When I set out to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail back in the spring of 2009, the problem of literature vexed me. I knew that paring one's pack weight down to a minimum was essential to making a safe and relatively (but still, it turned out, not all that) painless walk from Georgia to Maine. But I also knew that I could not walk 2,000 miles on my own without access to literature. Books were my first love, my oldest vice. I could go five months without friends, without television, even without sex, but not without a good book.
The problem, of course, is that paper — when bound into brick-like stacks — is surprisingly heavy. All the same, I was reluctant to trade it in for an electric gadget. Hiking has always renewed my appreciation for the paper book, that vampirically ancient-yet-forever-young technology, born of the codex, the scroll, and the graven tablet. Even as ebooks and audiobooks and other forms of electronic literature have filled in new, unforeseen niches in my literary diet, the paper book remains my first choice for deep reading. Especially in the outdoors, I love it for its wonderful compaction, its flexibility, its simplicity, its lack of batteries to recharge and Internet to check. A book, moreover, is a low-stress possession: if it gets wet, its pages might dimple, but it will never fry its own circuit board. I truly doubt I will see an improvement upon it in my lifetime. You can drop a book off a cliff, and in all likelihood it would flap down to earth like a lame — but intact — dove. Try doing that with a Kindle.
Eventually, I hacked together a solution: I would buy tattered old paperbacks I’d always meant to read, slice them apart into smaller, novella-length volumes, and then re-tape the spines. I boxed these books up with a bunch of dried food and mailed them to post offices along the trail, where I would later pick them up. It was, in effect, an act of retroactive serialization.
Later, on the trail, I discovered that paper books had an additional use I’d never considered before: once I had finished reading a chapter, I could tear it out and use the pages to start a campfire. This way, the books became lighter day by day, until all that was left was the final page. Perhaps the wanton mutilation and incineration of classic works of fiction offends you. I understand. I too felt somewhat uneasy the first time I burned a book, even a beat-up, one-dollar trade paperback with crumbly, yellowed pages. (This, despite the fact that millions of brand-new books are pulped each year, and countless others thrown away.) It felt vaguely like committing a crime, even an atrocity — a whiff of Alexandria, a flicker of the Third Reich. But I soon got over these qualms. A lighter pack is bliss, and bliss outweighs compunction damn near every time.
Choosing which books I would bring on my hike was no easy task. I had an instinct — correct, it turned out — that I would value verbal density over breeziness and timeless classicism over voguish novelty. And so among the books I mailed myself were Moby-Dick
, Madame Bovary
, and Speak, Memory
. In between these meaty tomes I interleaved lighter (and more topical) fare, like Earl Shaffer’s Walking With Spring
, his account of the first successful thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. (Shaffer, for his part, brought no books to read, just a journal he called his Little Black Notebook.)
Among travelers and outdoorspeople, there are differing opinions on whether one should bring along books with subject matter that matches one’s surroundings, or whether one should opt for a sharp contrast. The essayist Paul Elmer More
believed that reading The Odyssey
within sight of the sea brought the epic to life. “The murmur of the waves on the beach beating through the rhythm of the poem had taught me how vital a thing a book might be, and how it could acquire a peculiar validity from harmonious surroundings,” he wrote. The French adventure writer Sylvain Tesson disagrees. In The Consolations of the Forest
— his account of living alone in a cabin in Siberia for six months — he opines that one must never travel with books related to one’s destination: “In Venice, read Lermontov
, but at Baikal, Byron
I found I fell somewhere in between these two opposing positions. I would rather have read Walking With Spring
back home, after my hike; reading about the places I was hiking through while I was hiking through them had the unfortunate side effect of forcing me to compare my relatively coddled and crowded experience with Shaffer’s rugged, lonely, post-war hike. But neither did I want a book to be diametrically opposed to my experience. Take Madame Bovary
, for example. Though it is near-universally recognized as a masterpiece — blessed with eye-drop clear prose and near telepathic psychological insight — I was unable to finish it on my hike. Amid the wilds of Tennessee, the parlor-room intrigues of Rouen seemed stuffy and tiresome.
The tales of the “wild whaling life” found in Moby-Dick
— a book I’d been meaning to read since I was eight years old — were a considerable improvement. Unfortunately, I discovered that I had much less time to read than I had anticipated; at the end of a long day of walking, it was often all I could do to jot a few notes in my journal before my eyes sealed shut like crypt doors. (I eventually mailed The Whale home, half-finished, in defeat.)
By contrast, I gained a new appreciation for the distilled pleasures of poetry, a literary form I’d previously found uninviting. In my collection of Nabokov
poems, I ran across a little ode called “The Refrigerator Awakes,” which I read again and again for its bouncy musicality and its delicious evocations of cold food. (To a famished thru-hiker, little is more paradisical than the thought of a well-stocked fridge.) Snippets of the poem would run through my head like pop lyrics as I walked:
Keep it Kold, says a poster in passing, and lo,
of bright fruit, and a ham, and some chocolate cream,
and three bottles of milk, all contained in the gleam
of that wide-open white
god, the pride and delight
of starry-eyed couples in dream kitchenettes,
and it groans and it drones and it toils and it sweats
— Shackleton, pemmican, penguin, Poe’s Pym…
Over time I began to develop a theory of what the ideal walking book would look like. I decided it would be slim and lightweight, but dense and fissile with new ideas. It could be set in civilization, but must harbor a wild spirit. It should be possible to read it in snatches, while you sit on the trailside allowing your damp feet to air out, or in long immersive bouts, like on those cruel, cold, rainy days when you can’t quite work up the nerve to leave your tent. It would be a book not just to “sink your teeth into,” as we often say, but to gnaw like jerky — tough, imperishable, dense, salty-peppery food for thought.
famously carried a copy of Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck
with her on her section hike of the Pacific Crest Trail — at just 72 pages, a perfect choice, in both form and content. In the years since, I have begun building a collection of books that similarly meet these criteria — a mix of poetry collections, novellas, long essays, and folklore. As my eye scans my bookshelves, I find: Neruda’s Stones of the Sky
, Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
, Calvino’s The Road to San Giovanni
, Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians
, Carson’s Autobiography of Red
, Mann’s Death in Venice
, Bill Reid’s The Raven Steals the Light
, Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog
, Lispector’s The Hour of the Star
, Crane’s White Buildings
, Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time
, Chekhov’s A Journey to the End of the Russian Empire
, Hughes’s Hawk in the Rain
, and Dillard’s Holy the Firm
If I had to choose the finest book to bring on a hike, though, it would have to be Walking
, Thoreau’s sprawling lyric essay on the merits of wildness, wilderness, originality, and a life assiduously moored to the present tense. It is less than 60 pages, and yet I find I can reread it regularly without exhausting its odd, furious, wondrous wisdom. I have spent miles turning over just one of its phrases, like one of those smooth pebbles explorers placed upon their tongues to ward off thirst when water was out of reach.
Thoreau writes in that essay that “A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wild-flower discovered on the prairies of the West or in the jungles of the East.” What he failed to mention, but no doubt knew, was that a book has one major advantage over the wildflower: it can be plucked out, tossed in a backpack, carried thousands of miles, and never wilt.
÷ ÷ ÷
has written for Harper’s
, New York
, and GQ
, among other publications. A recipient of the Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, he has won multiple awards for his nonfiction writing. He lives in Halfmoon Bay, British Columbia. On Trails
is his first book.