My Favorite Books to Read While Thru-Hiking
We talk a lot about the “why” of thru-hiking around here. Knowing why we’re willing to go a week without bathing, day after day of being sore and beaten, is a crucial way to keep ourselves motivated. My “why” is complicated and multi folded, and I’ve tried to lay it out before. However, there’s one “why” I haven’t really talked about before that’s fairly simple, straightforward, and pretty self centered.
I thru hiked because I wanted to catch up on my reading list. (this may possibly be why I’m one of the slower hikers alive.) I listen to audio books almost all day, and start or end each day with a little traditional reading as well. (the Kindle app is a godsend for the book loving thru hiker – hundreds of books for no real weight!)
With this in mind, I’ve been giving some thought to my favorite titles to read while hiking. I should say I make no pretense to “the best books to read while hiking.” These only my favorites. You would certainly have a different list, feel free to post some of them in the comments!
Oh, and I don’t have any actual hiking books on here, because I generally don’t like to read them while hiking. I save those for when I’m home. So “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail,” “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk,” and of course “Appalachian Trials” aren’t on this list, but you should definitely read them anyways. Okay, with the ground rules in place, here we go!
The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – Okay, so this is cheating right off the bat by including the whole series as one book, stretched further because the Hobbit is less related to the rest of the series, but I can’t think of a set of books that more clearly locks into the mentality that filled me with the desire to thru hike. The wanderlust that typifies the story first of Bilbo then Frodo is exactly the spirit that made me leave a pleasant life in a cubicle farm to live in a tent in the woods. And just like those characters, I so often find myself wishing desperately that I could be sitting back in a comfortable chair, a cup of tea (or bourbon) in my hand, a pleasant book, a cat on my lap, and a pipeful of tobacco. Just like Samwise Gamgee I often can’t believe that I’m living in an adventure just like the ones I read about, and I wonder how my story will be told one day.
Dune by Frank Herbert – I have several miles to go before I can get to the next water source, and the pressure on my back tells me there’s precious little left in my camelbak. I take a slow and shallow sip from my drink tube, and I imagine a slick stilsuit on my skin as I repeat to myself, “God made Arrakis to test the faithful.” The story of Paul Mu’adib and his conquering of the galaxy is the classic hero’s journey, and I can’t help but enjoy a little more epic grandeur for the more monotonous hiking days that occasionally come by.
At the Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft – I’m standing in the White Mountains, a dense fog has overtaken everything in my range of view. Suddenly, I catch a shadow in the mist and I realize it’s a mountain peak I hadn’t seen despite it being only a few hundred feet away. Like a monster of the frozen past, it looms out of the clouds at me and I can’t help but wonder what creatures could live out here without the slightest suspicion of us lowly human creatures. Monsters that only venture out when they are called by the distant songs of the stars. When the silent mountain nights take me, I turn to Lovecraft to ensure I keep my sense of awe and fear and wonder.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – I was in the fourth grade when I was wandering around the tiny science fiction section of the small town library in Marion, Ohio and looking for something to read. I’d already read all the Isaac Asimov books they had and my mother had banned me from reading any more Star Trek books for a while. I stumbled across a copy of this book and it was an epiphany. As a poor kid in a middle of nowhere, I was captured by the story of bewildered Arthur Dent dragged kicking and screaming across the Galaxy, his home planet demolished by a construction crew and all he wanted was a cup of tea. Now that I’m that kid ostensibly grown up and further from my home than I’ve ever been before, I repeat this comforting story. At least I know I can eventually come home, even if Arthur never can.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau – I read an excerpt of Walden in the sixth grade English, and I was enamored with the idea of spending my life away from everyone never to be bothered again. It’s true that later biographers have pointed out that Thoreau was not so isolated as he gives the appearance of, but this mentality is certainly a kindred spirit and inspiration for many thru hikers.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle– Homesickness has been a recurring struggle for me while on my journey, wandering through strange places and weeks of seeing strangers and never coming to a familiar place. This story of Meg traveling the galaxy, with psychedelic sci-fi captures the sense of being completely loose of one’s moorings, while the deeply emotional conclusion captures the sense of loss I often feel from having left so much behind. We are all Meg in a way, and I can’t help but wish love was just a tesseract away.
The History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer – The wide sweep of history has always appealed to me. Seeing how we fit into the long ebb and flow of civilization. Susan Wise Bauer has a full series on human history, but this first one is my favorite for hiking, imagining myself a member of some forgotten Bedouin tribe wandering the wilderness. As the introduction states, she works to tell the story of history with a personal focus, losing dates to pay closer attention to the individuals that have made history what is. I also enjoy her world wide focus. I grew up in a small rural public school, so my history education was always western in its view, but in this series we get Asian and Indian civilization as well.
So those are some of my favorites. As I said, I’m sure you have your own and I’d love to hear them! Find me on GoodReads and let’s share some reading list ideas!
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