Keeping in touch with the world of words on-trail

That store-bought white is pure,
Not destined to endure
The hiker’s daily flood
Of sweat and dirt and mud.
Some grimy, smelly blight
That ten washings will not smite.
So radiant garments gray;
Nothing white can stay.

People who know me well know that I can sling cute poetry all day. The above is one of my efforts from the AT, and the only one that I bothered to record in my own journal. The rest were scattered in trail logbooks up and down the East Coast, and those don't end up in a centralized location, so they're basically lost and I don't remember any of them anyway. It turns out that someone out there thinks a lot like me, because there was a poem posted on WhiteBlaze a while ago called "Sand and Snow" that was a takeoff on "Fire and Ice," also by Frost.

I remembered a few days ago that I had written that little ditty and it got me thinking of how I handle literature while I'm hiking. The practical concern of weight infuses every decision: most thru-hikers are not willing to carry long books because they're heavy and don't pack well. I'm no exception. When I was on the AT, I didn't really have the urge or necessarily the attention span to be caught up in a novel most of the time. I did finish a few, but what I really needed--and what I pretty much always need, and always come back to if I'm away for it for any time at all--is to see the English language wrought by a skilled artist from time to time. The form in which this is accomplished is immaterial. Long-form feature articles, poems, books, well-crafted entries by the anonymous wordsmiths who wrote in trail registers before me--on the AT, I ate all of these up as they became available to me. Kristin sent me articles that she knew I'd like from The Browser's Best of the Moment feed, printed out in 8-point font and squeezed onto a few sheets of printer paper. I'd read them and then either pass them on to someone else or burn them in a campfire. This worked well, but that was in the Paper Age and I was limited to hard copies for anything I wanted to read.

Fast forward two years and I now own a smartphone and a Kindle. My strategy for reading on the PCT was originally going to be to pack the Kindle, but I decided against it because it's of limited utility to me. To a voracious reader who inhales whole novels every few days, an e-reader absolutely transforms hiking. But for me, I just need to sip from the well of the English language often enough to keep my mind from shriveling up. Therefore, I just have two items, The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry and a Complete Works of William Shakespeare, synced to the Kindle app on my phone (no novels: reading those on a phone would be too eye-intensive). There should be plenty to chew on within those, especially in the opening sections of the hike when I'm too excited to concentrate on books before bed. Maybe later when I calm down and the novelty of the trail existence has worn off, I'll want to sink into novels and I can have the Kindle shipped to myself.

One thing that I look forward to in this setup is the chance to memorize poetry, which is something I used to do more often but haven't undertaken since high school. Someone in the New Yorker wrote a piece recently on the virtues of memorizing poetry but, in a move which will just shock readers of the New Yorker, he did not actually explain any of the virtues, instead finding several ways to state that it's something he's done a lot of and enjoys. I, similarly, can't come up with a good reason for doing it other than that it comes somewhat easily to me and I like it. I do know that it would make for great mental exercise while hiking. For instance, iambic meter is just crying out to be recalled at the rhythm of one's own footsteps: "When IN disGRACE with FORtune AND men's EYES"; "To STRIVE, to SEEK, to FIND, and NOT to YIELD"; "ToMORRow, TO fresh FIELDS and PAStures NEW" and so on.

I've heard that people who hike with FM radios develop lifelong trail associations with the popular songs from the summer of their thru-hike. I didn't even have a radio, but I will never again be able to hear "Strawberry Wine" without thinking of Manks and Perro in Connecticut on the AT in 2011 ... it's a long story. Who's to say poetry couldn't function the same way? If I decide to have a go at memorizing "If—" one sunny afternoon in the Sierra, I would probably remember that sunny afternoon every time I see or think of that poem for the rest of my life. Not bad.

I will close with this unrelated funny story about books and hiking:

In recent years, there have been a lot of Germans on the AT after a National Geographic-esque thru-hiking documentary was made auf Deutsch. One such German was on the trail in Virginia one day in 2011, cleaning out some books and magazines that had been left behind at a shelter. He had just started a campfire and was right in the middle of tossing one of the books into it when his friend (American) walked up and, without missing a beat, said, "Oh, you guys still do that?"