I saw a dude reading Jack London at a coffee shop in Juneau. The words of London, Robert Service, etc. inspired by the Alaska/Klondike of the past, have endured for generations, so it makes sense that people would be motivated to read those words near their geographic origin.
However, I judged the guy. I thought it was cliché to think the practice of thinking a deeper appreciation for the words could be attained just by being near where someone wrote them.
I’ve grown up a lot since then and have myself become maybe a little romantic, nostalgic or susceptible to the gravity of a place. I’ve learned that though the original context has long since faded, geography alone can provide better understanding and appreciation.
I became that guy last week when I wanted nothing more than a John Gierach book while waiting for my burger, feet from Colorado’s Frying Pan River. He didn’t write how to fish it, he just wrote about fishing it and that was enough. Had he not mentioned it, I would not have cared. Since he did, it became more than just a river. It was the exact river one of my favorite writers fished. I was there. This was it.
I was so enamored by the situation I imagined cheesy things like if Gierach had fished the very same stretch I would the next morning, or what if by some cosmic brilliance, I hooked a fish he had released the previous year or year before.
It’s one of those things that can only culminate in a, “Woah, that would be crazy” because there is nothing really substantial that could come from knowing that fact. Nothing for the life resume. But it would be cool.
What I think connects readers to the authors is the sense of accomplishment. Someone feebly attempted to put words to the enormity of even a small part of life, and the process went well enough for it to be shared.
Places are made (and unmade) by people according to perceived value and it’s interesting to see what ends up being valued and why.
People want to go to the Chris McCandless bus to camp and read Into the Wild because maybe there’s a vibe there, something extra, something insightful, something to take home.
Others think there is nothing to find there but the remains of a bus where someone died. Nothing spiritual or insightful, just a tale of arrogance, mooching, unpreparedness and general stupidity.
At some level, I think we all are susceptible to being moved by a place once we have educated ourselves about the historical, cultural or even recreational value. We tread with more appreciation, reverence and respect. It’s more enjoyable. More interesting.
But I don’t think we get the meaning to life when we’re reading about what someone did in a certain spot. I think we get a reminder that someone who was there, did something that, years later, is worth reading about and maybe we should spend more time and energy living a story worth reading too.
There really is no better place to reflect and get a sense of place, than the place that inspired heavy words.
• Jeff Lund is a writer and teacher based in Ketchikan. “I Went To The Woods,” a reference to Henry David Thoreau, appears in Outdoors twice a month.