When one sees me about town, festooned in my finery, the epitome of elegance, one may assume that the outdoors are of little import to me. But while I may appear to be more concerned with polishing my monocles or removing the cat hair from my topcoat, be assured that while I’m no John Muir, my affinity for natural splendor is as rich and vast as our National Parks System, and given ongoing efforts to diminish the aforementioned treasure, it will likely soon exceed it. Indeed, as I see it, there are few better ways to flee from what ails you than to compete in a hot air balloon race or to make a few loops around the park on one’s penny-farthing. Alas, we now find ourselves firmly in the clenches of winter’s icy claws. Though perhaps when this is published we’ll have returned to fall’s friendly if distressingly moist grasp. Of course, that moist grasp will be at best a brief reprieve before it refreezes and the soggy fingers reform as icy claws from which there is no escape (until spring).
While a little cold won’t keep me from my beloved balloon races, there is no doubt that it will diminish the frequency and my enjoyment of the endeavor. Naturally, I look to literature to slake my thirst for nature adventures. With “an exhilarating tale delivered with the pace of a thriller and the wisdom of a grizzled nature guide” like Peter Heller’s “The River,” this slaking occurs on two fronts. One: I get to experience a grand adventure through nature. Two: I’m reminded that nature is on fire, and there are bad men with guns hunting me in it.
“The River” is about a pair of best friends on a canoe trip. It’s not long before they discover that a massive forest fire is trying to catch up to them, and it’s not long after that that they discover a pair of shady, drunken hillbillies. Shortly after that, they encounter a woman with significant injuries. So, being the noble outdoorsmen they are, they attempt first aid and work toward getting her back to civilization while evading the party that caused her injuries. It’s a thrilling ride with just enough outdoors-y jargon to immerse you in their world and maybe teach you a thing or two.
The writing aims for a merging of utilitarian and poetic, and while some poets may argue that is redundant, I’m not going to take the time to think of a better way to describe it. Here is a notable passage that leans to the latter descriptor:
“Across the river and downstream, high up, somewhere over where the fire should be, there was a pale cloud that drifted and elongated and accordioned into a high curtain of softest light, and as he watched, it spread silently across the northern sky. It pulsed with inner radiance as if alive and then poured itself like a cascade to the horizon and shimmered with green. A pale green cataract of something scintillant that spread across an entire quadrant and sang as it fell with total absence: of sound, of substance, of water or air. In the week before, they had sometimes seen what looked like the faint moving clouds, but not this. Now an arc of greener light shot from the top of the falls and jumped the current of the Milky Way and ignited a swirl of pink in the southeast that humped and crested like a wave. Jack shivered. The northern lights had just enacted what the heat and sparks would do when they jumped the river. It was like a portent-more: a preview-and it was as if every cantlet and breath of the night was filled with song-and silent. It was terrifying and unutterably beautiful.”
Just transcribing that has eased my thirst to pilot a hot air balloon at, relative to a hot air balloon, high speed. I hope reading it has done the same for you.