On an early-evening, late-summer outing, my hiking partner and I were booking it up a steep forest path to get to a Salish Sea overlook while daylight still permitted. The descending mountain bikers we’d encountered a short while before had assured us it wasn’t far. But cycling down a path and marching up it are very different ways of considering time and distance. My friend and I agreed to allow ourselves another 20 minutes of upward hustle, until a muddle of clouds on the horizon induced a premature dusk and confounded our calculations. OK — so we’d at least get up to that bend in the trail to take a peek … and … drat! All we saw around the bend was more tree-encased trail leading uphill. We took rueful chugs from our water bottles, and headed back down.
It helped — at least a little — that I had been reading David Guterson’s latest book before going on that hike. “Turn Around Time,” illustrated by Justin Gibbens, is a slender moss-green volume that’s been touted as a walking poem for the Pacific Northwest. This book was published by Mountaineers Books, best known for its hiking guides.
The title borrows from a practice of prudence in an activity known for risk — mountain climbers preplan their time to turn around and head back down, whether or not they’ve bagged the peak. “The principle acknowledges an unstoppable coming darkness … it speaks against enticement; it wells up in the pit of the stomach when a summit makes its siren’s call,” Guterson writes in his introduction.
The long narratives in “Turn Around Time” are written in free verse, but generously laced with internal rhymes and euphonious cadences.
This is an experiment, the author says, “where words and the world meet in musicality” — but it is something else, too. These poems attempt to capture pivot points — in hiking and in life — when one realizes one’s own limits, or concedes to the vagaries of conditions or the tick of time. The ability to turn back whether or not you’ve reached your destination “takes preparation over many passing years,” avows Guterson.
It does seem that most of us need to survive some of our own misadventures before swapping out hubris for humility, or at least for common sense.
It was a quarter of a century ago that Guterson became the literary darling of our region with his bestselling novel “Snow Falling on Cedars,” but the author has long since abandoned what he described in a 2014 reflection in “The American Scholar” as the “self-belief” of his younger years, exchanging it for an outlook that is more willing to be less certain.
In the pages of this new book, he writes with bemusement, as one who wears “the shroud of self” — though still succumbing to occasional crotchety bouts when accommodating the quirks of his hiking companion.
Readers who have roamed the peaks and valleys of the Olympic Peninsula will appreciate the geographic features that spice these pieces: Bogachiel and Sol Duc, Bandersnatch, Queets and many more.
Guterson also names various forms of plants and wildlife, although the most frightening specimen is the one he describes in a piece called “Woodland Trail-Troll Berserker devil — Bear.” Is the author describing a deranged man who has found refuge in the forest, or the boogeyman who arises in our fertile imaginations when we hear a twig snap outside the tent late at night? Guterson refuses “to intimate clarity where none indeed exists ….” Either way, this poem alludes to our fear of the undecipherable.
In another poem, the author asks:
On our trail, what’s inevitable?
There’s coming and going,
breathing and danger,
waste, hunger, worry, leaving.
But he also points out playfully that there are many ways to walk it well:
… on the wild side,
on sunshine, the line, with me, the dog, on water,
like a man, in Memphis …
“Turn Around Time” offers no pat answers, and occasionally wanders into thickets of philosophical conjecture and opaque references that may stymie all but the doughtiest of readers. Or perhaps you’ll be able to regard those as metaphorical blisters — annoying, but tolerable.
Guterson also offers more down-to-earth observations that celebrate aches and pains, solitude and companionship, and the privilege of participating in the journey.
“Turn Around Time” by David Guterson, Justin Gibbens (illus.), Mountaineers Books, 144 pp., $21.95
Author appearances: Guterson and Gibbens will discuss “Turn Around Time” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, Tacoma Mountaineers, 2302 N. 30th St., Tacoma; at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23, Third Place Books Ravenna, 6504 20th Ave., Seattle, thirdplacebooks.com; and at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, Vashon Center for the Arts, 19600 Vashon Hwy. S.W., Vashon Island, vashoncenterforthearts.org.