There’s only one thing better than a great book about an outdoor adventure, and that’s having an adventure yourself. But some of the best adventure classics are best read read in situ—sitting by the banks of the Colorado, in a high mountain meadow, or on an island in the middle of the sea.
Desert Solitaire by Edward AbbeyAbbey’s narrative of his travels in the slickrock deserts of the Southwest as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in the 1960s is the perfect companion for any journey through the Southwest. Abbey describes being drawn into the desert from a winter job at a restaurant in Hoboken NJ, the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the Southwest and escape from civilization that helped define an age of environmentalism. Abbey will help you fall in love with a landscape lacking trees and water, but plenty of beauty and mystery.
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest by Wade DavisMallory’s “because it’s there” statement about why he wanted to climb Everest is alternately taken as either summary of how powerfully mountains seduce adventurers, or the foolish rashness of quests to inhospitable places. Wade Davis finds the origins of the quest for Everest in the trauma, both national and personal, that permeated Britain after World War I. The quest for the summit was a quest to redeem the nation’s wounded pride, reassure a society in upheaval after the Great War, and heal the spirits of mountaineers who had served on the Western Front. Mountains aren’t just about mountains: they’re about the world we leave behind when we climb them.
Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival by Carl SafinaWhen satellite trackers became small, scientists quickly began using them to unravel the mysteries of migration. And no creature’s movements are more fascinating and mysterious than the Albatross, which spends the vast majority of its life wandering the world’s seas, returning to the nest occasionally to feed their chicks. Safina follows the adventures of a Laysan Albatross from the Hawaiian Islands, crafting a blend of science and adventure tale that touches every aspect of the ocean—fisheries, marine plastics, sea turtles, and the vast mystery of the open ocean.
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice MillardMost former Presidents work the cushy and lucrative lecture circuit and write their memoirs. Some, like Carter and Clinton, run foundations. Theodore Roosevelt decided on a singular post-Presidential activity: he joined a 1000-mile expedition down an unmapped tributary of the Amazon, the River of Doubt (now called the Rio Roosevelt). The expedition faced with dangerous rapids, starvation diets, murder, hostile native tribes equipped with poison-tipped arrows, disease, and piranhas and other deadly creatures. Three men died, and Roosevelt teetered on the edge of death. Millard’s narrative is both fascinating and terrifying, a riveting window into both a remote corner of the world and a unique personality.
The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan WeinerWhen a story begins with leaping from a boat bobbing in ocean swell onto a tiny square flat rock that’s the only way onto an uninhabited island, you know the story will be interesting. But most adventures don’t last this long. Weiner follows two scientists through a two-decade study of one of the Galapagos’ most remote islands, where they map out the evolution of Darwin’s famous finches over many life cycles. In the process, they largely raise their family on the remote island. After this blend of swashbuckling field biology and a cerebral study of evolution, you won’t forget the Grant family any time soon.
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley PowellIf you read it sitting in an easy chair under an incandescent bulb, Powell’s expedition journal from the descent of the Green and Colorado reads like many an 18th-century explorer’s tale: dry, fusty, and long. But it comes alive when it’s read on the banks of the Colorado, listening to the current rush by and watching the light play on canyon walls. Suddenly, the wonder of exploration and the fear of unseen rapids are the same 150 years later. You can easily imagine the one-armed explorer sitting next to you, coffee cup in hand, musing aloud about what might lie around the river’s next bend. A copy is required gear for any Grand Canyon trip, along with throw bag, groover, and straw hat.
The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific by Paul TherouxTheroux’s journey through the Pacific from Australia to Hawaii with a floating kayak isn’t an adrenaline-filled adventure. Instead it’s a long and deep journey through the complex mosaic of Oceania. He hops from small island villages to hobnobbing with Tongan monarchs, plumbs the complex interwoven fabric of island culture and colonial history, and kayaks to remote atolls with sharks and saltwater crocodiles. You won’t have the fear coursing through your system as you will when John Wesley Powell encounters Lava Falls or Ed Abbey gets lost in the desert, but you’ll want to find a folding kayak and get on a plane as soon as you possibly can.