A journey begins with a single step, so the ancient mantra goes — or in this case, with a single book (or two, or three, or 11.) As the season of hiking boots and trail-mapping fast approaches, so does that time for dusting off all those wonderful, outdoorsy titles that make for the perfect summertime reads.
Hitting the road and venturing into the wilderness on foot has always held a particular je ne sais quoi for people. Perhaps it is the meditative space that nature provides, or the uncomplicated need to do nothing more in the present moment than place one foot in front of the other, that keep people falling in love with the practice of hiking. But whether you’re someone who relishes hitting the trail for 12 miles a day, or the kind of outdoors-person who prefers to log only a mile or two before cozying up next to a campfire with a package of marshmallows, there’s no denying that a jaunt into the wilderness is made even better by bringing some great books along.
Believe me, once you hit the rhythm of the trail, you’ll want these books in your backpack more than you will those extra granola bars.
Without A Map by Meredith Hall
This lyrical memoir tells the story of Meredith Hall who, as a teenage mother, placed her baby up for adoption and began a years-long trek across Europe and the Middle East: on foot, and alone. Leaving from Luxembourg with $65.50 in her pocket (a dauntingly small sum, even in the 1970s, when the memoir beings) she heads first to India, then to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and onward. Running out of money, Hall beings to sell her clothing and other belongings, and ultimately comes to depend on the generosity of those she meets along the way. A friend of the writer once called this her “suicide walk," but by the end of the memoir you’ll realize Hall’s harrowing journey was likely just the opposite. While there is much more to Without A Map than Hall’s epic walk from one continent to another, it’s a book that will inspire you to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
A Thousand-Mile Walk To The Gulf by John Muir
John Muir is sort of the godfather of the on-foot adventure. At 28, after losing and then regaining his eyesight in an accident, he set out on a solo walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico. This account of his adventures was compiled from the journal he kept during his months on the trail — a journey he was ill-prepared for at the time, but that set the stage for his lifelong love of the natural world. Wandering the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War, Muir faced disease, starvation, and the darkest side of humanity; but he also discovered the restorative power of nature, and the beauty of a world left undisturbed by man. Muir is a cannot-miss writer and adventurer for anyone preparing to hit the trail, and A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf is a beautiful place to start.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Don't take any packing tips from this memoir. But do let the savvy and resilient narrator, Cheryl Strayed, inspire you to hike into the furthest reaches of your human spirit, as she does in Wild , a memoir about her 1,000-plus mile journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. But I don't need to tell you that — if you've missed the never-ending and well-deserved buzz about Wild , and its equally captivating film adaptation, then it might be time to venture off the trail and plug back in long enough to read a tweet or two.
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
From the unparalleled writer who gave you On the Road , and made it the cool place to be, this autobiographical novel embodies the time-tested truth of the mantra "it's about the journey, not the destination". From the legendary Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco to the upper reaches of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Ray Smith (Kerouac) and his buddy, Japhy Ryder (based on the poet, Gary Snyder) tumble about the west coast in search of Zen's four noble truths. The Dharma Bums is as much about the urban trek as it is the rural.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Don't let the fact that this Spanish novel is more 400 years old dissuade you from indulging in all its literary merit. Its ringleader, Alonso Quixano (title character Don Quixote,) suffers from the effects of reading too many romance novels, and is thrust into a 'round-the-world journey of chivalry, justice, and adventure. With the ebullient farmer Sancho Panza as his trusty sidekick, Don Quixote stumbles his way through one folly after another throughout this journey that exists just as much in his imagination as it does in his real life.
The Walking People: A Native American Oral History by Paula Underwood
Oral histories have been the way of storytellers since time immemorial — since the days when hiking was man's only form of transportation, in fact. The histories of The Walking People , compiled by Iroquois oral historian Paula Underwood, tell of the 10,000-year journey taken by the Erie and Oneida peoples, who are thought to have literally migrated across the continents on foot before the oceans separated them. Passed down from generation to generation, these stories contain lessons on resilience and quiet determination, respectful community living, and responsible ways of engaging with the natural environment. This is a little-known, beautifully poetic collection of histories that are best read amongst the crunching of leaves, or the gurgling of a stream. It is also more than 800 pages, so keep that in mind when packing your knapsack (and leave something else at home.)
A Million Steps by Kurt Koontz
For more than 1,200 years, spiritual pilgrims from all over the world have been walking across Spain's Camino de Santiago, from the French/Spanish border to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, on the western coast of Spain. Hiker Kurt Koontz began his own 500-mile pilgrimage while recovering from a personal history of addiction. He journeyed through unpredictable weather and across breathtaking, albeit at times unforgiving, terrain on his path to self-discovery and healing. If you don't read this book while walking the Camino yourself, it'll definitely make you want to add the hike to your bucket list.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Dust off your 5th grade reading list because this Newbery Honor-winning classic children's novel is as enjoyable during your adulthood trail-wanderings as it was when you were ambling about your backyard as a child. Hatchet is the endurance story of 13-year-old Brian who, after surviving a plane crash that kills everyone else on board, is left with only a hatchet and his smattering of boy scout-type knowledge to keep him alive in the Canadian wilderness.
The Man Who Walked Through Time by Colin Fletcher
In the summer of 1963, adventurer Colin Fletcher climbed to the Grand Canyon floor and began his months-long trek from one end of Grand Canyon National Park to the other. Learning to grapple with both the untouched-by-man terrain and the fluctuating elements, Fletcher meditates on not only his own small life, but on the connectedness — or lack thereof — of all human life to the natural world. The Man Who Walked Through Time will give you serious hiking envy for that pre-tourist, rose-colored time when you actually could venture into the world for months on end without encountering another human soul.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
OK, I know what you're thinking. But just trust me on this one: Henry David Thoreau is vastly more interesting in your real life than he was when you were suffering him from the second-to-last row of your 10th grade English Lit class. You might even realize that he was kind of an original hipster, in that "I use my television as a funny little table to rest my chai tea on" (thank you Lorelai Gilmore) kind of way. In case you've forgotten (or, you know, blocked it out), Walden chronicles the two years that Thoreau spent living in a cabin in the woodlands of Walden Pond. And if you STILL can't find some merit to Thoreau after reading him with your toes dipped into the lake of your own woodland vista, then you have my permission to give up on this one forever.
Buried in the Sky by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan
Investigative adventurers Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan tell the story of two of the most resilient and skilled Himalayan sherpas in the world. In the summer of 2008, when 11 mountain climbers perished on K2 — the highest point in Pakistan, and considered one of the deadliest peaks in the world — sherpas Chhiring Dorje Sherpa and Pasang Lama survived. This book tells the story of that infamous climb, while also tracing the lives of these two surviving men from their impoverished and war-torn upbringings, to their careers accompanying climbers through the Karakoram Range. Despite the devastation, Buried in the Sky describes the unmatched beauty of this remote part of the world: a beauty so compelling that every year mountaineers risk their lives to glimpse it.
Image: Alba Soler/Flickr