Diane's Reviews > Where the Waters Divide: A 3,000 Mile Trek Along America's Continental Divide

Where the Waters Divide by Karen Berger
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's review
Jan 04, 2014

really liked it
bookshelves: outdoors, history, memoirs, nonfiction, travelogues
Read from July 03 to 06, 2013

I love a well-written hiking memoir -- I've read about a dozen of them in the last decade, and this one is very good. Karen Berger and her husband, Daniel Smith, set out to hike 3,000 miles along America's Continental Divide, traveling from the southern edge of New Mexico all the way north to the Canadian border. They suffer through the heat of the desert, fierce thunderstorms and snowstorms, and winds so strong it nearly blew them over. But what a way to see the country! At times the areas they were walking through were so remote and wild that you couldn't tell what century it was.

One thing that sets this hiking memoir apart from the others is its historical references and anecdotes. The book is filled with interesting stories of the towns and regions they visited.

"In other places, one travels to the cities to find history, to learn about what came before, to see the places where history is made. Not here. Because what, after all, is the history of the West? The West's story is found in the small towns and the big ranches and the empty spaces in between. It is found in the abandoned cabins and the rusting machinery and the forgotten projects of dreamers. The gold rushes, the ranches, the open range, the railroads, the mines, the emigrant trails, the logging camps, the old-time barrooms: There are stories in the weathered beams, in the rutted roads, in the broken fences. There are stories in the attempts to subdue a harsh land, to travel through it, to make it yield its wealth."

After a particularly brutal day of hiking through a rainstorm in Colorado, Karen wrote this: "It is said that the Inuit people who live in arctic climates have dozens of words for snow. Hikers, then, should have as many words for rain. We should have a word for warm rain, and a word for cold rain. We should have a word for the fat, swollen raindrops of a mercurial, quick thunderstorm, and a word for the needle-thin raindrops of an all-day downpour. We should have a word for rain that falls gently on a tent at night, when we are snug and dry in our sleeping bags, and we should have a word for the rain that arrives when we are in the middle of making camp with our gear strewn about on the ground. And we should have a word for the rain that fell on us at Carson: a cold, long, determined, all-day sort of rain with a few thunderstorms thrown in for good measure."

Another thing I loved about this memoir were the stories of the strangers who helped the couple along the way. Hikers call this "trail magic," meaning when something good and surprising helps them in their journey, such as being offered drinks, snacks or a ride to the nearest town. Almost everyone they met was impressed by their plan to walk from Mexico to Canada and wanted to help them in some small way. Karen and Daniel also got to hear lots of local stories and learned about the various environmental and political issues going on in each area.

One final note about this journey is that it happened in the early 1990s, which is significant because it was pre-Internet. The couple had a difficult time planning the trip because there were very few guidebooks and available maps of the Continental Divide Trail -- they wrote dozens of letters to Forest Service ranger stations trying to get more info on the route so they could plan their stops and package pick-ups. Now we take the Internet for granted, so much so that it's easy to forget how challenging it was to find resources before everything was a few mouse clicks away.

Update January 2014
I am currently reading another hiking memoir and it reminded me of how good this one was, especially considering how much more difficult it was to plan such an endeavor in the pre-internet age. What an accomplishment!
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Reading Progress

07/03/2013 "I love armchair hiking."

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Diane, I see that you also liked Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail :-) I like anything that includes travel writing and nature, trying to read more books in that area lately, so I'll have to check out one of these.

message 2: by Steve (last edited Jul 11, 2013 08:45AM) (new)

Steve I like how you give us a real feel for the history, climate and local flavor involved in such a trek. Good point, too, about how different it must have been prior to the internet's information boom.

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