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The Eleventh Essential: Literary Companionship on the Trail?
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James Dubendorf

Locale: CO, UT, MA, ME, NH, VT
The Eleventh Essential: Literary Companionship on the Trail? on 02/25/2009 01:01:56 MST Print View

Hello All,

To paraphrase a quote from the great Admiral William Adama, and reveal my inner Battlestar Galactica fan, "It is not enough to survive." This strikes me as a useful maxim for the backcountry. Survival is obviously integral to any definition of a successful backcountry journey, and yet we all hope to do so much more than simply survive our adventures: we wish to thrive! There are many ways to enjoy down time in the wilderness, and I suspect that many on this site bring along books for reasons other than emergency fire preparation or deflecting savage attacks from crazed megafauna.

I thought it might be interesting to create a thread explicitly dedicated to sharing written works, preferably in UL format of course, that have provided inspiration and companionship on or off trail. Offhand, I can recall a few suggestions from the "One Luxury" discussion, such Wilke's "Letters to a Young Poet" from Don Wilson, and Merton's "Thoughts on Solitude" from JR. I'm sure there are many other recommendations scattered throughout BPL.

So, is there a particular author or genre that keeps you warm on long, snowbound winter nights? A quote that steers the wanderings of your mind along leafy, isolated stretches of forest? Do you enjoy a touch of adventure, local history, philosophy, romance, or environmental biology with your vistas? Is your preference to read about solitude in solitude, or to read aloud to significant others? Have you given or received reading material on the trail?

I’ll start things off with a passage from Chapter 26 of John Steinbeck’s “The Log from the Sea of Cortez” (1951). One of Steinbeck’s lesser known works, and based on a 1940 voyage from Monterey to the Sea of Cortez, it is part adventure, part marine biology, and part idiosyncratic philosophy.

“We sailed in the morning on the short trip to Guaymas. It was the first stop in a town that had anything like communication since we had left San Diego. The world and the war had become remote to us; all the immediacies of our usual lives had slowed up. Far from welcoming a return, we rather resented going back to newspapers and telegrams and business. We had been drifting in some kind of dual world- a parallel realistic world; and the preoccupations of the world we came from, which are considered realistic, were to us filled with mental mirage. Modern economies; war drives; party affiliations and lines; hatreds, political, and social and racial, cannot survive in dignity the perspective of distance.”

Nate Meinzer
(Rezniem) - F

Locale: San Francisco
Literary Companionship on the Trail on 02/25/2009 02:21:27 MST Print View

Hemingway is one of my favorite reads--and perfect for the trail. Big Two-Hearted River, a Nick Adams story, tells of Nick's cross-country journey home after returning from the war....

A quote especially pertinent to back-packing light discusses the ache of a pack that is too heavy:

"Nick walked back up the ties to where his pack lay in the cinders beside the railway track. He was happy. He adjusted the pack harness around the bundle, pulling straps tight, slung the pack on his back got his arms through the shoulder straps and took some of the pull off his shoulders by leaning his forehead against the wide band of the tump-line. Still, it was too heavy. It was much too heavy. He had his leather rod-case in his hand and leaning forward to keep the weight of the pack high on his shoulders he walked along the road that paralleled the railway track, leaving the burned town behind in the heat, and shell turned off around a hill with a high, fire-scarred hill on either side onto a road that went back into the country. He walked along the road feeling, the ache from the pull of the heavy pack. The road climbed steadily. It was hard work walking up-hill. His muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs, It was all back of him."

Who wants to bet he'd have been even happier if his pack were lighter?

You can read both parts of this story for free (weight, and otherwise) online here:

Edited by Rezniem on 02/25/2009 02:23:58 MST.

Nate Meinzer
(Rezniem) - F

Locale: San Francisco
Literary Companionship on the Trail on 02/25/2009 20:33:26 MST Print View


Since no one else took the bait, I thought I'd offer a few more suggestions for trail reading. Cormac mccarthy's "The Border Trilogy" is fantastic. Beautiful descriptions of the southwestern landscape--mountains, desert, canyonlands--and a romantic cowboy lifestyle narrative. The books tackle the big human questions and definitely capture the ethos of the great American epic.....I really enjoyed them and have read them several times.

For a scary short-story about some adventuring packrafters, Algernon Blackwoods "The Willows" is great. A truly frightening story that conveys the very modern fear and loneliness of being confronted with the implacability of the wilderness.

Of course, Jack London goes without saying....

Just throwing those out there. Curious to hear others' suggestions.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Trail Read on 02/25/2009 21:01:59 MST Print View

I have brought something to read so many times over the years, but seems I never get to it. I always get distracted by side canyons, butterflies, anthills, the moon, Saturn, Jupiter and the like. Pretty much just end up with a book, that has a little more wear and tear when I get home.

The one exception is "The Best of Robert Service." Since it is poetry, you can just start reading anywhere you wish. Some folks may not classify Service as "literature" but it is fun stuff.

Everything else I read at home, or when visiting the in-laws :)

James Dubendorf

Locale: CO, UT, MA, ME, NH, VT
The Eleventh Essential on 02/25/2009 21:10:15 MST Print View


Yes, I'll second Cormac McCarthy and the majestic Border Trilogy! Jack London as well. I have not yet carried Abbey's Desert Solitaire on a Utah trip, but plan to soon. I know that all the authors so far are male, and I'm sure we can make the list more diverse as we go, but I can't help but mention Henry Beston's The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, published in 1928. Beston lived in solitude out on the Cape at a time when his only neighbors were Coast Guard watchmen. Outermost House is a beautiful meditation with nature.

"Learn to reverence night and to put away the vulgar fear of it, for, with the banishment of night from the experience of man, there vanishes as well a religious emotion, a poetic mood, which gives depth to the adventure of humanity. By day, space is one with the earth and with man- it is his sun that is shining, his clouds that are floating past; at night, space is his no more. When the great earth, abandoning day, rolls up the deeps of the heavens and the universe, a new door opens for the human spirit, and there are few so clownish that some awareness of the mystery of being does not touch them as they gaze. For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars- pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time. Fugitive though the instant be, the spirit of man is, during it, ennobled by a genuine moment of emotional dignity, and poetry makes its own both the human spirit and experience."

Nick, I will check out Service. And I know what you mean about unopened books that stay in the pack! So much to see, as Beston would remind us, even in the dark.

Edited by dubendorf on 02/25/2009 21:14:32 MST.

Roleigh Martin
(marti124) - MLife

Locale: Moderator-JohnMuirTrail Yahoo Group
Re: The Eleventh Essential: Literary Companionship on the Trail? on 02/25/2009 21:11:21 MST Print View

You might want to see the BPL thread on audiobooks to listen to on the Trail at

I tried to embed a link but my first attempt failed. Link


Edited by marti124 on 02/25/2009 21:13:20 MST.

James Dubendorf

Locale: CO, UT, MA, ME, NH, VT
The Eleventh Essential on 02/25/2009 21:19:15 MST Print View


Wow, great link that I had missed. Many thanks.


Nate Meinzer
(Rezniem) - F

Locale: San Francisco
Literary Companionship on the Trail on 02/25/2009 21:33:01 MST Print View

Roleigh's comprehensive list of audiobooks has some really great stuff on it. Jon Krakauer is great, of course, and Roleigh's got great taste in fantasy literature, for those of us who indulge in it.

Roleigh Martin
(marti124) - MLife

Locale: Moderator-JohnMuirTrail Yahoo Group
The first audiobook I'd recommend to anyone is this on 02/25/2009 21:40:13 MST Print View

The first audiobook I'd recommend to anyone is this, it involves multiple narrators, and it's such a fantastic book, it got me to read the real life 3 volume biography (in unabridged audiobook format), by a historian who had a ship built similar to one of Columbus's to sail the same routes Columbus did.

Orson Scott Card-1996-Pastwatch-The Redemption of Christopher Columbus (followed by Samuel Eliot Morison-1942-Admiral of the Ocean Sea).

Another great audiobook series (2 books) are these two:
Greg Bear-1999-Darwin's Radio
Greg Bear-2003-Darwin's Children

Darwin's Radio.
Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

Edited by marti124 on 02/25/2009 22:00:20 MST.

Brian UL

Locale: New England
Re: Literary Companionship on the Trail on 02/25/2009 22:38:40 MST Print View

I cant read anything longer than an article or a peom at camp. I also get distracted by "being out there." Some Jager and a star filled sky then its time for bed.
When I read I get too into the book -books draw me in and take me out of where I am and thats fine at home but kinda antithetical to why I go backpacking.

Edited by MAYNARD76 on 02/25/2009 22:39:21 MST.

Tim F
(kneebyter) - MLife

Locale: the depths of Hiking Hell (Iowa)
re: backcountry books on 02/25/2009 23:07:40 MST Print View

I like magazines (no, not Adpacker!) because you can read a self-contained story in 15 minutes. I like Popular Mechanics a lot. I also read issues 9 and 10 of BPL magazine this way; number 11 is still on my bookshelf unread, waiting for my first trip this year. I have also taken sudoku books.

Some of the books I have taken:
"A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson, an absolutely hilarious look at a thru-hike of the AT by a couple of very sarcastic, non-athletic non-hikers. (9.4oz in paperback)
"State of Fear" by Michael Crichton. A 650 page book that I tore in half. The part I took weighed 5.7oz. (11.7oz for whole book)
"I, Robot" by Isaac Asimov, a series of mostly related stories centering around the moral dillemas that ariese when you create self-aware machines. Parts of the movie are loosely based on a few pages of this book. I have an old copy that weighs only 3.2oz.
And once, when studying for a computer certification exam, I took a Cisco book that weighed 31oz! It was the only way I could justify (to myself) taking the trip instead of staying home studying.

Nate Meinzer
(Rezniem) - F

Locale: San Francisco
Literary Companionship on the Trail on 02/26/2009 00:00:58 MST Print View

A read paperback makes great fire tender. Burn it as you read it....

John L Collins
(WVCubDad) - MLife

Locale: Not too far off the Tuscarora Trail
I second Robert Service's works on 02/28/2009 18:10:33 MST Print View


I agree wholeheartedly with your recommendation of Robert Service's poems. My Dad who passed away January 31 introduced me to him many, many years ago.

After his death I pulled the old worn hardcover from the shelf and read through it trying to find something to read at his memorial service. Ultimately I ended up reading Rudyard Kipling's "If" since he had also given me that on a tapestry when I was in junior high. I still have it and enjoy both Service and Kipling's works.

Now to find a lightweight version of them...


Diplomatic Mike

Locale: Under a bush in Scotland
Re : Outdoor reading on 02/28/2009 19:14:44 MST Print View

Can i suggest Jack London's Call of the wild as one of the best books of outdoor, cold weather fiction.
You won't regret it. :)
Obvious, suggested above, but .......

Edited by MikefaeDundee on 02/28/2009 19:52:43 MST.

Paul Davis
(pdavis) - M

Locale: Yukon, 60N 135W
Literary Company...sometimes audio too! on 03/06/2009 02:01:24 MST Print View

Hm, J.R. Tolkein's classic travelogue and voyage of internal discovery, The Hobbit makes good backcountry reading...but, over time, I find that I carry a space-pen ink cartridge with a blob of epoxy on its end, tucked into the spiral binding of my Daytimer mini-calendar, and each night I note down my position in Lat Long...if I have any energy left after that, writing a post-card usually does it, and one can reduce the weight by mailing it whenever one reaches a town, or somebody headed into town!

Craftily, those of us out for days on end in the Canadian Sub-arctic often carry a mini-bush radio AM-FM-Shortwave (200gr) and a 10M strand of scavanged dead phone wire to use as an antenna (50gr) and then tune into the Radio Netherlands or, on one memorable bike-touring breakfast, near Carcross, Yukon, the breakfast show in English from North Korea! Some people even walk in the bush with the bush radio playing out of their pack so that the bears will hear them coming!

John Kays
(johnk) - M

Locale: SoCal
Literary Weight on 03/07/2009 10:51:17 MST Print View

After loading a small Bible the search for a good novel requires more than a little effort to satisfy the reasonable weight criteria. Oxford Classics, hardbound, are small in size mostly, and provides a wide selection of great literature. I am hoping that an Amazon Kindle arrives on my birthday this year to lighten my load.

Cormac McCarthy makes great trail reading although you almost need to know Spanish to read and fully grasp the story line of the Border Triology, particulary The Crossing. His descriptions are palpable and even more so after a day on the trail. If you are Dean Koonz fan, STAY AWAY from The Watchers. You might have to fight to resist the urge to cut your trip short.

Nate Meinzer
(Rezniem) - F

Locale: San Francisco
Literary Companionship on 03/07/2009 10:58:13 MST Print View

So excited to see so many Cormac mccarthy fans here...The watchers is frightening, I take it? Yah...horror novels while alone in the wild can be a really bad idea. Ditto for "The Road"...scariest book I've ever read, and scary enough while tucked away safely behind locked doors and four walls...

James Dubendorf

Locale: CO, UT, MA, ME, NH, VT
Re: Literary Weight on 03/07/2009 11:57:51 MST Print View

To address the weight issue, and avoid wear on my favorite books, I sometimes print out or copy short stories from sources like Harper's Magazine. This allows me to enlarge the print somewhat for reading in dim light, take only as much as I will be able to read, and I can use the pages for tinder without the moral pangs that come with tearing pages from a book :-). Kindle sounds like a cool option, I will have to learn more about it.


Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Light eBooks on 03/07/2009 12:10:50 MST Print View

One way to get classics on the trail is to use any of the Palm PDA's that use AAA batteries and one of the electronic readers. There are many public domain classics available in the Palm Reader ad I have converted Gutenberg Library text files to the Reader format too. A Palm M125 uses an SD memory card, which can be used for backup and storing book files. For shorter trips, one of the newer rechargeable units will work. Most are around 4 ounces.

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Re: The Eleventh Essential: Literary Companionship on the Trail? on 03/08/2009 19:31:38 MDT Print View

On the PCT last year my mom sent me a clipping from a magazine article. I realized then that I missed reading. A magazine article is just the right size.

This weekend I brought an actual book. It is about a guy who went to live on an atoll. It is good and kills time, but I feel like reading a book takes me out of where I am. I'm already where I want to be.