Knocked off her feet after twenty years in public health nursing, Iris Graville quit her job and convinced her husband and their thirteen-year-old twins to move to Stehekin, a remote mountain village in Washington State’s North Cascades. They sought adventure; she yearned for the solitude of this community of eighty-five residents accessible only by boat, float plane, or hiking. Hiking Naked chronicles Graville’s journey through questions about work and calling as well as how she coped with ordering groceries by mail, black bears outside her kitchen window, a forest fire that threatened the valley, and a flood that left the family stranded for three days.
It is an unusually sunny and warm day in mid-spring, and my spouse Nick and I are out on a state park trail near our home, enjoying the mild conditions after a long, cold Minnesota winter. The air is laced with the subtle scent of blossoms, and a gentle breeze is inviting us to walk slowly and savor the moments as they unfold. We aren’t in a hurry. We aren’t feeling anxious or in need of anything. And then we come around the bend and see a naked man standing knee-deep in what is usually a dry creek bed, bathing. This year, due to a winter of above average snowfall, the creek is full to the brim with cold, clear water. He doesn’t see us, and we hightail it backwards until he’s out of view, wait ten minutes, and then I make Nick check to see if he’s got any clothes on yet. He does and we continue on the trail, smiling hello as we pass. I still wonder if we or he would have been more uncomfortable had we announced our presence. At any rate, I hope he had a refreshing dip, and I admire his courage to do what felt good at the time. I have a feeling he doesn’t regret his decision to bathe in the creek that day.
I was reminded of that spring day because I just read Iris Graville’s forthcoming book “Hiking Naked,” and the story starts with another naked man on a trail. In an attempt to keep things light on a grueling hike, Graville’s husband strips down and poses at a switch back, and Iris, though laughing, finds herself peering up and down the trail to see if anybody else is around to take in such a view. She goes on to foreshadow her journey through career burnout and into life in a remote Washington village, reflecting on the journey to come that, “At times I would feel like I was the one who was hiking naked.” Her story is one of striving to focus on what Quakers call the “still, small voice” and listening to what her life and God were inviting her to do. She reminds us that our vocation can shift, and we can take a new path if that’s where life is calling us. And she invites us to imagine the possibilities that are available if we allow ourselves to take a risk and try something different. In short, reading about her time in that remote village made me reflect on my own choices, reminded me that community is essential for a full life, and reassured me that even though the human experience is peppered with loss, pain, and uncertainty, when it is grounded in nature and steeped in faith, any storm can be weathered. Taking stock of one’s life choices while raising a family can leave one feeling bare to the bone, and Iris tells her story with grace, humor, and humility.
I caught up with Iris in the late spring just as the apple blossoms started to turn into tiny green orbs and the seedlings in the garden were putting down their roots.
HB: What made you decide to write this book at this point in your life?
IG: “This point in my life” started almost twenty years ago! That’s when my husband and our teen-age twins ended our two-year family sabbatical in Stehekin, and I was trying to figure out what that time was all about. Both Flannery O’Connor and Joan Didion have been quoted as saying that they write to know what they think. That’s what writing provides me, too; it just took me a long time to write my way to what I understand about those two years and what led up to them.
HB: What about your two years in the village helped you tap into that still small voice the most?
IG: While I discovered that I can be distracted even in a place as remote as Stehekin, I learned that I’m most able to “hear” that still, small voice when I quiet myself, especially in nature. The metaphor of nakedness spoke loudly to me as I stripped away my identity as a nurse; slowed my pace; and yielded to the river, forest, and mountains.
HB: What was the hardest part of this book to write and why?
IG: The hardest parts to write were those about two deaths of loved ones that occurred while we lived in Stehekin and were far from family and long-time friends. Writing about those losses unearthed my grief; painful as that was, the process also eased some of the ache.
HB: The easiest?
IG: I had a lot of fun writing about being “Stehekinized” through many scenes about grocery shopping, car repair, losing electricity, and community events like “The Iditardog.”
HB: How did those two years change how you live your day-to-day life?
IG: The most significant change was that I didn’t return to full-time work as a nurse, and I gave creative work, such as book arts and writing, a higher priority. I also strengthened contemplative practices so that they’re part of my daily life rather than sprinkled throughout the year.
HB: What is challenging about living a life that is true to what you are called to do?
IG: I often feel called to endeavors that don’t “make sense”—such as leaving a secure job, enrolling in an MFA program in my late fifties, running for political office—and I’m challenged to discern whether I’m responding to a true leading or from my ego and a desire to please others.
HB: What is most rewarding about it?
IG: I thought a lot about this question, and came to a surprising conclusion: I don’t feel alone when I achieve clarity that I’m being led and then move forward.
HB: What advice would you give to someone who is feeling burnt out?
IG: Pay attention to those feelings and honor them. Some of what I wrestled with while writing Hiking Naked was my sense of failure because I lost my passion for nursing. All the writing I did about my nursing career (much of which is included in Chapter 2, “Singed”) taught me how I’d rationalized my dissatisfaction and distress. Burnout is such a common experience in many types of work, and yet I think our work culture doesn’t acknowledge it or support people experiencing it.
HB: What’s something that surprised you when you wrote your memoir?
IG: I discovered that a passion for work has been a through line in my writing as far back as high school when I wrote a profile for the school paper about a classmate who collected antiques. I don’t know if he ever pursued antiques as a career, but I was struck by how absorbed he was in them. That interest sparked again when I collaborated with a photographer on my first book, Hands at Work—Portraits and Profiles of People Who Work with Their Hands. I heard repeatedly from those I profiled about their fire for baking, gardening, weaving, quilting, boatbuilding, fishing, and many other types of tactile work. That book led me to my second one—BOUNTY: Lopez Island Farmers, Food, and Community—which highlights local farmers and their zeal for producing food for our community. Work is such an important part of our lives, and I continue to seek out examples of those who find fulfillment there.
HB: What are you writing now?
IG: A lot of emails and press releases for Hiking Naked! I’m also excited about a new project that I hope will result in an essay collection—some personal essays, nature essays, perhaps a profile or two. That’s all I’m ready to say about the project for now, except that I’m grateful for a break from the revealing work of memoir!
For more on Iris Graville’s work, visit her online here, and be sure to grab a copy of Hiking Naked. You’ll be glad you did. I know I’ll be reading it again.
The pre-order is available now, and the book will be released on September 19, 2017.