To me, Wild is sort of Eat, Pray, Love Part 2: American Continental Edition. Eat, Pray, Love has its own issues, but what bothers me right from the outset about Wild is the idea that Strayed just hops on the Pacific Coast Trail without any preparation. That is dangerous, and all it does is set the stage for disaster to happen either to her or someone else. And when people get hurt doing things like that, other people have to come in and save them, which burns up resources and possibly puts other people in danger.
So let’s everyone agree not to do things like this, ok? You want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail? Fine. Get some gear. Go on some guided hikes. Work your way up.
Use some sense.
When I try to read this book, I also struggle a bit with all of the internal angst, and discussions of big toes, which kind of gives me the creeps.
On the other hand, I like travel. I’ve done it a lot.
So I thought about what makes a good travel book, scoured some list of other people’s ideas of good travel books, made a (laughably) rough outline of the United States to make sure I covered a variety of American territories.
These are the books I came up with.
A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella L. Bird
The Hawaiian Archipelago by Isabella L. Bird
If you think hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the 21st century is challenging, try traveling the world, by yourself, as a woman in the 19th century. That’s exactly what Isabella L. Bird did, and featured here are two of the books she wrote about the United States.
Bird became pretty famous in her own day for her written descriptions of the places she visited. Remember, in the 19th century, photography was expensive and writers had to create pictures with words…and in the case of Bird’s work, explain things that her readers would know nothing about. This is not an easy feat, but Bird accomplished it beautifully. And if you read carefully, you will find subtexts in the stories, so pay attention!
Also keep in mind that things were quite a bit different in the 19th century, so some of the phrasing she uses will seem racist to modern eyes. You have to read those parts with a sense of history: this is a document of its time.
If you search carefully on Amazon, you can find free versions of her books, but bear in mind you will be on your own; more expensive versions are annotated and contextualized.
The books take the form of letters, so it is easy to skip around or read her books a bit at a time.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
If you’ve read Wild, you know that Cheryl Strayed has attitude with a capital A about the Appalachian Trail. But you know by now that I think Strayed should probably have dialed the attitude down a bit and broken in her boots first.
Generally, I like Bryson and his take on the world. He has a nice balance of background and experience plus a sense of humor.
If you place a copy of A Walk in the Woods next to Wild, in addition to the juxtaposition of the two titles (Bryson’s decades in the UK served him well for his use of understatement), you will notice how incredibly difficult it is to find the work “I” in a page of his text, while Wild makes me want to bring my red pen out of retirement.
Bryson is a pro at this game, so he also did his research before hitting “the woods”, and he is happy to share that research with you. In fact, there is so much research you may struggle to figure out when he heads into “the woods”. I gotta say that I love a guy who spends almost $300 just on reading material for a hike, and I love that he shares it with us.
If nothing else, I’m more interested in his background information than on the state of his toes. But perhaps that’s just me.
Deep South by Paul Theroux
Deep South is not an adventure tale…he’s more like Mark Twain…the “naive” outsider (Yankee) struggling to understand a distant land. That he manages to examine this land without ticking me off is quite an accomplishment. Theroux has a knack for showing the reader the detail of the moment and letting us discover its meaning ourselves.
I like a book with a system or a clear framework, and this book has it: he comes back to the South in each season of the year.
Like Bryson, Theroux likes to bird walk, so you aren’t going to be a fan if you don’t like that. But seriously, if you are going to write about a place, shouldn’t you read those who have written about it before, and at least, done your research?
On the flip side, Deep South almost functions as a series of connected articles, so you don’t need to read it straight through, and it will work if you read it bit by bit, with gaps in between.
Winterdance by Gary Paulsen
Gary Paulsen is well known as an author of YA adventure novels, but his knowledge of the outdoors, which is often his subject, is rooted in reality. In 1983, he took on what might seem like a fool’s errand, running the Iditarod in Alaska after only dogsledding for a year, but he finished. This is his account of those 17 days.
And here’s a little more about Gary Paulsen, in case you have any questions: On the Road and Between the Pages, an Author Is Restless for Adventure from The New York Times
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
I read Into the Wild years ago, but what had not stuck with me is where the book is set. It’s not even my favorite Jon Krakauer title, but I think it’s important to include in this list.
I almost skipped Into the Wild because it’s been around for a long time, but then again, sometimes when a book has been around a long time, people don’t know about it. Anyway, this book is important to include here because it shows what CAN happen to you if you run off into the wilderness on your own, even if you ARE prepared.
It’s no joke people.
I live near the ocean, and now we have to keep lifeguards on the stands until 6:30 every night even though the beach closes for swimmers at 5. Know why it closes? Because that’s when the sharks eat. But one day a family came from out of town, ignored the signs, and ran right into the water. Some didn’t run out.
So, to be safe, just stay home and read about the wilderness.
JK. But seriously, do read up, and practice, and condition, and get training before you go.
Create your own adventure
If you want a little adventure of your own, why not try your own backyard? The Off the Beaten Path Series is great for finding adventure close to home…just buy the edition for your state!