Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, Edward Abbey

A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis. (p 162)

desert20solitaireI very rarely review books here before I’ve finished them. A couple of years ago, I read a few novels and posted multi-day reviews of them, but in general, I make it a practice to read first, review later. This isn’t particularly difficult to accomplish because I derive an almost obscene pleasure out of completing tasks before the deadline. It satisfies a part of me that is just on the edge of obsessive compulsive to do so, and writing about Desert Solitaire before I’ve finished it has the opposite effect. I’m antsy, frustrated, distracted by the fact that I don’t have time to finish one item on my agenda before moving on to the next.

Occasionally when this happens, I choose to post about a poem. However, given that I’m neck deep in edits for my own novel, as well as editing a resource book for Pilgrim Press that has seventy contributors, I foresee a few poem Thursdays on the horizon strictly by necessity, and I don’t want to pass up an opportunity to talk about this glorious book. Written in the sixties, Abbey spent a year as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah, and this is his luxurious memoir about those months.

I visited Arches with my husband a year and a half ago, and when I heard about this book over Christmas break, I asked for a copy from my father-in-law (my Southwest wilderness expert). He obliged, and then life got busy, and I forgot all about it until I was back east in March and saw that my brother also owned the book. I borrowed his, brought it all the way home, and then remembered I had the book on my kindle, which is where I’ve been reading it every night as I wait for my son to fall asleep.

Once inside the trailer my senses adjust to the new situation and soon enough, writing the letter, I lose awareness of the lights and the whine of the motor. But I have cut myself off completely from the greater world which surrounds the man-made shell. The desert and the night are pushed back—I can no longer participate in them or observe; I have exchanged a great and unbounded world for a small, comparatively meager one. By choice, certainly; the exchange is temporarily convenient and can be reversed whenever I wish.

Finishing the letter I go outside and close the switch on the generator. The light bulbs dim and disappear, the furious gnashing of pistons whimpers to a halt. Standing by the inert and helpless engine, I hear its last vibrations die like ripples on a pool somewhere far out on the tranquil sea of desert, somewhere beyond Delicate Arch, beyond the Yellow Cat badlands, beyond the shadow line.

I wait. Now the night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation. (p 16)

Having grown up in the northeast, I was completely unprepared for how much I would love the west, the southwest, the northeast. Friends are always asking when I’ll move “home” to the quaint steepled towns of New England, and although a part of me will always treasure the years I spent exploring streams that flowed beneath covered bridges and forests broken up by old stone walls, my heart found its home under the huge wild skies of California and Colorado and Oregon. The canyon lands of Utah, the sacred responsibility that comes of making camp deep in the Grand Canyon, the rivers and rapids and stone of our country’s backyard – those are the haunts that beckon to me now.

Reading Abbey’s book – its blend of journal and myth – reminds me of how alive I feel just knowing that a place like Arches exists. His opinions and mine don’t always overlap, but it is a privilege to see the land through his eyes. I cannot rush through his journey any more than he could slow or speed up time that year, and I wouldn’t want to. Half a chapter at a time is as sweet to savor as water in his desert. I only hope I can make it last until my own thirst for the out of doors can be quenched with a beautiful adventure.

Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless. (p 158)

 

Too Fat For Europe, Joe Leibovich

In honor of my mother’s birthday, I’m taking today to talk about one of our shared passions (beside books – books are definitely at the top of the list, and chocolate is a relatively close third), travel. I’ve loved and pursued the love of exploring the world for many years now, placing the ability to get up and go above many other material pleasures (most notably, owning a house, and for many years, a car). When I was in junior high and high school, my mother and I would go on a little trip together every year – something separate from the car trips we would take with my brother and dad once a summer – usually connected to an event she had to lead in another part of the country. This typically meant we would go a few days early and stay in a cheap motel or at the house of a friend who was out-of-town, do some exploring, and then I would fly home alone while she went to work.

When I was in high school, I opted to go on my first international trips with the Junior World Council and the Biology Club, a decision to this day that I’m grateful for. I had a glass jar each year that I filled with money from babysitting jobs or summer work that would then go toward plane tickets and expenses. This meant that by the time I graduated, I had been to Belize, Italy, and the UK, and I was thoroughly hooked. It also meant that I found the most valuable time in college was spent during my semester abroad, where I was able to use the Netherlands as a jumping off point to visit twelve other countries. While I’m sure I also learned something from the classes I was taking at the time, none of those lessons stand out as clearly as the ones I learned in places where I had little money, no access to a shower, and couldn’t understand a word around me.

During that semester, I was enrolled in a class on travel writing taught by a wonderful Dutch professor who understood that while we might want to learn from her, our attention spans were limited by the ever sneaking possibility of new places. She used this to motivate us to write deeply about the experiences we had over our three or four-day weekends, forcing us to carry our notebooks everywhere to try to capture more than a cursory perspective on where we had been. Mine had a permanent home in a backpack that otherwise carried only the most basic necessities – change of underwear and tee shirt, an extra sweater, a passport, my Discman with a few CDs, and any printed instructions we could glean from what was a very different internet than the one I use to travel now. To this day, I still have that notebook and cherish it, as corny as some of the reflections are. I was clearly in a much more, shall we say dramatic frame of mind that I am today, but it still informs my decisions when it comes to planning new trips.

Since those early days of exploring, I’ve read a lot of amazing travelogues and memoirs from people far smarter and more adventurous than I am, but it’s rare to find a book like this one, written by a friend of a friend in Memphis, from the perspective of a newbie international traveller. Leibovich is a comedian, an attorney, and, I dare say, a historian (he at least retains a lot more data than I do about the art and architecture he saw on his first trip abroad) who is completely open about his own blunders in the pursuit of an expanded horizon. He makes some mistakes that to me, at first, seemed impossible in this day and age, but upon further reflection were not obviously avoidable without experience (although I maintain that trying to see three countries in one week is a goal only of the truly insane or clinically optimistic). In later chapters, I envied his ability to easily connect with people he meets on his travels, as I’ve always struggled to feel comfortable with strangers in my own language, much less in another.

The best thing though, was getting to read about his experiences visiting places I already love (the British Museum, the Louvre, a little restaurant that makes unbelievable soufflés). I found myself daydreaming of my own adventures and remembering both the transcendent and the frustrating aspects of succumbing to the travel bug. My mother and I sadly don’t get to travel much together these days, but reading this reminded me of what a gift she gave me by instilling the value of what the wide world had to offer me when I was young and eager to accept it.

Letters from the Way: A Walking Journey Arles, France to La Reina, Spain, Barbara V Anderson

It’s been a while since I’ve come across a book that perfectly filled a spot in my soul that I didn’t even know I needed filled until I read it. I was at a Christmas faire at the beginning of November selling books with my friend Steve. He had just received his copy of Letters (he had contributed a piece to the conclusion), and I was marveling at the beautiful job Anderson’s publisher had done with the book’s endpapers (I might have been drooling over them, in fact). The whole book is peppered with Anderson’s incredible photography of France and Spain, but those endpapers…I was smitten. I absolutely had to read the book. It was too lovely to pass up.

Sometimes beautiful books disappoint. So much work goes into the design, but the content doesn’t live up to the reader’s overly high expectations. Not the case here. No. I planned to savor Anderson’s book, a collection of letters she wrote home to friends during her unconventional pilgrimage. It seemed like too dense a topic to burn through, but once I began, I couldn’t stop. I found myself desperate to be transported to the wet cold forests of France, to the hot rocky roads of Spain, to the lush mountain sides, and even to the awkward, perfect, exhausting dinners with strangers (dinners I couldn’t even eat, I should mention, given that I’m lactose intolerant and cannot have red meat or pork!). Her “long walks,” as she thinks of them, are far from perfect. Bad weather, obnoxious walking buddies (for miles and miles and miles), excruciating injuries – she’s plagued with all of them – yet my desire to join her adventure never faltered.

She was searching, in part, for some proof that God exists. Most pilgrims believe in a higher power before they set out; Anderson does not. My impression was of a sensibility both artistic and scientific in nature – something along the lines of Da Vinci or Tim Jenison (if you haven’t watched Tim’s Vermeer, you’re missing out) – a desire to seek and believe in extraordinary things from a mind firmly rooted in tangible reality. At the same time, her appeal is largely in how relatable she is in these letters written from the road She is an ordinary woman pursuing something exceptional.

The result is a book I cherished. I took it with me all day, reading it in the car in the parking lot of a friend’s apartment, then while waiting to pick up my dry-cleaning. I reread some of the letters later in the week and only grudgingly returned Steve’s copy to him after I’d kept it three weeks longer than promised. Reading about Anderson’s journey was a perfect escape from Christmas shopping, from the return of an ant infestation, from the daunting list of things that must be done before we leave for an early and extended trip for the holidays. Hers was Europe the way I imagined it when I was small – the slow-paced day, the café au lait at dawn and the wine at night, and the people both strange and civilized. Her world, for those weeks, was one I had imagined well before and was delighted to see, for a moment, come to life.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed

I realized that in spite of my hardships, as I approached the end of my first leg of my journey, I’d begun to feel a blooming affection for the Pacific Crest Trail. My backpack, heavy as it was, had come to feel like my almost animate companion. No longer was it the absurd Volkswagen Beetle I’d painfully hoisted on in that motel room in Mojave a couple of weeks before. Now my backpack had a name: Monster.

wildI meant it in the nicest possible way. I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprisingly of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding. It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn’t spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away. (p 92)

In March and April of  2008, I went on an unguided whitewater rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I had been on exactly one other rafting trip in my life at that point, the summer before; it had lasted two nights, been very warm, and we had traveled through almost no rough water. Out of the eighteen people asked on this trip, I was by far the least experienced in every area. Everyone had been asked because they had some special skill to offer – the doctor, the rock climber, the guide – or because they were the brilliant children of one of these men. Even the thirteen year old who drove us a little crazy with his incessant talking had more experience than I did.  I had never been camping in a tent. I had never had to cook on a camp stove. I had never rowed a boat. I wasn’t a hiker. I wasn’t even strong. Before that trip, I hadn’t inflated a raft or loaded one – I didn’t even own a sleeping bag. I knew absolutely nothing about what I was getting into, and yet when my father-in-law (then, just a man I had met once or twice before) invited me to go on this trip – this exceptionally special trip he had been waiting his entire life to go on – I didn’t hesitate for a second. I didn’t think about all the things I didn’t know. I just said yes, yes please let me do this.

After I finished Wild, Strayed’s exceptional, lovely memoir about her eleven-hundred-mile solo hike on the PCT, I went and read through some of the things I had written about my own trip, the twenty-one day odyssey that changed me forever for the better. I found a picture someone had taken of me and another man staring out at the river, and I had written on it, Here’s Chuck and I before one of the big rapids. Neither of us liked to scout the rapids. I found it made me much more nervous, and since I had little control over the events about to unfold, I preferred ignorance. I really did too. Part of me always felt like I should walk up the trail with the rest of the party, to stare down at the churning water and pretend I could pick out the paths they were choosing between. I couldn’t though. The one time I went, I felt so sick with fear that I thought I wouldn’t be able to get back on my boat. And of course, that wasn’t an option. So I settled for not knowing, for trusting that when the time came, I would figure out how to do what had to be done.

And I mostly did, eventually (or as I liked to tease my parents, I lived, didn’t I?) Day by day, I learned that I would wake up with fear in my gut, and when the only choice was facing my fear, I would do just that. I would throw myself head first into fear, and I would call it bravery.

On that night as I gazed out over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by my father anymore.

There were so many other amazing things in this world.

They opened up inside of me like a river. Like I didn’t know I could take a breath and then I breathed. I laughed with the joy of it, and the next moment I was crying my first tears on the PCT. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wasn’t crying because I was happy. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because of my mother or my father or Paul. I was crying because I was full. Of those fifty-some hard days on the trail and of the 9,760 days that had come before them too.

I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too. (p 234)

When we got back from our trip, I remember trying to tell the experience, tried to fit words into feelings I had never had before, about myself and about how I fit into the world. I would find myself staring at my hands, weathered and brown – they looked like the capable hands of someone else. And yet the blisters were mine. The scars, the new-found strength in my fingers – all mine. It was impossible to fully share what I had learned on the river to people who had never seen it. Not because I didn’t want to try, or because I felt superior for having survived such a trip – just the opposite, actually. I was deeply humbled by how little I had contributed. I had been next to useless, and yet I felt so huge and real from the experience. I felt more alive than I had ever felt before. I had seen exactly how superfluous I could be, and yet I had discovered a deep love for myself that I’d never had before.

Reading Wild, I got the feeling that Strayed had experienced something similar. Finishing her book was like having read something a part of me had written – it was achingly familiar, even though her stories are hers, and mine are mine.

This was once Mazama, I kept reminding myself. This was once a mountain  that stood nearly 12,000 feet tall and then had its heart removed. This was once a wasteland of lava and pumice and ash. This was once an empty bowl that took hundreds of years to fill. But hard as I tried, I couldn’t see them in my mind’s eye. Not the mountain or the wasteland or the empty bowl. They simply were not there anymore. There was only the stillness and silence of that water: what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began. (p 273)
 
 
To learn more about Cheryl Strayed, head over here.

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Just a reminder that during November, I’ll be reviewing short stories instead of novels. This adjustment will hopefully allow me to complete both the manuscript due December 1st and 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. 

 

Invisible Cities is not exactly a collection of short stories, but it reads very differently than a traditional novel. I read it for the first time during my semester abroad; I was taking a class about travel writing, and it was one of the books assigned. I loved it. I used it as the basis for a paper I wrote for the class in which I created my own cities. In the book, each “chapter” has a name such as Thin Cities or Cities and Signs, and although I can no longer find the paper itself, I remember that my cities were called Cities and Love. I was nineteen then, and obsessed with travel and love and poetry. This book was food for my soul.

Holding it now, I can still remember where I was the first time I read it cover to cover. My college’s semester abroad program was a bit unusual; the school sent eighty students to a castle in the Netherlands for a term, where four days a week, we would be taught by English-speaking Europeans or American ex-pats; the other three days, we had rail passes that allowed us to travel wherever we liked or could afford to go. I arranged my class schedule so that I had classes only three days a week, leaving one day when all my friends were busy and I could do my reading and writing. I needed that time because during that semester, I loved my classes. I never felt like I was doing busy work, but instead, felt as though my professors were offering me a look into a world I had been imagining existed for years, and I didn’t want to disappoint them or myself by being unworthy of that opportunity. I worked very hard and cared deeply what they thought about my ideas. The evening that I finished this book, I was in my bedroom overlooking the moat. The sun was setting and I could hear people heading out to the pub from where I was sitting with the window open. I felt completely disconnected from the world, and at the same time, completely in love with it.

I’ve read this book now four or five times, and every time I do, I remember what it felt to be young and naive and stupid and excited about the unknown. I recall that glimpse of independence – of that feeling of being in on a secret with the rest of a more sophisticated world. Every time I read it, I feel a little further away from that girl. I’m reminded of all that was good then, and all that is good now, and inevitably I also remember all of the things that aren’t or weren’t good too, and I am forced to embrace the whole world of change again. It’s hard, but some part of me must love it because no matter where I go, I keep this battered copy of Calvino on my shelf.

Murphy’s Rules of Travel (from, The Tao of Travel), Paul Theroux

Just a reminder that during November, I’ll be reviewing short stories instead of novels. This adjustment will hopefully allow me to complete both the manuscript due December 1st and 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. 

 

As a child, yearning to leave home and go far away, the image in my mind was of flight – my little self hurrying off alone. The word “travel” did not occur to me, nor did the word “transformation,” which was my unspoken but enduring wish. I wanted to find a new self in a distant place, and new things to care about. The importance of elsewhere was something I took on faith. Elsewhere was the place I wanted to be. Too young to go, I read about elsewheres, fantasizing about my freedom. Books were my road. And then, when I was old enough to go, the roads I traveled became the obsessive subject in my own books. Eventually I saw that the most passionate travelers have always also been passionate readers and writers. And that is how this book came about. (pg vii, Theroux)

I have always loved to travel. In fact, I think I like the motion to or from a destination even more than I like the arrival. I can’t read or write when I’m in a moving vehicle, so it’s the one time that out of necessity, I must stop and think. I don’t take pictures during this time. I don’t text or tweet or post emails. I just sit and listen to music and stare out the window at the world whizzing past. It’s an intensely private time, a recharging really, and I am not one of those people who likes to be engaged in conversation when I’m taking myself so deeply out of the world. I find it jarring. I get cranky. It’s really better just to leave me alone.

This may be why this little story about Dervla Murphy appealed to me. This remarkable woman traveled around the world alone, mostly on mule or bicycle, and often dressing as a man to pass safely through countries where, certainly in the sixties and seventies, but even today, many women would be anxious traveling by themselves. She traveled lightly, choosing to rely on the kindness of the worldwide community as she went thousands of miles with just the clothes on her back and enough food to keep from being a burden on the communities she encountered. I appreciated though, that she was well-educated on the cultures she was visiting. She was not naive, nor did she expect the people she met to bend over backward to help her; instead, she researched customs to be sure that she was making those she met feel comfortable and respected.

Murphy was the kind of traveler I could only dream of being. I have to admit that I like having a change of underwear (or two) on hand, and allergies keep me from being as adventurous as I want to be when I try off the beaten foods. I also enjoy traveling with friends and family, something she thought (rightly so) kept a person from connecting deeply with strangers met on the journey. There’s something about her experiences, though, different as they have been from mine, that elicits a connection for me. I think it comes back to that first quote by Theroux, to the idea of writers and readers being passionate travelers, even at home. Some people, even those we never have or plan to meet, just feel like kindred spirits – maybe it’s the books we read that bring us together, or the way we like to travel, but some element ignites a spark of recognition. Once that spark is lit, years can go by and it will still be difficult to forget the feeling of companionship, the joy of a familiar soul.

For more about Paul Theroux, go here, for Dervla Murphy, here.

Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, Rosecrans Baldwin

I know what you’re thinking – ANOTHER travel book? Shake it up a little! And I will. Next week. This week, I’m on vacation and I’m a little travel-obsessed. 

This was not the book I expected it to be when I picked it out at random during my anniversary book binge last month. My husband wanted me to buy a couple of books outside the genres I usually read (I took that to mean fiction as a whole), and I obligingly dove into the travel section. Who am I to argue with a man who wants to buy me more books? Plus, I actually do have an undernourished love of memoirs, autobiographies, and travel writing, so I was pretty excited.  So how could I possibly resist a book called Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”? I couldn’t. It so perfectly summed up how I feel about the City of Lights that I was powerless against it.

Here’s the short(ish) version of my relationship with Paris:

In the summer before seventh grade, we were asked to choose a language – either Spanish or French – to take for at least the next two years (once in high school, you could swap, or choose Latin instead). My mother begged me to take Spanish, perhaps intuitingthat I would not live close to the Canadian border forever, and might, in my travels, find myself living in a state where the unofficial second language would be español. I ignored her; I loved baguettes and the Eiffel Tower – I even had an inkling I might look good in a beret – and there was no way I would trade romance for practicality. So I didn’t.

Instead, I began five years of French classes taught exclusively by French Canadians, who apparently have completely different ideas about pronunciation than the French who live in France. And unfortunately, it turns out I was terrible at being bilingual anyway. Every day, the idea of going to class and trying to understand and respond appropriately filled me with dread. Every teacher I had seemed to subscribe to the same method of torture – never call on the student who’s raising her hand – instead wait until she’s cowering in her seat trying not to cry, then make sure you humiliate her for as long as possible. It was awful, and I really never got any better at oral comprehension, but I did slowly gain some traction in understanding the written language. Against all odds, I managed to nurse a  love of France through it all and held the country and its people in no way responsible for my demented training.

In college, I studied abroad and was given the opportunity during that time to go to France several times. On my only visit to Paris though, I was still smarting from a break-up, and my two closest friends were in a horrible fight that culminated in a screaming match outside of Notre Dame, where we were supposed to be preparing for a presentation to our art history class. I think I described the city after that visit as a place of “diesel fumes and rage.” Yet somehow, I was not deterred; in fact, I was pretty sure that Paris was fine, but there was something wrong with me.

So I gave it a few years, then went back with my husband and the best friend ex-pat I mentioned on Monday. Turns out, Paris can be pretty great. Terrifying, of course, because nobody French understood what I was trying to say unless I was ordering from a menu, but I could read enough signs to get by, and the food and history alone were enough to make me swoon all over the place.

In retrospect, my mother was probably right about learning Spanish. It would come in handy every day now (and I would probably embarrass myself less when trying to pronounce California street signs), but I can’t help it – somewhere in my DNA I am programmed to love France even if it doesn’t feel more than ambivalence about me back.

And that’s exactly what this book is about. Baldwin captures an experience I can only imagine and tremble at – he takes a job in an advertising agency in Paris without knowing much more French than the average seventh grader. He accepts it knowing that the transition is going to be hell; that he is going to be ridiculed for months as he batters French customs and language; and that he and his wife are going to have to adapt to all that is less than glamorous about Paris when you aren’t rich. Honestly, it sounds like hell. I don’t think I would have the guts to jump in the way he does, but I understand why he wants it as badly as he does.

For some people, France just has this hold on the imagination, and for all its faults (and it really has no more or less than anywhere else), it can be difficult to resist the ideal. The name of this blog alone will tell you that I choose not to resist (for all that the French are too sophisticated for me, as well as far too obsessed with dairy in my lactose intolerant opinion), but I also love to see the gritty underbelly – the side of Paris (and Parisians) that the guide-books forget to mention. In his book, Baldwin manages to capture both the all-forgiving school boy crush we have on France and the reality we can’t quite ignore – that Paris is a city even the locals love to hate.

To find out more about Rosecrans Baldwin, click here.