Mind, text, wilderness—I’ve long been fascinated by their interactions. Specifically, I’ve been fascinated by what happens when we lug books into nature, when we situate our reading within a context of more-than-human energies, when we rest the butt on a barnacled rock or driftwood bench and fill the brain to brimming: sentences, crying birds, definitions, slanting light.
My inquiries into this realm have ranged from spiritual bike tours with Basho and Thomas Merton to arduous ski expeditions with Sir Ernest Shackleton and Gretel Ehrlich. To desert rambles with dusty anthropological monographs. To marshy paddles with iambic pentameter. Hmm, what should I bring this time, I find myself wondering, staring at the bookshelf in my basement, the bookshelf that is literally three steps from a rack of camping equipment.
Occasionally, the answer is obvious—think of Muir’s My First Summer In The Sierra for a Yosemite pack trip, Powell’s The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons for a Grand Canyon float. More often than not, though, the possibilities overwhelm a nerd like me. The Tetons with Mardy Murie are not the Tetons with Isaac Asimov, and the Owens Valley with Mary Austin is not the Owens Valley with Roger Tory Peterson, Kurt Vonnegut, or Geoffrey Chaucer. Sometimes, confused to the point of paralysis—Henry Beston’s The Outermost House is about Cape Cod, but I’m planning to kayak the Maine shore!—there’s only biting the bullet and hoping for the best.
Cut to the Olympic Peninsula’s foggy gray beaches, a thin strip of sand bordered by nearly impenetrable rainforest on one side and wholly impenetrable ocean—ranks of tiered breakers—on the other. Twenty-two and tromping solo, I assumed that a week at the intense edge could make me—well, honestly, I didn’t know what I wanted from the outing. Perhaps it was visceral contact, the tang of salt in my soup? Perhaps it was an elemental scouring, a cleansing of too many months spent indoors, worrying about fame, glory, power, and how to pay the rent, how to afford pinto beans? Whatever the case, I figured Kerouac’s Big Sur, with its Pacific coast reference in the title, ought to make for suitable bedtime snuggling.
Snuggling? Did the fool really say snuggling? Turns out I was wrong, very wrong indeed. Lying in my damp, gritty tent a mere dozen paces from the thrashing water, I discovered that Big Sur documents Kerouac’s descent into alcoholic insanity, what his pal Ginsberg described as “paranoiac confusion.” Furthermore, the story culminates with a dissonant aural hallucination, a poem that is essentially the author’s inebriated ear submerged in surf, fishing for lyrics.
“Josh——coof——patra—— / Aye ee mo powsh——”
Um, beg pardon?
“Ssst——Cum here read me—— / Dirty postcard——Urchin sea—— / Karash your name——?”
For five days I stumbled through frothing foam and mazes of mist, encountering only seals and crabs, and for five nights I listened to shrieking schoolchildren, bellowing monsters, eerie techno-symphonies, the incessant rush and rip of tides. To my dismay, the Kerouac forced consciousness into an inhuman chaos of waves, sans wetsuit. I heard voices: fluid voices, crazy voices, inner voices blending with outer voices. Voices nonstop.
I suppose that Big Sur was, in a sense, the ideal book, an echo of the ocean’s severe strangeness. But “ideal” is after-the-fact talk, armchair-philosopher talk. During the actual hike—gulp—I was immersed, in over my head, frantically swimming. Come 3 AM, tossing and turning, dreaming that I was drowning, I would have given anything for the dry, soothing logic of a toaster oven manual or the buoyant minutiae of a treatise on Florentine jurisprudence.
Which leads to questions. You were after a raw vivid encounter with place, right? So why flee? Why seek the safety blanket of distracting prose, that soft fabric woven of familiar syntax? Why not embrace the sloshy weirdness of Kerouac’s scribbling or, better yet, eschew language entirely? Why not skinny-dip? Why not bare yourself?
Simple answer: easier said than done. I’m a human, a social animal, and language is my home. What’s a tent but a portable domicile, an attempt at carving from the rugged backcountry the skimpiest of hospitable alcoves, a means of getting close but—aye, there’s the rub—not too close to the capital-O Other? Maybe a book is just a different form of shelter, a paper-and-ink tent, a balancing act, half retreat and half forward march?
For all its magnetic attraction, for all its ancient mysterious allure, the ocean is simultaneously hostile, horrible, repellent. I love it. I hate it. I want more of it. I want less of it. Sure, we may have crawled from the primordial soup untold millennia ago, but that doesn’t mean the gargantuan surging thing is Mommy. Nope, the great untamed and untameable Other is not a parent, at least not in my experience. It doesn’t tell stories that begin Once upon a time and conclude Happily ever after.
Mind, text, wilderness—odd, odd, odd. At the continent’s margin, there are only those scraps of literature we import. Those scraps that a part of us wishes will be washed away, taken out to sea. Those scraps that another part of us clings to with a fierce, grateful, terrestrial grip.
Leath Tonino is the author of two essay collections, both published by Trinity University Press. The Animal One Thousand Miles Long was published in 2018, and The West Will Swallow, from which this piece has been adapted, will be published in November 2019.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative nonfiction for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines.