"There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away."
The line from Emily Dickinson drifted through my consciousness again last week on the starlit evening of the summer solstice. The insistent roll of the Smith River had lulled us all for another day as our little flotilla of three rafts and one canoe had floated on her brown and frothy crest through the sunlight and the shadows of her towering canyons.
There were no fish.
"The good thing about floating a river that isn't in shape for fishing is that you don't have to worry about fishing at all," Homer observed.
The tents were already set up. Dinner was on the stove. Several who had wandered off on hikes had returned. Most of the party had gathered about the unlit campfire ring, lounging with books in hand.
"It gives you time to pay attention to all those other things you love about a long float trip," Homer added.
It also gives us time to read, or read again, a favorite novel, a collection of poems, or perhaps a book of essays that feeds our imagination and carries us a bit further into the wildlands and waters around us.
On most trips I'm involved with, everyone has a book along. Last week was no exception. And the first book to appear around the campfire last week spawned a discussion that lasted sporadically through the whole trip. It also sent most of us in the 50 to 60 age group on a little nostalgic trip down memory lane.
Zonker was rummaging around in his canoe box and came out with a dog-eared copy of "On The Loose" by Terry and Renny Russell. That Sierra Club book, published way back in the mid-1960s, was a staple on the bookshelves of nearly everyone I knew in my college days. Ever since, I have kept a copy fairly close at hand.
It was a simple book, a collection of photos and quotations chronicling the wanderings of the two young brothers around the mountains and coastlines of California and through the Southwest. What it really amounted to was a love song to wilderness and wild country and a lament about its loss.
Yes, even way back then.
I was quite taken aback when Zonker pulled that book out. For the last couple of weeks, I had been looking around home for my own copy of the book, without much luck. When Zonker admitted that his favorite quote from the book came from the late actor Steve McQueen, I was even more surprised. It was my favorite quote, too.
"I'd rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth," McQueen said.
Amen to that.
A broader discussion followed about what books we would be most likely to bring on a river trip, a hike through the Bob Marshall, or a trip to any other place in the middle of nowhere. So we came up with a few suggestions to add to a summer reading list, just for fun.
"Twentieth-Century Montana: A State of Extremes" by K. Ross Toole was right at the top of the list. Friend Earl suggested this one. "If you want good history, if you want poetry, if you want feeling, if you want to read something that makes perfectly clear why Montanans are so passionately in love with their state, this book will do it for you," Earl said.
Earl thinks it should be required reading for every resident of Montana. I can't come up with a good argument against that.
Another book that Homer thought was pretty basic stuff as far as telling the story of the northern Rockies and northern plains was "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" by Wallace Stegner. Most of us agreed it should be required reading to establish residency.
"Tough Trip Through Paradise" by Andrew Garcia has been on everyone's top 10 list as long as I can remember, and it made the campfire cut last week.
So did "A Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold and "Desert Solitaire" by Edward Abbey. Neither of these is a Montana book, but they are sacred and beautiful texts about us humans and our relationship with that which is wild and free in the world around us. In a survey of backpacks in wilderness areas across the country, my bet is that these two would be the runaway best sellers.
But since we are here in Montana, we need to pay a little more attention to things close to home. So let's pick one from Jim Welch. His lesser known novel, "The Death of Jim Loney," always gets my vote. From A.B. Guthrie, take "The Big Sky." And from Dorothy Johnson, try the collection "The Hanging Tree and Other Stories." After reading Johnson's wonderful story, a special treat some summer evening would be to watch the old Gary Cooper movie by the same name, if you can find a copy.
That should get things going for the summer.
And just in case none of these sound good to you yet, I want to add a couple more packsack recommendations.
The first is "The Laugh of the Water Nymph and Other River Stories" by local writer, scientist, and throwback Doug Ammons. This is a collection of tales of adventure and imagination woven together by a love of the wild waters and the lands they flow through, beginning right here in the Missoula valley. It's a story of youth, wild dreams, and absolute joy.
The other one, "Following Old Trails" by Arthur L. Stone, provides texture to the human history of our western Montana valleys. This is a collection of Missoulian newspaper columns by then Missoulian editor and later first dean of the UM School of Journalism. Stone was a tireless booster for the industrial and commercial development of western Montana. His are wonderful stories.
Now those books ought to take you away. There should be enough good reading here on this list to last you through a summer's worth of nights under the stars and along the rivers and lakes of our part of the world, fish or no fish. But maybe we should add a collection of Emily Dickinson poems, just in case.
Greg Tollefson is a freelance Missoula writer whose column appears each week in Outdoors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.