Getting older has its advantages, and one of them is that our store of memories grows. Often all it takes to turn them on is something that returns us to a long-ago place or time. Recently, I ran across a book that did just that – it took me back to the time when I (along with much of the rest of my baby-boomer generation) discovered the joys of adventuring in the out-of-doors.
I had not seen a copy of the volume for many years, but I recognized it immediately when I ran across it. For a few short years the book was everywhere. It came out in multiple formats – both paperback and hardcover, and even in hardcover edition that came in a slipcover. The book was a best seller – you could find a copy in nearly every college dorm room.
Readers of a certain age by now know the volume I am writing about – On the Loose, by brothers Jerry and Renny Russell. It came out from Sierra Club Books in 1967.
To this day, I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. The entire book – some 120 pages – was printed in a way that reproduced the original hand-written calligraphic style in which it was composed. Much of the text consisted of quotes from an eclectic collection of writers – everyone from Mark Twain to Melville and James Joyce, but short essays from the two brothers appeared too, along with over a hundred of their photos.
As for the pictures, here is what the authors had to say: “The photographs in this book are of the lowest fidelity obtainable. They are as far from the photographer’s vision as cheap cameras, mediocre film, and drugstore processing could make them.”
So, you will now ask – what was this hand-lettered book with its poor photographs about and what made it so wildly popular?
On the Loose was – I can use no other word – a “paean” to the beauty of the Western American landscape and the joy of wandering freely through that landscape.
Looking up the world paean on the web, I find the definition of “a song or lyric poem expressing triumph or thanksgiving.” And that’s exactly what the book was.
For a few short years in the early 1960s, brothers Terry and Renny Russell explored the iconic places that define the West. They hiked the High Sierra; camped in the remote backcountry of Death Valley; sought out forgotten tide pools along the Pacific littoral; wandered through the maze-like canyons of the red-rock country of Utah.
Everywhere they discovered beauty.
Overwhelmed by the fragility of what they found, they began drafting their own plea to the world around them to appreciate and protect all these special places. In the spring of 1965, older brother Terry finished composing his unique manuscript and took it to family friend David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club. Several months later, while floating the Colorado River, the brothers’ raft overturned and Terry drowned. The book came out a year later. It was both a celebration and a memorial.
More than any other book of its time, On the Loose captured the excitement about wild places that pulsed through young people in those years.
Today, nowhere near as many people are on the trails, and quite a few of those who are out there are stubborn baby-boomers, still on the trail after all these years. I’m one of them.
Like everyone else I knew, I had a copy of On the Loose when I was young. My original copy disappeared long ago, but the values it promoted lived on not only in my life, but also in those of many of my friends. That is why finding a copy of the book recently sent me spinning back into my own youthful memories of wilderness and adventure.
On the Loose helped define a generation. For some of us, those hand-lettered pages still send us to dreaming about places we have yet to go. Such is the power of books.
© Wm. Tweed