Hippo Manchester
October 13, 2005

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Another writer goes hiking

By Lisa Parsons  news@hippopress.com

Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape: Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondacks, by Bill McKibben, Crown Publishers, 2005, 157 pages.

Crown Journeys is a series of books wherein well-known authors travel within or to chosen places and write about it. Michael Cunningham did Provincetown (Land’s End); Christopher Buckley did Washington, D.C. (Washington Schlepped Here); Chuck Palahniuk did Portland, Ore. (Fugitives and Refugees), and Frank Conroy did Nantucket (Time and Tide). With Wandering Home, the 14th book in the series, Bill McKibben tackles the wilds of Vermont and New York.

McKibben, a visiting scholar at Middlebury College, has lived in the Adirondacks for some time; he’s established a habit of attending to nature (as in The End of Nature, his 1987 book about global warming, and Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age). So it is fitting that he should chronicle a rambling hike from Ripton, Vt., to Crane Mountain in New York, stopping to chat with environmentalist acquaintances and earnest college students, crossing Lake Champlain, sleeping under the sky, getting muddy and brush-scratched as he goes.

Two things make this account special. One, its subject: those of us familiar with this Lake Champlain Valley / Adirondack area, not so far from New Hampshire (extending right into it, perhaps), can easily agree with McKibben that it “constitutes one of the world’s few great regions, a place more complete, and more full of future promise, than any other spot in the American atlas.” Two, McKibben’s pointed observation that “People are trying things here.” This is more than a see-the-pretty-trees story; it is about Middlebury’s cooperative cheese plant, college students learning to succeed at small farming, residents negotiating sustainable use of the forest, people striving for energy independence (solar pumps, biodiesel, soybean oil). McKibben engages in some discourse about Earth First! versus civilization and comes down with ease on the side of those who say nature’s nice and we are part of it.

McKibben confides that he was not always a back-to-nature man. He went from college straight to The New Yorker magazine to write the “Talk of the Town” column — “about as urban a job as it’s possible to imagine,” he says — but in his mid-20s he wrote an account of where every pipe and wire in his Manhattan apartment came from and went to, and everything changed because he “had the sudden insight that the physical world actually mattered.”

The book, a small, quick read, imparts a nice sense of a place and a nice sense of the world’s mattering.