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Sky Islands and Desert Canyons


This post is about writing and hiking.

I’ve been reveling this week in Chris Townsend’s hiking memoir, Crossing Arizona: A Solo Hike Through the Sky Islands and Deserts of the Arizona Trail

Here’s a short excerpt that I keep returning too.

“A purple glow suffused the sky above low gray green and gray hills when I woke. The subtlety of the dawn soon vanished as the sun rose, harsh and hot, hammering down from a cloudless blue sky. I continued along beside the creek, fording it frequently. A prairie falcon flashed past close by, a pale brown raptor with pointed wings and a long tail. A beautiful pipevine swallowtail butterfly with iridescent blue and black wings flitted over a sandbank. Creatures of the desert and the creek, at home here and unconcerned by the brief presence of a visitor.”

As I’ve been reading this book, I’ve been pondering the following question. What makes a good hiking memoir? It’s not exactly a style of writing that’s taught in schools.

Here are a few ingredients that I think are necessary in a hiking memoir:

  • Extremely detailed wildlife, bird, and insect observations that bring a scene to life
  • Natural history background about plants and animals encountered
  • Historic details about a place and it’s previous inhabitants
  • Details about physical or emotional struggles and hardships
  • Juxtaposition of civilization and the wilderness
  • Descriptions of changing weather conditions, landforms, and geology
  • Hiking and camping routine

Rock Formations

And here are some types of hiking memoirs that I connect with most strongly:

  • A solo journey
  • Hiking in a foreign land and culture
  • Hiking across very hostile terrain
  • Being the first or one of a handful to undertake a journey
  • A big personal change

What do you think makes a good hiking memoir? Do you have any hiking authors that you particularly like or reread, time and again?

Disclosure: The author owns this product and purchased it using their own funds.


  1. I love everything written by Craig Childs: I’ve never visited the American southwest and still I feel that I've been along on many of the author's trips. Childs's books hit all of your bullet points.

  2. I've been thinking I need to read a few more good hiking books. I haven't read any in several years, since being bored to tears by a couple that had been highly recommended. I'll even admit to having to force myself to get through Walking with Spring. Shaffer's journey was so inspiring, but his account of it was uninteresting to me.

    My problem with most of what I've read is that many authors seem to try hitting all of your bullet points, and the books start to read like bullet points. A really good writer can combine those elements with those of a good fiction novel and keep us glued to the pages not just because we're interested in the feat, but because we're compelled by the narrative. For me, this usually means the hiking can take a backseat in the book to the crazy characters, bizarre places, and things not going according to plan. Come to think of it, those are the things I like the most about any long distance backpacking trip…

  3. I guess the thing I appreciate the most are narratives where the author keeps plodding along, day after day, but still delights in observing and experiencing all of the little things that we ignore in everyday life. Things like the trails that ants take through your camp or territorial displays of rock hens.

    But I agree. Some books and authors just put me to sleep. Muir, for example. I can't get through it. I know I need to, but he makes me narcoleptic.

  4. Narcolepsy can sometimes help on the trail :)

    This post did get me thinking that for my PCT hike next year I might want to get a few audiobooks for the mp3 player. I've never listened to audiobooks before, but they sure weigh less than paper. The first one that came to mind was Walden, and then maybe Muir or something like that. You know, the stereotypical wilderness stuff.

  5. Now I'm jealous. The PCT! You lucky dog.

  6. Heh… maybe I just don't know when to quit.

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