September is National Wilderness Month, celebrating the vast areas of forest, desert, mountain and wetland that stretch across our country. Early fall is a great time to get out and see the changing leaves, the last of the prairie flowers and the migrating birds. The adventures undertaken in the books featured below, however, were rather more extreme than a walk in the woods.
There are numerous accounts covering all the aspects of Lewis and Clark’s journey west, but nothing quite compares to seeing what they wrote as they experienced it. They kept meticulous journals of their experiences with the people, animals and plants they came across and the incredible trials they faced. The writings are collected and edited into a single volume entitled “The Journals of Lewis and Clark.” If you would like something with more narrative structure, go for Stephen Ambrose’s highly acclaimed “Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.”
Even before becoming president upon the death of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt was an energetic overachiever. In fact, he hadn’t even wanted to become vice president, because he thought it would be too boring (the United States’ second-in-command didn’t carry nearly the responsibility it does now). Edmund Morris’s epic trilogy of his life begins with “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” tracing his years as a sickly child, becoming a published author at age 18, a candidate for New York mayor, the leader of the Rough Riders, eventually becoming a war hero and then governor of New York at the tender age of 39. He finally became vice president at age 42. He was out in his oft-visited wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains, 12 miles from the nearest telegraph or telephone, when a park ranger was sent to find him when it was clear president McKinley would die from his gunshot wound. This love of America’s natural landscapes led Roosevelt to oversee the creation of the first national parks and forests during his presidency. In “Theodore Rex,” Morris details the work Roosevelt did as president, and completes his story, including expeditions to Africa and South America, in “Colonel Roosevelt.”
In the case of Lewis and Clark, they traveled to the wilderness to find what was out there, whether human or beast. For Cheryl Strayed, it was to rediscover herself. After losing her beloved mother to a brutal battle with cancer, Strayed’s marriage collapsed and she began to experiment with drugs to dull her emotional pain. At age 26, in a last-ditch attempt to get her life back, she embarks on a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail with little experience and far too many supplies. In “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” Strayed takes the reader with her through perilous situations involving bad weather and fellow hikers, incredible physical discomfort and insights about life and what it means to be a human being, both flesh and spirit.
In a much more tragic and puzzling case, young Christopher McCandless ventured into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 to test his ability to survive. Unfortunately, his body was found four months later, in an abandoned van in the middle of nowhere. Journalist Jon Krakauer investigates what went wrong and why he went in the first place in his book “Into the Wild.” Many have debated whether McCandless was a bright young idealist, or merely naive (or even stupid), but Krakauer goes deeper, to see how he was following a millennia-long tradition of leaving the company of other people to discover one’s true self.
Another man went up to Alaska by himself but was able to survive and even thrive: Dick Proenneke is featured in a series of films, now available on DVD titled “Alone in the Wilderness.” Proenneke built a cabin with basic tools from lumber he gathered from the surrounding area, hunting and fishing and gathering for food. His daily life and thoughts on leaving civilization were recorded for posterity and make for fascinating television.
September is also National Library Card Sign-Up month, so if you don’t have one, now’s a great time to get the most valuable card in your wallet.
LAUREL M. HALL is the adult services coordinator at the Brainerd Public Library.