One for the Books: Challenging the body, energizing the spirit ... By Mary Louise Ruehr

By Mary Louise Ruehr Published:

Challenging yourself physically can make for some great adventure, as these authors found out for themselves. But in their true life stories, the writers discover that their physical endeavors could also be mentally, emotionally and even spiritually transformative.

Cheryl Strayed wrote about her experiences hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in "Wild." The 2,663-mile trail runs along the crest of nine mountain ranges through California, Oregon and Washington, across deserts, mountains and rain forests.

Strayed was 26 when she set out to walk as much as she could of the route (she hiked more than 1,100 miles) in about 100 days. Although she had always been "outdoorsy," she had never gone backpacking before, so she didn't know what to carry and what to leave behind. When she set out, her pack weighed more than half her own weight and "resembled a Volkswagen Beetle."

She had decided to take on the PCT because she wanted to be alone and confront her life, her recent divorce, her mother's death. But being alone outside for three months was extreme, she writes: "I'd only wanted to be alone. Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren't a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the PCT had altered that sense. Alone wasn't a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before."

She was admittedly unprepared, but "Each day on the trail was the only possible preparation for the one that followed. And sometimes even the day before didn't prepare me for what would happen next." She faced searing heat with no water to drink, freezing cold and knee-deep snow. There were so many possible dangers -- rattlesnakes, insects, bears, mountain lions and untrustworthy humans -- but "I simply did not let myself become afraid," she writes.

The very enjoyable "You've Gone Too Far This Time, Sir!" by Danny Bent starts in London, where Bent was teaching 9-year-olds in West London. Bent loved to use outlandish classroom antics to inspire the students. When he told them he was going to India, they urged him to go green on his trip, so he promised them he would bicycle there -- solo. (What was he thinking?)

So, at the age of 30, he got himself a bike, named it Shirley, rode a ship to France, and started pedaling to Asia.

Bent displays his easy-going humor in the Czech Republic, where, he writes, "In the middle of the night, when everyone is asleep, they sneak round houses" and take Scrabble letters no one uses, "You know, the z's, c's, h's, k's, the ones you pull out when the game is almost over and curse your bad luck. ... They use only these letters to produce all their road signs."

People kept warning him of the dangers up ahead, yet many of the people he met were warm and generous. He slept outdoors, was attacked by gypsies, was thrown off his bike, suffered food poisoning, had to deal with border patrols, endured polluted water and air, and tried to avoid cobras, elephants, tigers and the Taliban. In the end, he had cycled 15,000 km from England to India.

Ed Stafford is another Englishman looking for adventure in "Walking the Amazon." (You may have seen his documentary on TV.)

Stafford and his companions trekked across South America -- Peru to Colombia to Brazil -- traversing the desert, the Andes, and the jungle. They ran out of water, risked falling from steep mountain sides, almost drowned in churning rapids, and had to deal with sometimes-hostile locals, including drug traffickers. In fact, he was warned several times not to go forward or "They will kill you."

The hikers ate cow's foot soup, tortoise, armadillo and kinkajou and encountered condors, monkeys, biting insects, pit vipers and coral snakes, anacondas, piranhas, parasitic botflies, and a 6-ft. electric eel that could produce up to 500 watts and knock a man out. In Brazil he was constantly on the lookout for bushmasters, black caiman, peccaries, pumas and jaguars.

There was danger above and below -- climbing a vertical rock face, "Your life is dependent on a dead tree not snapping or a clump of grass not pulling out of the earth." And at times, he writes, "we were chest-deep in water" and had to use machetes to fight through underwater plants.

But he also had gorgeous vistas: "Jungle-covered hills clustered together like green egg cartons and steep banks gave way to vine-covered cliffs towering over small streams."

In the end, he writes, "I had crossed the entire Andes mountain range; found the furthest source of the Amazon and descended the deepest canyon in the world." He sums up his trip: "Nine million-odd steps; over 200,000 mosquito and ant bites each; over 8,000 kilometres walked over 860 days; ... about 600 wasp stings; a dozen scorpion stings; ... six pairs of boots; three GPSs; and one Guinness World Record."

A reader suggested I read "Following Atticus" by Tom Ryan, and I'm glad she did. This is a nice read for animal lovers.

Ryan and his miniature schnauzer, Atticus Maxwell Finch, became hiking companions and climbed the 48 White Mountains of New Hampshire that were over 4,000 feet high, thus becoming members of the Appalachian Mountain Club's Four Thousand Footer Club. Then, they decided to do it all again -- in the winter.

They loved climbing together. Writes Ryan, "I felt refreshed by the anonymity I rediscovered in the mountains, the quiet forests, the songs of rivers and streams, how Atticus and I could step off the road and be swallowed whole into an enchanted realm. As we trekked wordlessly through sun-dappled woods, it was as if we were walking through a world of elves and hobbits, wood nymphs and fairies. Life felt less complicated, cleaner, and more hopeful in the woods."

Ryan thinks of himself as a modern-day Thoreau: "The deeper we went into the woods, the better I got to know myself."

They encountered moose and bear and were caught out alone on the mountain in the dark. But "Atticus and I proved that if an overweight, middle-aged fellow with a fear of heights and a twenty-pound miniature schnauzer could hike the four-thousand-footers, nearly anyone could."

Copyright © 2013 by Mary Louise Ruehr.

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On Twitter:

@One4TheBooks

@CherylStrayed

@Ed_Stafford

@dannybent

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