Fall and winter means less time for hiking, but more time for reading. This is a review I published a few years ago about a book worth considering.
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I’m not a big fan of memoirs. I’d much prefer the adventures of a heroic—and fictional—protagonist over an account of the humdrum lives most of us lead. Every once in a while I’ll sample the genre hoping to be pleasantly surprised. I rarely am.
But when my Google Alert for the John Muir Trail pointed me towards Amazon.com, and a new book relating the story of a thru-hike, I decided to risk one more try. I’m so glad I did.
Suzanne Roberts’ “Almost Somewhere” is funny, engaging, honest and wise in ways that many readers may not even notice. (And isn’t that the best way to impart wisdom?)
I’m so often disappointed with memoirs because they fail to deliver three critical elements: a good story, good writing and, most importantly, honesty. Ms. Roberts delivers all three.
The story will hook you within the first pages. Two women, just after graduating from college, set out to hike the trail northbound. (Had she somehow managed to read my book, years before I wrote it, she would have known better!)
Before they even reach the trailhead the two women become three. Then a young man decides to tag along, and less than twenty miles down the trail, a second man joins the group. Ms. Roberts gets us interested in all of them, and weaves their interactions together with perfect pacing. Some exit the story early. Some later. Reading through the book becomes very much like walking down the trail: you can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner.
Thankfully, the prose is a joy. (Is that allowed in a memoir?) Although the hike itself was undertaken by the author when she was twenty years younger (they did the hike in 1993), the tone is exuberantly youthful.
She has an ear for dialog that gently nudges the story forward instead of grinding it to a halt, and there isn’t a clunky sentence anywhere. Occasionally, you come across something so sublime that it deserves to stand next to the frequent quotes from John Muir, himself, that open her chapters.
Her thoughts while sitting in front of the famous Muir Hut: “I realized that the going and getting there were never the point—when we are always almost somewhere, we can’t be happy where we are.”
What elevates all this to great from good, however, is the excruciating honesty percolating from every page. Ms. Roberts does not go easy on her friends (one is nicknamed “The Commander”), but they get off scot-free compared to Ms. Roberts, herself. The issues she beats herself up about—her weight, her choice of romantic partners, and her near paralysis in regards to planning the way ahead after college—are as relevant today as they were then. (All of which makes the book, by the way, just about the perfect gift for a new college graduate.)
If you made your way to this website, chances are you’re interested in both the John Muir Trail and personal challenges. This book was written with you in mind.
“Almost Somewhere” is almost perfect.
Good hiking, Ray
Great book Ray. I read it last winter (following the recommendation of somebody on the JMT facebook group). Another good read for those familiar with the Sierra is “The Last Season,” the true story of the disappearance of a backcountry NPS Ranger and the subsequent SAR. The book will be of interest to anyone who has hiked in the region – lots of the locations are on or near the JMT – or those interested in wilderness adventure. It’s a great story.
Agree wholeheartedly with the recommendation, John. Thanks!