I’d like to introduce John Riha to talk with me today about his B.R.A.G. Medallion Book. John was born and raised in the Midwest. He visited the West several times and finally resolved to stay there, with the big mountains and clear rivers. He is married to a beautiful, funny woman he doesn’t deserve, and he is father to two sons who certainly must have done something right to deserve such a generous, understanding, and doting father.
Hello, John! Welcome to Layered Pages and congrats on the B.R.A.G. Medallion for your book, Rookies in the Wild (Fear and Gloaming on the Pacific Crest Trail). That is praise indeed! Please tell me a little about your book.
It’s about backpacking with my son, Nick, on the Pacific Crest Trail in northern California. It’s much about the West, the scale and the majesty, and it’s filled with natural history anecdotes that underscore the raw beauty and mystique of America’s last remaining wild places.
As novices, we had a lot to learn, so a good portion of the book is devoted to preparation, getting geared up, and understanding the challenges we might face. That gave me plenty of time to develop a healthy paranoia, so Rookies in the Wild is also about facing fears: man-eating cougars, intestinal parasites, shoddy parenting, and mortality. But it’s also a story of grace: How nature forgives, forgets, replenishes, and enriches the spirit. And why the wilderness is so essential, and how it makes us better humans.
Do you have a picture you can share of your hiking experience?
What is one of the biggest challenges you faced while on the trail?
As backpacking newbies, everything seemed challenging. Did we have enough water? Did I hang the bear bags properly? Would a spark from our campfire set the woods ablaze? The Forest Service deliberately keeps signage to a minimum in order to enhance the true wilderness experience, so wondering if we were on the right trail or maybe had wandered onto a side trail leading to Saskatchewan was a constant nagging thought. Actually, vigilance and awareness of your surroundings are excellent characteristics to have as a backpacker. But the real challenge wasn’t dealing with potential danger, but dialing back any paranoia and simply enjoying the experience. Luckily, Nick was blissfully confident in our abilities and he kept everything in cool perspective.
What made you decide to write about your adventure?
The whole backpacking trip, from first thinking about it until the day is was all over, was so protracted and endlessly comic that I knew there was enough material to write a book about it. So even in the early outfitting stages I began to take notes. The nice thing about this type of book for the writer is that you don’t have to invent a plot; you just have to survive.
Also, I’d read enough true adventure literature that I was wondering, How do tales of extreme circumstances motivate ordinary folks to step outside their comfort zones, even a little bit? There’s so much written about heroic, death-defying cliff jumping and K2 climbing and sailing solo around the world, but how can people truly relate? Lots of people want to try something new and challenging and have a meaningful experience but they don’t necessarily want to walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon. So this book is a soft-core adventure for those folks especially.
It’s also about being a father. Fathers are a bit underserved in today’s fiction and non-fiction, and for me the father-son bonding experience was every bit as fulfilling as I’d hoped. I’m not sure Nick absorbed it in the same way, but he loved backpacking and our time together. And after it was over and we were coming down out of the mountains we stopped at a little out-of-the-way cafe and had a terrific burger and that really put everything in the plus column for him.
Why did you choose the Trinity Alps Wilderness of northern California as your destination? What are a few of the historical significance?
There’s no shortage of hiking ventures to consider, and I pored over so many guidebooks and Backpacker magazine articles that my head was swimming. Then I read a passage from the book, Hiking California’s Trinity Alps Wilderness, by Dennis Lewon, who eloquently praised a particular section of the Pacific Crest Trail for its unmatched beauty and relative obscurity. That section of trail became our grail.
The fact that we’d be backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail, one of the most-storied hiking venues in the world, added to the appeal and provided some interesting background for the book. The trail took more than 60 years to complete; the southernmost section is home to some 10 species of scorpions; the Douglas-fir was named after the early 1800s Scottish botanist, David Douglas. Don’t get me started.
Where in your home do you like to write and what is your process?
I have a little cubby in one corner of our master bedroom with a narrow desk and an iMac. About 6:30 in the morning I take a cup of coffee and cram myself in there and do some serious thinking about how nice it would be if cool books just wrote themselves, and all I’d have to do is sit and watch as the ethers cranked out page after page, occasionally interrupting to point out a grammatical error or gummy phrasing. But that doesn’t happen, so I’ll check my email. Then any important sports scores. Then the unimportant scores. Then maybe just the headlines at NYT.com and Salon. Then I think about breakfast because all this activity has tweaked my appetite. So we’ll have breakfast, either eggs or a smoothie. Then I’ll come back to the cubby and write my brains out until the garden calls to come get dirty.
How did you discover indieBRAG?
Someone Tweeted it to me, I think.
Who designed your book cover?
I did. I was seeing a lot of expressive covers being produced, very artistic, and I wanted to try something different that might stand apart. So I let the typography sort of take over, and the story line becomes little hints on the mostly black background. Whether it’s a winner or not, I don’t know. But I like fooling around with InDesign and Photoshop, so I had fun.
What are you working on next?
It’s a historical fiction set in southern Oregon in 1920. It’s based on a true story about the murder of the area’s first game warden, and how life unfolds for the family he leaves behind. I’m not going to get into too much detail—as you probably know writers can be unnecessarily superstitious when it comes to talking about their next projects. But I’d be glad to share more as it gets closer to publication.
Have you written historical fiction before and what do you like about it?
I like historical fiction a lot—I really enjoy research and getting the details right. I wrote a substantial book on Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal life but as I was finishing it two books on the same subject came out and took the wind out of my FLLW sails. I’m biding time for the right moment to re-energize all that work. I like non-fiction—witness Rookies in the Wild—and I have a tendency to self-deprecating humor. I have projects teed up on trout fishing and wildflowers. And I write home improvement articles and video scripts.
A message from BRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview John Riha who is the author of, Rookies in the wild (Fear and Gloaming on the Pacific Crest Trail) our medallion honoree at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Rookies in the Wild (Fear and Gloaming on the Pacific Crest Trail) , merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.