Lightweight reading, part 2: books in the wild


A along the Selway River in Idaho. Photo: Betsy Kepes

Some backpackers don’t bring books with them on the trail, preferring to completely immerse themselves in the experience of being in the wild. I imagine these purists saying to me, “Why do you need to read escapist sci-fi when you’re out on a beautiful wilderness trail?

These imaginary critics made me feel just a touch guilty as I started out on a five-day backpacking trip with not one book in my pack, but two. The first hours I hiked with my husband, Tom, and youngest son, Jay. They had only one day to enjoy the Selway River on the wide path built by CCC workers in the 1930’s.

We followed the trail for a few hours, watching an osprey wing its way above the water and a noisy kingfisher flit from tree to tree. We stopped for a break at a sandy beach near Cupboard Creek, dropping our packs in the shade of a huge cedar. After a refreshing dip it was time to read. And swim again. And read more.

The three of us abandoned ourselves to the rare luxury of an entire day at the beach. We ate lunch, read more, swam again, returned to our books, swam again. The heat, the soft white sand, the clear water and the long fronds of the cedar tree made it feel as if we had stepped onto a tropical isle. I raced through the first half of Ursula LeGuin’s CITY OF ILLUSIONS, captivated by her mysterious main character, a man with eyes like a cat whose memory has been completely erased by the evil Shing.

When the shadows grew long Tom and Jay headed back down the trail to meet a friend at the parking lot and I began my solo journey. The hours of rest on the beach made it easy to push hard as the trail climbed and climbed. When it at last descended to the water it was dusk. I found a small beach, cooled off in the river, pitched my tent and fell asleep without even opening up my book.

On my second day on the trail a dangerously strong wind filled the Selway valley in the late afternoon as I sat under another massive tree. When I stood up my Thermarest chair blew away and across the river in an old fire burn I heard trees crashing to the ground. (That area burned in a big fire a few years ago–thousands of acres–and many of the trees died of course but others were just weakened and the wind did them in. It was a fascinating and yet horrifying experience to be surrounded by the sound of trees falling.)

Next to me a boulder bounded down the slope. I put away my book, waited for the wind to die down, hefted my backpack, stepped over the newly fallen trees, and walked up the hill to the Moose Creek Ranger Station.

Carol Holmes and Betsy Kepes at the Moose Creek Ranger Station in the early 1980s.

Carol Holmes and Betsy Kepes at the Moose Creek Ranger Station in the early 1980s.

It’s hard to describe how amazing it is to see a neat cluster of cabins and barns after walking for two days into the heart of the wilderness. The Moose Creek Ranger Station is accessible by trail—26 miles—or by small plane. A community of Forest Service employees uses it as a home base during the summer and fall. I worked there on a trail crew in the 1980’s.

“Betsy?” A tall woman smiled and reached out her hand as I walked toward the cookhouse. “I’m Anna, the wilderness ranger here.”  I told Anna about the new trees across the trail and received permission to camp on the porch of the fire cache, next to the corral. I set down my pack and sat on the edge of the porch, swinging my legs. A couple of mules looked over at me, curious, and from the cookhouse I heard the sounds of dinner. It could have been 1913 rather than 2013 and I loved that timeless feeling.

When I pushed open the screen door to the cookhouse I saw several young people sitting around a table lit by a kerosene lamp. They were reading and writing while a couple of other people in their crew made dinner, using the massive black cook stove I remembered from the 1980’s. The little Moose Creek library was still there too—a couple of shelves of paperback books. It used to be that most of them were westerns but it was always worth scanning the shelves for something different as we all traded in our trail books every couple weeks for something new. I’d found a copy of Wallace Stegner’s ANGLE OF REPOSE on those shelves, a book that had seemed to me just another western until I started to read it. Stegner’s powerful prose practically leapt off the page. I searched out all his other novels after that, when I was at bigger libraries.

I introduced myself to a woman with short hair who was sautéing julienned carrots in a giant frying pan. Jen was the leader of the Montana Conservation Crew (MCC), a group of seven who would stay in at Moose Creek until the end of September, doing trail work around the station. I found myself looking over at the little library and wondering if it would hold me that long. I’m not a huge fan of westerns. I decided to leave my Ursula LeGuin novel for Jen, just in case she liked sci-fi.

Back on my porch I set up my chair (a folded Thermarest sleeping pad tucked inside a lightweight and nifty contraption that really does feel like a chair) and settled in to finish reading CITY OF ILLUSIONS. A light rain soaked into the cedar shakes of the roof and dripped off the edge and I sighed happily. Just before dark the wilderness ranger Anna came by and asked if I’d like a beer. “It’s not that cold,” she apologized. I assured her that any beer would be very much appreciated, warm or cold. She ran off and returned with a can and we sat together, talking about old times and new times at Moose Creek. Anna’s dog slept on the floorboards and the stars came out and now and then the screen door of the cook house squeaked open and slammed shut. It was late when Anna and I said goodnight.

Not exactly western wilderness reading...or is it?

Not exactly western wilderness reading…or is it?

It wasn’t until mid-morning the next day, when I was far upriver on the Selway Trail, that I realized I’d said aloud to Jen that I’d leave her a book. Guilty now, I thought of CITY OF ILLUSIONS in my backpack, with my bookmark a few chapters from the end. But, a solution! I’d finish reading it at the next beach and send it back downriver with the trail crew I hoped to meet on the Bear Creek trail.

The miles sped by that morning. I was buoyed by my successful visit to the ranger station and the thought that I was coming up to another beautiful beach where I could finish reading one book and, perhaps, begin reading my second book. Jay had let me have his cheap, paperback edition of PASTWATCH: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card.  Jay began reading Card with ENDER’S GAME and told me this book was good also. It had enough pages in it to last me for three days stuck in a tent during a blizzard, not a situation I expected to have to handle in early August. I’m such a compulsive reader that I needed to know I had a book with me, something with pages I hadn’t yet read. I feel a bit naked if I don’t have a book within easy reach.

What are the necessities of life? Air, water, food, and books.


  1. Blaikie Worth says:

    A pleasure to read and visualize the scenery! I feel the same about books, but another possibility is to take a sketch pad and a couple of good pencils and an eraser. Frustrating but fun!

    • Betsy Kepes says:

      Hi Blaikie– You must be a better artist than I am! And do you sketch at night in the tent, remembering the sights of the day?

      I do like the idea of remembering the journey visually, with drawings rather than words. (I do always carry a little journal with me, and a pen, and an extra pen or pencil so I guess I COULD dispense with the book.)

      But it would be tough.


  2. Betsy,
    I’m guessing that you will love Ender’s Game (as I do!) with its puzzling over war and innocence. But Card is a piece of work. Do not google him until you finish the book, and only then if you have a strong stomach.

    • Betsy Kepes says:

      Hi Ellen– Unfortunately I already have Googled, or rather Wikipeda-ed Card. I was already aware, from talking with my kids, of his…hmmm… conservative tendencies. Michael Crichton of JURASSIC PARK fame is also a social conservative and that does show up at times in his books.

      Still– I try to be open-minded when I’m reading (to a point) and ENDERS GAME really caught Jay’s attention. I’ll see if a copy of it is still on his shelf.


  3. Betsy Kepes says:

    Hi Lucy– Thanks for your kind words. And stay tuned for Part III when I actually finish my wilderness trek. I’ll figure out some way to keep talking about books, too.

  4. Lucy Martin says:

    These travel essays (and the photos) are very engaging, Betsy. Thanks for sharing.