There are books that entertain us, and then books that change our lives. Know what I mean? Name yours. Tell me whose words have moved you, if only a line or two that helped forge your DNA.
Twenty-two years ago, on a sweltering, thunderstorm-wracked morning in central Indiana, I donned a black cap and gown and graduated from DePauw University. That school year, as I wrapped up an English lit minor in Asbury Hall, I came across a West Coast writer by the name of Gary Snyder. A pointy beard, a shiny earring, a mischievous gleam in his eyes. And when I think back to those first days with his poetry and essays in my hands, I finally understand what everyone means by the word bromance. I was smitten for the guy, that’s for sure. Head over heals. Lovestruck. And the object of my affection was old enough to be my grandpa—a cool, tree-hugging, seen-it-all grandpa who’d palled around with Jack Kerouac in the early days of the Beat Generation.
Imagine that. Imagine my heart swelling.
After reading “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” a poem Snyder had written in 1953 while firewatching in Washington State, I craved anything I could find by my newfound muse. He was a hero—a mountain-climbing Pulitzer Prize winner who’d worked with his hands as much as his imagination—and he stoked my fire for adventures out West. I had to go. In fact, I was more afraid of staying in Indiana than leaving it. It was that simple, that elemental. It’s as if reading his books were a pact: they remade me, and I knew I had to live up to them. I had to live up to the man I was becoming. So I read. I grew. I hit the trail.
The book that sent me packing? The Practice of the Wild, Snyder’s earthy, intellectual essay collection published in 1990, the year before I graduated from DePauw. Here’s a line a few pages in: “The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home.”
Pow! Like a cold cock. I read that sentence and was gone. Wild things and streams and boot-borne stories, rambling with a rucksack, then heading home—the ideas and imagery made my legs twitch. They’re twitching now, to be honest. And you can bet my Midwesterner’s sensibility veered straight out of suburbia and into the unknown, someplace grimier and soggier and gorgeous, where there were “mountains and rivers without end,” as Snyder wrote.
Of course, these kinds of tales often have a girl involved, and indeed there’s one here, a Hoosier gal who moved with me, though sure enough she broke my heart. Suffice it to say, we split up. Well, suffice it to say, she ripped my guts out, ripped them out and threw them into those mountains, the North Cascades, near Snyder’s lookout. But the experience made me light out for new territory—graduate school in environmental education—and my life changed all over again. As for books, they kept coming and coming, along with cold cocks and pacts and remaking myself. I could list a score of titles, if not more.
This is all my way of saying I’m in awe. I’m in awe that words can mean so much, that the words we read and the ones we write can shape the world so profoundly, if only the tiny world in our hearts. Maybe the words are the mountains and rivers, never ending, never failing us, even when we fail each other, even when we fail ourselves. Maybe they venture down their own trails, looking for someone to inspire.
We “learn the terrain.” We fall in love. Over and over again.
Your turn. Tell me a book that inspired you. Which writers do you carry in your rucksack?
Photo: Sampling huckleberries in the high country of North Cascades National Park. PAULA OGDEN-MUSE