Book Ends

The weekend beckons, looking particularly tasty since I’ve thrown caution to the winds and holiday allowance to the devil: for once, for this January only, I’m having a weekend from Thursday through Tuesday. No more sitting in front of a computer, feeling my eyeballs begin to deliquesce. No sir! For one glorious long weekend I shall be… sitting in front of a computer. Oh well, at least this time it’s my computer and the project one of my choice.

Far beyond this beckoning weekend looms the TGO Challenge, the annual tramp across Scotland for roughly three hundred assorted loons, and this year will be my second. Much as I’d love to set off in a vaguely eastish direction the fine folk at Challenge Control demand a wee bit more preparation, so I shall be plotting my route in minute detail and sending them a summary, along with planned alternatives should there be any foul weather (In Scotland? Hahahahahaha….) and notes on distances, ascents and all that sort of eye-glazing business. At least I’ve finally joined the late Twentieth Century and now have computerised maps, not just the lovely paper Ordnance Survey ones I used for my previous route planning. Wonderful to pore over, but the living room rapidly turned into an endless wall of inescapable paper, as though Kafka had discovered origami. Hopefully the computer will simplify things, or at least speed up the process of making a huge arse of the whole thing and having to start again.

As well as the maps I spend more time than can strictly be considered healthy, or even necessary, reading through books about camping and hiking. I have several. Some, even. Quite a number, to be slightly more accurate, ranging from the late eighteen hundreds through to, more or less, the present day. Those from the teens and twenties are perhaps my favourites, part of a flowering of interest in camping which led to all sorts of crazy innovations – sleeping bags! and packs that turn into sleeping bags! – and gloriously pompous, opinionated advice. Today’s “ultralight revolution” has its roots in the those years, though most have forgotten the link, when tiny silk tents sporting bamboo poles were the cutting edge of portable shelter technology. A few books from recent years, most famously those by Ray Jardine, take the lightweight camping idea even further, but there are not as many of them as one might expect; and the truly worthwhile ones can be counted on the fingers of one hand, still leaving enough spare digits to make a cheerfully obscene gesture in the direction of your chosen politician.

Has the Internet culled the herds of these books before they even had chance to roam free across the plains of horribly overwritten metaphor? We no longer have to write letters to Horace Kephart or Stewart Edward White asking where they buy their shelter or cooking pots: a few minutes of Google returns an evening’s worth of links to manufacturers and suppliers. Techniques are shared almost in real-time, generous souls posting their plans and photographs, hammering out niggling details in collaboration with people half a world away. We Tweet and Facebook (well, I don’t Facebook, but I hear that it’s terribly popular with the hep cats and swinging young things these days) and create a library of text each day. But we don’t write books any more. New works are few and seem curiously dated, left behind by a technology that has become seamlessly integrated with lifestyle and society. There is more advice and information out there for the interested hiker than there has ever been.

But it’s not bound and collected, to be read now and passed along through possibly dozens more readers as these old books of mine have been, which might be a Good Thing in its way, even if it seems a little sad. Sometimes, when the raging river of information is surging past, I like to open one of those faded volumes and take the time to think.

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