Thursday, January 21, 2016

Something She Feared Became Home

I sat in Suzanne Roberts' Tahoe home reading her memoir, her sweet dog Ely at my feet. Dave and I were housesitting, while she and her husband vacationed in Thailand. While there, she sat on the beach and read my memoir.

Suzanne and Ely in Nevada's Black Rock Desert
We didn't know each other well; we'd set up the housesit gig through a mutual friend. But there we were, simultaneously learning about each others' lives through our books. Both writers, teachers, and lovers of nature and travel, it seems our connection was meant to be.

Suzanne's memoir, Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, chronicles the book title's adventure. She was only in her twenties when she decided to hop on the trail with two friends. In our discussion--part of my Books That Inspire series--she talks about how that decision changed her life.

Why did you title your book Almost Somewhere?

Living in the moment has always been a constant struggle for me, and one of the ways I am most able to be present is in the natural world. The book is about a 28-day hike, and really, when you’re backpacking, you have no choice but to live in the moment, to realize that the going and getting there isn’t the point, that the almost somewhere is a place, too, and really, the most important place of all because that is where you are and that’s all you really have.

When you took off on the John Muir Trail, you had read Muir and thought a lot about his portrayals of nature. In what ways do his visions of the natural world resonate with you? And in what ways is your vision different?

Muir celebrates the natural world, and that resonated with me, then and now. A difference, though, is that Muir doesn’t write about fear very often, at least not his own. Though I am more comfortable now in the natural world than I was in my twenties, there is still that fear—not of nature itself or animals, but of strange men in the wilderness. That’s a fear that most men don’t often think about but is very real for many women.

Regarding fear, you write about how women are taught to hate and fear the outdoors. Can you say more about this? Why do you think this is so—and what can be done about it?

I have thought about this a lot. I wrote a dissertation about how when women try to experience the pastoral landscapes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it often becomes scary, turns gothic. In early works of literature, it’s clear that “twilight is not good for maidens.” And it is always in the out-of-doors, where bad things happen to the maiden—she is kidnapped or raped or bitten by the vampire. These cultural constructs have entered our consciousness. Things are changing, certainly, but we are still living in the shadow of this long history, where women were taught that the outdoors was no place for a lady.

The best thing we can do, as women, is to go out and explore the wilderness and write our own stories about it. I am much more comfortable in the wilderness [than when I was younger]. I have lived in the Sierra for the past 16 years, so the mountains are now home for me, and home is not scary.


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You write that on the hike "you began to learn that I could not have guessed at the ways in which our tomorrows would take care of themselves." Is this a disposition that has stayed with you?

It’s something I strive for, but I still worry. The true work is always a process, right?

How did your experience on the trail affect the trajectory of the years that followed it?

It changed everything. I moved to Colorado and then Lake Tahoe. I knew that in order to be happy, I would need to spend as much time as possible outside in the natural world.

What advice would you give to people who want to hike John Muir or another long trail?

Choose your hiking companions carefully. Make sure your shoes fit correctly. Don’t bring “just-in-case” items—pack light. Bring lemon drops (my favorite trail treat). Pack out your toilet paper.

What advice do you give to people who want to write memoir?

Read as many books as you can. And read like a writer, trying to figure out what is working and why. Take a class. Join a writing group. Go to readings and conferences and meet other writers. But mostly, stop talking about it and thinking about it, and do it. Thinking about writing a book and writing a book have very little in common.

What would you tell your younger self?

Stop worrying so much—there is no boogieman in the forest; the friends who matter will always love you; the plane will not crash; you won’t even remember his name. If someone you love is in the hospital, get on the next plane. And, you have no idea how beautiful your skin is. Appreciate it—literally and figuratively.


Suzanne Roberts, who is currently working on another memoir, is also the author of four collections of poetry. She holds a doctorate in Literature and the Environment from the University of Nevada-Reno, and currently teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low residency MFA programs in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College and Chatham. For more information, please visit her website at www.suzanneroberts.net. 
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