Editor’s note: Cambria resident Catherine Ryan Hyde, bestselling author of “Pay it Forward,” writes about her experience hiking and how it informed the creation of her latest novel, “Leaving Blythe River.”
It’s a wonderful experience to watch the seemingly disparate aspects of one’s life come together into a single work of fiction.
For decades I have been writing as a job, and enjoying the wilderness as a hobby. The two activities seemed so different.
I’ve backpacked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and day-hiked the Grand Canyon (South Rim to river to South Rim) twice. I’ve day-hiked Half Dome, Mt. Katahdin in Maine. … I could go on and on, but you probably don’t want me to. See, that’s the problem. Hiking in the wilderness is an amazing thing to do, but it’s a solitary, personal activity that is anything but a spectator sport. It’s one thing to live it, quite another to hear about it.
But I got in the habit of bringing home tons of photos, because I’ve learned that people really do enjoy a good vicarious wilderness adventure. They just have to be free to experience it in their own way.
I think it was 2011 when I was walking from a campground to a trailhead in Joshua Tree National Park (it was a national monument at the time) and had an only partly serious thought: There must be a way to turn some of this into a tax deduction. I was joking with myself, mostly. It wasn’t so much about the taxes. I fully believe that all of a writer’s experiences are useful, but it had just dawned on me that I wasn’t putting my many nature adventures to use.
It must have been quite the revelation, because within a couple of years I had a book of photos called “365 Days of Gratitude,” and a book of mostly outdoor-oriented essays titled “The Long, Steep Path.” Both nonfiction books brought more details of my love of nature to my readers.
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough.
I’m a novelist, and the natural world wanted a place in my fictional stories as well. So I set the road novel “Take Me with You” in several national parks, and felt I was getting closer to some kind of emotional home.
Then, in 2015, after 20 years away from the sport, I took up horseback riding again. Despite being in my early 60s, I bought my own horse and devoted myself to learn the skill of riding as I never had before.
Still, I wasn’t quite sure how to work all these many passions together into a novel. I write character-driven fiction. I write about people. If I don’t think I have something to say about what it means to be human, I’m not ready to start writing.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about a tough wilderness experience, it’s this: It shines a bright, unfailing light on who you are as a person. That might be the good news or it might be the bad news, but wrapped into the experience is a chance to step up and be more. To be a better example of yourself.
So I wrote “Leaving Blythe River” about all the human issues I love to explore, but this time viewed under that harsh light of nature. It was a perfect backdrop. I couldn’t imagine I hadn’t done it years ago. We have Ethan’s father: too bold, too confident, not accepting his ultimate powerlessness against the natural world. That’s almost always the start of a good conflict-filled story right there.
And then there’s poor Ethan: small and scared and absolutely overwhelmed by the power of nature. But in Ethan’s position lies all the seeds of courage. Anyone who harbors that much fear and manages to move forward anyway is brave, whether he feels that way inside or not.
Put it all together and you have “Leaving Blythe River,” a novel about family, trust, betrayal, trauma, fear, hope, triumph … you know, what it means to be human, and to be alive. But set on horseback in a jaw-dropping wilderness setting.
It’s like “write what you know” only more so. More like “write what inspires your passion” or “write what endows life with all the meaning you always knew it deserved.”
And the quote could go on to say, “And if it seems like every beloved aspect of your life has come together between two covers, well … that’s probably a good sign.”
When I was done writing and editing the book, I took a break and traveled to Nepal where I trekked for several days in the lower Himalayas. Then I came home and re-applied myself to learning dressage with my new horse. But all of this was done without any sense of the various aspects of my life being unrelated.
Sometimes it all comes together in the end.
About the book
“Leaving Blythe River” follows 17-year-old Ethan Underwood on a search for his father in the Blythe River National Wilderness. It’s available in paperback or ebook form for Kindle from Lake Union Publishing on Amazon.com.