Gone For a Hike: A Reading List on Wilderness and Survival

Five captivating reads on adventures you never want to have.

By Kelsey Zimmerman

 

Last week I walked a few blocks from my apartment to a grocery store in my small Midwestern town. The wind chill was -18 Fahrenheit, an improvement over the previous day, when it was a blistering -28. It had been several days — maybe weeks — since I voluntarily went outside for any length of time beyond simply getting in or out of my car.

The Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov inspired me to take this walk. The book tells the harrowing tale of a crew of Russian seal hunters who, in 1912, become trapped in the ice in the Siberian Arctic Circle. Remarkable for its first-person narrative — the vast majority of failed adventure/expedition stories are written by people who did not experience the event themselves — and for its narrator’s headstrong, hopeful, and lyrical ruminations, it made me think about what it must have been like trapped in the cold for years on end, far from home.

Considering I’m risk-averse almost to a fault, I’ll never travel the Siberian Arctic Circle, never climb Mount Everest, never go on a challenging backcountry hike by myself. Why? Partly because of simply having read too many narratives like Albanov’s, too many narratives like the ones on this reading list. Yet coupled with this aversion is a fascination of people who, unlike me, seek experiences full of risk and inspiration; and the thrill of experiencing landscapes few humans have walked on, or mountains unclimbed and unknown. And then, of course, there is the fascination with narratives of those who did not seek risk, who were going about their days and were thrust into extraordinary circumstances. This is the question that haunts me: How would I cope with facing a life-threatening situation in the wilderness? I read story after story, book after book, looking for myself: Yes, being the one who keeps people hopeful, maybe that would be me. Or, thinking of cutting open plants in the desert for water, I’d do that too.

After the Plane Crash—And the Cannibalism—A Life of Hope (Simon Worrall and Roberto Canessa, National Geographic, April 2016)

I grew up near Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and too young, learned about Northwest 255. In 1987 it crashed on one of the busy roads outside the airport, killing all but one passenger and two people on the ground. I was sick with fear around airports for the next 15 years, but fascinated, too. I think now that fear is a cousin of obsession, because as an adult I perseverate on what I fear, including plane crashes. In this piece, Simon Worrall interviews Roberto Canessa, one of the passengers on doomed Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 (subject of the ‘90s film Alive) on the circumstances of survival. After his rugby team crashed in the Andes, Roberto, then a medical student, bore the enormous responsibility of trying to keep his teammates and friends alive, with mixed success.

Who survived? It wasn’t the smartest, most intelligent ones. The ones who survived were those who most felt the joy of living. That gave them a reason to survive.

Tragically Lost in Joshua Tree’s Wild Interior (Geoff Manaugh, The New York Times Magazine, March 2018)

My last real vacation was in February 2020, to Joshua Tree National Park. I was on my own, having peeled off from a group trip to Palm Springs, and I’d already read about Bill Ewasko, an experienced hiker and military veteran who disappeared in the park in June 2010. I went on a few short hikes alone, but, with little previous experience in the desert, was mostly happy to drive. It felt like I could see forever in every direction, yet the panorama kept shifting seamlessly and every few minutes I arrived in a landscape entirely new, save for the ash-gold sand and sentinel Joshua trees. How do you get lost in a place where you can see everything? Well, the truth is, anybody can get lost anywhere.

There is an unsettling truth often revealed by search-and-rescue operations: Every landscape reveals more of itself as you search it. The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot once observed that the British coastline can never be fully mapped because the more closely you examine it — not just the bays, but the inlets within the bays, and the streams within the inlets — the longer the coast becomes. Although Joshua Tree comprises more than 1,200 square miles of desert with a clear and bounded border, its interior is a constantly changing landscape of hills, canyons, riverbeds, caves and alcoves large enough to hide a human from view. Solid canyon walls reveal themselves, on closer inspection, to be loose agglomerations of huge rocks, hiding crevasses as large as living rooms. The park is, in a sense, immeasurable. And now Ewasko’s case, like Joshua Tree itself, was becoming fractal: The more ground the search covered, the more there was to see. As Pete Carlson of the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit put it to me, “If you haven’t found them, then they’re someplace you haven’t looked yet.”

How America’s National Parks Became Hotbeds of Paranormal Activity (Sarah Emerson, Vice, October 2017)

Perhaps tied to the risk-averse aspect of my personality is also a strict scientist’s skepticism. I have trouble suspending disbelief when it comes to the occult, such as while reading Stephen King novels, or when watching TV shows like Yellowjackets.

Humans don’t have a great inherent understanding of statistics, nor as a species do we seem to grasp the extraordinary danger that accompanies the great outdoors. That an adult human can simply vanish is literally unthinkable: So when it happens, people look for a paranormal explanation, not comprehending how the landscape tucks bodies away, subsumes them.

Much of this article focuses on David Paulides of Missing 411 and its wide internet communities: Paulides raises awareness of forgotten missing-persons cases, which is good; he’s also a Bigfoot believer — that’s a little more iffy.

What makes Paulides’ ideas so tantalizing, so salacious, is what he doesn’t say. He denies mentioning Bigfoot in any of his works. But, like a good storyteller, he allows readers to reach these conclusions on their own. Even his fans have questioned his motives.

I do find David to, at times, sound a little bit like a charlatan,” one wrote on Reddit. “I feel like when you get so invested in something you are bound to lose yourself a little bit.”

The Accident on the Pacific Crest Trail (Louise Farr, Alta Online, January 2021) 

In the early days of the pandemic, long-trail hikers were encouraged to head home to prevent spreading the virus to small, vulnerable locales. Not everyone listened: Three young men continued their obsessive hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, to devastating conclusion.

At around 9:30 a.m., as they turned a corner onto Apache Peak, the trail disappeared under what, at this higher altitude, was two to three feet of snow. They checked their maps. If they crossed a small clearing and headed around another corner, they’d be fine. Jannek, about 10 steps in the lead, and the lightest, made it across the precipitous slope to a stand of trees. But as Trevor crossed, he slipped on ice hidden beneath the top layer of powder. He stopped and tried to stabilize his footing, then his feet went out from under him, and he fell onto the snowy trail. For the briefest time, he managed to stay in place. Then, suddenly, he began sliding feet first, gathering momentum until he hit a rock and began cartwheeling into an icy gorge.

For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II (Mike Dash, Smithsonian Magazine, January 2013)

When a Russian family was discovered living in the Siberian taiga after 40 years without contact from the outside world, they were astounded by the advances of modern technology, from Sputnik to cellophane. But perhaps the single detail that strikes me the most is the last survivor, the youngest daughter in the family, choosing to live out her remaining days in the cabin in the wilderness, alone. There’s a saying that references “the devil you know” though I can’t speculate on all the reasons Agafia might have chosen to stay behind. Yes, perhaps, fear. But maybe there was also a desire to carry on her family’s legacy, to preserve a way of life she loved. The not knowing — the inability to know — is the true allure of this type of tale.

The Lykov children knew there were places called cities where humans lived crammed together in tall buildings. They had heard there were countries other than Russia. But such concepts were no more than abstractions to them. Their only reading matter was prayer books and an ancient family Bible. Akulina had used the gospels to teach her children to read and write, using sharpened birch sticks dipped into honeysuckle juice as pen and ink. When Agafia was shown a picture of a horse, she recognized it from her mother’s Bible stories. “Look, papa,” she exclaimed. “A steed!”

 

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Kelsey Zimmerman is a writer from the Midwest. Her poetry can be found in Hobart, The Indianapolis Review, and elsewhere. She can be found hiking on the weekends or on Twitter @kelseypz.