(I)t’s nice to have something you can hold and actually touch.9-Year old Lucia Olson, speaking of her neighborhood newspaper
When I first started hiking alone in my early twenties, I was much more miserly about the weight of my pack than I would become in future years on the trail. Equipment was substantially heavier than it is today, so I deliberately left behind anything I thought to be a luxury, including a book. I did carry my journal, a small spiral bound notebook in which I recorded my impressions of precious days on mountain trails. I had been keeping a journal since I was twelve years old, so its importance in my pack was undisputed.
I used it, among other things, to record descriptions of wildflowers I was observing on my journeys. When I returned home, I would grab a field guide from off the shelf and try to identify the particular flowers I had studied so carefully on the trail, but invariably I missed some essential feature in my plant description and was unsuccessful. There was nothing to be done but to carry a field guide with me, and once I had broken that barrier, it was no trouble at all to add a paperback novel for rainy days in the tent.
My interest in flowers rapidly exceeded the collection of photos and descriptions in Wildflowers of the Cascades and Olympics, a book I had purchased at the visitor center one summer at Hurricane Ridge. When the Washington Native Plant Society published a reportedly complete collection of native species, it was a much larger paperback than I was used to carrying, but I did so anyway. The volume received heavy use and eventually had to be held together by two sturdy rubber bands. The pages were dog eared, and in the margins of the text were notes I made about particular flowers, where I had made a positive identification, and the date.
It was not long before my interest in flowers had grown to all things wild: trees, mushrooms, mammals, birds, even the weather and geology of the places where I hiked. The weight of knowledge I carried with me was rapidly exceeded by the heaviness of my pack as I added different field guides. I was somewhat judicious. I knew I could not carry every description and photo of every plant and animal I would encounter, so I tried to select the field guide I thought would be most useful, but always there would be that exclamation as I came upon something new and wonderful: “I wonder what that is,” and alas, there would not be the proper field guide along to find out.
My friend Jan still laughs when she tells the story of arriving in camp one sunny afternoon and watching me begin to pull books out of my pack, like a magician removing rabbits from the hat, one after another. I did not stop until I had taken five books out of the hat: two field guides, two novels (in case I finished the first one), and my journal of course.
I was delighted when I found Natural History of the Pacific Northwest Mountains by Daniel Matthews, who reportedly wrote the first edition by candlelight in a cabin in the Oregon Cascades. It covered everything from butterflies to fish to mushrooms, and there was even a chapter entitled “Other Creatures” in case something had been left out. This one volume lightened my load by two books. I still had to carry the two novels and my journal. When I moved to Wyoming I was pleased to find a Rocky Mountain version of the book by the same author.
Both of those books still go with me on the trail, but thanks to the wonders of digital media I can carry field guides, novels, poetry, all of them now fitting neatly into my pocket. Given my fondness for reading you would think it was an easy adjustment, but I am also fond of the books themselves, and I miss the satisfaction of holding a book in my hand when I am on the trail, something younger readers may find hard to comprehend. Even the smell of the pages and the covers are satisfying to me. I have also found it to be much more challenging to look up something in an e-book without the feeling of leafing through the pages…real pages. In my phone I have every field guide but one, the guide to slime molds, which is unfortunate, since they are about the most amazing thing that ever slipped along the surface of the planet. Trust me on this. I read it in a book.
There is one real book that still goes with me wherever I go, my journal. And like so many pieces of equipment, the old Papermate pen that accompanies the journal is still in my pack. It is a real world out there with butterflies and fish and mushrooms and even “Other Creatures.” I want to live as close to that real world as I possibly can.