Books, good books, affect us. They entertain, certainly, but they also educate us, challenge us, enlighten us. Frighten us, horrify us, shame us, inflame us, move us, tickle us, transport us, elevate us. There are myriad reasons to read and hopefully we find books that hit two, three or more targets during the reading.
Stanley’s ‘High Sierra’ hits a whole slew of things for me. But also provided a personal revelation.
I have been doing these ‘book reviews for writers’ for about two years. I have learned that if you go into a review looking for something to criticize, you will find it. No writer is perfect and no piece of writing speaks to everyone.
So as I read ‘High Sierra’, I generated a list of things that bothered me. Too much of the book is lists: inventories of passes, peaks, basins, crests, divides, people, hike descriptions, names, so repetitive and who is going to remember all of these. What he called an ‘Adventure’ I thought a lack of planning and stupid. And reading a book, any book, is agreeing to spend a few hours with the author, learning how they think and see the world. Spending time with dumb people is frustrating.
The maps in my e-version were nearly useless to follow along, and near the mid-point, I nearly abandoned the book.
I stuck with it, and things went from bad to worse. I found myself getting angry and inventoried why. I live right at the bottom of a mountain, Mount Seymour, on Vancouver’s North Shore. Five kilometers up and you are into rugged, unforgiving terrain. Nearly every day we hear the telltale thump-thump-thump of search and rescue helicopters. People get lost, hurt, killed and just disappeared all the time. Stanley’s lack of care and lack of preparation and dismissal of maps and compasses pushed my buttons. Popping acid before wandering out into the wilderness I found close to criminal negligence.
Still, I persevered.
I love the mountains. I have been a hiker, camper, boy scout, skier, fly fisher, bird watcher, mountain biker, everything outdoors for fifty years. This book should be right up my alley. I love what Stanley loves. I moved to British Columbia as a twenty-two-year-old boy and fell in love with the ocean, mountains and forests of BC. What was bothering me here?
About two-thirds of the way through ‘The High Sierra’, a close friend of Stanley’s, Terry Baier, has a heart valve replaced, and then becomes distant and angry. The friendship ends. Why did he get so angry?
It dovetailed perfectly with my personal anger at this book. Why was I so angry?
Three years ago, June 3, 2019, I had a catastrophic mountain bike accident on Mount Seymour. I don’t remember it, but I regained consciousness lying on the ground and had no sensation below my chin. A spinal cord damaged in two places, a mild traumatic brain injury, and a ruined shoulder. It has been a long slow recovery. I can walk. I can ride a bike. I can ski again, sort of. I have been back to work, then off again. I don’t have the mental and physical stamina I used to have. I could never do the kind of hiking, with the mileage or vertical that Stanley does. And there I finally saw why I was so angry while reading this book. At one time, I could have done everything in this book. Not now. Salt in a wound.
I have been stalled in my recovery, and deeply into denial. Before the accident, my wife and I had a trip planned to Nepal. Recently she asked me if we might be able to do an easier trip?
While reading the book we did a trip up to Whistler with another couple. My wife and the other woman did a hike from the village to the top of Blackcomb, about four thousand feet of vertical. I didn’t even consider doing it. Three or more times a week, my wife does the ‘Grouse Grind’, a two and a half kilometer trail that rises 2,600 feet. I used to do it in just over an hour. I know I couldn’t do it now.
I sort of laughed when I realized why this book bothered me so much. And I wondered if it needs to be so. Talking it over with my wife, she reminded me what the doctors and occupational therapist had told me. On the mental or cognitive side, they told me to back off when I felt concussion symptoms. But on the physical side, they told me to push through. I have been backing off on both.
So, I put my hiking shoes on and went for a walk on Mount Seymour. I thought I would start easy, go up till I was tired, then turn back. I picked a spot I knew I could loop through that I thought would take about ten minutes to get to the top. A rise of about 75 meters. It took a half hour and I was exhausted. My legs were like rubber. But I did it. And I did it again the next day.
I am going to push through. I am going to funnel that anger back into my recovery, where it belongs, and not into pot shots at authors I admire.
My favourite section of ‘The High Sierra’ was ‘Moments of Being: A Sierra Day: Sunset and Twilight’. I felt I was there watching it, experiencing it, and that is why I read. That is what I want to do again.
Good books affect us. This one did me. Thanks.
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July 25, 2022
Review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘The High Sierra. A Love Story’