The Campsite Reviews I Promise Not To Suffer: A Fool For Love Hikes The Pacific Crest Trail
By Gail Storey
The Mountaineers Books, 2013
Reviewed by: Meghan Ward
The cover of I Promise Not to Suffer gave me a lot to think about before I began reading. A pair of bare legs, cropped at the hip, peek out between a blue pleated skirt and a pair of worn hiking boots. All I could envision was a girly-girl too prim and proper to get dirty, afraid of ants or eating out of a pot. It’s a cute image, but turns out to be a bit misleading. And I’m thankful for that because I wasn’t interested in reading the story I was imagining. Instead I was treated to a superb read worthy of all the accolades and awards it has received to date.
Though author Gail Storey claims a lack of experience as she sets off to hike the 2,663 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail with her husband, Porter, (the first chapter is even called “I Never Much Cared for Nature), I would hardly call her naïve, as the book cover suggests. Nor would I call her unprepared, thanks to Porter’s obsession with planning, experience with long expeditions and knack for creating lightweight, homemade gear. In many regards, Storey knows exactly what she is getting into even if she struggles to come to terms with it. Through it all the 56-year-old has much to learn about herself, her past, her relationship with Porter, and her relationship with her mother.
Perhaps more fitting for the cover would have been a pair of hikers, properly dressed for the trail, hand-in-hand atop a mountain ridge. Or in the 14A version, spooning lovingly under a tarp. Because to me, I Promise Not to Suffer is more of a love story than a thru-hiking story, even though it also warrants its position within the genre of outdoor literature.
Storey’s last name is fitting of her skill as a writer. She is a superb storyteller, weaving the present in with vignettes from the past, and pulling the reader in alongside her journeys – both the internal and external ones. Thanks to her vivid descriptions we walk alongside her on the trail, through the dryness and heat of the Mojave Desert and the remote wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. Her honesty and self-deprecating commentary brings us into her inner world – her struggle, pain, triumph, discovery and healing. And walking with her throughout it all is Porter. With a long career in hospice care and serving the dying, his own backstory provides another underlying set of questions for the reader. What does it mean to truly live? What keeps you going?
In Storey’s memoir we follow her path to redemption – if only in her own heart – and watch her come full circle, go from not caring much for nature to becoming one with nature. In one of many poetic passages she writes about her motivation for being on the trail:
“I wanted to be with Porter, yes, but even more, I felt inseparable now from the vast green and blue and white of the wilderness. I looked out on the lake, shimmering under the moon. I was as sturdy as the trees. I flowed over obstacles like water over rocks. I was as solid as the mountains, as clear as the sky.” (Pg. 166)
Just as she becomes one with the natural world around her, she is forced from the trail. Facing dangerous weight loss, Storey must wrestle with the tough reality that her time on the trail may be over. No matter where she ends up, however, the journey is far from over. In fact, one of Storey’s most poignant chapters takes place well off the trail, at her mother’s bedside.
I think what I appreciated the most about Storey’s memoir is just how deeply she allows us into her world and into both her outward and inward journeys. As she explains in I Promise Not to Suffer, the landscape has an ability to change us. She gives us a window into her own experience and, of most importance to me, makes us care. I found myself cheering for her many times, feeling that roller coaster of emotions as she climbed and descended high mountain passes, and grieving with her as she dealt with her mother’s terminal illness.
Weaving the whole book together is a wonderful adventure story, a classic tale of perseverance in the great outdoors. There’s a reason why this book won the 2013 National Outdoor Book Award for Outdoor Literature. Storey has an enviable combination of gifts: an obvious writing talent, natural likability, humour, grace and wit. I highly recommend I Promise Not to Suffer.
Learn more about Gail Storey at gailstorey.com.
Win a copy of I Promise Not to Suffer! Tell me about a trail, mountain park or wilderness area that has given you opportunity to do some work on the ‘inside.’ You can do so by commenting below! I’ll randomly choose a winner on Christmas Eve at 5pm MST. Merry Christmas!