In 1993, Suzanne Roberts was at a crossroads. She was 22 with a degree in biology and no plan for the future. She could get a job or move back home with her parents, neither of which appealed to her. So when a friend suggested they hike the John Muir Trail, the prospect of walking 200 miles from Mt. Whitney to the Yosemite Valley seemed spot on. That was nearly 20 years ago. Today, Roberts is celebrating the release of her memoir on that hike, “Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail.”

“I didn’t go on the trip intending to write a book. I always kept a journal and had a vague notion that I might want to become a writer, but at 22, I had not done the work,” she said. “I think that in order to write a book, especially a memoir, a certain degree of perspective is needed, something that comes to us through a more developed sense of self, which takes time.

“I began writing about that first trip of the John Muir in 1993, but didn’t see it as a book until about 10 years after that. I finished a draft of it, or thought I had, in 2008, but then the real work had to happen—the re-visioning, rewriting, and revising. So how long did the book take to write?” she asked. “Five years? Ten years? Nineteen years? As it turns out, all of the above is true.”

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The primary delight in “Almost Somewhere” is its sheer candidness. Roberts shows her vulnerability at mile markers along the trail. She becomes tired, sore, hungry, and grumpy, and questions the purpose of the trip and her ability to overcome her many fears.

With a strong-willed leader on one side and a friend battling bulimia on the other, in the beginning of the story she focuses on the struggles of the three women and their strained interactions. A little farther down the trail, however, Roberts begins to reconcile with her friends as she looks closer at her surroundings and the small parts of nature that make up the whole. Recalling pieces of natural history she had learned from biology, she relays interesting facts about flora and fauna. Apart from science, she confronts questions about nature: women in nature, men in nature, and culture in nature. She asks, “What wildness is left? How do we fit in? How do I fit?” More broadly, Roberts looks at mankind’s good and bad traits and scrutinizes her own.

I was quickly drawn into this memoir. Roberts is honest in her self-examination, and she’s funny! I laughed out loud throughout the entire book. Who wouldn’t chuckle with chapter titles named “Hiking to Tent City in Men’s Underwear,” “The Commander Cuddles Up to the Murderer?” and “Naked Man and a Water Ouzel.” Staying true to the name of the trail, Roberts takes her lead from John Muir. Each chapter begins with a quote from Muir, and Roberts often wonders on the page what he would think, from a 19th century perspective, about the current state of the wilderness. Roberts inspires the reader to consider Muir’s travels through the Sierra and his role in preserving national treasures such as Yosemite. Her grounding in poetry infuses the language of the memoir with alluring descriptions of scenery. A professor of English at Lake Tahoe Community College in South Lake, Roberts is the author of four books of poetry and numerous anthology essays.

“Poetry relies on observation and the distillation of language, and my hope is that I can be what Baudelaire asks of us, to always be a poet even in prose,” she said. “In all good writing, it’s the language that should drive the narrative and not vice versa, and I hope I was able to do that in ‘Almost Somewhere.’”

This book is one I didn’t want to end. I felt as if I were hiking with Roberts. When she finished, I would be finished, and like her, I would be sad to be done. Inspired by “Almost Somewhere,” I wanted to be somewhere, and that somewhere was in the mountains with a pack on my back. I wanted to follow in her footsteps, all 200-plus miles of them.  

Roberts has a new book of poetry out next month, “Plotting Temporality,” and she is working on a travel memoir.

Roberts will be reading from her memoir and signing books at 6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 26 in Truckee at Bookshelf at Hooligan Rocks. Info: suzanneroberts.org/schedule.html

More from Moonshine’s interview with Suzanne Roberts:

Moonshine Ink: Your writing is similar to Pam Houston’s (“Contents Have Shifted,” and “Cowboys Are My Weakness”). Like you, she is curious about men and women and nature and culture and writes honestly about humans’ misgivings. Do you find your writing similar to hers?

Suzanne Roberts: First, of all, thank you! When I came back from that backpacking trip in 1993, one of the first books I read was Pam Houston’s “Cowboys Are my Weakness,” and I not only fell in love with the book and her writing, but it made me realize that it’s okay for women to see wilderness experience differently than men. Up until that point, I had read Muir, Thoreau, and Abbey, and though they are fantastic writers, I couldn’t really adopt their vision, so Houston’s book was like a revelation to me.

MI: What advice do you have for someone who is planning to hike the John Muir Trail?

SR: Most people already know that they should try to get into hiking shape, wear in their backpack and boots, pack as light as possible, and bring a map and trail guide. What I might add to those practical tips are to choose your hiking partners wisely-are they people you really want to spend twenty-four hours a day with for a month? Also, bring a thought-provoking book, it is worth the weight, that will give you something to think about during those long hours of hiking. And bring a journal. You may not write a book about your experiences, but the thoughts that come up for you on the trail are worth hanging onto. Writing (or drawing) will help you to pay attention to the amazing beauty that surrounds you every step of the way. And lastly, expect adversity and learn not only to accept it, but to be grateful for it. Those days of rain will make you appreciate the sun in a way you never imagined possible.

MI: Can you tell us something about your next book?

SR: I have a new poetry book, Plotting Temporality, that will be out nextmonth, and I am currently working on a travel memoir, which is turning out to be about women and men and nature and culture and human misgivings-as it turns out, the poet Richard Hugo is right when he says most poets write the same poem over and over again: in fact, we each tell the same story again and again.

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Author

  • Eve Quesnel

    Eve Quesnel has lived in Truckee for 35 years with her husband Bill, once-upon-a-time daughter Kim-now on her own-and many dogs through the years, currently a Border Collie-Aussi mix. Her favorite pastimes include walking in her neighborhood and nearby woods, hiking in the high Sierra, and reading and writing. Quesnel is now retired from teaching English at Sierra College in Truckee but continues to pursue several writing projects. She is intrigued by the natural world of which she explores and writes about for the column "Nature's Corner" in Moonshine Ink.

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