Book Review – Desert Solitaire

5 stars. Irascible crank Edward Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire as a description of his first season as a park ranger in Arches National Park (then Arches National Monument), painting a vivid picture of the stark and beautiful landscape and the life it supports. Right from the beginning his prose had my attention:

This is the most beautiful place on earth.

There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.

Through his eyes, we see the beauty of Arches: Balanced Rock, Delicate Arch, and the desert itself. Abbey tells of his day-to-day job duties, and how he lived in the harsh environment. A mournful tour of Glen Canyon, now condemned to Lake Powell by the Glen Canyon Dam, is one of the highlights of the book–and sadly the best tour available of that spot. A jaunt into The Maze (some of the most remote and unforgiving terrain in America) is powerful and immersive.

What I most appreciate about Abbey is that, in opposition to those who idealized and romanticized nature, he loved it for all its grit and gore, the struggle for life. His writing shows a conception of the larger sense, the cycles of biology, geology, and astronomy. Survival is ultimately measured on a species level rather than an individual level. Take this passage about locating and removing the body of a tourist who died in the park:

Each man’s death diminishes me? Not necessarily. Given this man’s age, the inevitability and suitability of his death, and the essential nature of life on earth, there is in each of us the unspeakable conviction that we are well rid of him. His departure makes room for the living. Away with the old, in with the new. He is gone–we remain, others come.

Yet, he is not without capacity for finding the beautiful as well:

Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless.

As to his views on politics and society, I can only charitably call them curmudgeonly. He’s not a big fan of politics:

“Modern politics is expensive–power follows money.”

Or modern lifestyle:

“We are preoccupied with time. If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men.”

Or tourists:

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 see something, maybe.

Don’t worry, there’s something here to offend anyone. (Abbey would not deign to notice our outrage.)

While Desert Solitaire is certainly one of the seminal works of environmentalism, some of Abbey’s outdoor manners were a product of the era and shocking to those of us who learned and practice Leave No Trace ethics. Carving his initials in an aspen tree? Killing wildlife? Lighting a campfire in delicate backcountry? It’s enough to give his successor park rangers apoplexy–but very interesting as an illustration of how we learn to do better.

This is a book that I need to own, and reread. I suspect each time I open Desert Solitaire, I’ll find something new to make me long for harsh landscapes, or laugh out loud, or shake my head with a low “Abbey, you old coot,” or value the moments I have all the more.

Book Review – The Wild Muir: Twenty-Two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures

4 stars. John Muir was a monumental figure to anyone who loves the outdoors: naturalist, adventurer, preservationist, and skilled mountaineer. Muir re-enactor Lee Stetson compiled some of his most hair-raising tales in The Wild Muir: Twenty-Two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures. Stetson introduces each story with a paragraph that places it within the context of Muir’s life.

The stories follow Muir from his childhood in Scotland, through the hardscrabble family farming in Wisconsin, then to Florida, then California and Alaska. Most of the prose is from his books and letters, with occasional contrasting voices from his travel companions. The passages by others show that, if anything, Muir tended to understate the danger and adventure of his undertakings!

Muir’s love for nature comes through very clearly, and he had a gift for evocative phrasing. Stetson edited the text to remove some of the more lengthy descriptions in favor of the adventure theme, making this volume less contemplative than Muir sometimes is. I’m glad that I read some of this book by headlamp in a tent; it just seems made for that setting.

Illustrator Fiona King contributed gorgeous woodcut-style illustrations that are perfect for this volume.

Book Review – Stepping Wild: Hiking the Appalachian Trail with Mingo

4.5 stars. Phill Grounds left his day-to-day life behind in 2011 to hike from Georgia to Maine, and he tells his story in Stepping Wild: Hiking the Appalachian Trail with Mingo. He recounts the joys and difficulties of well over 2,000 miles worth of steps along the trail, as all-too-common momentary misery of rain, sore feet, colds, hunger, bugs, and the ilk became a life-changing trip through the beauty and challenge of nature.

Grounds’ narrative is direct yet expressive, able to easily put me in his well-worn shoes and describe what he experienced and thought. His informal prose conveys both detail and a sense of the grandeur and challenge of the AT. I also appreciated his no-nonsense personality when confronting people doing stupid things along the trail; etiquette and rules exist both for the safety and consideration of those enjoying the great outdoors and the preservation of the environment. His blunt retired police officer personality doesn’t disguise his love for his trail friends and his wife Deb, though!

Stepping Wild offers a treasure trove of information for hikers and backpackers. Grounds is brutally honest about his own mistakes and assumptions, and anyone planning an AT hike will benefit greatly from reading about his experience. More importantly, I gained a sense of the emotional and mental expenditure of taking a long trail. One point that I’ll do my best to remember is his discussion of how the moment tended to set his outlook: when he was miserable, he felt like every remaining step was going to be an ordeal and when he had a good day, everything left seemed easy. I also admired that was out there doing the hike for himself; “hike your own hike” is a frequent hiker saying, but I haven’t read a hiking memoir that brought it home quite like his.

Throughout Grounds’ story is an ongoing sense of the support necessary to hike the AT. Deb’s assistance and trips to meet him were invaluable. His trail friends encouraged and uplifted him, and it’s easy to see how deep bonds can form quickly between thru-hikers. The numerous “trail angels” lent a helping hand, a ride into town, or a cold beer at the end of a long day. And the support of those in hiker-friendly communities contrasted greatly with those who looked down on the disheveled, stinky backpackers.

I wholeheartedly recommend Stepping Wild to outdoor enthusiasts; it’s an easy and pleasant read with a lot to offer anyone who dreams of trails.

Thanks to Phill “Mingo” Grounds for sending me a copy of his book in return for an honest review!

Book Review – China Mountain Zhang

3 stars. China Mountain Zhang was an impulse purchase for me at the used bookstore, based on strong blurbs and reviews. Maureen McHugh’s highly acclaimed novel turned out to be a mixed bag of strong writing and characterization held back by a rambling and largely pointless narrative that has no resolution whatsoever.

All this has the effect that I generally liked the characters, but felt absolutely no engagement with their struggles and successes. It’s a book about a realistic and compelling near future in which some interesting-sounding people who go to engineering school, raise goats, have plastic surgery, and go out on dates.

One very large problem that I had with China Mountain Zhang is that the characters are all shaped by events rather than having an effect on the world around them. The characters can all be termed marginal in one way or another–gay, not beautiful, wrong ethnic background, refugee. They adapt to society by suppressing or changing what they are, and I found that theme of conformance pretty damn depressing. They largely avoid conflict after conflict in aimless fashion as they check off what society expects from them. And then it just… ends.

I did admire McHugh’s writing a great deal; she is intellectual without being pretentious or tedious and her descriptions are evocative. Her world concept of China being the dominant force in the world is interesting, and her presentation of Chinese culture is well-done–I wish I had read this novel before I had travelled to China a few years ago, as it would have increased my appreciation of the trip.

Ultimately, McHugh seems to be an author more in love with words and ideas than stories. This would have been a much stronger novel had the narrative been more focused and the conflicts and themes more compelling. It’s not a book that I regret reading, but it’s not one that delivers much pleasure or satisfaction.

Book Review – The Tecate Journals: Seventy Days on the Rio Grande

Inspired by a lifetime of living on the Rio Grande, Keith Bowden attempts to travel its full length from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico, using a combination of canoe, raft, and bicycle. The route is fraught with complications, ranging from low water to drug smugglers, whitewater rapids, those crossing the border illegally, high swells on lakes, winter weather, and pollution. The Tecate Journals: Seventy Days on the Rio Grande recounts his journey, telling of the people he met and what he experienced.

Bowden’s love for the river and the land on either side of it comes through clearly, without having to resort to extravagant language. The capsules of those he met are one of the most enjoyable parts of the book. The kindnesses he received from both Mexicans and Americans and the professionalism of the Border Patrol personnel stood out. Reading the dire warnings of his friends was equally entertaining. His encounters with those illegally crossing the border were touching, troubling, and even humorous in a couple of situations. I appreciated that his tone was compassionate towards those crossing and understanding of those whose job it is to enforce immigration and customs laws; he treated a very complex issue with care and consideration rather than the soundbite debate we too often see at the national level.

Bowden’s prose is straightforward, except for some occasional passages that stray too far into the minutia of how to canoe through whitewater obstacles. I felt kinship with his love of nature and solitude, enjoyment of a good beer, and his dislike of how loud and jarring civilization is. Clearly, this was a meaningful and personal trip to him, and he makes it easy to stand in his shoes and feel some of what he is feeling.

One curious omission that would have substantially improved the book is any kind of photographs. He mentions taking pictures several times; where are they? I found myself Googling some of the canyon names to get a feel for their beauty, and I can’t imagine he didn’t have a striking collection of pictures from the trip. Some pictures would have been very welcome.

The Tecate Journals was an impulse purchase for me, and one I’m glad that I made. Like all good travel writing, I was both entertained and educated by Bowden’s account; this book is a good choice for armchair travelers who don’t mind the rougher side of both humanity and nature.

Book Review – Beacon 23: Part 5: Visitor

5 stars. I got suckered in to the Beacon 23 series by Hugh Howey’s sparse and effective writing, thinking it was going to be an enjoyable tale about a man running from his past to the far corners of space. With the fifth and final installment, Visitor, Howey shows that the whole time he’s had a meaningful, epic tale in mind. Our beacon operator, Digger, must confront the greatest choice of his life, one with gut-wrenching impact. Howey’s talent for bringing this story home is remarkable, and I really enjoyed reading this as a serial.

Random Fridays #1


Random Fridays is a weekly meme hosted by Rebeca at “Books and Messy Buns”. Anyone can join, you just have to do the following:

  • Pick up the book you’re currently reading (or read last)
  • Go to this random number generator and insert the total amount of pages in your book
  • Generate a random number
  • Open your book in the page with number you got
  • Repeat step 2 and 3 but with the number of lines in that page
  • Your random sentence is the first sentence in the line with the number you got (it doesn’t matter if the sentence starts a few lines before)
  • Share your sentence, book title and author with the book community :)

Note: Please refer the host of the meme (Rebeca) in your own post and leave a comment down below with a link to your RF so all the participants can have a look and share their thoughts too!

My Random Sentence:

“We all travel the milky way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense.”

– page 116, The Wild Muir by John Muir