After nearly two decades, readers and adventurers are still magnetized by Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer’s story of Christopher McCandless. Though he was inexperienced, McCandless traveled into the Alaskan wilderness. He lived and died by the majesty of nature, and his story is inspirational for its grit, its hope in the face of adversity, and perhaps most of all, McCandless’s philosophical musings that questioned materialism and celebrated simplicity. For more wild and inspiring stories, check out these 10 novels.
1. The Only Kayak: A Journey Into The Heart Of Alaska, by Kim Heacox
Heacox and Steele are novice kayakers with no business paddling the glacial waters of Alaska, but they paddle anyway. After growing disgusted with his park ranger job–where he was charged with explaining the beauty of Alaska to flighty vacationers aboard Princess cruise ships–Heacox needed an escape.
In this coming-of-middle-age memoir, Heacox aptly describes the beauties of the Alaskan wilderness: ice melting, wild flowers erupting, moose crossing shivering fjords, and a bear’s determined quest for food. But his journey is about more than beautiful vistas. Alaska’s raw frontier and treacherous landscapes change his perspective. The allures of mass consumerism and capitalist ideologies fade into the background. And the rookie kayakers learn to embrace the unexpected twists and dangers of life.
2. How I Became a Tree, by Sumana Roy
Disillusioned with life’s curfews, restrictive clothing, and relentless pace, Sumana Roy wishes to become a tree. At first this arboreal aspiration seems odd, but as she weaves personal stories with images of the Himalayas, the tree’s existence becomes covetable. Roy combines passages of poetry, botany, and personal history, and she explores how deforestation has contributed to the death of our imaginations. She discusses the concept of time–our clock time versus the tree’s measure of time, and tree speech–the modes of communication employed by nature. Through the incorporation of Indian folktales, How I Became A Tree illustrates how trees might help us escape our loops of industrial oppression and return to nature.
3. Walden: Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau
Though Walden was written in 1854, it captures the retreat into nature, simplicity, and self-reliance we crave today. The book describes Thoreau’s two year stay on Walden Pond, an isolated, “bottomless” body of water near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau builds a cabin near the pond and grows crops for sustenance with little support or outside influence. During his time at the cabin, he grapples with the pettiness of society, an arrest for his refusal to pay poll taxes, violent storms, and a relentless winter. Thoreau’s experiment on Walden Pond is at once suspenseful and enamoring.
4. The Last American Man, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Gilbert writes about Eustace Conway–a modern day Davy Crockett–hunter, woodsman, visionary, and apparently, an excellent romantic partner. Conway criticizes modern American life, characterized by hustle, bustle, and a complete departure from the natural world. He aims to create a community (Turtle Island Preserve) where the average American can learn outdoor skills. But when his community springs to life, Conway is disappointed to hear members have opinions and ideas that differ from his own. Conflict erupts.
Through Gilbert’s carefully crafted writing, we learn about Conway’s complicated upbringing with a tyrannical, abusive father in The Last American Man. We witness how the ghost of this formative relationship haunts Conway, his loves, his goals, and his success.
5. Bad Karma: The True Story of a Mexico Trip from Hell, by Paul Wilson
Paul Wilson is 21 in the summer of 1978. He’s an aspiring surfer, bent on riding Mexico’s mainland waves. When two local surfing dynamos offer him the chance to road trip to his dream surfing destination, all he can think about is the perfection of the swells. He doesn’t consider that the group is headed into drug cartel territory, or how he’ll pay his way. Lack of funds and youthful stupidity lead him to rob a supermarket for cash. From there, things go downhill quickly. Wilson learns his road trip buddies are both on the run. One left behind a soon-to-be-born child, and the other is a convicted killer. Will Wilson spiral into a life of crime and deceit or will he somehow make it to the beach with a shred of dignity? Bad Karma is studded with visceral prose and original photos, including an image of a youthful El Chapo.
6. Wild Woman: A Footnote, the Desert, and My Quest for an Elusive Saint, by Amy Johnson Frykholm
In a dusty library, yawning through the stacks, Amy Frykholm is shaken awake by a footnote describing Mary of Egypt (c. 344 – c. 421). Mary was the archetypal “wild woman.” She was in exile, a prostitute, an introvert, a traveler across deserts, a saint, a transcendent. And yet, she is virtually unknown to the modern world. To unlock the mysterious history of Mary of Egypt, Frykholm travels to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine. As Frykholm retraces Mary’s steps, she uncovers her own insights and wild desires. Wild Woman is one part historical sleuthing and one part personal transformation, and it will keep you wondering about women’s untold stories the whole way through.
7. Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, by Donnie Eichar
We trek into nature to steal a glance at its mystery and beauty, but natural beauty is often accompanied by danger. This was certainly the case in the mystery of Dyatlov Pass. In 1959, nine Russian university students embarked on an icy hike through the Ural Mountains. They wanted to prove their capability and endurance, but no one made it out of the mountains alive.
Eichar investigates the cause of the hikers’ perplexing deaths in Dead Mountain. Some hikers suffered violent injuries including blunt-force traumas, severed tongues, fractured skulls, and missing eyes. It appeared the hikers’ tent had been slashed open with a knife from the inside. Unprecedented levels of radiation were found on their clothes. And the rumor mill generated a tangled web of theories–government conspiracy, foul play, avalanche, and even alien encounters. Through the study of the hikers’ cameras, government records, and interviews with people close to the mystery, Eichar hunts for the truth.
8. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
In 1914, Earnest Shackleton longed to trek across Antarctica on foot. At the time, Antarctica was the last unmapped continent, and in Shackleton’s mind, the last mystery. With a crew of 27, Shackleton set sail into icy waters, but soon their ship, Endurance, was surrounded by ice floes. The ice crushed the ship, and the crew took their chances on the surrounding ice pack. To survive, they would need to maintain incredible fortitude in an impossible climate with nothing more than three open boats. Endurance has no shortage of frigid obstacles, and the crew is always one mistake away from death.
Lansing’s account of Endurance is particularly notable for its attempt at historical accuracy. He built the novel around an extensive collection of crew diary entries and also interviews with surviving crew members.
9. Good Morning Midnight: Life and Death in the Wild, by Chip Brown
Brown attempts to capture the life of Guy Waterman, a man with a luminous but perplexing past. Waterman was a prominent republican speech writer, an avid mountaineer, father, and lover. But at the age of 67, Waterman took his own life in a snowbank by suffering hypothermia. Often suicide is the final chapter, but Brown sought to tell Waterman’s story–and its mysteries–in full. Brown explores the reasons why a seemingly successful, almost deified man would choose to end his own life. He also examines the effect of Waterman’s death on remaining family members. At the heart of the story is Waterman’s return to the wild and the solace and respite he sought in the snow.
10. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
Tsing follows foragers on their quests through the forests of Oregon, Yunnan, Japan, and Lapland as they hunt for the rare and prized matsutake mushroom. These mushrooms are considered gourmet, highly valuable, and rare. Matsutakes only grow in forests disturbed by humans. Some people say the first thing to grow after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was the matsutake. Through her forest explorations, Tsing examines the interaction between human activity and the wild, making surprising revelations along the way in The Mushroom at the End of the World.