Hiking Alone: Trails Out, Trails Home
by Mary Beath


University of New Mexico Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8263-4329-1.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 05/02/2008
Review of the Month, May 2008

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

In the introduction to Hiking Alone, poet, essayist and artist Mary Beath writes, "In many ways my story is an old one, so familiar it seems almost iconic. Go West. Unbind. Connect to the land. Link your inner journey with the outer one. As a woman, unblock your voice and speak your experience. But within those broad outlines, any individual life unfolds in a complex way..."

Beath's memoir in essays does unfold in a complex way, moving through time and place in a wonderfully non-linear fashion. Despite the title, it's not really about hiking, nor about being alone. It's much broader. This story of Beath's life examines capital "L" life: who we are, why we're here, how we live, and how we learn to live. As she moves from New York to Arizona to Gotham, Nebraska to New Mexico to Colorado's Weminuche Wilderness to the hot sands and cool waters of the Sea of Cortez to Zuni Pueblo to Brazil and finally to a vision quest along New Mexico's Mimbres River, Beath untangles the threads of her life, until at last, she can see herself—and be herself—more or less whole.

It's the rare writer who can weave together such a set of disparate narratives, and it's the rare writer who can explore traditional agriculture as deftly as the politics of lobbying Congress on wilderness bills and the feel of a whale shark's skin, much less come through a vision quest speculating about reconfigured neural pathways. Beath is such a rare writer, and her journey through her "zigzaggy" life is as illuminating and vivid as her carefully honed prose.

Beath returns to the slippery nature of story near the end of Hiking Alone: "None of us, of course, can tell another the whole story; and the substitution of story for experience inevitably brings up the limitations of language. Representation with words can never capture the entire physical, emotional, memory-washed reality of a life..."

But if Mary Beath is telling the story, it'll come close, and the words will ring clear and true.

Check out our interview with the author of Hiking Alone.


Illustrator, author, naturalist, Mary Beath celebrates her "zigzaggy" path from a childhood in Washington, DC to a year in Istanbul, a decade in New York's East Village, and now the home she has found in Albuquerque, New Mexico's rural South Valley. Fascinated with science in childhood, she studied zoology at Duke University, but ended up with a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design and a life in art and words that explore her love of what Aldo Leopold called "the community of the land." Her first book, Refuge of Whirling Light, received the Wrangler Award for Poetry and was a finalist for both the WILLA and Spur awards.

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