Monday, December 31, 2012

Books that bridge the miles

Tim Boas crossing a bridge during his solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail  in 2003

In last week's column, I shared four books that took me on virtual trips across the ocean. Today's column explores four domestic locales, places I visited in 2012 courtesy of the printed word.

When she was 22, former waitress and novice backpacker Cheryl Strayed (an invented surname chosen because it epitomized her disconnected life) began a solo trek along the rugged Pacific Crest Trail. Distraught by the recent death of her mother, racked by failed relationships and poor personal choices, Strayed hoped the 1,100-mile journey would help her regain perspective, purpose and a new direction in life.
To say she accomplished those goals is an understatement.
Partly adventure story, partly memoir, Strayed's riveting tale, "Wild," takes the reader up and down snowy mountains, across arid deserts and through remote countryside where few people live and fewer venture.

I felt a special connection to this story because my own son took a similar trip 10 years ago. When he was 18, Tim hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. The following year he headed west to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail, choosing a route nearly identical to the one Strayed describes in her book. Like the author, Tim also chose to go alone.

A signpost in one of the many desolate sections of the PCT photographed by Tim in 2003

I found Strayed's story to be both enlightening and frightening. I knew few details about my son's trips when he was hiking, and after reading her story I have to admit I'm glad I was so poorly informed. Some things are best learned after the fact, including some of the crazy and (from a mother's perspective) scary solo experiences such as those described in the book. Wild indeed. Check it out at

While her mother's death from cancer inspired Strayed's journey of discovery, surviving a life-threatening illness motivated Kate, the main character in Erica Bauermeister's 2012 novel "Joy for Beginners," to take on a life-altering adventure of her own.

Thus begin multiple voyages of personal transformations. As a reader, I traveled along with the seven main characters, with special attention focused on Kate's riveting ride down the river. Like Kate, I too have always found such an adventure intriguing yet peppered by a generous helping of fear. As I watched this fictional character overcome both mental and physical obstacles, I felt my own objections loosen. My strengths and joy expanded. Maybe someday I'll have the courage to take a similar trip in real time instead of vicariously experiencing it through the pages of a book. For more, go to

A vicarious experience was the only option in Jean Kwok's 2010 novel "Girl in Translation." I loved this book because it offered insight into a world I would otherwise have known nothing about — that of Chinese emigrants to Brooklyn in the mid-20th century, when working in sweatshops was commonplace and acclimating to a new culture was fraught with obstacles.
As a person who enjoys historical fiction, I found Kwok's artfully drawn characters and situations offered lessons in both cultural nuances and historical facts. I was drawn into the characters' personal struggles and aspirations. As with all good reads, I couldn't wait to find out what happens next while simultaneously not wanting the book's ending to come. When it finally did, I was satisfied with the result. I like novels that don't disappoint, that serve up a hearty helping of edification along with entertainment wrapped up neatly with a positive conclusion. Interested? Go to

In the search for contemporary novels of a light, upbeat nature, author Claire Cooke never disappoints. I discovered Cooke in May and proceeded to devour five of her 10 books. My favorite so far, and the one that took me on my most memorable travel adventure, was "The Wildwater Walking Club," which combined several of my interests — gardening, walking, travel and friendship.
The story, which takes place in 32 days, follows the lives of three women living in the same Massachusetts seaside neighborhood. Through their daily walks together, Tess, Noreen and Rosie rack up much more than miles. As their pedometers click off more and more steps, their friendships grow. Deeper understandings of individual problems develop, solutions to problems are found, and new directions chosen.
For me, one of the story's highlights was the trip the women took to the West Coast to attend a lavender festival. At that point, my virtual involvement with the story became so intense that I had no choice but to go out and buy a lavender plant to add to my garden. Look into it at

I can't think of any book I've read cover to cover that hasn't taken me on some sort of journey. Although I may not physically traverse narrow mountain paths, navigate raging rapids, experience the stifling environment of a sweatshop or inhale the fragrant air at a lavender festival, I can always depend on books to take me on memorable adventures. Books are my ticket to different times and places. They introduce me to unfamiliar cultures and perspectives and make me aware of myriad new ideas.
Travel is indeed grand.

No comments:

Post a Comment