The son of a spiritualist and astrologer, Jack London maintained more earthly interests throughout his lifetime. He was drawn to the tangible, natural elements of the world — especially the great, white wilderness of the chilly Alaskan landscape. Through his own mythos, he pondered the internal monologue of man and beast in those conditions. Today is the White Fang and The Call of the Wild author’s birthday, and we’re celebrating with ten books that also go off the grid. These fictional and true-life tales highlight the inherent adventure, mystique, and philosophical draw of stories set in the great outdoors.
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 opus, Blood Meridian, “comes at the reader like a slap in the face, an affront that asks us to endure a vision of the Old West full of charred human skulls, blood-soaked scalps, a tree hung with the bodies of dead infants.” Following a gang of bounty hunters, the story is set in the wilds of the Mexican-American border during the 1840s. “The tale of slaughter that he recounts has a bleakness that matches this arid landscape; both aspects of the text express the mythoclastic notion of American as a ‘wasteland,’” John Cant wrote of the author’s epic work.
Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer
In 1992, twenty-four-year-old Christopher McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) left his family and suburban life behind, ventured into the Alaskan wilderness (ill-prepared), and died just a few months later. It’s a story that is at once heartbreaking, maddening, and rousing, chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book. McCandless’ story has since inspired a near cult following.
Walden, Henry David Thoreau
One of the granddaddies of transcendentalism, Henry David Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days in a 10-foot wide and 15-foot long cabin in the woods, “[living] deep and [sucking] out all the marrow of life.” We’re not worthy.
Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey
Edward Abbey’s 1968 autobiographical account of his three seasons as a back county park ranger in the Moab, Utah desert is essential reading for fans of environmental non-fiction/fiction. He wrote:
A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, power lines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life go to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it is there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed
Overloaded with gear and reeling from the death of her mother and a recent divorce, first time backpacker Cheryl Strayed set out to hike across the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey that took her 1,100 miles. “Perhaps her adventure is so gripping because Strayed relates its gritty, visceral details not out of a desire to milk its obviously dramatic circumstances but out of a powerful, yet understated, imperative to understand its meaning,” the New York Times wrote of the memoir. “We come to feel how her actions and her internal struggles intertwine, and appreciate the lessons she finds embedded in the natural world.”
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard’s 1974 meditation on the wilds of her own Tinker Creek, Virginia neighborhood (near Roanoke) over one year collects the author’s lyrical observations and philosophical ruminations about nature, science, and self-awareness. The book won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction.
A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, John Muir
“My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find, promising the greatest extent of virgin forest,” naturalist and author John Muir wrote in his journal when he started a 1,000-mile walk from Indiana to Florida in 1867. “Folding my map, I shouldered my little bag and plant press and strode away among the old Kentucky oaks, rejoicing in splendid visions of pines and palms and tropic flowers in glorious array, not, however without a few cold shadows of loneliness, although the great oaks seemed to spread their arms in welcome.”
In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick
Nathaniel Philbrick’s harrowing account of survival on the Pacific Ocean reveals the true-life tale that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. In 1820, an 80-foot sperm whale attacked an American whaleship from Nantucket. The gripping narrative details the castaways’ desperation as the crew attempts to sail back to South America in open boats, starving and resorting to grim measures.
The Wendigo, Algernon Blackwood
Prolific ghost story scribe Algernon Blackwood appears to be a buttoned-up Englishman in his photographs, but don’t let the bow tie fool you. “Like his lonely but fundamentally optimistic protagonists, he was a combination of mystic and outdoorsman; when he wasn’t steeping himself in occultism, including Rosicrucianism and Buddhism, he was likely to be skiing or mountain climbing,” Jack Sullivan once wrote of the short story author. Blackwood was born in London, but left England for Canada where he worked as a dairy farmer for a time. His chilling 1910 tale about a group of men in the Northern wilderness who face a supernatural Native American creature, known as the Wendigo, was inspired by Blackwood’s experiences hunting in the Canadian forests.
Anything by Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux has taken readers from the jungles of Central America (The Mosquito Coast), to a journey through Asia (The Great Railway Bazaar), and on trains travelling far and wide (Riding the Iron Rooster, The Old Patagonian Express). His newest book, Last Train to Zona Verde, My Ultimate Safari, published last year, revisits the African wilds. “There are still places of wilderness… Montana, the wilds of Maine, Vermont, they’re still in their natural state,” the author told NBC. “That evokes bliss in me. You have this illusion that it hasn’t been destroyed. It still awaits discovery. That inspires me.”