The Great Divide, by Stephen Pern, explores one man’s trip from Mexico to Canada along the Continental Divide. Now, this book explores the backbone of the USA, but the author is definitely (perhaps defiantly) English–and in many ways, from his frequent stops for tea to his sardonic wit to his idioms (biro, peg), it adds to the charm of the book. From New Mexico to Montana, Pern relates the obstacles, emotional, physical and personal, which confront him during his journey. Typically tongue-in-cheek in his prose, he also strikes true notes, especially when commenting on life in America. He lays out a succinct contrast between the New World and the Old: when confronting the lack of historic artifacts on his jounry, he muses “Life [in America] was first established, then lived. Back home [in Europe], it was the other way around.”
The logistics of supplying his 2500 mile journey were worth the read alone–his description of peanut butter rationing chimes with anyone who has backpacked with luxury foods. He also includes an appendix with much information, including suggested maps, useful equipment and obstacles encountered. should you wish to follow in his footsteps. In 1986, when he wrote the book, there was no Continental Divide Trail, although it looks like Congess designated a (still incomplete) route in 1978. Pern is also very clear when he diverges from the Divide, providing maps with small comments and textual explanations of his detours. Many of these are for good reasons–bad terrain, a hot shower, a resupply mission.
But the most interesting sections of this book was not the physical exertion nor the beauty that he described (though a picture section would have been a fantastic addition). No, in the tradition of Least Heat Moon’s ‘Blue Highways’ and Bryson’s ‘In A Sunburned Country,’ it is his interactions that really lend depth and meaning to his book. Whether it’s the innumerable breakfasts fixed for him, a surly shopkeeper in Montana, or a Navajo shepherd who can’t speak English and doesn’t understand the lifestyle of her grandchildren, Pern takes each encounter and uses it to reflect a bit of the American psyche.
All in all, this book was inspiring and well worth a read.