A few years ago I took a seventeen-day trip to Alaska, the longest vacation I’ve taken in more than a decade. Throughout the trip I found myself reflecting about my life in the book business. Like many booksellers-turned-publishers, I have always believed passionately in the importance of books to culture, both broadly and personally.
One such reflection came to me as I hiked in Denali National Park. It took more than four hours to get close to Denali and view the 20,000-foot summit, which plays games with your mind and eyes. The glistening ice block set amid snowcapped, lush green mountains is a study in extreme contrast. When the winds from the west strike the ice, this highest point in North America jumps from sunlight into snow through clouds of its own making. In one turn it is gone, and in another it overwhelms. Seemingly close, you learn you are still ten miles away. Size and vastness quickly become relative ideas.
Later in the day, during a hike along the Savage River trail below the alpine trail I’d just climbed, I stopped by the water to take a break. To my right, seagulls, now hundreds of miles inland, sat on their eggs burrowed in a rocky sandbar. I wondered about their perilous nest placement in a river one rainstorm away from loss of life. But such storms are unusual at this time of year, and they know that.
To the left, on a sandbar thirty feet away, two young caribou with velvet antlers lazed, one asleep and the other looking intently downstream. The thirty-four-degree waters were ready for the king salmon to return, all framed by rocky mountains dotted with slow-moving white Dall sheep. Mesmerized by the water bouncing off the rocks, I noticed a large bird soaring overhead, too fast for me to see what it was—a falcon, perhaps. I’m content not needing to know.
It was a perfect moment, one when I remembered that there are far more questions in life than answers. All was in balance in an otherwise out-of-balance world, one in which I was a visitor grateful for the invitation to intrude.
Shakespeare’s “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” entered my mind. “Thoughts finished when the time is right,” a writer friend once told me on a backpacking trip in Ireland. This sentiment explained why she felt it necessary to remove herself from the modern world occasionally.
I later read about the history of the name Denali, about the Athabaskan native peoples and their beliefs and traditions and the subsequent American colonization and ironic politicization of the name Mount McKinley. I found myself thinking about history, place, and time and how relative they are. Of course, Denali is the right name—and McKinley clearly isn’t—but either way the place is so much larger than human labels and their often silly manipulations.
The advent of mass-produced books and the subsequent five-century extension of literacy to those beyond the elite led to a larger awareness of our world. The ability to learn about other cultures is a blessing, but like all knowledge the real power is in how we embrace it, what we learn from it, and what we do with it. Some in political circles these days like to characterize these discussions as elitist, but an understanding of the written word is core to our survival. I’m proud that I’ve made my career in the tribe of those who exalt books: writing and reading are sacred and powerful.
During the trip a tour guide entertained us with the names of landscape features and the legends behind them. Later I had an opportunity to tell him about TU Press’s book Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez, and it turned out that he loves Lopez’s work. I’ll send him a copy knowing it will guide him to new stories to share on his tours.
As I sat by the river that day, I felt a bit guilty. Was I right to be here simply because I could? How does our increasing human presence in places like this change them? For me to be allowed this intrusion into this place means that anyone and everyone should have the same opportunity. Despite the fact that modern travel and disposable income allow some to go almost anywhere, should we? These questions frame so much of the ecotourism and adventure travel debate.
Books share stories that are lessons for the future or bring a place or a moment to life for many who will never be able to experience them in person. The written word does this with depth and meaning like no other medium. Just like the river did for me that day, books remind us that there are more questions than answers and that there is always more to be learned or a different way to see things. This is a good thing.
As I write this, I see a news story online that a grizzly bear attacked a hiker just a few days ago in Denali on the alpine trail near where I was. The bear will be killed—as if it is the intruder—to give tourists and a headline-driven culture some false comfort.
I find it curious that the bear, for whatever reason, knew to attack and then walk away, leaving the human able to recover. I crave an essay by one of the many nature-philosopher writers I admire exploring animal instinct, knowing when to stop, and lessons we can learn from animals. I’m now reading Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. I think about the peoples who inhabited these places for eons and their respect for animals, and about how lives coexist within a place.
I’m fortunate to work with a group of colleagues who share my passion for books as armchair exploration—in every sense of the phrase—and as a vital tool for advancing knowledge and promoting debate. Understanding our relationship to place is critical in our increasingly homogeneous world. Time and again, books are the travel that takes us there.
Tom Payton is the publisher and director of Trinity Univeristy Press. He has been in the book and publishing industry for more than 25 years.