I gravitate to books that catch the reader unawares, either because they take us to places we didn’t expect to go or because they show us parts of ourselves we didn’t know. Or best yet, both.
Steve Edward’s slim memoir, Breaking into the Backcountry does both, with a great deal of quiet and unassuming grace. It’s the kind of story that could go all macho: young writer recovering from divorce wins the PEN/Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, which gives him a small stipend and seven months alone in Oregon’s wild Rogue River Canyon as the caretaker of a backcountry homestead two hours from the nearest town…
Edwards goes the harder and more honest route of entering what Zen Buddhists sometimes call “beginner’s mind,” conjuring up the naive, inexperienced and sometimes fearful 26-year-old that he was when he and his father set off to drive the 2,316 miles from his hometown in Indiana to the wilderness homestead in southeastern Oregon. Back at home “still living in the town where I was born,” life has begun to feel, “Not terrible. Just sort of ordinary.” On the road, traveling a distance as “unfathomable” to him as the distance between Earth and the moon, Edwards muses that despite all of his reading–of the manual on the homestead and the care and feeding of its propane stoves and lights, plumbing, the pond to supply irrigation and firefighting water and the apple orchards, of books on the Pacific Northwest–“I still don’t totally know what to expect. The moon might be more familiar to me than the Rogue River Canyon.”
Over the course of this gentle and beautiful narrative, Edwards faces his fears, his loneliness and his exhilaration at the spectacular wild landscape where he finds himself, a place of huge trees, deep canyons, bears, deer, mountain lion, strangers who might or might not be friendly, forest fires, and the cold waters of the Rogue River itself. He chronicles both his missteps and his inching progress toward grace with a clear-eyed honesty that shows his experiences as the kind of transformative journey we all aim for.
“I watch a dragonfly nymph on the end of a long blade of grass. Sometime in the past few hours it has emerged from the water, climbed to this perch, and begun to shed its shell. I can see its thin blue abdomen, its white wings. … Dragonflies are the insect I most associate with my father, our fishing trips. The way a pair of them would land on the tip of his rod and flutter off, chasing each other in wild zigzags. But this one, on its wind-bent blade of grass, is a thing so small and vulnerable. Fearing that it might fall into the water and get eaten up, I grab my walking stick and offer it as a safer, more sturdy platform for the dragonfly to crawl onto. And of course—of course—in my clumsiness, my thinking I can improve on millions of years of evolution, I accidentally knock it into the water, where it drowns. …
“If anything redeems the hemorrhaging mice, the drowned dragonfly, the knowing bullfrog glancing up at me as chemicals rain down on his head and home, it’s that the love I feel here—the kind and terrible love—is large enough, empty enough, to ingest the poison of my transgressions without itself becoming contaminated. Regardless of my fear and ineptitude, my faithlessness, my feelings of being unworthy of the gift set in front of me, moments of grace somehow come.”
So they do for all of us, if only we have the gratitude and humility to notice them. In Breaking into the Backcountry, Steve Edwards shows that he does.