I am a burner of books. The blasphemers Nietzsche and Rimbaud. The madmen Kafka and Borges. I have burned them all.
It started on a jaunt into the wilderness. A day off from working at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. I was the maître d’ of the restaurant, an odd job for a rural teenager just off the high plains of nowhere Wyoming. I seated customers from Europe, Asia, and towns like Gallup, New Mexico. I didn’t like it. I hadn’t read Sartre yet, but already had an inkling that hell is other people. I craved silence.
When the chance came to get away into the woods for a day, I jumped on it. A work acquaintance (I can’t remember his name or where he came from) drove to a trailhead and, daypacks slung on our backs, we set off into the woods. Blue sky. Quiet. The makings of a good day. I brought some books to read.
We hiked the trail for a couple of hours following the neon orange markers tacked seven or eight feet high on the trunks of pine trees. I assumed the markers had been placed so high for the benefit of snowmobilers. It was Yellowstone, after all, and the snow really piled up in winter. Yellowstone Park was a snowmobiler’s dream.
Suddenly, the trail was covered with snowpack. It was early May, if I recall correctly, and though we had been steadily climbing, we didn’t expect it. We stopped and consulted the map (no GPS in those days). According to the topographic, the trail looped back around and down to the main road in a few more miles. We decided to risk it. We walked into the snow.
The going was tough. Our feet got cold. We had failed to bring coats and shivered in plaid flannel shirts. We were stupid and we knew it. We had made up our minds, though, and the way forward, according to the map, was shorter than the way back. We kept at it, feet breaking through four-foot drifts.
I had just wanted to get away for the day. Find a spot under a pine or in a meadow and sit and read and bask in quiet.
A bank of metal gray clouds, intrepid and menacing, appeared out of nowhere muffling the light. Cold breeze. By dusk we were in trouble. Snow fell from a sky we could no longer see. The neon markers on the trees became less and less visible. My companion wanted to go on. I disagreed. We needed fire and daylight. Then, like good boys, we’d turn around and head back the way we came.
By the time the decision was made, it was almost dark. We gathered wood by breaking dead twigs and branches from nearby pines. There wasn’t any kindling so I did what I had to do. I tore pages from Thus Spake Zarathustra and wadded them up and lit them. Snow fell thick. We warmed our stiff fingers and curled next to the meager flames.
By the time morning dawned, blue and icy, I had burned all four of the books in my daypack. I rolled the pages into tight little cylinders and fed them to the fire.
When we made it back to the Old Faithful Inn, I locked myself in my room and soaked in a hot bath. Blisters covered my thighs and shins, so close had I been to the fire of burning words.
I refused to go to work that evening, exhausted from exposure. The manger fired me and told me to leave by the next day.
I replaced the books upon returning to civilization. It was the least I could do.
Every now and then, when backpacking in the Gila Wilderness, I burn a book in my campfire after I finish reading it. I burn only those books that I deem well written and deep. The others I donate to the used bookstore back in town. Ceremony. A way with words.
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