The wilderness survival story has spent the past 200 years biding its time the literary margins, making way for the flash and flourish of its cousins in literary fiction and the headline-grabbing allure of memoirs about recovering from dysfunctional families and/or drugs.
But over the past decade or so, these non-fiction first-hand accounts of mother nature’s endurance tests have had a late-blooming surge in popularity, summiting bestseller lists with ease and capturing the pop cultural imagination.
Hollywood has been particularly keen to answer this collective call of the wild, snatching up the rights to true tales of doing battle with the elements, both recent and classic.
A few months back, Reese Witherspoon began developing a flick based on Wild, Sheryl Strayed’s bestselling account of hiking 1100 miles alone along the Pacific Crest Trail.
Then Peter Sarsgaard announced he’d make his debut as a writer-director with laid Christopher McDougall’s Born To Run, a compulsively readable ethnography of life among the tribe of Mexican indians who have turned long distance running into an art form and sacred ritual.
And just yesterday came the news that Sean Penn, who last ventured into this woodsy terrain Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild, has enlisted for a second tour of duty in the man v.
wild battle field with an adaptation of Crazy for the Storm, Norman Ollstead’s incredible story of becoming the sole survivor, at age 11, of the mountaintop plane crash that killed his father and his treacherous descent back to civilization.
This flurry of flicks based on harrowing true tales set in the great outdoors will arrive long after this back to nature movement first took hold on TV, catapulting Survivor to the top of ratings charts and the likes of Bear Grylls and Survivorman Les Stroud to cult hero status.
So what’s fueling this widespread back to natural progression of nature memoirs from the page to screens big and small? We’d be willing to bet that in a time as technologically baroque as this one, where most of the industrialized world spends increasingly more time staring at screens and processing the world through mediated and virtual experiences, the physical world, with its attendant danger and soul-cleansing beauty, has acquired an increasingly exotic allure.
There is also something primally appealing about the prospect of spending one’s days grappling with solving real-world problems related to staying alive rather than the manufactured woes that stoke our stress-levels and drive our desire to escape into alternate realities — drug, alcohol, or Hollywood-induced.
In some ways, this spate of wilderness survival memoirs has come along just when we need it most to soothe the savage, sedentary beasts we’ve become.
As longtime devotees of this genre, this seems like an opportune time to serve up our top ten favorite true tales of surviving the elements.
(Disclaimer: This list is limited to relatively recently published works and not meant to include classics, like Thoreau’s Walden.) Naturally, we invite you to offer your thoughts on our choices and weigh in with your own. 1.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
2. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollstead
The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan
Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase
Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
Four Corners by Kira Salak
West with the Night by Beryl Markham