By John Riha
John Riha’s Rookies in the Wild is part memoir and part field guide, with a good dose of history thrown in. Parts sound like Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac.
With no hiking or camping experience (ever, apparently), Riha decided that he and his teenage son should spend three days hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It would be a quality father and son experience and, according to Riha, a “sort of middle-age vision quest, replete with dangers and spiritual cleansing and last-chance opportunities at parental redemption.”
Riha planned the trip for months, reading guides, studying maps, and buying gear, a lot of gear—several thousand dollars worth. Besides the best hiking boots, packs, tents, sleeping bags, and other essentials:
“A medical kit capable of providing for open-heart surgery in primitive conditions; bear bells that jingle as you walk, alerting bears to the proximity of candy bars; camp cloths and eco-friendly soap; a nested set of aluminum cookware; sporks; waterproof matches; PBA-free plastic bottles; an unbreakable plastic mirror for signaling airplanes if you should be in dire need of rescue.”
Riha doesn’t miss the humor in his spending thousands for a relatively short hike. Making fun of himself is something he does well. Besides over-playing his lack of outdoor knowledge and his lack of physical fitness, he writes a lot about his fears:
“As I half crouched in my floppy camp sandals I was acutely aware of how ill-equipped the human body is for mortal combat….Take us out of context—away from our thermostatically regulated homes and movies-on-demand—and plop us into a moonlit wilderness night in our underwear, and we become less evolution’s grand achievement than, well, food.”
His greatest hike-related fear was being eaten by a mountain lion. So much space is devoted to these large cats—their history in the U.S., their killing capabilities, and stories about them—that we think Riha is foreshadowing at least a sighting of one. We also read pages about the Douglas-fir. The tree becomes such an important part of the book at one point, that I was convinced the book would end in a grand incident involving a lion and a fir-tree. But it didn’t.
Riha’s writing is excellent. Although there were no lions, rattlesnake bites, or avalanches on their mostly uneventful hike, I enjoyed every page. The book made me want to shake the dust off my field guides and take my son camping and hiking.
My only criticism is that there is some unnecessary crude language and subject matter—over the top “potty humor,” which seems out-of-place after reading something that reminds you of Leopold. Other than that, it’s a great book that was a joy for me to read. I finished the book hoping that Riha would both continue to hike and continue to write. Maybe he’s not an outdoorsman, but he is certainly a writer.