Happy Earth Day! 14 Books to inspire you to get back to nature

PCT crossing sign, south of Lake Tahoe

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “We need the tonic of wildness… We can never have enough of nature.”

As most of the country is under coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, and spring unfolds outside our windows, it’s not surprising to have one’s thoughts wander to daydreams of strolling through the woods, or visiting a favorite park.

Here’s 14 books that will get you outside — without having to leave your couch.

14. The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Locate Water, Track Animals—and Other Forgotten Skills

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Remember when you were a kid, and you’d spend all day out in the woods? Okay – maybe today’s kids don’t have those experiences, but growing up in the 1970s, I definitely spent hours and hours wandering around the woods in our neighborhood, and I knew some of them like the back of my hand.

Whether you have a dream of doing an epic thru-hike on any of the great trails of the world, or are just looking to find some new skills to learn with your kids (or for yourself), The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs will hook you in.

You don’t have to be Bear Grylls to get useful information from  this book, either. These are the kind of simple skills that any of us could find helpful in while camping or hiking, just for fun in our neighborhood, or even in a true emergency.

13. Reclaiming the Wild Soul: How Earth’s Landscapes Restore Us to Wholeness

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In Reclaiming the Wild Soul, author Mary Thompson explores how nature can help us on a mental journey. It is part spiritual guide, and part poetic call to head out to the wilderness to find what can heal our souls.

At a time when technology surrounds us and colors nearly every moment of our days, how refreshing to think about standing under an open sky or a rich canopy of leaves, away from the pressure and noise of modern life. This book can help you decide what kind of environment might match with you the best – deserts, forests, oceans/rivers, mountains, or grasslands. And once you’ve read it, you’ll be eager to find the time to commune with nature and soothe your soul.

12. The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

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Most of us feel recharged by nature – whether it’s something as epic as a thru-hike, a walk through a local park, or even simply getting to stick our bare feet into a small patch of grass.

But what makes us so happy to be out in nature? Why does it recharge us? In The Nature Fix, Florence Williams uses science and research to answer those questions and more – to figure out why nature just makes us happier. She talks about her own experiences as well as other studies, and talks about the importance of getting back to nature, and away from the bustle and noise of the modern world. Good companion reading to Reclaiming the Wild Soul.

11. Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping

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Americans love camping: whether it is truly getting away from it all, or “glamping” in more upscale accommodations.

In Under the Stars, Dan White explores why camping is so popular, and his adventures are both fascinating and hilarious. He discusses how politicians, poets, writers, artists, and outdoor enthusiasts influenced America’s parklands and camping styles.

Along the way, he also shares his own camping experiences, ranging from touching family trips to hilarious adventures. Make some s’mores and cocoa, and curl up with this book.

10. The Pants of Perspective

aaNew Zealand is a fantastic place to visit. The people are friendly, the attitude is laid back, and the countryside is gorgeous. So who wouldn’t want to see as much of it as possible?

Author Anna McNuff once represented Great Britain as a rower; these days, she is an adventurer and endurance athlete. In The Pants of Perspective, McNuff tells the story of running — that’s right, long-distance endurance running the equivalent of more miles than a marathon each day — along New Zealand’s rugged Te Araroa trail, which stretches 1,600 km across the North Island from Cape Reinga to Wellington, and then another 1,300 km along the South Island, from Ship Cove on the Cook Strait to Bluff, at the southern end of the island nation. (Think of it as the Kiwi version of the Appalachian Trail.) The book is funny and inspiring, and you just might want to lace up your own pair of sneakers and hit a trail after reading it.

9. The Most Beautiful Walk in the Wolrd: A Pedestrian in Paris

aa Yes, Paris is a city, and may seem an odd inclusion about getting out in nature. But since the focus in this book is about walking, and Paris is a city designed to favor pedestrians, I feel compelled to include it on this list.

John Baxter spent a year as a professional “literary walking tour” guide, and Paris is a city rich in artistic and literary history to be explored. James Joyce, Hemingway, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein — Baxter’s tales in A Pedestrian in Paris help bring this historical city to life, showing what inspired some of the greatest artists and writers of all time. If you’ve ever been to Paris, this book will take you back; if you’ve never been, you will practically feel as if you’re there.

8. Where’s the Next Shelter?

aaThere are many books about walking the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail; I’m going to skip A Walk In The Woods (which I mentioned in my last post) and Wild (which I didn’t enjoy reading), and tell you instead about some books about these two trails that I have really enjoyed.

In Where’s the Next Shelter?, former Marine Gary Sizer takes to the trail with two others, Lemmy and Megan. This book isn’t simply about the Appalachian Trail itself; it is about the bonding, the soul-searching, and the shared experiences of walking the trail from one end to the other. This book will have you laughing out loud often, and if you’re a fan of Bryson’s Walk, you’ll love this book as well.

7. Overweight, Undertrained, and Terrified: A Camino Diary

aaIrishman Connor O’Donoghue admits he isn’t the “average” person who attempts a thru-hike; in the opening pages, he admits his struggle with obesity, and wonders at times what he’s gotten himself into.

Having read several travel memoirs of walking the Camino de Santiago, I found most of them rather dry and straightforward. Perhaps it’s because the Camino is shorter than most thru-walks, and one is never very far away from civilization. Overweight, Undertraind, and Terrified is a bit different, mostly because O’Donoghue doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at himself. Sometimes you’ll groan at the obviousness of his mistakes, and at other times, he’ll have you laughing along with him. His persistance to complete the journey is inspiring. It’s different than your usual thru-hike book.

6. Whistler’s Walk: The Appalachian Trail in 142 Days

aa The motto of thru-hikers is “walk your own walk”, and nowhere is this better illustrated than when you get to reading several memoirs of the same trail, seeing how different people experience the same miles.

William Monk, a.k.a. “Whistler”, is perhaps a bit older than the average person who attempts an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. But he’s prepared for what he’s setting out to do, and in Whistler’s Walk, he takes you the full 2,189 miles, with all its ups and downs (mentally and physically) by his side, starting with preparing for the hike, to the final summit at Mount Katahdin in Maine.

5. On Trails: An Exploration

aaCompared to other books on this list, On Trails is a bit more cerebrial. It started when author Robert Moor was doing his own thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, and he began to wonder about paths and trails, how they are created, and why certain ones persist while others disappear.

So over the course of several years, Moor explored trails of all kinds, shapes, lengths, and varieties. This isn’t simply about building or maintaining what we think of as a path or trail through the woods; it is deeper than that. It will make you see and understand many aspects of our world on a different level.

4. Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail

aaWhat do you imagine yourself attempting at age 65? Would it including walking the entire Appalachian Trail – alone – and would you walk it three times?

Emma ‘Grandma’ Gatewood became a hiking celebrity in the 1950s and ’60s, being outspoken about the conditions on the still-young trail, which had opened in 1937. In Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, you’ll find out the story of the woman who is credited with saving the AT through her own words, as well as the memories of her family and hikers she met in her journeys. This isn’t your typical AT thru-hike memoir, and it’s an important piece of history for those interested in our national trail system.

3. Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart: An Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail

aaMention the Pacific Crest Trail, and most people will probably talk about Wild, which was on Oprah’s book club and was made into a movie. But for me, Carrot Quinn’s Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart was the much more interesting read.

It’s honest, frank, and at times emotionally raw. Her writing style grows as she does, traveling further north along the trail, trying to make the Canadian border ahead of the snow that ends most thru-hikers’ attempts. She’ll laugh and she might even make you cry.

If you want a book that is simply, “We got up, walked x miles, the trail was like this, the weather like that, I was happy to set up camp and get to my ramen noodles”, well, this isn’t that book. Break Your Heart is much more about the mental journey that a thru-hiker trakes along the thousands of miles of trail.

2. Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail

aaFresh out of college, Jennifer Pharr Davis wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, so she decided to take a walk: or more precisely, a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

She’s young, fit, and hiking solo, but she quickly discovers that attempting a thru-hike is much more difficult than she anticipated. Like every thru-hiker, she experiences a lot of growth along the way, and discovers she’s capable of much more than she originally thought.

It is also a story of “trail magic”, not only the little positive surprises that people give to thru-hikers, but the larger warmth of the trail community, and how it comes together when somebody needs help.

Pharr Davis has consequently gone on to being one of the leading female long-distance hikers, setting speed records for hiking the Appalachian Trail. She has written two follow up books, Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph, and The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience.

1. The Last Englishman: A 2,640 Mile Hiking Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail

aa Englishman Keith Foskett has written four excellent, award-winning books about long-distance hiking, covering the Camino de Santiago, the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and walking across Scotland. Picking one as the ‘best’ is a bit challenging; so I’ll go with the first of his books that I read – The Last Englishman.

Foskett’s writing is funny and spirited, and you can picture yourself on the trail with him. Additionally, unlike most PCT memoirs — which seem to lose any enthusiasm for details by the time the author hits Oregon — Foskett has a lot of adventures in Oregon and Washington, and he “hikes his own hike” in order to finish his thru-hike.

If you enjoy The Last Englishman, check out his other hiking tales: Balancing on Blue: A Thru-Hiking Adventure on the Appalachian Trail; The Journey in Between: A Thru-Hiking Adventure on El Camino de Santiago; and High and Low: How I Hiked Away From Depression Across Scotland.

California dreaming – the beginning

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Among the Dalai Lama’s 20 Instructions for Life, the following is a great favorite among those who love to travel:

“Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.”

Travelers love this quote because it seems a natural rallying cry to get in a plane or bus or car and journey someplace new, and I’m sure that’s part of what is meant. But the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Esphesus once said “δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης“, which can be interpreted as “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

So going someplace “you’ve never been before” can mean going someplace within your own local city. It means to take a new look at things, find a new viewpoint.

And oh yes, sometimes that means going very far away.

California for me is a place that I’ve been often – I even got to live there for one short, wonderful month for work – and yet even in revisiting familiar places there, I seem to always find someplace new to see.

My first trip to the Golden State was Memorial Day weekend back in the mid-1980s. It was the infancy of the budget travel era: travel agencies were still strong, and booking travel over the phone meant you still had to go to the airport and pick up a paper ticket. Sites like Travelocity were a decade away. Bargain-conscious travelers still kept a keen eye on the Sunday travel section, and the really smart ones signed up for the new frequent flyer programs that airlines were rolling out.

People Express Airlines was offering $198 round trip fares from coast to coast, and my father thought that was a pretty good price. So after school that Thursday, my brother and I got on a flight at Bradley International, and flew out to meet our father in San Francisco. My brother, at 6’2″, was tall enough that he couldn’t bring the seat-front tray down over his knees, because People’s Express was more like Cattle Car Express, and leg room was at best a vague daydream. We balanced both of our in-flight meals on my tray (remember when passengers got fed on any flight over 3 hours?) and arrived at SFO around 1 a.m.

We spent that first night – partial night, anyway – in a $19/night dive of a hotel not too far away from the airport. We jammed a chair under the doorknob (just in case), and in the morning, there was a guy nearly-naked in the parking lot (save for his skivvies) screaming about being robbed. Let’s just say that despite some of the more (ahem) “colorful” locations our family stayed over the years in my father’s never-ending quest for the best travel bargain, none of them were ever bad enough to get him to stop searching for amazing deals.

California is a big state, and if you told somebody you only had three or four days to spend there, they’d probably advise you to concentrate on one thing, and not worry about the rest of the state. But not our family, oh no. My father was a salesman for many years. But despite spending all his time on the road, he would usually do the same on vacations: drive a lot. I used to think that perhaps secretly, in his head, he was aiming for some kind of entry into the Guinness Book of World Records. Most vacation miles driven before the rest of the family goes bonkers.

We started Friday morning by driving down the coast via Santa Cruz to see the famous Seventeen-Mile-Drive. The weather was nice in the city, but got foggy further down the coast. On returning to the city, we went to a few of his favorite places in the city, like Cliff House and Fisherman’s Wharf. I enjoyed what I saw of the city thus far.

I fell in love with San Francisco that first evening. Oh, sure, I’d enjoyed seeing the waterfront, Lombard Street, and so forth; they’re tourist destinations for a reason. But that night, we headed up to Chinatown, for dinner at the iconic Empress of China (which, sadly, permanently closed this past winter).

At the time, the Empress was different than any Chinese restaurant I’d ever been to. It was upscale, and it was elegant; it sought to present authentic Chinese food, not just Americanized chop suey. We had a table close to one of the windows, and I’ll admit I spent most of my time looking out the window at the Transamerica Pyramid, which looked close enough to touch, and enjoying the panoramic views of the sunset across the city and the bay. I know I ate soup that night, but can’t remember too much else of what I had, because I was so in love with that show outside the windows.

We headed a couple streets over to catch a cable car back to our hotel, and one of the historic cable cars came clanging down the hill towards us. Half a dozen happy, excited people dressed in black tie and brandishing champagne bottles were hanging off the side of the cable car, shouting joyfully at people on the street that they passed. I don’t know what their cause for celebration was, but that was the moment I knew I loved San Francisco: this bright, colorful, fun, magical, photogenic city.

(Related side story: In 2006, I was in San Francisco for the Browncoats Ball. I, in my magnificent gown of bronze and black, and my companion, in a full dress kilt, got on a cable car for the ride up Powell, and naturally, I couldn’t help but remember that night from 21 years before – and of course, I hoped that we were giving some tourist the same fun and happy memory that I had made on my first visit!)

On Saturday morning, we drove north out of the city, picked up breakfast in Sausalito, and had a brief stop at Muir Woods, where he told us, “I’ve seen it before. You guys have 15 minutes, I’ll be waiting here in the parking lot.” My brother and I didn’t rush, and got 25 minutes out of it.

Next, we visited a couple of his favorite wineries in Napa as we headed east during the late morning/early afternoon. I was fourteen at the time, but was often mistaken for 20 or 21. I’d been on my first trip to Europe just a month before, and guys at least three times my age had regularly hit on me, so it was no surprise that tasting room clerks regularly assumed I was of age. Back then, even though the National Minimum Drinking Age Act had become law barely a year before, being asked for ID was a rarity. Samples were more generous, too – usually full glasses – and few wineries had a tasting fee of $3, which often meant taking the glass with you as a momento. (For the record: no, I don’t recall tasting any of the wines on this trip. But I fell in love with wine country young!)

By late afternoon, we’d made it out to Lake Tahoe. He liked skiing the area; my brother and I associated it with Squaw Valley, former Winter Olympics site. It had been a long day of driving, and as we were heading down 395 into Bridgeport, the sun was just sinking behind the mountains. Golden sunlight lingered over the indigo shadows below, the twinkling lights of Bridgeport the first town of any size we’d seen in two hours.

It would be more than twenty years before I’d come this way again, and the darkness hid the beauty of the drive between Bridgeport and Mono Lake. More recently, I’ve been there twice in the past five years, and it’s a great route, especially when the mountains are rich with autumn colors.

Sunday was all about Yosemite. We drove up the gut-clutching road to Tioga Pass (I was seriously glad we wouldn’t be leaving the park by that same road), and found out we were really in luck – there’d been an extra-heavy snowfall that past winter, and this entrance to the park had just been opened a couple days earlier. We drove past cuts through the snowpack that looked like layers of a cake. The high meadows were brisk and we could see our breath in the shadows – a few thousand feet lower later, the valley floor was a different experience, warm and balmy. The iconic valley waterfalls were in prime shape, loaded by icy-cold snowmelt waters.

Yosemite is a treasure, the type of place that you hope everybody can experience at some point. But its beauty and popularity also means that as the years go on, it gets more crowded. The valley was busy then; but these days, traffic can be as clogged as city driving on summer weekends. We were out of the park and down in Sacramento by late afternoon. Our last sunset was enjoyed in the tiny hotel pool; our flight back to Connecticut left at 6 a.m. on Monday.

My father’s philosophy towards travel was to see as much as possible on trips because, as he put it, you never knew when you might pass that way again. If you didn’t, well, at least you could say you’d been there; if you did, you’d had a previous taste, and knew what you’d like to explore more. I’ve learned in my travels that this approach may not always be 100% perfect, but it certainly has colored my travel experiences over the years.

I’ve been back to California many times over the years: sometimes for work, and mostly for pleasure. No matter how often I visit, however, it never feels like the same place twice – even if I’m driving on familiar roads. There’s so much more of the world to see, I know, and I’ll get there eventually. Because even if you’re traveling to someplace new, you always will have a favorite place to visit.