June 23, 2013

Author Q &A: Highly motivated

In his new book, Hallowell's John Gibson revisits some Henry David Thoreau hikes – and tells readers how they can experience the same peaks today.

By TOM ATWELL, Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

Henry David Thoreau was a regular hiker and mountain climber, activities he did throughout his life in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire -- experiences that he then wrote about in daily journals and in books.

John Gibson of Hallowell, author of several books on hiking and the outdoors, takes us along several of Thoreau's trips in "In High Places with Henry David Thoreau" (Countryman Press, $18.95), and describes how people in the 21st century can experience the same mountains that Thoreau enjoyed in the 19th century.

The book offers many quotes from Thoreau, and reacquaints those who have not read him in a while with his view of the simple life. It also describes in detail what the legendary author, poet and naturalist did on his journeys.

Gibson recently talked to the Maine Sunday Telegram about the book and Thoreau's legacy. 

Q: Why is Thoreau so relevant today, more than a century and a half after he took a lot of these journeys?

A: I think Thoreau gets us back to basics. There is a lot of talk about the environment and the role that each of us plays in preservation in the context of the lives we all lead. I think Thoreau pulls us away from a lot of distractions of the present to what is important, what is essential. Simplicity is a key word, and what he sought when he went to Walden (Walden Pond, near Concord, Mass.), and lived it.

The hikes and the trips to the mountains were an extension of that. Here is a guy who, wherever he went, took nothing more than a light knapsack, rarely even a blanket, and roughed it. 

Q: Would Thoreau's style of hiking/mountain climbing be considered safe today?

A: Back then, there was one primary trail that was probably the easiest, and his departure from that was OK. Today, that would be dicey, because (with) the increased use of the backcountry, we want to keep people on trail to prevent more damage.

As for dashing off on his own, I think he was competent to do that, although someone else might not have been, and he did get into some difficulties on Katahdin. 

Q: Sometimes he would pack a lot of food, sometimes he would mostly live off blueberries or other things he found. Could people do that today?

A: It depends on where we are talking about. In my own experience on many hikes, one has blueberry picking of the type that Thoreau preferred. So many mountain places are suitable for great, healthy wild crops of blueberries that usually only the locals know about.

For someone who wanted to travel light today, however, there are all these lines of food that are light, easy to prepare and easy to carry.

He walked to a lot of these sites, stopping at farmhouses where you could, if you wanted, get a bed for only 50 cents and be given something to eat. He was a forager and very adept at finding and using berries and fishing for a meal, and being content with whatever diet he could put together.  

Q: Thoreau's purpose in hiking seemed to vary quite a bit. On some trips, it seems he just wanted to cover ground and catch a view of distant mountains; in others, he was making a close examination of all the plants. 

A: Some trips are very exploratory in the sense of looking at flora and fauna. He might have done more of that on Katahdin if he had not run into difficulties. On Greylock and Wachusett in Massachusetts, the form of his experience is to walk through the mountains slowly and explore pretty carefully what is there, and on others, it is to get to the top a certain way, and down another way and go home.

(Continued on page 2)

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