The Quest

With the holiday season already far in the rear-view mirror, and the joys of summer still months off, I’m deep into winter escapist reading. This season I seem to be drawn to books about people on quests. Whether it’s for healing or wild edibles, each writer I’ve engaged with has taken me along on a fascinating journey of discovery. Here are three titles that will set your mind wandering:

The Mushroom Hunters cover imageThe Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of Secrets, Eccentrics, and the American Dream  (Langdon Cook)This title is a great fit for foodies, hikers, lovers of the Pacific Northwest, and those who appreciate investigative journalism that takes you deep inside the story. I enjoyed traveling off the beaten path, literally and sometimes legally, with Cook and his group of wild food foraging contacts. This is a good book to pick up if you’re the type of consumer who is interested in where your food comes from and why it costs what it does. I found it remarkable that items that you can find at any upscale market reach the selling table as a result of so many moving (and potentially unreliable) parts.

Fairyland cover imageFairyland: A Memoir of My Father  (Alysia Abbott). In some cases, quests can be taken without traveling at all. In Fairyland, author Alysia Abbott journeys back into her unorthodox childhood using her father’s prodigious journal archive. Abbott’s path twists and turns through the complexities of being raised by an openly gay single father at a time when the nation was only first awakening to the gay rights movement. Along the way the author pulls no punches describing her father as loving though aloof and herself as too self-involved to be able to see that he needed her as much as she needed him. Despite these and other hurdles, this small family managed to create a home in improbable places. While readers are often left with a sense of regret for opportunities lost, the overall tone of the memoir is one of grace and acceptance.

Wild cover imageWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Cheryl Strayed). Part of my own personal quest this January is to finish this book; I’m currently in the middle of it. Like Alysia Abbott, Cheryl Strayed had an unusual upbringing. After her abusive father exited the picture, her mother barely scraped by raising her small family. When she eventually remarried, the family moved to the wilds of northern Minnesota where they built their own tar-paper cabin and lived off the land. Though this lifestyle may sound difficult, the family was happy. Strayed goes on to marry shortly after high school and seems to have things on track until her mother suddenly dies of lung cancer. Unable to cope with her loss, Strayed spirals out of control and moves out on her own. In order to regain focus after her divorce, she picks up a guide to the Pacific Crest Trail and decides to set off on her own. One part travelogue for the curious traveler, and one part memoir for those working through their own loss, this book has a lot to offer to the questing reader.

Grilled Salmon and DEET

Lisa with apple in front of mountains

Demonstrating advanced trail food preparation

When my husband and I moved here from Chicago, I thought that I was finally coming into my element. Mountains, ocean – all the things the Midwest couldn’t provide. We had mastered what the flatland could offer us in regards to camping, so we were ready to up our game. For those of you lucky enough to have been born and raised in this lovely region, you know that my attitude was like thinking I was ready to play in the MLB because I batted cleanup in t-ball. Thankfully my husband was more experienced in these matters, and managed to keep up safe, dry, happy, and entertained in the wild. He’s since joined the Mountaineers and has been scrambling on the tops of mountains, while I have contented myself with scrambling eggs at camp and taking photos of mountains from the relative safety of familiar flat land.

Needless to say, I have some learning to do. I think I’m finally over the hump of thinking I’m always on the verge of being eaten by bears. Seeing a bear retreat in horror from my loud approach last weekend helped me realize that they don’t want to deal with me either. Now I’m going through the enjoyable process of checking out the library’s resources on all things outdoors. I know this isn’t a shock, but there is a lot here to get through.

Scout's Backpacking Cookbook

Not surprisingly, my first foray into outdoor ed. was the cooking section. It looks like I may be able to salvage that ill-conceived food dehydrator purchase from the kitchen gadget bone-yard after all. There are a ton of books in this area, so I quickly eliminated anything to do with RV or car camping (we’ve got that down). My favorite was The Scout’s Backpacking Cookbook, by Tim and Christine Conners. This book was packed with useful information about equipment, cooking techniques, meal planning, safety, ‘Leave No Trace’ cooking and camping, and recipes. There were also wonderful appendices that provided measurement advice, additional reading, and helpful websites.

Other picks:

The Trailside Cookbook by Don Philpott

Camp Cooking in the Wild by Mark Scriver

Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Washington CascadesWith the food taken care of, choosing a destination was my next priority. When we camp, we choose our destination based on a few different things. Weather is the most obvious determining factor; last weekend we went over the mountains to find the sun. On other trips we’ve selected sites because they were off pleasant drives, or offered a selection of excellent hikes. The Mountaineers Books has a fantastic series of Day Hiking titles that cover different regions of Washington and Oregon. My favorite book that I found about exploring Washignton was the Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Washington Cascades, by Allan May. May created a guide to geography, history (human and natural), and recreation in the Washington Cascades, all wrapped into a very enjoyable read.

Note: Sometimes published info about campgrounds, trails, and roads can be outdated. To be certain that you can actually get to where you’d like to go, call ahead to the ranger station in the area you’re planning to visit to make sure that everything is open.

The Backpacker's ManualLast, and certainly not least, I looked into info on safety and preparation. This is perhaps the largest section of outdoor materials we have because there is much to be said on the topic. For a beginner’s overview to all things backpacking, The Smart Guide to Hiking and Backpacking is a good place to start. More advanced advice on trip planning, cooking equipment, and more can be found in The Backpacker’s Field Manual, by Rick Curtis. I found some really helpful illustrations and ‘how to’s’ in Basic Illustrated Wilderness First Aid, but I strongly recommend attending some courses on the topic if you are serious about venturing into remote areas. If not, be sure to trek with someone who has.

Other titles that I found helpful tips in:

Hiking with Dogs by Linda B. Mullally

Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips by Mike Clelland

Making Camp: A Complete Guide for Hikers, Mountain Bikers, Paddlers & Skiers by Steve Howe, et al.

So there you have it – my newbie backpacker reading list. Come in and browse the shelves; there’s a lot more here for those who are more advanced than I am. As for me? I have a date with the food dehydrator – who doesn’t want to try powdered cheese?

Lisa