A solitary journey into the vast Gates of the Arctic wilderness provided just the right surroundings for Bill Sherwonit to reflect on his life journey and his particular way of thinking about wilderness, wildness, and himself. The result was Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness (University of Alaska Press, 2009, $21.95).
Bill Sherwonit is a wilderness advocate and nature writer whose resume lists a dozen books and a wealth of articles and essays. Many of you Traveler readers have already read some of his stuff. The rest of you should seriously consider it, and Sherwonit’s most recent work would be a great place to start. It is, I think, his best effort to date.
As the title implies, there are two interwoven, mutually supporting themes in Sherwonit’s latest book. One is his backpacking trip in Gates of the Arctic National Park, a two-week, seven-camp, 50-mile long trip taken without benefit of companionship, any special physical conditioning, or extensive wilderness backpacking experience. This is the theme that carries the heavy weight. The second theme is Sherwonit’s mental exploration of the life journey that saw him transformed from a shy, sensitive boy growing up in Connecticut into a popular nature writer, wilderness lover, and environmental activist living and adventuring in Alaska.
Sherwonit blends these physical and mental journeys in a journalistic style called creative nonfiction (aka literary journalism), a writing genre that can be very difficult to master. University of Idaho English Professor Phil Druker points out that balance is the critical variable:
The author tells a story (entertains the readers), presents factual information (expands readers' knowledge of the subject), and shares passion for the topic. The trick is to balance these three elements to make the text work for the readers….
If you do this thing correctly, you get well-grounded nonfiction that’s loaded with useful, interesting facts but still reads like well-written fiction. That is, when you start reading it, you don’t want to put it down because you’ve just got to know what comes next. Good storytellers can make us feel this way, and as anyone who reads Changing Paths can attest, Bill Sherwonit is one hell of a good storyteller.
Bill’s a deep thinker, too. Here’s what he has to say about the personal worth of wilderness treks like his Gates of the Arctic adventure.
….”being part of” [nature] is something I too easily forget when immersed in urban routines, though in my middle-aged years I have done a better job of regularly bringing wild nature into my daily life. And myself into nature. I have managed this through year-round walks, natural history studies of the plants and animals with whom I share the Anchorage landscape, journal writing, and the midlife discovery of the joys inherent in bird feeding and wild berry harvesting. Still, I don’t know that I would have been able to (re)establish a deeper relationship with both the wild “other” and wild inner self without the awareness I’ve gained through deeper trips into wilderness, where society’s influences are stripped away to reveal what’s essential.
The shifts of consciousness that occur seem nonlinear, almost quantum jumps, as my time in the wilds increases from an hour or two to a day, a week, a month. The more deeply I move, both into wilderness and out of my regular time and busyness, the more cultural layers I shed and the more easily I become part of the larger nature that’s always there.
Because it offers few urgent distractions -- grizzly bears, prime hypothermia weather, and treacherous stream crossings being notable exceptions – the wilderness isolation that Gates of the Arctic affords is conducive to introspection. Sherwonit sees the experience not just as a physical test (with death as the possible price of failure), but also as a quest for greater understanding. “I want to better comprehend,” he says” why wilderness matters so much to me and other like-minded (and hearted) souls. And, immersed in wilderness, I hope to better know my own wild nature.”
The temporal blending of the physical and mental movements makes this narrative an “easy read.” The wilderness trek unfolds mile by mile, camp by camp, incident by incident. At the same time, the author’s life story is revealed stage by stage, watershed event by watershed event, epiphany by epiphany. The flow of the trip and the flow of the author’s life seem to merge, becoming the same stream. At the end of the trip, we not only know a very great deal about America’s preeminent wilderness, we also know a very great deal about Sherwonit the man. Both of them are fascinating, and that’s why I can enthusiastically commend this book to your attention.
A parting word about introspection, or “meditations” as the book’s title calls it. By the time you reach the far side of middle age (and at 50 years old, that’s where Bill was when he wrote this book) you realize that introspection is worth the trouble only if it is done the right way. When you tell others about your mental life – what’s going on inside your head – you had better be honest, even if it hurts. To his credit, Bill would not have us believe that he is a candidate for sainthood. He has very human flaws, and that makes his achievements all the more inspirational. May his kind increase.