books

Laurel Falls by Henry Mitchell: book review

“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun, – a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal.‎”

 

– John Muir

 

If you’ve begun this review I’m assuming that, like me, you’re already in the Laurel and and the Laurel is in you. The third installment in The Benjamin Drum Trilogy couldn’t find it’s way into my greedy little hands quick enough. If you’ve read my reviews of either The Summer Boy or Between Times then you’re aware of my fondness for this Appalachian epic and it’s writer. I have resolved to, rather than ramble on with felicitations, let my words be few. Let’s let Laurel Falls speak for itself:

 

Eventually the day began to work into him and he let go of thoughts and puzzles and simply drank in the golden light, the piney air, the songthrong of
innumerable birds. He walked, shedding haste and urgency as he went, feeling the weight of the mountain moving up through his soles and ankles with each step, through calf and knee and thigh, through belly and chest and shoulder, until finally he knew himself a mobile attenuation of the constant presentiality of
the mountain. He stopped and stared long and often into the lovely and loving
faces of flowers, had leisurely and unwordful conversations with a bear, and two
wolves and a large cat he met along the way. All of them recognized him as
kindred soul, like them manifest of the soulfulness of the mountain they
traversed, strangers before their meeting moment, and forever after aware of
their eternal familiatude. The same mountain breathed in them all, the same sun
warming and lighting them all. The same waters quenched their common thirst, and if need be, the body of any one might nourish the life of another. One Soul
imagined them all. One Life sustained the becoming of every one. Crossing a
creek on stones slippery with drenched mosses, Talks To Trees heard the guttural gratings of Raven perched in a chestnut high above. He looked up at his face reflected in the corvidaes dark orbs, through Raven’s eyes saw himself tiny and foreshortened among the grounded leaves below. “I know you,” said Raven in his unspeakable tongue. “We are brothers bone and blood. ” Talks To Trees nodded and waved before walking on. “Yes, we are,” he said aloud to Raven, to the tree, to the path and the flowers and the light and the air and the water, to Owl wherever he might not be listening, to the boy and man pursued across times and worlds, “We are the same.” Once across the little stream, Talks To Trees strode away. He fancied he heard Li singing in the distance, but knew it to be earthsong, the music of the day. Before he took many steps, Raven called after him, “Brother two-legged, you are the Namer. What will you call this place of our sacred meeting?” Talks To Trees halted, turned, spread his arms wide and smiled as the word came to him across water and worlds and time. “Abalahci.” He laughed. “The Other Side.”

 

Did you read that?!

 

Did you?

 

If any passage has ever radiated the spirit of John Muir, this is it…and this is one small excerpt from a brilliant novel replete with beauty. Laurel Falls is the third book in the series…presumably a trilogy. If it ends here, it ends in resplendent glory…

 

Please don’t let it end here.

A Child’s Walk in the Wilderness – An 8 Year Old Boy and His Father Take on the Appalachian Trail by Paul Molyneaux: Book Review

Several years back, as my son Josiah was approaching graduation, I became enamored with the idea of he and I doing an AT thru-hike together.  One spring near the beginning of my infatuation, Dana, Josiah, and I inadvertently stumbled into that old stone CCC building at Wa-lasi-yi known as Mountain Crossings.  While Josiah and I were inside imbibing the magical atmosphere of this incredible outfitter Dana saunters in and informs me that she had just been on the AT. “What?! No way!”  Sure enough, the AT actually travels right through Mountain Crossings. Josiah and I burst into a sprint, ran out the door and raced each other to the back of the building where we saw our very first white blaze. Wonderstruck, we continued down the old footpath, blaze to blaze for a mile or so where we paused to let the moment sink in. Josiah climbed down from a tree he’d been sitting in, turned toward me and said, “Dad?…let’s keep going.” I’ll carry those words and that mental image with me till the day I die. How I wish we had.

Last week, with my REI dividend check in hand, I walked into our local branch intent on buying Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire or maybe The Monkey Wrench Gang.  They had neither. As I combed the shelves looking for my next adventure-read I saw something new. I picked up A Child’s Walk in the Wilderness, scanned a few pages and made my way to the register with my prize. Within the first 20 pages I was hooked…for an obvious reason. When the author’s 7 year old son had said, “Let’s keep going”, this father had the courage to say yes.

Though by far the most compelling, this was certainly not the only reason I was sucked in. A Child’s Walk is a great piece of writing. This isn’t Molyneaux’s first rodeo.  He makes his living by his craft, having previously authored two books: The Doryman’s Reflection and Swimming in Circles as well as writing for the NY Times and other publications. All this I borrowed from the back cover, but even without that info, his obvious skill shines. Instead of the typical linear narrative I’ve come to expect from books in this genre, this tale, like the hike itself, often folds back on itself, revisits significant moments and takes side trails for reflection and contemplation.  The author, whose marriage was struggling at the time of the journey, holds little back.  At moments raw in his honesty, you feel as if a friend is spilling his heart. He doesn’t try to put a pretty face on the abrasiveness of hurting people, including his own. Balancing this transparency is the wonder, curiosity and infectious, adventurous spirit of his son, Venado. It’s a joy to watch as a father who brought his little boy to the wilderness in order to educate him is educated by his little boy.

 
“This is why we are leaving now, my son and I, to go off into the mountains and walk the forests for days on end, to watch spring come and feel its warmth, to howl in the wilderness and remember possibilities.”

 

These words resonate deeply within me. In fact the Manifesto from which they are excerpted (page 34) itself gives voice to the very same cry from my own spirit. Molyneaux seizes upon McKaye’s concept of the Barbarian Utopia. It becomes for he and his son, not a mere literary device but a philosophy of living…a way of life…a way to life. Returning to wilderness to re-discover the life that “civilization” has stunted into mere existence.  Did it work?  Well, you’ll have to read the book for yourself.

The gist:

A father and his 8 year old boy take on the challenge of the Appalachian Trail. The author’s evident writing skill is enhanced by quotes from Benton McKaye and complemented by his son’s pencil drawn illustrations. One of my favorite AT reads ever. I didn’t want it to end. Highly recommend.

For more info visit:

www.doryman.com

or

 

www.facebook.com/pages/The-Barbarian-Utopia/361206760179?fref=ts

 

The Wisdom of Wilderness – Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature by Gerald G. May : Book Review

5 years ago I wasn’t ready to read this book. I was at a different place on my journey.  A place where phrases like “enriched by insights from Eastern religions” would have sent up red flags, raised an alarm in my pharisaical soul and brought about a slamming of the city gates to keep out the new-age-enemy of what I saw as a faith that needed defending and protecting. In those 5 years my expanding view of the love of God has penetrated, softened and enlarged my heart, deepened my intimacy with him and disabused me of these silly notions along with any agenda I may have clung to. I’m coming to believe that this Abba who loves me more than I could possibly imagine has secreted away in people of all ethnicities (and yes, even faith systems or lack thereof) facets of himself and pieces of his story for you and I to discover. Sort of a cosmic game of hide and seek. Because “God likes it when we place nice together,” as my friend Tom Conlon once said. If you’re at the place in the path where your guard is already going up in reaction to this statement maybe you’re not quite ready for this book…but then again, maybe you are.

From the foreword by Parker J. Palmer:

“Jerry May knew he was dying as he wrote this book. He gathered up all the life he could hold with words… as wild creatures gather food against a hard winter…and left us a book so well stocked with love and wisdom, tears and laughter, healing and hope, it can help all of us winter through.”

These poetic and heart-felt words say more about this book than I could ever attempt to. Let’s hear some more.  This time May’s own words from the preface:

“I am sick now. The prospect of my death is continually before me. My body is frail, my energy always at the edge of exhaustion. At the same time I am wilder than I’ve ever been before. My soul basks in wilderness, and I am grateful.”

Based on these excerpts one might be led to believe The Wisdom of Wilderness to be a depressing dirge, a dying man’s morose reflecting on the end of his days.  Allow me to dispel this misunderstanding without hesitation.  This is anything but. May skillfully and poetically weaves together a lifetime of adventure, laughter and wisdom into a raw, honest and triumphant ode to life as it is meant to be lived. He beautifully relates the healing God provides through wilderness (a healing that I myself continue to experience) while catching you completely off guard with irreverent stories that had me buckled over in spasms of gut-wrenching belly-laughs. He and his little boy’s encounter with a Korean Zen Master alone make this book worth the delightful read.

I can’t recommend The Wisdom of Wilderness highly enough. Though the library provided me with the version I read, I plan to purchase my own copy to place on the shelf beside John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis and others. They’ll find themselves in good company.  I’d have to guess they already have.

The gist:

The Wisdom of Wilderness is Gerald G. May’s swansong. This wonderfully written account of the healing nature provided for him through his beloved Appalachian Mountains deserves a place among the classics. You’ll laugh, cry (and laugh until you cry) and long to spend more time in the wilderness he so beautifully portrays. You may, like me, not agree with all of his theology but you’ll be moved by a life lived from the heart.  And who knows, maybe we’ll find ourselves a little further down the path. This book epitomizes what All Who Wander is about. Highly recommend.

Summoning the Mountains – Pilgrimage Into Forty by Amy Allen: Book Review

from the back cover:

“Hoping to rekindle the spirit of freedom she once knew, a divorced, single mother sets aside family and societies expectations to seek fulfillment by following a lifelong calling.  On the eve of turning forty, Amy Allen reaches for her personal goal of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Accepting the name of “Willow” bestowed by her teenage sons, she settles them into new lives at their father’s house and departs on a 2,000 mile walk.”

I’m a sucker for an AT narrative. I’ve read…dozens.  Recently in a gathering of AT thru-hikers I overheard the sarcastic midstream comment, “…and then they’ll write a book because what we need is one more book about the AT.” At this point, I injected myself into the discussion. “I think we do need another book about the AT, and another, and another. Personally, I can’t get enough.” When I started Summoning the Mountains, I thought I might have to eat my words.

I met Amy Allen at an AT festival in Dahlonega, GA. She stood smiling behind a small table covered with several small stacks of her book.  I was struck, at first, by the beautiful graphic design and if you can judge a book by it’s cover (I’m convinced that sometimes you can) this is one I wanted on my shelf. From the name and tag line to the font and color selection to the perfect cairn that adorns the cover I was hooked.  After thumbing through, I found the design continued throughout the entire book, very tastefully and enticingly done.  Amy and I talked for a moment and I assured her I’d be back to purchase a copy.

Later in the day, Dana, Josiah and I sat listening while Amy shared her story of her “pilgrimage into forty” and the role that her thru-hike played in that transition. Her meek, quiet voice was just what you might expect from her tiny, petite frame. We took in her photos of our beloved AT during her slide show presentation, empathized with the frustrations she encountered from not being able to completely leave behind her “normal”  life to focus completely on her hike and laughed along with her at the inevitable misadventures that are part and parcel of such a journey.  “To be expected on a trip of this magnitude” as a friend of mine is fond of saying. At some point we dropped by and picked up our book and pocketed it away for later.

That same night I snuggled down in my hammock, burrowed beneath my quilt as the North Georgia coyotes and owls began their nightly serenade, and began to read. A chapter or so in and I drifted off to sleep. Over the course of the next several weeks I picked the book back up but struggled to connect. It wasn’t the writing. It is a well-written, well-edited thru-hiker journal.  Had I finally had enough of such accounts? It certainly wasn’t the typesetting, as I’d mentioned already. It was the fact that Amy Allen was a 40 something mom, and I…was not. For this very reason, I have historically avoided most books by female writers.  There are certainly exceptions to this and the exceptions are most extraordinary (case in point?  Jennifer Pharr Davis)  but as a rule I’ve found that I don’t enjoy female writers and this had to be the source of my disconnect.  Having established this, I continued to read. Once I pushed past my gender bias, Amy immersed me in her story. Like most AT narratives (and most AT thru-hikes) Summoning the Mountains is not a thrill ride but instead a steadily plodding narrative, filled with hardships and happiness, punctuated by familiar landmarks along the Trail and made rich by the characters and friendships that grow along the way. Before I knew it, I was sucked in, pulled along for the journey, as if I were making my way north along with Amy and her cadre of companions. And this is why I read AT narratives. My own Appalachian pilgrimage is years away.  A mountain larger than Katahdin looms between Springer and I.  It’s name?  Mortgage. Until that mountain is conquered stories like Amy’s both sate my hunger and stoke the fires of my longing.

As Willow approached Katahdin (Oops, spoiler alert!) I shared her conflicted emotions. The summit she had longed for was finally within sight but the end of her journey was as well. I wasn’t ready for the book to end. Thank you, Amy for sharing your story and providing me a welcome reprieve from my mundane day to day…until my own pilgrimage begins.

The gist:

Summoning the Mountains is a 40-something mom’s well-written, well-edited and eminently readable account of her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Recommended. It took me there.

The Best Way: El Camino de Santiago by Bill “Skywalker” Walker – A book review…of sorts

“Really, babe, I think you’re gonna like him.  He’s a great communicator.”

2 years ago Scat and I had opted to hike from Woody Gap to Neels Gap, spending a cold night on Blood Mountain, rather than join the girls for the Amicalola Falls AT Celebration/ Backpacking Clinic.  I wanted to go to the event…just not at the exclusion of a walk in the woods.  While Scat and I trudged uphill through snowdrifts 2 and 3 feet deep, Dana and Ma Fred attended some great presentations. One of their favorites was Bill “Skywalker”  Walker.  Not just aware of, but sharing my addiction to AT narratives, Dana bought me a copy of Skywalker’s book, Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail.  She even had Bill autograph it. He wrote “Wayseeker, Katahdin is a mere 5 millions steps away.” Gotta love that! Like a kid at Christmas, I couldn’t wait to tear in. I quickly discovered that my high school diploma and limited college experience had not prepared me for the vocabulary I was to encounter…closely. Progress slowed to a crawl as I repeatedly reached for my Webster’s. Now, I realize that hackles are rising on the necks of Skywalker fans as you poise to fire off scathing e-mails. Well, let me have it…but at least finish this little review before doing so. I just didn’t enjoy it. I’ve been forthright about my sketchy education. I will most certainly confess that I have no right to pass judgment on another writers work.  Even that last statement implies that I see myself as a writer and makes me uncomfortable. Nonetheless…I just didn’t like it. C.S. Lewis has taught me that much…to be honest about my likes and dislikes. There were some good, even great moments but as a whole it was…and is my least favorite AT narrative. There, I’ve said it…and I pray Bill never reads this.

Flash forward to this years event. Digital recorder in one hand and event schedule in the other, I dragged Dana all over Amicalola Falls. (Not that she minded.)  Presenter after presenter entertained, educated and provided fresh new content for future All Who Wander podcasts.  We had a blast!  As I scanned the schedule I noticed something:  Skywalker’s presentation would be in support of his latest book and thru-hike…on the Camino de Santiago! What?!  I’d just discovered the existence of this ancient pilgrimage a year or so ago. I had waited impatiently for Emilio Estevez’ film on the Camino, The Way to come to Redbox since we had just missed one of the limited showings in Asheville. With my distaste for Bill’s writing warring against my confidence in my wife…we went…and were not disappointed.

Bill was absolutely charismatic.  His animated gesticulations, his passion for the Camino, his wry humor and engaging personality not only held my attention but struck fire to my imagination…enticing my heart to that ancient path and awakening a longing to walk this pilgrimage as well. My experience with the real Skywalker was as dissimilar to my experience with his book as it could possibly be. I thought, “Now, here’s a guy I’d like to share a trail with.”  I even began to re-examine my original assessment.

Just a few weeks ago all three of Bill’s books in Kindle format were free on Amazon.  I downloaded all three. I immediately dove right into his narrative on the Camino, The Best Way.  The very first couple of pages gripped me, It seemed so different from what little I remembered from his first offering.  I yelled to Dana, who was in  another room, “I like it!  This is really good!”  She laughed. Then I wondered…what changed?  Had Bill’s writing improved? Had he gotten an editor? Maybe.  Maybe it was the fact that I had met the real Skywalker and been captivated by his authenticity and his love for the Way. Maybe it was me that had changed.  Maybe both.

Well, since this is a book review…of sorts, I should give you my take.  The Best Way is part trail narrative, part travel guide, part history book and all Skywalker. I’d recommend that you pick it up on Kindle or some other e-reader format because The Best Way is also part vocabulary lesson.  Along with liberal splashes of espanol, Bill has continued his use of words unfamiliar…unfamiliar to me at least.  Whether Bill is trying to impress us with his expansive knowledge or he’s struggling to find words to express what can sometimes be almost inexpressible, I can’t say.  I can say that having a “close-encounter” with the real Skywalker has given me a whole new take on his books.  So would I recommend The Best Way?  Only if you’re willing to have a sehnsucht for hiking the Camino awakened in you.  (That one was for you, Bill.)