Lightweight reading…literally

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Betsy, loaded up for a hike at her summer job in Idaho.

I’m not usually a fan of lightweight reading but in the summer I search for the lightest books I can find. No, I’m not reading bodice rippers and chick lit. I’m looking for books that only weigh a few ounces, really lightweight books on thin paper with words that crowd out right to the edge of the page.

In the summer I work for the US Forest Service in Idaho and I’m on the trail for days at a time, carrying everything I need on my back. With food, sleeping gear, water bottles, tent and rain gear the pack is heavy and that’s before I add on tools I need for trail work—a double bit axe, a Japanese Silky saw and our most valuable tool for wilderness trail clearing, a two-person crosscut saw. (My younger son Jay took over the crosscut carrying duty this summer, a task my back and shoulders really appreciated.)

But in the backcountry a book is as much a necessity for me as a clean pair of wool socks. We work hard all day chopping and sawing trees out of the trail and as the sun sets and the mosquitoes come out, there is the sweet pleasure of reading in the tent. Sometimes we even allow ourselves a bit of  “digesting time” after lunch, lounging in the shade with our books.

During a week in July I carried a light paperback edition of Alice Munro’s OPEN SECRETS. Munro’s short stories are astoundingly good and I read each one twice, to try to understand how she achieves her magic, and to make the book last longer.

On another trip I had a small copy of David Mitchell’s BLACK SWAN GREEN. I am a fan of Mitchell’s other novels, but this one has a teen boy as a protagonist and I didn’t really care about his escapades. I think I fell asleep early most of the evenings that week, not needing my headlamp for hours of reading.

One week Chris Bohjalian’s TRANS-SISTER RADIO went into my pack, a novel I’ve always meant to read. It was published in 2000 and perhaps was shocking back then—a male college professor has surgery to make his body female—but thirteen years later the topic actually seemed a little stale. The book is easy to read but was for me a bit too “light” as the only book I had for a week. Picky, picky.

My biggest lightweight reading challenge came at the end of the summer when I planned a five-day solo hike across the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I didn’t have to carry any tools but I did carry ALL the equipment that is usually spread out over a group—tent, stove, cooking pots, first aid kit, satellite phone. And I didn’t have a chance to get to a library or bookstore before the trip began. My source for a book was the short line of reading material on a counter in the fire lookout where my husband works.

It was slim pickings for lightweight books. I’d mailed west a few books that I was hoping to read on my days off at the lookout, books that had some heft to them. The biography of the early feminist Margaret Fuller was a thick hardback book that weighed at least five pounds, more than the weight of food for a couple of days. A friend from Idaho had given me a copy of BUFFALO COAT, a novel by Carol Ryrie Brink (famous for her award-winning children’s novel CADDIE WOODLAWN) but it was a fragile hardcover, almost one hundred years old and too delicate, and heavy, for the trail.

Coolwater Lookout. From left: Lee Van de Water (Betsy's older son), Alison (Lee's friend), Betsy, and Jay Kepes (Betsy's younger son).

Coolwater Lookout. From left: Lee Van de Water (Betsy’s older son), Alison (Lee’s friend), Betsy, and Jay Kepes (Betsy’s younger son).

Fortunately my son Jay, age 18, likes to read science fiction and old editions of sci-fi books are often printed on the lightest, cheapest paper. He had a dog-eared copy of Ursula LeGuin’s 1967 novel CITY OF ILLUSIONS. The type was so small and the margins so thin that the yellowed pages were practically weightless.

Perfect! I am a huge fan of Ursula LeGuin and thought it would be interesting to find out what she wrote before she gained fame with her sci-fi book THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. The only problem was length. The book was short and I worried about finishing it while I still had a couple of days of hiking to go. I imagined myself sitting for hours with a book on my lap on a beach by the wild and scenic Selway River.

On the map my journey looked completely leisurely, only a few inches a day! I’d hike for a few hours then stop at a shady beach and read and swim during the hot mid-day hours, ending up with a short hike to my chosen camping spot, with lots of time at the end of the day to read more.

I’ve read enough adventure books to know that all the protagonists in those tales have the same cocky confidence at the beginning of their journeys. I should have realized that during MY wilderness trek I would be challenged, and tested, and discouraged and, at the end, redeemed.

So stay tuned for the continuation of this blog post. What DID happen to the NCPR book reviewer when she ventured alone into the vast Idaho wilderness? And, most importantly, what did she bring as her back up book?

P.S. Would love to hear from other backpackers about their “light weight” suggestions.