When I first started getting into backpacking, I brought books along to read – and discovered that I did not have time/energy to read them, and they were extra weight. I became one of those backpackers who did not carry books, unless it was of practical use (i.e. a guidebook).
Last year, when I was out backpacking for more than a month, I changed my tune. I did not want to go a month without reading any books at all. Thus, I carried an e-book reader. And I discovered that reading books while on a long backpacking trip is awesome. On short trips (2-4 days) I will be too preoccupied with my new surroundings to want to read, but on longer trips, I need to sometimes give my mind a vacation, and books can do that very well. I find that intellectually demanding books are too much for me when I am on trail, but ‘mind candy’ books work very well. What works best are melodramas with good cliffhangers.
Then, a little more than halfway through my long hike, my eBook reader broke. By then I was so used to having a book on hand to read in camp that I did not want to do without, so I picked up the most interesting paperback I could on my next town stop. That was Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurty. It lasted until I reached Manning Park, where I dropped it off.
During my long hike in Southern California, I decided I was going to take paperbacks. I did not want to break another eBook reader, and unlike electronic devices, paperback books can be used as pillows (which turned out to be very handy). Naturally, I was only going to bring one book with me at a time, and then replace it when I finished reading it.
The first book I brought with me from San Francisco was Star Wars: Heir to Empire by Timothy Zahn. It was perfect. I was already familiar with the main characters (except Thrawn and Mara Jade) because I have seen the original Star Wars trilogy, which made it easier to read, like fanfic when you are familiar with the canon. However, it’s also fun to read, had the right kind of cliffhangers, and was more intellectually stimulating than I would expect from a Star Wars novel. Grand Admiral Thrawn is basically Sherlock Holmes, except he is evil, so this was basically a story about Luke Skywalker/Leia/Han Solo vs. evil!Sherlock Holmes.
I had a wide choice of books I could bring my San Francisco, but once I finished and dropped Star Wars: Heir to Empire, I was limited to whatever paperback books were available in whatever town I was in. This is how I learned about the selection of books available in various small mountain towns in SoCal. And these were the books I ended up with, in this order:
Danny, The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov
Perelandra by C.S. Lewis
Jack London’s Klondike Adventure by Mike Wilson.
With Danny, The Champion of the World, I almost had no choice. I picked it up in Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce. The hiker box which had all the books had been left out in the rain, which meant all of the books were moldy. Danny, Champion of the World had been put in the wrong place, which meant it was spared the rain. I otherwise would have almost certainly not picked a Roald Dahl book. But I’m glad I did. It has been over twenty years since I read anything by Roald Dahl, and it was nice to revisit him. In some ways, Danny, Champion of the World is a very good book, and I enjoyed reading it, but it also has substantial flaws, and I think that is why it is not as famous/popular as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach.
Riders of the Purple Sage is the only book I would have chosen to read even in San Francisco where I have an extremely wide choice of books to read. It is not a coincidence that I picked it up in Wrightwood, which has an awesome used bookstore – I had a very wide choice of books there. It was excellent reading for a hike in the southwestern United States. Even though I was hiking through SoCal, and the novel is set in Utah, it resonated with my everyday life – the characters were concerned about finding water, just like I was, they were concerned about slipping off a cliff, just as I was, they kept their eye out for cottonwoods (cottonwoods = water), just like I was, etc. A lot of the characters are also Mormon (it is set in Utah), and I was in the middle of the book as I went through a segment of the PCT called ‘Mormon Rocks’, so that was also thematically appropriate.
Big Bear Lake also had a used bookstore – ‘Bearly Used Books‘ – but it is much smaller than the used bookstore in Wrightwood, so my choices were more limited. I had a hard time deciding between The Shattered Chain by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Foundation and Empire. The tie-breaker was the fact that Foundation and Empire was slightly cheaper. It has been a very long time since I read any of Isaac Asimov’s fiction, and I had forgotten what it was like. In fact, the very last Asimov novel I had read was The Thousand Year Plan, an abridged version of the first Foundation book, and I had read it in 2003, in Italy (and the Vatican – I distinctly remember reading the book while I was in the Vatican). Methinks I will have to put the rest of the Foundation books on my to-read list.
Bonus: While I was in Big Bear Lake I also read Oku No Hosomichi and a few other travelogues by Basho (in English translation). I did not take it with me on the trail (too big) but it also resonated with me a lot because Basho also travelled a long distance on foot/by horse through relatively wild areas, and had a lot of the same concerns as long-distance hikers today. I’ve also been to a few of the places that Basho describes (Yamadera, for example).
The wonderful library in Idyllwild sells used books, but unfortunately, most of their books were too bulky to bring on trail, so my options were once again limited. If my choices were not so restricted, there is no way I would have picked Perelandra by C.S. Lewis. Yet, surprisingly, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it because it was so freaking weird. Here is the premise: Ransom is a devout Christian, so when God tells him to enter a coffin made out of ice, he obeys. God sends the ice coffin to Venus, and since God works in mysterious ways, he does not tell Ransom much – it is up to Ransom to figure out what the f*** is going on. Ransom then discovers that God has created a new Adam and Eve on Venus, except this Adam and Eve are way more awesome than Earth’s Adam and Eve, which means that if Venus!Eve succumbs to Satan’s temptation, it will be EVEN WORSE than what happened on Earth. However, since Ransom is a mere human being, he is not sure what to do about this. Meanwhile, C.S. Lewis waits for Ransom to come back to Earth (yes, C.S. Lewis is one of the characters in the novel).
While I disagree with C.S. Lewis about a lot of things, I am very impressed with his imagination, and I think it is a shame he ‘converted’ to Christianity instead of plunging into ‘madness’ and following his interest in the occult. If he wrote this kind of thing as a ‘sane’ Christian, imagine what kind of novels he would have written as an ‘insane’ occultist (though I suppose it is possible that if he outright pursued occultism rather than constantly trying to resolve the tensions between his Christian beliefs and his attraction to occultism, his imagination would have gotten less exercise). I also like George D. MacDonald, and appreciated the strong MacDonald influence evident in Perelandra.
Bonus 2: While I was in Idyllwild, I read the book Mountain Fire Momma: One Woman’s Story of Wildfire, Family and the Zen of Survival by Melissa Severa. I started reading it at a restaurant in Idyllwild, and then tracked it down at the library and finished it. It’s a poignant account of a woman with children who lost her home in the floods after the Mountain Fire in 2013. As a PCT hiker, I was very aware of the Mountain Fire because that had severely damaged the trail. Also, the writer lives on Apple Canyon Road, which is where I rejoined the PCT after Idyllwild. It was cool to go up Apple Canyon Road and know something about the people who live there, and to know more about the Mountain Fire.
My last book, Jack London’s Klondike Adventure, came from the bookstore run by the friends of the San Clemente library. “But San Clemente is nowhere near the Pacific Crest Trail” you say (if you know about California geography). True, but it was on the way between rural!San Diego county and San Francisco, and I stopped there for a couple nights. I was no longer hiking, but I wanted a book to read on the train, since the train ride from San Clemente to Oakland Jack London Square is loooooooooooong (I boarded the 6:56 am train departing San Clemente, and I did not arrive at Oakland Jack London Square until 10 pm – and then I still had to travel from Oakland to my home in San Francisco). And yes, I thought it was thematically appropriate that I was reading a book about Jack London when I was en route to a train station which is literally named after Jack London. I remember when the Jack London Square train station first opened up, I went to the opening ceremony as a kid, I think that is the first time I became aware that Amtrak exists, so it was meaningful for me to finally take an Amtrak train to Jack London Square. But I digress.
I got more out of Jack London’s Klondike Adventure than any other book I read on this trip, which is a good thing, because it was the only book I brought home. I had not realized that Jack London had such an interesting life. And now I want to go through the Chilkoot Trail, just like Jack London. However, unlike Jack London, I do not think I will carry 2000 pounds of supplies with me, or stay in the Klondike for a whole winter.
Some of these are books which I would have probably never picked up if my reading options had not been restricted, but in the end, that was an advantage. If I always have a lot of choice in picking books, I tend to pick the same types of books to read over and over again. And while none of these are my favorite books ever, I do think it was good for me to step out of my comfort zone and read something different.