Most of my friends know that I don’t especially love reading non-fiction. When I pick up a book, I usually prefer to escape the real world and go to a fictional place.
But a dear friend from childhood – the friend I totally and completely bonded with in fifth grade because we both loved reading and loathed field day in equally passionate measure – has enthusiastically taken up with camping and hiking. For months, she kept telling me to read Jennifer Pharr Davis’ Becoming Odyssa, a book Davis wrote after hiking the Appalachian Trail. I figured I’d get around to reading it some day.
The same friend loaned me her copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Her prologue begins with her looking out over the trees:
The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep
mountain slope in northern California. Moments before, I’d removed
my hiking boots and the left one had fallen into those trees, first cata-
pulting into the air when my enormous backpack toppled onto it, then
skittering across the gravelly trail and flying over the edge. It bounced
off of a rocky outcropping several feet beneath me before disappearing
into the forest canopy below, impossible to retrieve. (3)
She had me hooked. That was the start of my adventures into trail tales. And because I surprised myself by actually enjoying a book about Strayed’s solo hike, I picked up Becoming Odyssa, too.
Those of you who know me best may be wondering why I’d even read the stories of women hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail (Cheryl Strayed) and the Appalachian Trail (Jennifer Pharr Davis), given my own aversion to lots of outdoorsy activities and critters. Like stream crossings and big spiders and a lack of hot running water. But most especially snakes.
The last time I camped, 15 years ago, involved all of those things, and more. It was supposed to be a canoe trip, but, unbeknownst to my coworkers and I who ventured out with four canoes, the river was “closed” because a hurricane the year before had downed so many trees across the river. A sign saying as much at the place where we put in the canoes that morning would have been quite helpful. Just sayin’.
I learned a new word that day: portage. We had to portage the canoes 13 times that day (for those of you even more indoorsy than I am, that means we had to carry the canoes on dry-ish land to get around the tree barriers blocking the river). Worse, we spent all day tossing large spiders that dropped from the trees back out of the canoes. The snakes really were the worst part of the day, though.
One of our friends had overslept that morning and missed our caravan to the river. He arrived later to find two men fishing, and when he told them why he was at the river, the men said, “Well, I hope your friends brought guns.” My friend asked why, suddenly feeling relieved that he had missed the boat launch. “For the snakes, of course. They’re really bad this year.”
Well, we weren’t a gun-toting bunch, and certainly not one of us had considered that our leisurely canoe trip might require armed protection. So we had no guns. But we came face-to-face with too many snakes to count. They were swimming in the water. They were wandering around on the land. But mostly, they were sunning themselves on the downed trees, some of which we tried to limbo under to save from hauling the canoes yet again onto land.
By nightfall, we had made it to the spot where we had planned to have lunch. That was the last time I went camping. It also happens to be the last time I set foot in a canoe. Now, I’m not saying “never” to either of those activities ever again, but …
You’ll understand from the story I’ve just told you that before I even began reading Wild, I didn’t have much in common with Strayed, whose goal was to complete a solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. I quickly realized that we had even less in common. She was reeling from her mother’s sudden death from cancer, and Strayed’s grief sent her into tailspin of self-destruction: numerous affairs, a newfound pastime of heroin use, a wrecked marriage and a sense of being completely lost. I almost quit reading because I didn’t like who this woman was, but her story compelled me to keep going. Would she meet the challenges of the trail? Would she learn how to hike? Would she be safe from men and nature? Would she change as a result of the trail? And how would she deal with that lost hiking boot? I found myself rooting for her and looking forward to seeing how she went from lost to found on the trail. (You might like to hear Dian Rehm’s interview with Strayed from several months ago that replayed earlier this week.)
I don’t have much in common withBecoming Odyssa author Jennifer Pharr Davis, either, other than being from the same state and sharing a common faith. But she was someone I found more likable from the outset. She was determined to hike the Appalachian Trail after graduating from college to see whether she could finish the whole trail and to learn what the trail had to teach her about herself and others. As she learned along the trail, she conveyed important lessons to all of us, whether we’re hikers or not. One of the funniest lessons comes when she’s trying to get away from an annoying male hiker who has latched onto her. She’s hiding in a strand of rhododendrons, hoping he’ll pass by without seeing her. What she learns – and conveys to the rest of us – is that hiding from problems does not solve them. It simply pushes them along to obstruct your path later on.
Both stories are compelling, well-told tales of the serene silence of nature, joys and dangers discovered along the way. Both women are brave in ways I admire, possibly because I cannot imagine ever having that level of bravery. Their tackling of the trails may serve to help other women tackle their own dreams, and if for no other reason, that’s why I’m glad I read their books.
Have you read either of their books? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought. I’d also love to hear your recommendations of other must-read non-fiction books. No promises, though. I hear some novels calling my name.