Books In My Backpack: What I’m Bringing On My Hiking Vacation

I went to graduate school in Charlottesville, Virginia and spent three years surrounded by some of the most idyllic mountains in the country. I climbed exactly one of them, Carter Mountain, lured by the promise of Carter Mountain Orchard at the top. Unfortunately, the orchard is not accessible from the surrounding woods, and neither are its cider donuts– a crushing blow at the time, but probably a sound business decision.

A year out of graduate school, living in the exact center of Philadelphia, something strange has happened: I miss green things. My partner was an avid hiker in college, but since starting medical school in Philly, he hasn’t been able to do the weeklong extended hikes he used to. When we realized he has a month off between the end of medical school and the start of residency (in… Charlottesville. Yup, I’m moving back. Life is strange.), his parents urged us to do a tour of Europe. Two years ago, I would have jumped at the opportunity to spend a week or two lounging in a Parisian cafe, spending ridiculous sums on tiny cups of coffee and leather goods. But now…

“What about Maine?”

I can’t imagine a more opposite vacation to a whirlwind tour of Europe: 9 off-season days in a rented house in Bar Harbor, 20 minutes from Acadia National Park. We’ve got a bunch of day-hikes planned, and we’ve been preparing by doing the more strenuous (but still listed as dispiritingly “moderate” on AllTrails) hikes in our local national park, Valley Forge. But, a book nerd to the end, I can’t imagine doing something without reading about it first.

So that’s where this list comes in. You’ll notice a lack of modern hiking memoirs, like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I’m not much for the memoir genre in general (bad omnivoreader, I know), and this time especially, I’m looking for information that will give some context to my personal experience. These are the books I’m looking forward to reading after a day on the trails.

On Trails: An Exploration

This meditation on trails takes the Appalachian Trail as its inspiration (its author, Robert Moor, thru-hiked the AT in 2009), but it ranges far beyond the modern hiking path.

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Moor, a science journalist, covers a vast spectrum of trails, from highways to the internet to deer trails in a book that the Seattle Times has promised me is “both fun and intriguing.” I’ve had this one on my radar for a while, but I haven’t been able to find a reason to pick it up until now.

The Hour Of Land: A Personal Topography Of America’s National Parks

I’ve read, written about, and recommended this book already, but I discovered it in the depths of winter and consumed it sitting in my overstuffed chair covered in blankets. I think it’s time for a reread in some more evocative scenery.

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Terry Tempest Williams is a monstrously talented essayist who always finds some way to incorporate the natural world into her work. But in this “personal topography,” Williams turns her focus exclusively to the American national park system. Each chapter takes as its subject one of the many national parks. I turned to the chapter on Acadia and found this:

From a distance, the mountains in Acadia appear blue and rounded, not at all like the toothed peaks of the West with hanging canyons and glaciers. You can climb them in an afternoon, wearing a skirt. Their grandeur belongs not to ruggedness but to a gradual ascent toward grace.

Ah, Terry. Her essays are filled with lines like the ones above that come back to me at the most opportune times: “a gradual ascent toward grace.” They are literary (without all the bullshit that term often implies): they understand and use the power of language to its fullest extent. Her sentences actually give me chills.

Also: I just realized TTW reads the audio version herself! She’s got a great voice– like NPR on Ativan. I know where my Audible credit is going this month. What a perfect book for the (10 hour long, ugh) drive up!

A Thousand-Mile Walk To The Gulf

John Muir is a famous conservationist (he’s got an entire forest named after him in California) who, in his late 20’s, lost an eye, gave up on his career as an inventor, and then walked a thousand miles from Indiana to Florida in 1867. He kept a journal on his journey through the post-Civil War South, which eventually turned into this book.

My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find, promising the greatest extent of virgin forest.

Though he sets out to avoid other people, Muir recounts many conversations with men and women, both black and white, who feel unmoored in the wake of the Civil War. Muir himself seems a little unmoored, thanks to his traumatic, abrupt injury and the resulting uncertainty about his purpose in life.

Since it’s out from under copyright, this one is available for free online.

The Lost City Of Z: A Tale Of Deadly Obsession In The Amazon

What’s that, I hear you say? The Amazon is very far from Maine? You are correct, my geographically conversant friend.

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Pictured: Not Maine
However, it is about the relationship between the individual and the wilderness. Plus, it’s a ridiculously good story (I actually started this one last week and put it aside as a vacation read). In the final years of Britain’s obsession with the stereotype of the rugged individualist explorer, legendary naturalist Percy Fawcett disappeared in the Amazon while searching for El Dorado, or what he called “The City of Z.” David Grann attempts to uncover what happened to Fawcett and the men who accompanied him (Fawcett’s son and his son’s friend).

It reads like Erik Larson took a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. It may cause me to drag my partner off-trail into the forest to search for hidden ruins, but I’m willing to take the risk in service of a great story.

These aren’t all the books I’m bringing on my vacation (4 books for an entire week? What kind of self-restraint do you think I possess!?), but these are the ones that feel most related to our hikes. If you have any recommendations for nature-loving books, please let me know in the comments or in an email!

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