A Reader in the Wilderness

The White River Gorge, on the southeast slope of Mount Hood

One of the most strangely satisfying memories from my life was that of reading in the wilderness. Some years ago, perhaps I should say many years ago, I was hiking on Mount Hood, alone, headed east from Timberline Lodge, along the Timberline trail. The Timberline trail circumscribes the whole of Mount Hood, dipping down into each valley and then climbing up to each ridge around the base of the mountain, which like enormous natural buttresses seem to hold up the mountain.

One of these valleys is the White River Gorge on the southeast side of Mount Hood, and when on that sunny day I made it to the bottom of the White River Gorge I sat down to rest. I pulled out a paperback copy of the Penguin Portable Romantic Poets and as I sat there and rested I read the entirety of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life” (though I should note that the “entirety” of the poem is an unfinished work). It was, in retrospect, a sublime moment. The combination of the power of the poem, which I had not previously read, and the power of the landscape, came together in my mind and have stayed with me ever since. Reading that poem at that place at that moment made Mount Hood for me a symbol of the triumph of life, and I looked at everything during my hike a bit differently after that poetic revelation.

None of this was staged or scripted. Yes, I brought that particular book with me, and, yes, I went on that particular hike, but I had no plan to try to contrive a special poetic moment on the trail, I didn’t even know about the White River Gorge when I set out, and I had never read the poem previously (this is one of the advantages of taking an anthology along, whether of poetry or essays or what have you, so that you still have an element of choice even if you have taken only a single book with you).

I have a lot of cheap mass market paperbacks that I buy at used book stores. Whenever I see a classic in a small and compact edition I pick it up, because small and light mass market paperbacks make the perfect wilderness reading. Where there is no WiFi and one would not want to pack in a computer, a paperback book can still serve to keep the mind alive and active if you are the kind of person who likes to read, even in the wilderness, where some might assume that the scenery and the experience are sufficient, and require no human supplement.

Hells Canyon, on the Oregon-Idaho border.

Another occasion of reading in the wilderness also sticks with me. Mass market paperbacks are not only good for carrying in a backpack, but also in saddlebags, so when I went on a trail ride into Hells Canyon with one of my sisters I packed two very thin and lightweight books, Ethics by G. E. Moore (not the longer Principia Ethica, though this latter might have been a good book to take for its discussion of intrinsic value) and Axiomatics by Robert Blanché. I can still remember reading from both of these books by the flickering light of a campfire in a large meadow partway down into Hells Canyon. The entire atmosphere of Hells Canyon is still, to this day, infused in my understanding of those two books. Once you’ve heard the braying of wild burros echoing through the canyon you immediately understand why they have been called “mountain canaries,” and a memory like that imprints itself permanently on everything else associated with the experience.

I have also taken numerous paperbacks with me when I have traveled in civilization, that is to say, not in the wilderness, but as a tourist in the great cities and historical sites of Europe and South America. Thus it is that I have memories of reading the Enneads of Plotinus while waiting for a train in Holland, of reading Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge while riding the train from Innsbrook to Graz, of reading Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics while staying at my aunt’s house in Norway, of reading Sarmiento’s Facundo on the flight over the Andes from Santiago to Córdoba, and of reading, and carefully annotating with a paragraph-by-paragraph commentary, Spinoza’s Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect while in Amsterdam (in the yellow-covered Spinoza Selections edition edited by John Wild). I still have all of these books, except for the Sarmiento, which was stolen from me after my return from Argentina in 2010.