The other day, I took out a slender volume I probably haven’t looked at in 35 years. I nevertheless knew right where to find it.
My paperback copy of “On The Loose” is pretty stiff and looks worse for the wear than I remembered, like maybe it got stuffed into a backpack in the rain at some point. It’s a modest-looking book, thinner than a slice of store-bought bread — and it probably contains fewer words than a third-grade primer. And if it’s organized, the principle escapes me. You’d think a couple of teenagers wrote it, which they did.
But the photographs are incredible, capturing the stark beauty of the American West in a way that amateur framing and Polaroid quality can’t rob. And the prose, it’s idiosyncratic and magnificent, perfect for an awakening teenager.
To call “On the Loose” the best Christmas present I ever got can only lead to trouble. But for sure, it’s been one of the most personally influential.
The book was written by young brothers Terry and Renny Russell and published by Sierra Club-Balantine Books in 1967. It was given to me the Christmas I entered my teen years by my mother’s cousin Sue, an Earth-mother sort whom my only-child mother thought of like a sister. Thank you, Sue.
As teens, the Russell brothers had hiked in remote Utah canyons, climbed to Sierra altitudes where the mist still freezes in May, run low on water in the remotest deserts of California and paddled in Glen Canyon as the water slowly rose behind the new Glen Canyon Dam, flooding a piece of Colorado River real estate that paled only when compared to the Grand Canyon farther downstream.
Terry and Renny captured much of their adventures in oddly framed but beautiful photos, then paired them with selected prose, often offering only a few words on the page: bits of dialogue one imagines being exchanged on the trail, or observations about how long a mile seems across rim rock in the hot sun, and sometimes brief quotations from writers who were then new to me:
• Naturalist Aldo Leopold: “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
• My first exposure to James Joyce, right on the book’s cover, with a photo of a young man and guitar facing Pacific surf: “He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and willful and wild-hearted, alone amidst a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight.”
That quote sent me to “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” The Thoreau quotes sent me to “Walden,” but first I would spend many hours — over weeks, months, and years — re-imaging the world through the eyes I developed reading “On the Loose.”
The Russells’ example sent me into the woods, too, and into foggy swamps and to hidden waterfalls and up mountains in search of what is quiet and eternal. I’ve even seen one or two of the places described, though my bucket list remains long.
There’s a note of caution, since Terry died in a rafting accident on Utah’s Green River in 1965, nearly two years before the book finally saw print. But the lesson for today is, don’t underestimate the power of words as gifts. Like these, from the actor Steve McQueen: “I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.”