Thursday, July 28, 2011

Trekking Across America

Something that I love to read about but rarely think about is America.  Not the country with all of its politics and people and troubled history, but the landscape, with its mountains and prairies and rivers.  The land itself is a great setting for books, and can even be a character.  I've always been drawn to novels and memoirs in which people travel America on foot, whether as outlaws or explorers or lonely people who aren't sure what else to do.  There was a period of time a few years ago when I was living with my sister and her husband and reading their books, which tend to be nature-based, and again and again I found myself traveling America at the side of some lonely American.

I accompanied Christopher McCandleless on his solitary path to death in the Alaskan wilderness, laughed with Bill Bryson as he hiked the Appalachian Trail with an overweight recovering alcoholic, and attempted to cross the country on foot with Peter Jenkins*.  Mostly, I was jealous of these men, even lonely Chris McCandleless, who seized the opportunities to experience their homeland.  Can we really call these busy cities and planned suburban spaces a homeland, when there are vast stretches of beauty and wilderness just beyond?

I am thinking of this now because, as anybody who follows my Twitter (or who has noticed the sidebar of my blog) knows, I have recently started reading Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.  It is a beautiful novel in which two stories intersect: one of an AWOL Confederate soldier trekking west towards his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the other of the woman he loves as she tries to survive following her father's death.  Not only do I have his experiences of interacting with the land he's crossing, but also the experience of farm life, another setting I have always loved (especially as a child with The Rocky Ridge series, which followed Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter, Rose).  In Cold Mountain, especially for the male protagonist, the land is actually an antagonist, a dreary thing that he must contend with.  It is vivid though, and as alive as he is, and has me dreaming yet again of long hikes, interacting with my homeland, rustic cabins in the woods.  It is a beautiful thing, this land of mine.

*For anybody interested, the three books I referenced were Into the Wild by John Karakauer, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, and A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins.  They are all non-fiction and all wonderful.  If anybody has any recommendation for any novels or memoirs following a similar vein, I would love to have them.


  1. The Lost Continent is another great Bill Bryson book about small town America.

    I agree that America makes a wonderful setting in novels. I'm off to visit for the first time on Monday (I'm a Brit) and can not wait!

  2. I wish that I could write half as well about landscapes as you do. Reading books that reveal...see, I don't even know how to write about this...but that reveal how majestic and how broad American landscapes are always leave me wanting to take off and explore all of our country that I haven't seen.

    Oh, and I still have this dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail, which Bryson is to blame for.

  3. ME TOO! I have the exact same dream. I'm thinking it'll probably only ever happen in chunks (i.e. a bit every year, picking up where I leave off). 100 or so miles every summer should have it done in about 21 years. Ouch.