Books for the Road: Back from the Wild

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After a hike in Canyonlands, reeling from the sight of relentless sunlight and massive, weathered rocks, still feeling a sense of wonder about the texture and scope of the desert landscape, I sat in a coffee shop in Moab, Utah with my wife, my brother, and a few friends. A sign by the cash register read, “Now hiring.” I mused about staying.

I felt sure that there was a trailer or apartment or room somewhere in Moab that even a barista could afford.

To give voice to my longing to stick around and feel what I was feeling, I suggested that my friend Kevin, single and working as a barista in Wheaton, Illinois, take the job.

“Why not?” I asked. Kevin laughed.

Eventually, someone else saw the sign and secured the job, and maybe he was just passing through like I was, with a few less ties to wherever he called home.

An hour later, I sat in the backseat of Kevin’s Buick, cruising from Moab to his home in Illinois, thinking about living in a landscape that hadn’t been paved over and domesticated.

I imagined myself without a neighborhood soccer team to coach, without kids to help with their homework, without a church to attend, and without a calendar full of dinners with friends. Just me, the desert, and a trailer where I could write.

Arriving back in Atlanta, I scoured used bookstores for books by Edward Abbey, Jon Krakauer, Wallace Stegner, John McPhee, and John Wesley Powell. I hoped to hang on to that Western feeling, or at least to foster the hope of that feeling by reading good books about the land and its inhabitants.

I read a pile of books about the American West over the following weeks, and I’d highly recommend many of them. But my thinking moved back home after a careful reading of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, with its account of Chris McCandless’s reckless adventure into Alaska’s backcountry, his death there, and the subsequent grief of his friends and family.

While the film adaptation of Into the Wild romanticizes its main character and downplays his fear of home and its entanglements, Krakauer’s account is much more honest. The author stays with the family as they reel from the loss. He searches out the meaning of McCandless’s flight.

The story embodies an idea which Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner both suggested. That what McCandless lost by dying in the woods, aside from a pulse and a lot of weight, was a context to make sense of what he’d seen.

I’ve been in conversation with our chief blinkpacker, Josh Feit. While I love his accounts of the places and people he sees along the way, I’ve most enjoyed a thread that has emerged as his journey goes on. His perspective on home is shifting.

He and Margaret are talking about what is important. They are figuring out what matters to them, and wondering what it will mean for them on their return. They are talking with friends along the way, and discovering new dimensions to longstanding relationships.

I think the wonderful thing about their travels, and about my journey out west, is that we come home. That sense of landing, community to hear our stories, and the context of longtime friends and family give greater meaning to each journey away. And because of our journey, we return with a sense of landscape, a sense of what we have gained and given up, and what really matters.

So, blinkpackers, may you travel well, and may your return home give meaning to the journey.
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