Wilderness: The Gateway to the Soul

Scott Stillman, Wilderness: The Gateway to the Soul (Boulder, CO: Wild Soul Press, 2018), 198 pages.

I really wanted to like this book. I thought I would enjoy it. After all, like Stillman, I have done many wilderness trips, both overland and on water. I’ve solo backpacked, off-trail and cross-country, in some of the same areas in which he explores in his book. Wilderness is a collection of accounts of Stillman’s mountain, desert and backwoods trips across the American West. Sadly, I found many of his stories to be flat. Too many lacked suspense and a plot line. To me, Stillman’s book reads like my journals (in which I scribble and make notes of my experiences, and like him occasional composing a line or two of poetry). But I don’t share my journals, I save them and later will distill from them what will go into a story. Instead of his journals serving as the source of ideas, it appears Stillman is offering up slightly edited journal entries.

 

My favorite story in this book was in the second chapter (Sycamore Canyon Wilderness, Arizona). The author is hiking through the Arizona desert, from Cottonwood to Sedona. In this story, I could feel the suspense and even some thirst as he struggled to find water. I would have liked to have felt such thirst (or sore muscles or fear) in all the stories. The wilderness can be a place many of us go to find healing, but we must also realize that it’s a dangerous place. Only when we are willing to take the risk can we experience the transformation that such places offers.

 

It appears to me that Stillman has some good ideas about the role of wilderness (many of which I share). But instead of developing the idea from the experiences contained within a story, these ideas are dropped in as a “truth.” Instead of the allowing the reader to gain from the struggles and the joy of being in the wild, coming to their own conclusions as we experience through words his experiences, Stillman tells us what to think. These are all solid ideas that I have held, such as it doesn’t take a lot of

 

In my opinion, Stillman also overuses lists (this is the second recent book I’ve reviewed and made this observation). He will drop a series of one word descriptions describing the weather, what he’s seeing, among other things. While occasionally a list can be a beneficial technique for emphasis, I felt many of these lists could be woven into the story and used as a way to draw the reader into his encounter within the wild. Stillman appears to strive for a minimalist style of writing (as in his hiking) by using short sentences and even many one-word sentences (which create a list).

 

Stillman has done a wonderful job advertising his self-published book. Using his incredible talents as a photographer, with a clever line or two from the book, I was sucked in. It’s too bad that Stillman didn’t publish a book of photographs with one or two line reflections. Such a book, while expensive to produce, would be a thing of beauty. There are no photos in this book except for those on the cover. In his advertisement copy, there is a quote comparing Stillman to Edward Abbey. While it is no doubt that Stillman, like Abbey, loves the wilderness and wants to protect it, his writings lack Abbey’s wit and “reverent irreverence.” Abbey always presented himself as a bit of a contraction (driving old gas guzzling cars and tossing beer cans out onto the desert floor while fighting against those threatening the environment). Stillman appears to have everything worked out neatly in his head, even before he has such experiences. His trips into the wilderness only confirms his beliefs.

 

I recommend everyone to find a way to appreciate the grandeur of the world in which we live. Such experiences help us understand ourselves better. But I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this book. Hopefully, the author will follow his hero, Edward Abbey, and continue to hone his craft. Abbey’s first book, Jonathan Troy, was not very well received, but when his second book, The Brave Cowboy came out, he had found his voice. The West is a complex place (which may be why I’ve yet to write about it outside of a few academic and historical pieces). To understand the West as a place which can help us to understand ourselves better requires so many different levels of thought: human and natural history, geology, hydrology, weather, botany, forestry, animal science, industrial development, economics, among other studies.


Comments

Wilderness: The Gateway to the Soul — 12 Comments

  1. Yeah I would imagine a book without any real suspense or even poetry about the wilderness around you would be pretty dull. I’ve read those camp journals where it just provides a list of things they’d seen or done on a trip (my dad and his friends have a tradition of leaving a journal at their shared camp, and everyone who visits writes a short entry describing their stay). I’ve also had people get mad at me for “livening up” their journals.

    To be fair, I may have embellished our trip a little (okay, a lot), but it was way more interesting than “saw two moose and caught three fish.”

    • I like the idea of leaving a journal behind. On the Appalachian Trail, there are registers in most of the shelters and everyone writes in them (I wish I could have kept a copy of all I wrote in those registers, but I hiked the trail in the days before digital photograph, so no snapping of pics

    • Lee, It was nice to read about some of the places I’ve been such as the Sawtooth in Idaho, some of the canyons in Utah, the Sierras so even if I was a bit frustrated, I still read it and glad I did. Sometimes, though, I find reading outdoor books just make me that much more anxious to get back outdoors.

  2. I agree: it sounds so promising! What a shame that it fell short.

    I haven’t delved too far into outdoor adventure book territory, though I’m a huge fan of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods – easily one of my favorite reads over the past ten years. At one point, I harbored a fantasy of hiking Vermont’s Long Trail with my daughter and writing about it. Now that she’s at the age when that would be feasible, neither of us is much of a hiker. Besides, there’s always my fear of heights to contend with. However, I have no doubt there are other adventures in store.

    • I have thought several times about doing the Long Trail–I’ve done the lower 1/3 (which is also the Appalachian Trail). I found it not to be that hilly (nothing compared to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. I hope you and your daughter find many adventures to share.

  3. It’s unfortunate that this book didn’t meet the expectations you held for it. Appreciating the marvel of the world around us is indeed a way to better understand ourselves. It’s too bad this book didn’t follow through on this idea.

  4. Many thanks for your thoughts on this book.
    A shame that it didn’t live up to your expectations.

    All the best Jan

  5. I am reading this book right now and am finding it inspiring! It isn’t meant to be a story with a plot. It is meant to be a journal that the author wrote whwich includes his connections to nature on a very elemental level, as well as his practice of silence in nature.
    The title drew me in and the entries have inspired me.

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