Book review: The Great Divide

In the summer of 1999 I moved to Colorado.

A place much different from my native Rhode Island.

I had never lived away from Rhode Island before.

But I moved to Colorado because I needed a change.

And I knew Colorado had mountains.

Within  two weeks of arriving in Colorado, I hiked my first mountain: Flattop.

In Rocky Mountain National Park and on the Continental Divide….and on the Continental Divide Trail.

Flattop Mountain back in August 1999. My friend Terry introduced me to this mountain.

I knew of this fabled footpath. And I knew I’d walk it one day.

Upon moving to Colorado I did what is important when I am in a new town: I made sure I procured a library card.

Naturally I gravitated towards the books on the Continental Divide Trail.

Eric Ryback’s book was consumed. I devoured Karen Berger’s book.

I enjoyed both quite a bit.

But one book really stuck with me. A book about hiking the Continental Divide but not the Continental Divide Trail:  Stephen Pern’s The Great Divide .


Written about a journey that took place in 1983, it is much different than more recent accounts of long hikes.

The book is not a cookie cutter journey. Nor is the tale an Epic Journey of Self.

Pern bought maps, plotted a route and had to make decisions on the fly depending on the situation.

The tale is told with typical understated and dry British humor leavened quite nicely with some wry observations.

It was a solo journey. Only a handful of other travelers were encountered.

Even before I did the majority of my own long hikes, I knew what Stephen Pern experienced seemed more of a wilderness journey than what I could experience in 1999. Never mind 2016.

Stephen Pern’s The Great Divide  was published in the mid-1980s and has been out of print for a while.

However, due to the wonders of eBooks, the book has been republished in Kindle format.

I recently re-read the book.

And my initial observations still hold.

But thirty years removed from when Pern’s journey took place, perhaps the differences in the outdoor journeys are even more pronounced.

Longer hikes are as much as about the social experience, or perhaps more so, as the outdoor experience.

Being part of a wandering tribe that stays in touch even on the trail.

Pern’s journey would be very difficult to have today unless a person avoids the more well-known lettered routes or even simply makes up a route of their own.

But more than enjoying a description of a wilderness journey, I reveled reading about the places I know knew.

When I read The Great Divide  back in 1999 names such “Wamsutter“,  “The Red Desert”,  “The Wind River Range” , “The San Juans” and other places were just names in a book to me.  Seventeen years later? I know the places. I’ve been to them. They are part of my outdoor experience.

And despite all the differences in both the long trails and the outdoors in general since 1983, some parts of the experience has not changed.

Here’s one example…

Then, as now, people could not travel by foot or horse through the Jicarilla Apache land that is situated on the Continental Divide.

Hikers must go around it. Today’s CDT hikers cut through the Carson National Forest.

Pern? He choose a route that went by an outlier of Chaco Canyon: Pueblo Pintado.

Pern described a lonely, quiet and impressive dwelling that is quiet isolated.

When I visited the place in 2015 I suspect it was not much different from what Pern saw and experienced.

Pern’s account is about a journey in the wild.  The wild places are first and foremost with the inner journey a distant second if acknowledged  all.

If you are interested in reading about a long journey in the wild places you’ll enjoy The Great Divide .  It is not about the thru-hiking experience or the culture.  The Great Divide  is about a person who was immersed in the wild places of the American West, his often droll observations about his experiences and what it is like to spend several months walking along or near the spine of the Rockies.

An engaging tale and a tale told well.

The Great Divide  is available in Kindle format as well as used copies in paperback and hard cover.


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7 years ago

A very good book indeed. Stephen Pern also made two rather unique films of his long walks in Japan and the UK. Well worth viewing:

Beth Miller
Beth Miller
7 years ago

Hey Mags. Thanks for the review. It brings to mind my first glimpse of long distance hiking. At a bakery near where I worked I made the acquaintance of a man who didn’t own a car, traveled by bicycle and was working nights to save money for a trip. That trip was the Continental Divide. This was in 1980 or ’81. My first contact with a gram wienie as well. He remarked that the jar of mustard I was buying (7 oz) was ‘too heavy’. I was a jeweler at that time and when he walked in after his journey… Read more »