Literary Hiking

| April 17, 2015 | 2 Comments

By Becky Kivlovitz

“You’ve been lugging those bricks this whole hike?” chides a trail mate. “Have you heard of a Kindle?” He tosses my one-pound British Literature Anthology back and forth derisively between his hands. But he’s right; I could probably make better decisions about the weight in my pack when it comes to books.

As a lover books and a world hiker, hiking and reading are inextricable hobbies. I always make room for two or three bona fide books—the paper kind with the musty old book smell, drenched in ink scribbles from reads and rereads. And reading a classic in the golden, fading light of sunset and turning pages while nestled in a field of tall grass is worth every ounce, every time. But the end of a book is the problem: I never want to leave the worlds and characters that have nested in my heart. And with literary hiking, I don’t have to.

Bookworm, break this sloth urbane;
A greater Spirit bids thee forth,
Than the gray dreams which thee detain.
(Emerson, “Monadnoc”)

Emerson bids the bookworm to flee their unaffected couches in his poem, “Monadnoc.” He wants more for his readers—he wants his readers to “taste of the lordship of the earth,” rather than just read about its goodness. So, bookworm, if winter is your time to curl up and read from the comfort and safety of your home, read no further: The enchantment of literary hiking will set you trail bound, wayfaring the works you couldn’t put down.

It was the poetry of Wordsworth that brought me to the Lake District in England, sparking my obsession. I fell in love with Wordsworth’s keen observations, and I saw nature deeply as flowers came alive to dance with his words. I sat in the places he wrote his poems, and found magic in the ordinary that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. What a waste, to walk miles and miles without finding the artistry. My time hiking with Wordsworth was like jumping in the pages of a book and finding Narnia.

Literary hiking is like time travel to settings of yore, blurring the lines between reality and fiction. Hiking in the paths of our literary greats has drawn me deep into my surroundings as my feet traced, word by word, the genius of authors who have shaken my reality. I’m immersed in literary creations, physically experiencing the muses. And—certain Wordsworth wouldn’t be my last literary hike—I trekked onward with Steinbeck.

Literary Hiking

LITERATURE East of Eden, John Steinbeck
LOCATION Fremont Peak State Park, California
HIKE A one-mile out-and-back to 3,169-foot Fremont Peak on Peak Trail, where Steinbeck authored his introduction to East of Eden.

Eden spread before me, like Steinbeck described, from Fremont Peak:

Long, narrow swale between two ranges of mountain, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls into the Monterey Bay … the Galiban Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother … The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding—unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread for the west and a love of east. (East of Eden, Steinbeck)

I held my tattered copy of East of Eden, though I knew the words already. Steinbeck chose the Salinas Valley to represent the biblical East of Eden. I felt him sitting with me, looking out on what we saw, together.

In East of Eden, Steinbeck explores human nature through a modernized biblical account of Cain and Abel. Steinbeck’s characters discuss the story of Cain and Abel and God’s explanation of freewill to Cain—that, “Thou mayest” kill your brother, but also “Thou mayest” not kill your brother.

Steinbeck’s character Lee explains, “But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man.”

If Cain were a robot, only allowed to do good, his good wouldn’t be great. It would be forced. And too easy. But the beauty of free will is we can fight to choose good, over our inclinations to do bad.

The good fight: “Why, that’s what makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he still has the great choice. He can choose his course and fight through it and win.”

Oftentimes, succumbing to bad, compulsive decisions leaves us worse off and ashamed. And, unfortunately for mankind, Cain lets his anger win, and succumbs to evil: killing his brother—the first murder. Cain is exiled to East of Eden, and Steinbeck believes we are Cain’s descendants, exiled in this very land below me—his Salinas Valley. And we’re challenged daily with the battle of fighting our inclinations toward selfish cruelty as we strive to be good, just like his characters in East of Eden learn.

I needed this. I committed it to memory and, embarrassingly enough, tattooed “Thou mayest” on my wrist in John Steinbeck’s handwriting. I wanted to remember my duty to choose always the hardest—to choose good.

Before I read East of Eden, I was angry at the evil in our world and any god who would allow it. But Steinbeck is right: Without our freedom to perform evil, our goodness would hold no esteem. “We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal.”

LITERATURE Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey
LOCATION Canyonlands National Park, Utah
HIKE Traverse Salt Creek Canyon for a 22.5-mile out-and-back, starting at Cathedral Butte following the main drainage of the canyon past cottonwood groves, often obscured by dense vegetation.

Blissful were my days spent with Edward Abbey in the Canyonlands—the rugged, ornery desert dweller had me smitten. And though he specifically advised against Desert Solitaire serving as a travel guide, I couldn’t resist his poetic desperation for the harsh, mysterious wild. His hard-chiseled prose depicted our right to experience the ancient, untouched natural world, beckoning the adventure lover with each treacherous escapade. Abbey: a fierce defender of the wild and champion of the necessity for man to be immersed in wilderness.

And immersion, as defined by Abbey, requires blood. “In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll begin to see something, maybe. Probably not.” But in the end, he knows we need the wild in any capacity:

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.

And I agree, so I went. Canyonlands National Park seemed a rock ocean, ebbing and flowing with waves of reds, oranges, and ivories. And bushwhacking through Salt Creek Canyon was certainly the wild Ed Abbey described.

Abbey held me, as night fell, with his words pointing to the “stars which are unusually bold and close, with an icy glitter in their light—glints of blue, emerald, gold. Out there…the arches and cliffs and pinnacles and balanced rocks of sandstone…have lost the rosy glow of sunset and become soft, intangible, in unnamed unnamable shades of violet, colors that seem to radiate from—not overlay—their surfaces.”

And borrowing Abbey’s wilderness expertise I saw, “the various forms of chalcedony, for example, are strewn liberally over the dismal clay hills along Salt Creek. Here you will find tiny crystals of garnet embedded in a matrix of mica schist—almandine or ‘common garnet.’” I would’ve never appreciated each rock or plant so deeply in my ignorance of its complexities. Abbey lit my way with his brilliance, bringing the desert to life.

LITERATURE Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
LOCATION Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
HIKE 5.8-mile out-and-back through sandstone buttes and sparse desert vegetation on the Lighthouse Trail through the 800-foot deep canyon.

In Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Lonesome Dove sent me back centuries to Larry McMurtry’s illuminated world of the 1800s cattle drives. More so than with any other book I’ve finished, I wasn’t done knowing his characters. I cried and laughed as they taught me what’s truly important. McMurtry made them, and the Wild West, a part of me.

Gus teaches Lorie, like McMurtry taught me, the importance of little everyday things: “Lorie darlin’, life in San Francisco, you see, is still just life. If you want any one thing too badly, it’s likely to turn out to be a disappointment. The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things, like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.”

Larry McMurtry based his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove on real-life Texas Rangers, Charles Goodnight and Charles Loving. Palo Duro Canyon was Goodnight’s ranchland, and the grit of the Wild West lives on in the 29,000-acre park.

While far too hot for chaps and boots, I imagined galloping through the thorny vegetation and orange sands along the sandstone buttes of the Texas frontier. I wanted to feel the warm winds and sand on my face. And I contemplated the history in the land:

It’s mostly bones we’re riding over anyway. Why, think of all the buffalo that have died on these plains. Buffalo and other critters too. And the Indians have been here forever; their bones are down there in the earth. I’m told that over in the Old Country you can’t dig six feet without uncovering skulls and leg bones and such. People have been living there since the beginning, and their bones have kinda filled up the ground. It’s interesting to think about, all the bones in the ground. But it’s just fellow creatures, it’s nothing to shy from.” Planting my feet on these sacred grounds felt spiritual—a deep connection the land, our history, and those before us. (Lonesome Dove, McMurtry)

And as it did for Augustus, the West Texas sunrise stole my heart. And I may have missed the deep magic without McMurty’s words guiding my eyes from my morning campfire to the breathtaking minutiae:

When the rim of the sun edged over the horizon the chaparral seemed to be spotted with diamonds. A bush in the backyard was filled with little rainbows as the sun touched the dew. It was tribute enough to sunup that it could make even chaparral bushes look beautiful, Augustus thought, and he watched the process happily, knowing it would only last a few minutes. The sun spread reddish-gold light through the shining bushes, among which a few goats wandered, bleating. Even when the sun rose above the low bluffs to the south, a layer of light lingered for a bit at the level of the chaparral, as if independent of its source. Then the sun lifted clear, like an immense coin. The dew quickly died, and the light that filled the bushes like red dirt dispersed, leaving clear, slightly bluish air. (Lonesome Dove, McMurtry)

McMurtry slowed my pace as I hiked that day, taking in the Wild West Hollywood set, slowly climbing the steep butte to the base of the tower: “‘I see you’re in a hurry to get someplace. It’s a great mistake to hurry.’ ‘Why?’ Joe asked, puzzled by almost everything the traveler said. ‘Because the grave’s our destination,’ Mr. Sedgwick said. ‘Those who hurry usually get to it quicker than those who take their time.’”

LITERATURE Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Monadnoc”
LOCATION Monadnock State Park, New Hampshire
HIKE Climb 3,165-foot Mt. Monadnock through spruce-covered ridges, open crags, and exposed ledges with views from the Boston skyline to Mt. Greylock in Massachusetts, Mount Killington in Vermont, and Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

In literature, Emerson teaches, we can find ourselves. And to find myself, Emerson led me to nature: “Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts?” Walking the woods, seeing my own thoughts emulated in the turning of the leaves or the sprouting of a tree was therapy unrivaled.
Emerson has also guided me spiritually, teaching the woods, ridges, and coasts as church.

“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”

I wanted to learn from Emerson, to adopt his oneness in each natural encounter and to make his striking connections from the natural world to our own being. So to pit his thinking against my own, I set to climb Mt. Monadnock to the cadence of Emerson’s poem “Monadnoc.”

And though Monadnock has changed over the past few centuries, the rock of Mt. Monadnock came alive beneath me. I normally experience a summit in the sense that I am humbled by my insignificance and frailty in comparison to the grandeur of the mountains and the world below. But with Emerson, I was pushed further—pushed to fight for the freeing thoughts of nature both on the mountain and at home. The mountain serves as an eternal foundation I can depend on to fight the pollution of the mind, not fleeting revelation reserved for backpacking trips and day hikes:

Man in these crags a fastness find
To fight pollution of the mind;
In the wide thaw and ooze of wrong,
Adhere like this foundation strong,
The insanity of towns to stem
With simpleness for stratagem.
(Emerson’s “Monadnoc”)

And that, just as mountains serve as an oasis of escape and simplicity, so can man:

Monadnoc is a mountain strong,
Tall and good my kind among,
But well I know, no mountain can
Measure with a perfect man
(Emerson’s “Monadnoc”)

And this perfect man, superior to the mountains, is great, as he isn’t burdened by a daily load of traffic, emails, and appointments, but a rich “daily load of woods and streams.” I began to breathe again, on the peak of Monadnock. And I thanked Emerson out loud.

Through all time
I hear the approaching feet
Along the flinty pathway beat
Of him that cometh, and shall come,
—
Of him who shall as lightly bear
My daily load of woods and streams.
(Emerson’s “Monadnoc”)

Adding another dimension to the trail through the written words of our literary greats was like wearing glasses for the first time, or watching a film in 3D. Sometimes I’ll hike miles without seeing a thing—just the signs of how many miles I have left to go. But having these authors alongside to reveal the spirit of nature, and sharing in their creative muses, is an adventure of both the body and mind. Each book, a map. Steinbeck taught me the beauty of humanity’s great choice, Abbey showed me the magic held in each star and rock, McMurtry brought me back in time to the Wild West, and Emerson showed me the oneness of the world and the teachings of the mountain. These writers became friends as they guided me through the relationship of our being and the world around us. Each book was a catalyst for more adventure.

Literary Hiking

And you can, too.

Sitting down with pen and paper trying to articulate the shades and forms before me, I noticed details, like those exemplified by the literary greats. Initially, when I tried to immortalize nature with my words, I was frustrated. But in the act of searching for this universal connection between the land and us all, I noticed more. When I pause in nature and task myself to fill the pages, I look more carefully, more artfully. And having to articulate the world before you, it awakens.

Tips for beginners:

• Find an overlook or vista on a favorite hike.

• Write down ten questions about what you see. “It seems to me possible, even probable, that many of the nonhuman undomesticated animals experience emotions unknown to us. What do the coyotes mean when they yodel at the moon? What are the dolphins trying so patiently to tell us?” asks Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire.

• Personify ten items you see. “The earth laughs in flowers,” writes Emerson.

• Explain how ten natural phenomena you witness express something you thought or felt this week. “By the time the shade had reached the river, Augustus would have mellowed with the evening and be ready for some intelligent conversation, which usually involved talking to himself,” writes Larry McMurtry in Lonesome Dove.

• Now stream the most feeling, pressing observations together into your nature poetry.

Literary Hiking

Category: Articles, Hiking & Backpacking

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Comments (2)

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  1. Susan Hayse says:

    This looks really fun to try!

  2. jeannemeeks says:

    What a fabulous idea. Take a great book about an area to that area. What a terrific travel plan.
    In my mystery adventure novels, “Rim To Rim-Death in the Grand Canyon” and “Wolf Pack-Mystery on Isle Royale,” it was my goal convey the magic of those scenic places. I’m told I succeeded. I hope so.
    Thanks for the travel idea.

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