Sure, I’d rather be hiking than reading about it.
But then —
— when I lived in The City I couldn’t always get out on a trail when I wanted.
So of course, reading a good tale about the trail was better than counting sheep.
And truth be known, there were some compelling stories that would even keep me up reading when I should have given into the sheep counting.
So here is my list of the four that satisfied that call.
The Man Who Walked Through Time by Colin Fletcher
My all-time favorite backpacking story is of Colin Fletcher’s backpacking solo from one end of the Grand Canyon to the other in 1963. Things were a lot different fifty-four years ago. But our relation to nature can still evoke the stillness and healing today that it did for Fletcher back then.
He conquered nothing — except himself, by undertaking such a feat in mid-life.
Reviewers either love the book or there are a few who dismiss it.
One reviewer says:
Fletcher wrote about what he saw in day to day events, none are death defying or edge of the seat. What set it apart was Fletcher’s inner journey of discovery. . .
Here is Fletcher’s words, “I saw that by going down into that huge fissure in the face of the earth, deep into the space and the silence and the solitude, I might come as close as we can at present to moving back and down through the smooth and apparently impenetrable face of time.”
While others write something dismissive like this:
Good descriptions and history of the canyon, but too much personal reflection on “what it all means.”
It’s a matter of what you are looking for. I go with the first review.
And as I say, I have read this book six times that I recall. Maybe more.
I loved it so much that I went out to California to meet Fletcher.
I spent several days with him at his home.
He became a friend and I ran a piece by him in the inaugural issue of Backpacker magazine in March 1973.
Woodcraft and Camping by George Washington Sears aka ‘Nessmuk’
This little gem has the distinction of being the only book of the outdoors that has been in print continually for over a hundred years.
It was written by a guy who weighed 105 pounds and invented “light-weight backpacking.” He carried a load weighing 27 pounds, including an iron skillet and a ten pound canoe!
It’s a small book, only 100 pages, written with a great deal of outdoors wisdom and fun.
I’ve often left a copy in the John where I can open it at almost any page and find a chuckle of two!
My favorite chapter is about his hike all the way across Michigan.
As soon as he started on the hike he said he —
found the trail easily, but the Indians had been gone a long time, and it was filled with leaves and not easy to follow. It ended as nearly all trails do; it branched off to right and left, grew dimmer and slimmer, degenerated to a deer path, petered out to a squirrel track, ran up a tree, and ended in a knot hole.
Being from Michigan where I had done all of my childhood hiking, I could imagine what the woods would have been like when Nessmuk said —
the Indians had left, and the whites had not yet got in, probably accounted for the plentitude of game.
He said there was so much wild game he was never out of sight of plenty of wild turkeys, deer, grouse, wild hogs and an occasional bear.
Here is a bit of Nessmuk’s hiking wisdom —
‘The temptation is to buy this or that bit of indispensable camp kit and we have gone to the blessed woods handicapped with a load fit for a pack mule. That is not how to do it. Go light, and the lighter the better so that you have the simplest material for health comfort and enjoyment.’
It’s one of my all-time favorite outdoors books. I’ve given away a dozen or so copies to my friends.
Nessmuk (1821-1890) was a sportswriter for outdoor sports magazines as well as an occasional Adirondak fishing guide.
And now to one of my all-time woodland heroes, “John o’ the Birds,” as John Burroughs was nicknamed to distinguish him from John Muir, known as “John o’ the Mountains.”
I found Burroughs because I bit my teeth in climbing mountains in New York’s Catskills.
In the early 1950s I did virtually all of my backpacking in the Catskills.
I came upon a memorial plaque to John Burroughs on one of my first climbs of Slide Mountain, where it is imbedded in the rock near ithe summit, declaring it was.
Who in his early writings introduced Slide Mountain to the world. He made many visits to this peak and slept several nights beneath this rock. This region is the scene of many of his essays.
“Here the works of man dwindle in the hearts of the Southern Catskills.”
I later discovered that this John also went camping with President Teddy Roosevelt.
While John Muir camped with the president in Yosemite, John Burroughs camped with him in Yellowstone, which President Teddy designated as the “first” National Park.
Can you imagine president Trump, Obama, Bush or Clinton camping out with a hiker today?
It was a different time back then.
And fortunately for our national park system “Teddy” Roosevelt set aside more national park lands than any other president.
My Selections of Burroughs reading is a hodgepodge of his writings including essays on birds, flowers, trees and rocks and his everlasting hikes in the Catskills.
Here are some quotes that will give you an idea of why I like John Burroughs
I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.
How beautifully leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days.
I am in love with this world… I have climbed its mountains, roamed its forests, sailed its waters, crossed its deserts, felt the sting of its frosts, the oppression of its heats, the drench of its rains, the fury of its winds, and always have beauty and joy waited upon my goings and comings.”
To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.
Burroughs even wrote a sermon for a pastor, The Gospel of Nature.
It is a short sermon, which Amazon offers for free in a Kindle version — The Gospel of Nature — which is the url for a print copy. But it can lead you to the free Kindle version as well.
Coincidentally, my friend Jim Kern is also a Burroughs buff. And the two of us once bushwhacked into the deepest part of the Catskills in search of a secret fishing spot that Burroughs spoke about in one of his writings.
Close Ups of the High Sierra by Norman Clyde
This author knew more about the Sierras than even John Muir.
Clyde was a mountaineers’ mountaineer who made more than 130 first ascents of these peaks — a record he set that is yet to be challenged. It’s more than the top Sierra three climbers all together.
Clyde lived the last forty of his 87 years camped in the wildest parts of the Sierra Mountains, dying the last year in a sanitarium out there as well.
Norman Clyde earned a meager living by writing magazine articles about the Sierras for a more popular audience than John Muir’s following.
This book offers eight of his most popular articles including descriptions of some of his best backpacking trips.
I learned about Clyde’s writing when we ran an article about him in an early issue of Backpacker.
Clyde introduced me to a wider view of the Sierras, since I had only a slim knowledge of them from the few day hikes I’d taken out there.
Clyde writes vividly and personally about this terrain.
And even more interesting is Clyde’s life. He was certainly not a “go-light” backpacker.
This moderately built guy of just 140 pounds, rarely carried less than a 100-pound pack.
One of our writers who met him out on the trail said Clyde’s pack weighed 106 pounds. It included five cameras, an odd assortment of pots and canned foods, a cast iron frying pan and several pistols.
More interesting though were the books in his pack.
Clyde had an education in the Classics and was conversant in six languages.
And our author noted that when he met him, Clyde was carrying books by Goethe and Schiller in German, a Life of Napoleon and Stories by Balzac in French and a Bible in Portuguese.