What Reader Should Look For In Outdoor Adventure Narratives (Bill Bryson, Cheryl Strayed, Jon Krakauer)
Outdoor adventure narratives are a cottage industry. And for good reason. A cursory look at history shows that the deepest yearning of humans is to move. “The great affair is to move,” wrote Pascal in his Pensees’s. “Complete calm is death.”Indeed, from our earliest time as a species, humans have sought to better their plight by perpetual motion, the Bedouins, Kurds, Aborigenes, to name but a few with this history. What’s more, we feel a compelling need to write about our lifetime journeys.
Just consider the popularity of A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, and Wild–From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed. Of course, with so many travel books written, some are not so good. The question is what distinguishes the good from the bad.
“It made me feel like I was there with you,” some people like to say about a good outdoor narrative. Indeed, every writer strives to impart this effect. However, some do it better than others. Personally, I think that what distinguished the above narratives was that they avoided the diary-style format. Having been both a long-distance hiker, as well as author of several hiking books, I have noticed that too much day-to-day recounting of events can have a deadening effect on the reader’s interest. Who really wants to read, “I woke up at first light. I went to the privy. I ate a pop-tart. I walked three miles. I took a break. I ate a granola bar.” Needless to say, after a few days of this, the reader wants to scream, ‘Get me away from this person’!
The best outdoor narratives, on the other hand, are full of undulations. They magnify the highs and lows of the journey and put everything into context. These writers tend to be very spare in recitation of daily events. Also, they look for a balance between educating and entertaining the reader. In fact, that is why outdoor travel offers such rich veins for writers to exploit–there are so many extraneous topics that the author can touch on to help carry the story. Just think of Bill Bryson’s entertaining, but informative, discussions of topics ranging from bears, to the National Forest Service, to the role of wilderness in American life. These topics weren’t directly related to his story; but they affected it and he segued skillfully from his daily activities to these wider topics. Indeed his wildly popular narrative on the Appalachian Trail is the book that we authors of hiking narratives judge ourselves by.
Like many writers, I have had enthusiastic Amazon book reviews in which the reader opined, “Better than Bryson.” Trust me–I take that with a grain of salt! What one can realistically hope for, however, is that they have a better story to tell than Bill Bryson, given that he skipped large parts of the AT, and did not meet as many other hikers as most people do. Of course that also points out just how staggering his talent is that he was able to write such a vivid narrative with relatively few experiences to draw upon.
Jon Krakauer did an especially great job of educating his readers–many who were people like myself who knew almost nothing about moutaineering–about the vagaries and vicissitudes of this life and death world of high-altitude drama. Of course he intermingled it with the gripping drama of summitting Everest, only to have nine people sucuumb to high-altitude sickness and die on the mountain. Nonetheless, the book has served to inspire many to travel to Nepal and attempt climbs themselves.
Cheryl Strayed’s story is especially well-timed for women are the fastest growing segment of outdoor adventure travel. She repeatedly takes the reader back to her travails growing up in a poor, broken family. She heads out alone on the Pacific Crest Trail–which more and more women do nowadays–as she is coming down from drug addiction, crushing divorce, and the death of her beloved mother. The book is a well-calibrated mixture of personal drama and struggle. But again, she does not overwhelm the reader with daily details. After all, the reason people read these book is because the writer is considered to have done something different. Too many humdrum details only make it seem more like a regular job back in the ‘real world’. It is worth noting that the word travel is derived from the word, ‘travails’, connoting beleagurement.
I have now written four outdoor narratives; sometimes I wonder which has been the more intense experience–the hiking or the writing! Honestly, I have often wondered how people could get so neurotic about clothes shopping, house remodeling, etc. But now I understand. You honestly feel like that book you are writing actually becomes a part of you. Readers develop their ideas about the outdoor world and various trails from the very words you write. In fact, the most powerful moments for me are when people write or come up to say that one of my books actually inspired them to get out and hike this or that trail. In a country with a 30% obesity rate, it actually makes me feel useful. Of course, I’m all too aware that people will tell you what they want you to hear, and that their true feelings may be different. That is one of the great things about online books; people now can voice their deepest feelings and opinions by writing reviews on Amazon. Indeed, I urge them to do just that (after reading my books!).
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail, Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago, and Getting High–The Annapurna Circuit in Nepal (2013). Walker, who is nearly 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.
Great insight, Bill. I’m addicted to trail books — have even written one myself (“Cascade Summer”) — but, as you suggest, the best go beyond being trail-winding travelogues.
Congratulations Bob on your book. I plan to check it out. Guess we mortals are condemned to a compulsion to tell about our all-out journeys.
Best of luck,
You hit the nail on the head. If a trail/travel book can inspire me to want to have the same adventure as the author, I know that it is a great book.
Skywalker, I just finished your AT book. It arrived one afternoon and I had it finished by the next afternoon. It was good, but I think what kept me interested was more that I was vicariously hiking it with you than with the narrative itself. it seemed you focused more on the the physical (cold, bears, logistics) than the mental or emotional or spiritual side of the equation. Amazon recommended “Appalachian Trials”, which I bought this morning to see if that fills in the gaps.
Mega surprised to find out you have THREE more trail narratives in print. My question to you, is, why should I pick up, say, the PCT narrative by you? How does it differ? Did you grow as a writer? Was the day-to-day experience vastly different from the AT? I’ve done trail running before and even though I’m in fantastic scenery, I am so focused on the run that the scenery gets short-shrift. When you’re thru-hiking do you really get to “stop and smell the roses” or does the intense drive to get miles behind you (in order to outrun the seasons) prevent you from doing so? I don’t recall you addressing that in your AT book.
Anyway, sense I’m rambling. So I’ll stop and let you address one or more of those questions.
AT thru-hikers are now entering the ‘root-canal’ phase of their journey, in seemingly endless Virginia. This is when they earn ‘their paychecks’. One foot after another. I’m very envious!
I had already read your first three books earlier this year. Last week I read Cheryl Strayed’s fantastic book and at the end of it just felt like I wanted to keep travelling in my mind and so started straight into your PCT account again, followed quickly by the other two. The only downside to these accounts, which I enjoy so much, is that they make me uncomfortably restless to be out there myself.
I have been planning for about nine years now, to walk the Camino next year (turning 50, son finishing school and leaving home etc.) but now am getting really excited about how close that plan is to becoming real. I was intrigued to see on somewhere that you have walked the Camino twice more since your walk with Gavin. Is that correct? Given that you first walked it in 2010, I am curious about what made it SUCH a compelling experience that you have made time to revisit it twice more in such a short time.
I will look for your Annapurna book now.
Thx for reading my books. And I certainly agree w/ you that Cheryl Strayed’s book was fantastic. I have blogged and tweeted up a storm for her. She represents the fastest growing segment of adventure travel–independent women. In fact, the population of PCT thru-hikers is up sharply this year, probably at least partly due to her.
The reason I called the Camino book, ‘The Best Way’, is simply because I have found it to be the best way I’ve ever found to travel. It’s a perfect balance of everything–struggle, socializing, spiritual, historical, culinary, vino, you name it. It is my favorite trail. And yes, I have been back twice, including w/ Gavin last year to do the Camino del Norte along the Spanish coast, as well as the picturesque Le Puy route in France. Having said all that, I actually value the Appalachian Trail and PCT journeys more for the simple reason they were much, much greater struggles.
Incidentally, if you see fit, a short review on Amazon (3 or 4 lines is plenty) of one of my books would be greatly appreciated. They are tremendously helpful to us new authors.
Thanks, Bill Walker