The Lost Canyon

The Lost Canyon is an interesting book on several levels with a strangely dissatisfying ending. There is much fodder for discussion for book clubs; plenty of interest for those who have spent time in the natural world to ponder on; issues of race and class; and a meditation on living in the modern world – both the urban one and the natural one.

The book starts with a fitness instructor who organizes a four day hiking expedition in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for a few of her clients. Inexplicably, right at the beginning of the novel, two participants immediately drop out. I thought it was strange to even introduce these characters and then remove them – better to have edited the idea out in the first place because it did not add to the story in any way.

The four main characters – a white male, a Japanese American female, an African American female and a Hispanic male, head off for a four day hiking trip. There is some back story provided about each. There are some stereotypes inserted into each of these people: the white male has experience in the outdoors, the Hispanic and African American characters are urban only with little or no outdoors experience and some fears around the journey and the Japanese American is the fitness instructor who acts with a mysterious mix of being a survivalist and also talks about disappearing into the wilderness. It would have been interesting to see some of the stereotypes turned on their heads.

At any rate, the first part of the story is almost a Waldenesque meditation on each person’s connection with the natural world. A very calm, peaceful setting is established and the reader falls into the rhythm of the hike as they traverse the wilderness. There is definitely a sense of peace that reminded me of Walden pond and Thoreau as I read.

About halfway through the book, the whole thing is turned on its head as the hikers are taken at gunpoint – first by Mexican cartel members protecting their pot farm and then by white supremacists, who kill the Mexican guard and then take the hikers hostage as they protect their own pot farm and use the hikers as slave labor to destroy the cartel farm.

A series of action packed events occur that are potentially life changing for each of the hikers. There would be too many spoilers at this point so I will save all those twists and turns for the readers.

But as I indicated at the beginning, the conclusion is strangely dissatisfying. For me, part of that is because I have been on some intense hiking and backpacking adventures with people I didn’t know and it creates bonds that I feel are much stronger than the ones in the book appear to be at the end. I think the idea is there but the feeling doesn’t come through in the story. The other issue for me was that there were new story ideas introduced at the end that were really stories on their own and the threads of a whole new series of ideas. It didn’t make sense.

I was never comfortable with the fitness instructors/hike leader’s character. In fact, from the earliest descriptions right through to the end, I felt that she was almost mentally unstable and I would never have set out on that hike with her at all. A hike leader should encourage and inspire participants and would never push inexperienced hikers like these beyond their capable limits. In fact, it is possible that if the characters had more experience, it could have been an even more challenging story between all of the characters. One could almost call this book Deliverance Lite.

That is not to say there are not a lot of important issues that come up for discussion here. One is of course that of race and the stereotypes of what being “outdoorsy” means and race in relation to hiking, camping etc. Another is the divide between the urban/suburban experience and that of the natural world. Set in Los Angeles with the Sierra Nevada mountains only a few hours away, it shows that we as humans in some ways have strayed far from nature but in fact, nature is close to many urban centers and can reclaim quickly.

I live in the Pacific Northwest and hike and have the luxury of nature all around me. There have been several murders in the mountains and this book made me ponder criminal enterprise in using the national forests as pot farms. Cartels and organized crime are no doubt ruthless in protecting those interests and it made me wonder how often innocent parties have stumbled onto these enterprises and been seriously injured or murdered in the act of doing so. To that end, this book offers an excellent jumping off point to discuss that issue.

It is also offers good discussion points about how we pursue our livings in modern society and the cost to our mental and physical health in so doing. Each of the characters discovers in the course of the trip that there are compromises we make in life in the pursuit of money. One character had given up his connections to the natural world because of the time required for his corporate gig. Another realized that while he strove for a white collar living, he wasn’t living a balanced life and that money will come and go quickly. The discussion point here is about balance in life and that balance includes understanding, incorporating and investing ourselves and our children in the natural world. The questions around conservation and ecology that continue to arise in each generation are important questions.

Despite the unevenness of the book, I enjoyed the ideas. I loved the discussion points that were raised and I have to admit, the twists and turns made this book so interesting that I read it in two days. This is a great read for those who want to ponder thoughts about the natural world and for those who are in book clubs or discussion groups because there are a lot of weighty issues to discuss here.

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