Last Fourth of July, we decided we wanted to be a little lazy. But as the hot weekend approached, we also wanted to get out in the woods. Unfortunately, we did not reserve a campground spot anywhere (we would have had to have done it in March anyway) and we just didn’t feel like dealing with the early take-off time and wrestling with the crowds required to secure a spot up in the backcountry at a wilderness lake—especially with kids in tow. But I did know of a peaceful meadow and wooded spot along a creek just about two miles down the tail in a nearby wilderness area, so I thought why don’t we just chill out on a little backpack foray and set up camp there for the weekend?
It was the perfect plan: My wife, two kids and I did some leisurely packing, watched some Friday night Netflix, slept in a bit the next morning and then hiked in to the meadow spot. From there, we simply enjoyed the pleasure of being in the woods. We set up a hammock. We cast tenkara flies into the creek. We made sandwiches and soup on the camp stove. The next morning, we even day-hiked to a lake. But most of all, we sat back and read books.
I confess I am the ultimate biblio-nerd. My bedside is a pile of books in the process of being read (Bruce Springsteen’s outstanding autobiography), on my to-read list (William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer) and read long ago but left within easy reach because they give me comfort (Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy). The only problem is that I find my book reading time crunched these days. Sure, blame it on technology: Reading sports scores or the latest Trump shenanigans on my iPhone is an easy comfort. Plus, reading is tough with eyeballs fried from workdays spent scanning screens. I’m no Luddite—I actually think this technology has made our lives hassle-free in many ways and certainly it has made it easier to work as a freelance writer and editor, but it has definitely cut into the time we spend enjoying books.
Even before smart phones, my favorite place to read has always been the backcountry. There’s a silence and change in our perception of the passing of time that makes it easier to immerse yourself in the printed page. In the 1990s, I spent years working for the U.S. Forest Service, building trails and fighting fires in Montana’s Madison Valley. It was the greatest stretch of pleasurable binge reading in my life. In my sleeping bag or in camp, I devoured Russian novels (and somehow the dirt in Lëvin’s fingernails when he tills the land felt more earned, the tragedy of Prince Myshkin more unfair). I read a manual on celestial navigation as I lay back tracing the stars. Hoping to climb the mountain, I dug into Jonathan Waterman’s In the Shadow of Denali (and it still thrills me to have him write for this magazine). I flew along as Carlos Castenada transformed into a crow, and later I hiked alone watching birds.
I love when I reach a place like our Fourth of July meadow where the phone no longer has service. My wife and kids feel the same way. We don’t miss it. We find a spot in the grass or by a tree or in the hammock and turn the pages. On this trip, I read the biologist E.O. Wilson, who is, I think, one of the most important voices of our time. His words felt more urgent out here: “We are drowning in information,” he writes, “while starving for wisdom.”