my encounter with the text; I find that a temporary deliverance from the incessant noise of TV, radio, phone and social media brings the language of literature back into focus for me. I wrote about all this at greater length in the chapter “In Defense of Bibliopedestrianism,” from my new book Rants from the Hill.

I used to coordinate my reading with the landscape I was covering: Ellen Meloy or Ed Abbey in the red rock country of southern Utah, Rick Bass or Norman Maclean up in the wet high country of Montana, Steinbeck in Monterey or down on the Sea of Cortez, Robert Laxalt or Mark Twain here in the western Great Basin Desert. For years now I’ve enjoyed doing precisely the opposite. When I’m snowshoeing after a fresh blizzard, I like to read W.S. Merwin’s beautiful Hawaii poems, or Peter Matthiessen’s lush prose about the Florida Everglades.

My most indelible memory of reading in the backcountry is considerably less pleasant. Thirty years ago, while bumming around the West, I decided to hit the peaks up in Jasper and Banff. Unfortunately, I had contracted giardia while packing in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, and by the time I arrived in Banff I was mighty sick. Knowing I would need serious recovery time, and that I had no decent way to pass it, I staggered into the Lake Louise visitor center and bought the thickest book they had. I then drove my pickup up to a remote trailhead, where I lay beneath my camper shell for four full days, alternating between suffering the worst diarrhea of my life and reading all 1,072 pages of Don Quixote, a book that has meant a great deal to me ever since.

When I was a kid, I read in a lot of strange places, like on top of the grape arbor and under bed-sheet tents in the backyard. I was constantly trying to read in trees, which is more logistically difficult than it sounds. Finding a position in which one remains comfortable for an hour of page flipping is really tough. We had this weird bungee-cord web with maybe six or 10 hooks on it that we used to strap things to the roof of our Volvo station wagon. I hooked this on various branches of the apple tree in the backyard and plopped in the middle with a pillow. I think I was reading Emily of New Moon by Lucy Maud Montgomery. All was paradise for a few minutes, and then one of the branches snapped, dumping me to the ground in a tangle of bungee cords. After this mild trauma, I gave up tree reading for a while. But I am considering taking it up again. I have one of those nylon hammocks and I bet it could work in my current apple tree.

I have sometimes decided which book to take to the woods on the basis of weight, which means that I am disproportionately likely to bring poetry. Luckily, poetry is possibly the best thing to read in the woods or on a mountain. Poetry requires a certain freshness of perspective, a mind primed to be receptive to complex, contradictory stimulus. And being outside in “nature” puts our minds in precisely this state. Whether it is biophilia at work or simply the novelty of not being enclosed by walls, I don’t know, but I do know that my mind is more willing to romp to strange places when I’m outside. I pay attention better. And poems that seem like hard work at home ring like glass bells when I read them prone on a log, to the sound of flowing water.

Here in northern Alaska my home is the Brooks Range, very much alone and disconnected from the world, and I read with my old black rocking chair drawn up as close to the barrel stove as I can get it. Occasionally I lower my book to talk to a shrew running across the floorboards or glance out at the weather. I don’t need to go camping to be out in the wild — the wind drifts my door, and moose and bears, foxes and marten cross the roof of my sod house without realizing what lives below.

Under my windows, along the south side, eight-foot spruce planks are lined with moldy books: Louise Erdrich, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who I’ve never made it through) Steinbeck, Lord of the Flies, The Eye of the Needle, Nick Jans’ The Last Light Breaking, and even a copy of my own novel and memoir.

My most memorable reading experience was camping here in the mountains, with a dog team, in April: windy, 10 degrees below zero, cold as a nice winter day but the big brown bears already out and roaming.

The north wind blows here, dangerous, and that night it picked up steadily until it was roaring in the spruce, lifting the canvas wall tent into the air, sifting snow into my girlfriend’s and my sleeping bags and hissing on our tiny homemade stove. In the worst gusts, I could see in all directions out into the spring dusk — the willows and snow, the dark trees nearby, my chained dogs barking into the night.

I knew I needed to lash the tent down, and check the dogs, and get my rifle out of the scabbard on the sled — but I was on the last section of The Hunt For The Red October. I just had to read one more page. Just one more paragraph. The wind kept rising, billowing the tent into the air like a loose sail. Still, I couldn’t put the book down.

Finally I turned the last page, read the last word, and then clambered into my cold snowpants and parka and beaver hat, and happily went into the storming night to reassure the dogs, and cut saplings to anchor the bottom of the tent down, and tighten the ties, and bring in my gun. Afterward, finally, I lay back down in my sleeping bag, staring at glowing dots in the darkness, listening to the wind and picturing the dark world down under the ocean in that Russian submarine.

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