Thru-HIking as Pilgrimage, Anna Ptasznik

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Table of Contents




CHAPTER 1: THRU-HIKING AS PILGRIMAGE….....……………………………..…12


                 A Literary and Spiritual History of Transcendentalism………...………………………28


          Nature as Restorative…………………………………………………….................33

          Fear of Development……………………………………………………..……….36







                   Books, Films and Blogs………………………………………...…….…….…………63







I would first and foremost like to thank my advisor Dr. Deborah Whitehead for her support, guidance, and encouragement in helping me pursue this work. She has been incredibly generous with her time and efforts, pushing me to become better acquainted with conventions of my discipline while still nurturing in me the freedom to follow my interests.

I would like to thank Kathryn Huether, Michelle Ferris, and my mother for editing sections of my thesis, giving me advice, and discussing with me ideas I’d not yet fully developed. I appreciate the interest you have all taken in my journey.



The act of thru-hiking is a phenomenon in which one walks long distances—sometimes 2,000 miles or longer—on journeys often spanning continents and lasting many months at a time. Like religious practices around walking, namely pilgrimage, thru-hiking is a major undertaking in one’s life. The question must be asked if these two phenomena are distinct from one other, united only in the act of walking, or if they are in fact related on a more sophisticated level.

Furthermore, thru-hiking enters the media through books, films, and blogs, showcasing the event to the world. That is, it is not contained to the act itself, but is represented and depicted to audiences far away. In considering thru-hiking as a form of pilgrimage, then, the role of media becomes a lens by which one can study into the act. As an entry point into the study of thru-hiking as pilgrimage, I have chosen to look at media surrounding thru-hiking including books, films, blogs, and other internet resources. Specifically, I look at three popular books, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus to gain insight into thru-hiking experience, including motivations and values of the authors. I also chose these books as representations of popular memoirs so that I could unpack the influences of their depictions. This genre is particularly timely given its presence in mainstream media and its rise in popularity over the last few decades. It is with this in mind that I chose to look at media at all, as it allows for insights in the act of thru-hiking itself in addition to the way these journeys are understood and represented to the public.

What brought me to this project is a broad interest in the relationship between humans and their natural environment. As a student of both Religious Studies and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, I have had the opportunity to explore this question through two different academic traditions. However, like the division between secular and religious pilgrimage, the divisions between Religious Studies and Biology are not always clearly defined; it is in these areas that I have always found the most joy.  Furthermore, as a backpacker myself, my interest in thru-hiking as pilgrimage is a personal one. Though I see this work as a culmination of my academic studies, more importantly, it engages my concerns beyond the academy.

         This work spans three chapters in which I examine the act of thru-hiking and its representations through the media. In the first, I argue that thru-hiking is a form of pilgrimage because it emphasizes themes of transformation, community, and space. In the following chapter, I argue that in emphasizing themes of nature and self-reliance, modern thru-hiking books continue within a broader American literary and spiritual tradition characteristic of Transcendentalism. In the final chapter, I examine the way media is used in relationship to thru-hiking and argue that the pilgrimage experience changes with new media in an effort to conceive more broadly of the influences of media on modern pilgrimage.

         What this study of thru-hiking as pilgrimage offers to the academic study of religion is a broader perspective to the act of pilgrimage and an example of how popular media can be used to navigate religious experiences. First, it challenges conceptions of what pilgrimage is and what is does for the pilgrim. It also provides examples of religious practice spanning beyond organized religion, pointing towards more diffuse and individualized forms of spirituality common to the United States. Secondly, in using media to guide my work, I come to the subject of thru-hiking and pilgrimage from a perspective that is uncommon to their study at this time. For the field of religion, this means engaging in a method of study that has the potential to offer new insights into a topic that has been discussed for a long time.

         Throughout the following three chapters, I use themes from three popular books to support the claim that thru-hiking is a form of pilgrimage. Before engaging in that discussion, however, I introduce the three popular books I will be referencing throughout my thesis.


A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

            A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is a book written in 1998 by writer and journalist Bill Bryson. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Bryson attended university for two years there before dropping out and traveling instead. A decade later, he began writing about his travels and other non-fiction topics. He’s been awarded with honors such as an honorary doctorate from King’s College London and the James Joyce Award. A Walk in the Woods is one of Bryson’s most famous works, making the New York Times Best Seller list in 1998. Many of Bryson’s other books, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir and One Summer: America, 1927, for example, reflect heavily on the American experience, drawing upon historical facts to tell a story.

            A Walk in the Woods is one such book. It is a biographical account of Bryson’s experience thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1997 with an old high school friend named Stephen Katz. Aside from outlining his walk, Bryson discusses the history of the trail, the history of the U.S., and his thoughts on nature, preservation, and America. In his discussions of America, Bryson muses on ideas of capitalism and progress.

The book begins with Bryson getting in touch with Katz, a recovering alcoholic. The two begin a northbound hike on the Appalachian Trail, though Bryson is not particularly fond of Katz as a companion; in fact, he kind of hates him, but he is afraid of going alone. The men hike together, though usually with Bryson a few hours ahead of Katz, as their paces are different. They camp together in the evenings and have brief encounters with other hikers on the trail and stop in towns along the way. The men decide however to take a hiatus from the hike after 500 miles, after skipping several segments of the trail. After several months at home, Bryson returns to the trail alone, this time using a car to access the trail in manageable segments. He took yet another break before returning to the trail with Katz in Maine to do the final and most difficult stretch of the AT. They lose each other during this segment and upon reuniting decide to quit. They do not make it to Mt. Katahdin, the end of the Appalachian Trail and instead return to their own respective lives and homes.  Bryson ends the book writing, “We didn’t walk 2,200 miles, it’s true, but here’s the thing: we tried… and I don’t care what anybody says. We hiked the Appalachian Trail.”[1]

A Walk in the Woods was adapted into a film starring Robert Redford, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015. The film was announced in 2005, but production was delayed during the Hollywood Writers’ Strike. The film has received average ratings from critics. Currently, plans for distribution are unknown.


Wild by Cheryl Strayed

            Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is a book by Cheryl Strayed written about her experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995. It was written nearly a decade after the fact and published in 2012. Wild is a New York Times Bestseller, an Amazon Bestseller, and a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. Before Wild, Strayed wrote a book titled Torch and wrote for a popular advice column called “Dear Sugar.” Her other works are known to be largely based on her life.

            Cheryl Strayed was born in Pennsylvania to her mother and abusive father, who became divorced when Strayed was six years old. She was raised by her mother, who passed away at 45 years old from lung cancer. Her mother’s death had a profound influence on Strayed and is discussed in most of her writing. Strayed studied English and Women’s Studies and spent her younger years working as a waitress; she is now an author.

            While Wild follows a nonlinear plotline, it is a clear account of Strayed’s experience hiking the PCT and the events leading up to it. After her mother’s death, Strayed, who was married at the time, began cheating on her husband. The two divorced after a few years and several affairs later, upon which she changed her last name to “Strayed.” She moved to Portland, where her life continued to take a downward spiral as she dates a drug addict, begins using heroin, and has an abortion. It is shortly after that she commits to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

            At the start of her hike, which begins in Southern California, Strayed struggles to adjust to life on the trail--she had never backpacked before. After a few days, she meets a man and stays at his house for the night, accepting dinner and a shower from him and his wife. Afterwards, Strayed continues, meeting other hikers along the way, including one who helps her lighten her pack. Due to snow in the High Sierras, Strayed bypasses a segment of the trail and spends a few days in Reno with a fellow hiker instead. She continues on the PCT, making brief acquaintances along the route. Upon reaching Ashland, Oregon, Strayed meets a man with whom she has a brief romantic encounter. She continues hiking, however, finally making it to the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon/Washington, which marks the end of her hike. There, she meets a man who offers to drive her to Portland. She refuses, but reveals that she will have later ended up marrying that man and having children with him. In the final passage of the book, while not knowing what awaits her, Strayed writes “How wild it was, to let it be.”[2] In all, her hike was 1,100 miles long, only a portion of the entire PCT, 2,650 miles.

            On her personal website, Strayed explains her process in writing Wild years later. She writes:

I kept a journal all through my 20s and 30s, and yes, I kept a journal on my PCT hike, which I noted passingly in WILD. My journal was enormously helpful to me as I wrote the book, often providing me with details I'd have forgotten. I also researched facts and consulted others about their recollection and interpretation of some of the events I wrote about in WILD, but, like any memoir, WILD is based primarily on memory crafted with the intention of creating a piece of literature, not a report. I re-conjured moments, recreated conversations, feelings, landscapes, and the people I met as I remembered them from my own point of view and my own subjective memory.[3]


Rather than Wild being an entirely factual account, it is story crafted by Strayed after the fact.


            Since publishing Wild, Strayed has been deeply involved with the film adaptation of her book starring Reese Witherspoon, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in August 2014. It was released in major movie theaters in December 2014 and made $37.5 million in box office sales. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards and received favorable reviews by the popular site Rotten Tomatoes.


 A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus

            A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful is the first book by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, published in 2012. Lewis-Kraus is a Stanford graduate, Fulbright Fellow, and current contributor to New York Times Magazine, Harper’s magazine, and WIRED magazine.

            A Sense of Direction is Lewis-Kraus’ memoir, the focus of which is on his personal search for meaning. As a 27-year-old Jewish man living in San Francisco, Lewis-Kraus was growing dissatisfied with his life with a long-term girlfriend. He is the son of two rabbis, though Lewis-Kraus himself identifies as being “culturally Jewish.” Upon receiving a Fulbright Fellowship to research Jewish culture in Berlin, he moves there, hoping to live an avant-garde, free lifestyle he believed would fulfill him. Lewis-Kraus constantly tries to make peace with a part of himself that becomes more and more difficult to ignore; pain over his homosexual father, who was absent for much of Lewis-Kraus’ life. When Berlin turns out to be unsatisfying, Lewis-Kraus and his friend Tom decide to leave for El Camino de Compostela, an ancient Catholic pilgrimage route across France and Spain. Lewis-Kraus hopes that he will find a sense of purpose and finally be cured of his ever-present restlessness.

            Tom and Lewis-Kraus walk the Camino for about a month, growing increasingly annoyed with one another. Though the pair endure the physical hardship involved with completing the Camino, Lewis-Kraus tirelessly tries to sort through his inner turmoil--realizations of his commitment issues, anger towards his father, and general anxiety over the number of choices life offers. They reach the Compostela de Santiago together, but Lewis-Kraus still feels lost and unsure of what to do with himself. He decides to do another pilgrimage route, the Shikoku, a 750-mile walk around the Japanese island of Shikoku, visiting 88 temples along the way.

After a brief stint in Berlin and Shanghai--where he meets a woman he takes interest in possibly dating--Lewis-Kraus arrives in Japan and begins his pilgrimage. He has high hopes for the experience of doing the Shikoku alone. Despite spending the first week with his grandfather, he persists in his desire to walk by himself. He is not particularly impressed by the scenery along the Shikoku and fantasizes about the Camino, still contemplating heavily his personal issues. He makes some friends along the way, but upon completing the route, remains unsure of what he should be doing. He returns to San Francisco, deciding to go on yet another pilgrimage. This time, however, he needs to go with his father--the man he holds much animosity towards. They agree to undertake a Hasid pilgrimage to the Ukrainian village of Uman, the site of a pogrom,  in celebration of Rosh Hashanah along with Lewis-Kraus’ brother. The three men depart.

The walk to Uman, Lewis-Kraus notes, is more like the traditional pilgrimage he had been anticipating. There are clear rules and restrictions, a large community united by their Jewish faith, and a long-standing history. Aside from feeling a connection to his heritage, however, Lewis-Kraus is moved by the experience of confronting his father about the pain he has been harboring. The two engage in conversations about the past. Lewis-Kraus is at first unsatisfied, hearing that his father has few regrets about the way he has lived his life. However, as the book comes to an end, Lewis-Kraus reaches a state of sympathy and forgiveness for his father, realizing there was little use in holding onto negative feelings any longer. At the end of their walk to Uman, Lewis-Kraus, his brother, and his father all go their separate ways to their homes around the world. Shortly afterwards, on Yom Kippur, Lewis-Kraus writes to his father expressing his feelings of forgiveness. The book ends with his father’s response, in which he writes, “I hope that my flaws which have caused you pain are lessened, and that you will forgive me for all the things I have done wrong… Love, Dad.”[4]

TV rights for A Sense of Direction have been optioned by Red Hour Productions, though there is no official information about what the company will produce. Though it is not as popular as Wild or A Walk in the Woods, it has been reviewed by The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Boston Globe and Publisher’s Weekly.




“Thru-hiking” is a term used to describe the act of completing a long-distance footpath in a single attempt, while a “thru-hike” describes the path itself. There is no clearly-defined criteria of what constitutes a thru-hike, though it is generally understood to be a path over 100 miles in length, taking at least a few weeks to complete. Given that thru-hikes take so long, they require sleeping accommodations along the way, either in the form of camping (a sport called backpacking), shelters, hostels, hotels, churches, the homes of people along the way, or a combination.  Commonly, American trails like the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, John Muir, and Colorado Trails are considered thru-hikes, provided that they are completed from end-to-end. Examples of international thru-hikes are the Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago), Shikoku, Great Divide Trail, Te Araroa Trail, Israel National Trail, and Great Himalaya Trail.

            There are many ways one can engage with a trail, which generates a lot of terms to describe them. One who spends the night on the trail is called a backpacker, as this sport usually requires carrying all necessary gear (sleeping bag, food, water, etc). Purists hike every step of the official trail, passing every trail marker that exists. Purists are typically understood to do traditional backpacking the entire way, though resupplying in towns is allowed. Day hikers spend one day on the trail; overnight hikers spend more than one day on the trail; section hikers complete trail segments, usually with the hopes of eventually completing the entirety of the trail; and thru-hikers complete the entire trail, beginning to end, in a single attempt. There is also much slang revolving around the ways one completes a trail. Slackpackers hike with no backpack, usually driving on and off the trail daily or receiving substantial help from a loved one; yellow-blazing is the act of hitchhiking or driving for parts of the trail; rainbow blazers connect multiple different routes during their expedition, including different destinations.[5] The terms “thru-hiker” and “backpacker” often go hand in hand, as I will describe in later sections.



            Despite all the lingo that exists to describe ways of hiking, still no perfectly clear interpretation exists for what “correct” thru-hiking is. Backpackers and thru-hikers commonly consider themselves as such even if they undertake trips in which they do not always sleep outdoors, carry equipment, complete all parts of the trail, or travel only by foot. It is not uncommon for hikers to skip segments or hitchhike during parts of their trip, for example. Thus, within the backpacking community itself, much discussion is had over what it means to be an authentic thru-hiker.

            In one discussion over the question, Facebook users chime in on what it means to be an authentic thru-hiker.[6] While some hold the idea that a correct thru-hike requires faithfulness to walking the entire trail by foot, many have a more sympathetic approach. The acronym HYOH—“Hike your own hike”—is used often within the thru-hiking community as an encouragement to deviate from the purist perspective. What seems to matter to most is the experience one takes away, regardless of the logistical details of the hike. For example, one comment says

 In my opinion, anyone who hikes a good distance of the AT is an AT Hiker. Some section hikers are so careful not to call themselves thru-hiker if they split their trek into a few years because there are militant purists out there who may call them on it. Not me! Having experienced the trail, I have respect for anyone that does any number of miles. HYOH!!![7]

Here, anyone who gives a decent attempt on the trail earns the distinction of “thru-hiker.” This opinion is reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s final lines of A Walk in the Woods in which, upon quitting the hike, he says “We didn’t walk 2,200 miles, it’s true, but here’s the thing: we tried. ...I don’t care what anybody says. We hiked the Appalachian Trail.”[8] For some, thru-hiking is about the effort and not the outcome.

Another user responds with another common opinion: that it is the individual experience that defines the hike. He writes, “if you can be happy with yourself for what you have completed, then thats all that matters.”[9] This reflects a tone of indifference towards the “correct” way to hike which can be found all over trail forums. Many even claim that experiences off the main trail were more meaningful to them than the experiences that they had on it. What counts, ultimately, is that the participant enjoys their experience. “HYOH,” is the consensus.

            To get recognition for a thru-hike by Pacific Crest Trail Association or the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, one needs no formal proof of the undertaking.[10] Thus, even on a formal level, there is an acceptance towards variation in the way a thru-hike is done. Books like A Walk in the Woods gain popularity despite the fact that the trail was left incomplete. It seems as though there is an understanding that meaning goes beyond mileage.

The Appalachian Trail

            The Appalachian Trail, called the AT for short, is a 2,180 mile trail spanning from Georgia to Maine. It was completed in 1937 following the 1921 proposal of Benton MacKaye.[11] Today, it is maintained by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), a non-profit organization whose vision statement reads as follows:

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s vision is to connect the human spirit with nature – preserving the delicate majesty of the Trail as a haven for all to enjoy.


We are committed to nurture and protect this sacred space through education and inspiration. We strive to create an ever-expanding community of doers and dreamers, and work to ensure that tomorrow’s generations will experience the same mesmerizing beauty we behold today. [12]


This statement is riddled with religious language, regarding the trail as a “sacred space” or as having the ability “to connect the human spirit with nature.” Indeed, as will be explored in further sections, the AT plays a special role in the transformation of those who use it. Every year, around 800 AT hikers become “2000 milers,” folks who have completed the entire length of the trail. This number gets bigger nearly every year, although a consistent 25% of those who begin will finish.[13]

It is also clear that media play an important role in the AT’s popularity. Upon the publication of A Walk in the Woods in 1998, the number of thru-hikers on the AT increased by 60%. For the 2015 season, following the film release of A Walk in the Woods and the book and film Wild, large numbers of hikers are anticipated. In fact, for the first time ever, in 2015, the ATC has created a voluntary thru-hike registration system to prevent overcrowding. This is an effort to disperse hikers and preserve “the traditional natural AT experience.” [14]


The Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a 2,650 mile trail spanning from southern California to Washington. It was first proposed in 1926 and designated as a National Scenic Trail by 1968. It is maintained by the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), a non-profit organization.

Significantly fewer thru-hikers attempt and complete the PCT compared to the AT. Every year, nearly 800 hikers attempt the trail, while about 500 successfully finish. To date, 3,423 have thru-hiked the trail.[15] Like the AT, however, the Pacific Crest Trail is anticipating an increase in hikers following the popularity of Wild. It too has employed a new permit system limiting trail use. Since the film, website traffic has increased by 300% and hiking attempts by 30%.[16] Author Cheryl Strayed has teamed up with the PCTA to endorse the organization and trail stewardship initiatives, a campaign including a feature for hikers to submit their PCT stories for the public to see. The campaign has sponsorship from companies like REI, Gregory, and Leki, who give prizes to those who promote the PCTA and Wild on social media platforms. Additionally, they have adopted the hashtag #responsiblyWILD as way to gain support for the trail and to endorse ethical backpacking practices.[17]

Thru-Hiking and Religion

            What might be religious about thru-hiking? For one, the act is reminiscent of traditional pilgrimages in which one walks a route as a part of religious practice. Upon a closer look, it seems that many of the characteristics that define pilgrimage are present in thru-hiking: transformative experiences, community, and well-defined routes. This puts thru-hikes, at least some thru-hikes, into the category of “secular pilgrimage,” a pilgrimage devoid of religious tradition, which I will discuss in the following sections. In this section, I look at pilgrimage and secular pilgrimage to contextualize the way these ideas are conceived of in the academic study of religion. Then, I will look at thru-hiking specifically as it relates to these conceptions.



            The act of pilgrimage has been a part of religious practices for thousands of years.  Despite its prevalence throughout history and throughout different traditions, the idea of pilgrimage itself continues to be negotiated within the academic study of religion. Based on conversations around the idea of “secular pilgrimage”—secular acts that resemble pilgrimage—the definition of pilgrimage is encompassing more and more acts. The definition of pilgrimage I will be working with allows room for broad conceptions of pilgrimage, yet maintains some distinction between pilgrimage and long-distance travel, sport, or tourism. Peter Margry defines pilgrimage as

“[a] journey based on religious or spiritual inspiration, undertaken by individuals or groups, to a place that is regarded as more sacred than the environment of everyday life, to seek a transcendental encounter with a specific cult object for the purpose of acquiring spiritual, emotional, or physical healing or benefit.”[18]


Thus, according to Margry, pilgrimage requires (1) religious or spiritual inspiration, (2) a sacred place, and (3) an encounter with a sacred object which may provide spiritual, emotional, or physical healing. It is mostly under this model that I will discuss thru-hiking as pilgrimage.

One of the most famous works on pilgrimage is Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture by Victor and Edith Turner.[19] Using an anthropological approach to religion, Turner and Turner describe pilgrimage as a rite of passage in which the pilgrim disassociates from stable social relationships, enters a period of liminality, and then returns to regular life under a new personal framework. This process is rich, offering a well-accepted theory of pilgrimage within the academic study of religion.

To understand Turner and Turner, it is important to understand Arnold van Gennep’s theory of rites of passage, on which the Turners drew heavily for their work on pilgrimage. Van Gennep described rites of passage as an entrance into new territory; a “magico-religious aspect of crossing frontiers.”[20] This transition can be conceived of in three parts, “rites of separation from a previous world, preliminal rites, those executed during the transitional stage, liminal (or threshold) rites, and the ceremonies of incorporation into the new world, post-liminal rites.”[21] Victor Turner summarized these stages as follows:

The first phase (of separation) comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group either from an earlier fixed point in the social structure, from a set of cultural conditions (a “state”), or from both. During the intervening “liminal” period, the characteristics of the ritual subject (“the passenger”) are ambiguous; he passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state. In the third phase (reaggregation or reincorportation), the passage is consummated. The ritual subject, individual or corporate, is in a relatively stable state once more and, by virtue of this, has rights and obligations vis-à-vis others of a clearly defined and “structural” type; he is expected to behave in accordance with certain customary norms and ethical standards binding on incumbents of social position in a system of such positions.[22]


Thus Turner summarizes a rite of passage as a phase of separation from an earlier social structure, a phase of liminality or ambiguous state, and finally, a phase of returning to a social structure. Turner goes on to describe the idea of liminality more fully as an anti-structure or a phase in which normal rules, organization, rank, and distinctions do not apply. For Turner, the journey of pilgrimage is in the liminal stage of a rite of passage, while departure and return are in the preliminal and post-liminal stages, respectively.

            During the state of liminality, social distinctions cease to exist, creating a camaraderie between those undertaking the ritual. For this idea, Turner introduces the term “communitas” as a “generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties.”[23] Communitas is an essential and generic human bond experienced between those in the state of liminality together.

            Turner and Turner’s conceptions of pilgrimage as rites of passage can also be applied to thru-hiking. Although I do not focus on this explicitly, I will later draw out themes from popular books which signal elements defining Turner and Turner’s views of pilgrimage.


Secular Pilgrimage

In this section, it is my aim to introduce the idea of secular pilgrimage and thru-hiking. I will first unpack the term “secular pilgrimage” as it is understood in the academic literature. Then, I will begin to argue for why thru-hiking can qualify as pilgrimage.

To begin a discussion of secular pilgrimage is problematic straight away. One scholar of religion explains why: recent decades, the question of what the term pilgrimage means exactly and what should be regarded as the criteria for a pilgrimage has only become more complicated. This applies even more strongly to what is referred to as ‘secular pilgrimage’--a term consisting of two concepts which are troublesome to define and difficult to unite.[24]


This statement reflects the difficult and glaring question of understanding what pilgrimage even is, what it is not, and where the boundaries are. When one refers to the term “secular pilgrimage,” they are discussing a non-religious phenomenon that parallels a religious phenomenon; an act that resembles pilgrimage, yet lacks any clear sanctioning by church authority or religious tradition.

            To get a sense for what types of acts are called “secular pilgrimage” by scholars of religion, consider the following example. One pilgrimage event, called Run for the Wall (“The Run” for short), is a ten-day motorcycle ride across the United States. In this route, veterans ride from California to Washington DC, arriving at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the end. The journey is an act of mourning for those lost in the war as well a recognition of those who have served. There is also a political element to this event in that it calls attention to claims of prisoners of war still in Vietnam. Several characteristics make this non-religious act parallel religious ones; for example, there is a sense of community, a pre-established route, encounters with shrine objects and sacred spaces, and a focus on healing. These elements certainly make The Run resemble pilgrimage. As explored by Jill Dubisch, “Motorcycles are seen by many who ride them as representing American values of freedom, self-reliance, and individualism. The sense of solidarity and brotherhood that exists among bikers also comes into play during the pilgrimage…”[25] She also highlights the personal element behind The Run, writing that “ an important and often emphasized goal ...Such healing is multifaceted, with social, psychological, and spiritual dimensions.”[26] Thus, in examining this yearly event which has no explicit religious roots, we can understand how complicated this term “secular pilgrimage” really is. Regardless, it is functional in identifying and exploring this kind of activity. Other examples of secular pilgrimage might include the movement of fans to important cultural sites like Graceland or the grave of Jim Morrison. Visiting the site of Matthew Shepherd’s murder, Normandy Beaches, or Sedona, AZ may also qualify, for example.

            As you might see, the differences between pilgrimage and tourism are poorly-defined. This remains a lively question in both the field of religious studies and tourism studies. However, most agree that it is the motivation of the pilgrim that ultimately offers this distinction. Despite how controversial the term “secular pilgrimage” is, I use it because I think it is helpful in describing acts that are not traditionally thought of in terms of pilgrimage. This offers a rich way to consider how an act like thru-hiking might function in the life of the individual as well as further challenge the ways pilgrimage is understood.


Thru-Hiking as Secular Pilgrimage

I will examine the act of thru-hiking as a form of secular pilgrimage. In order to do so, I must first demonstrate that what commonly characterizes pilgrimage also applies to thru-hiking journeys. If we define pilgrimage as “journey based on religious or spiritual inspiration, undertaken by individuals or groups, to a place that is regarded as more sacred than the environment of everyday life, to seek a transcendental encounter with a specific cult object for the purpose of acquiring spiritual, motional, or physical healing or benefit,” we can begin to consider thru-hikes as such.[27] I will also engage with Turner & Turner’s elements of pilgrimage, as described previously. In this section I will look at thru-hiking with these perspectives, briefly observing its (1) religious, (2) communal, (3) spatial, and (4) liminal qualities.


Thru-hiking and Religion

Perhaps the most obvious area of inquiry uniting secular travel memoirs to the study of pilgrimage lies in examining how the narrators themselves confront religion. In all of the media I reviewed, the narrator does not identify him or herself as being religious—in fact, this is often the case in the genre. Nevertheless, these books are often rich in religious content, themes, and language. The question of religion still plays a central role in much of this media, indicating that it is important to the writers and thus important to the act of thru-hiking. I believe that this indicates a more individualistic form of religion among the authors. I begin by reviewing what is said in the academic literature about the religiosity of pilgrims. I then look at how thru-hiking authors confront the theme of religion and healing in their books. Finally, I will analyze the religious content and language in the books.

The numbers of individuals going on pilgrimage is on the rise, though modern pilgrims often do not identify as religious. According to scholar of religion Ian Reader, who studies modern pilgrimage in Japan, “Rather than implying some form of religious revival, contemporary pilgrimage growth may…be seen as evidence of an increasing turn away from religion as an organized entity.”[28] A similar trend can be seen in contemporary books. I believe that the connection between modern pilgrimage and religion is more nuanced, however, as organized religion is replaced with individual or “seeker” forms of religion. 

In A Sense of Direction, author Gideon Lewis-Kraus clearly states that his motivations for undergoing pilgrimage are not religious, writing “I’m not doing this for any sort of spiritual reason, I do not believe in God or divine forgiveness…”[29] He does not abandon religious ideas altogether, however. When discussing his experience on the Way of St. James, he writes that “…even the secular ritual this has largely become retains some promise of forgiveness. These rituals of travel seem to retain their power even when they’re no longer about belief.”[30] The transformative and healing benefit of pilgrimage is acknowledged while the religious component is rejected. Nevertheless, as is common in this genre of literature, questions of religion, faith, and God are actively discussed throughout the book. An example of this theological inquiry is evident when the narrator writes, “The Camino is not about God forgiving us but about us forgiving God.”[31] To claim that the author rejects religion might be accurate, but it is not complete. That is, these media offer a possibility for new ways of understanding religion and modern pilgrimage. It is also worthwhile to note an Amazon review in which the user writes “It seems that even as Lewis-Kraus, and all of us through him, craves meaning, direction, and purpose, he actively avoids it in his active avoidance of anything that might bring him closer to God.”[32] This is a strange dichotomy that plays out in these three books, demonstrating simultaneous rejection of religion and embrace of religion’s ability to grapple with questions of meaning.

Lewis-Kraus, in addition to grappling with the idea of religion, makes overt references to his process of healing. In talking to his walking partner on the Camino, he writes, “...the two of us are walking this trail right now, and both of us have some hope, however faint, that it’ll bring us solace.”[33] The entire book, in fact, is an account of Lewis-Kraus coming to terms with issues with his father. In an interview, he says “ some extent, the story about my reconciliation with my dad was an attempt to use my own life as a case study for the sorts of changes that pilgrimage can effect.”[34] For Lewis-Kraus, the act of thru-hiking was more about transformation than anything else. In this way, despite his lack of religiosity, walking was an act that he himself calls pilgrimage.

In Wild, author Cheryl Strayed expresses having never been raised in a religious tradition. Nevertheless, she actively grapples with questions of faith, writing “I was as searching as I was skeptical. I didn’t know where to put my faith, or if there was such a place, or even what the word faith meant.”[35] She shows some rejection towards God (rather than religion), calling him “a ruthless bitch.”[36] Her narrative is threaded with spiritual encounters with wildlife, questions of forgiveness, and musings on the workings of the universe, even of the legitimacy of astrology at one point. The reception of her book by reviewers also acknowledges the spiritual dimension of her journey. The Christian Science Monitor, for example, notes that “Strayed’s journey was at least as transcendent as it was turbulent.”[37] Topics central to religion are central to Strayed as well, although her journey can hardly be categorized as such. Furthermore, it is received by readers as having a spiritual quality.

Strayed also places an incredible focus on her healing. Arguably, that is the entire point of her narrative; to recover from divorce, addiction, issues with her father, and most importantly, the death of her mother. Strayed writes:

I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be--strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way. There, I’d walk and think about my entire life. I’d find my strength again, far from everything that had made my life ridiculous.[38]


Strayed’s thru-hike is motivated by a clear internal struggle. She seeks out the PCT as redemption from the chaos of her life, an act that will restore her to being who she wants to be, similar to what might motivate one to undergo pilgrimage. Thus, questions of religion and healing, central to this genre of literature, merit acts of thru-hiking to be categorized as something very much like pilgrimage.

Another striking observation of books in this genre is that they often resemble the arc of religious stories such as Siddhartha or The Life of Milarepa. That is, the flawed main character embarks on a long transformative journey to redeem themselves, meeting many people along the way that help them uncover their life’s lesson. Movement is often central to these stories as the main character feels the urge to leave their homes for what is unknown. The same frame is common to modern secular thru-hiking literature, generally.

The prominent theme of religion and healing in modern thru-hiking books suggests that it is common for narrators to both grapple with and reject their religious identities while still relying on religious tropes and themes to carry their plot forward. I would not consider this genre of literature to parody religion, but rather to actually engage with questions that are fundamental to faith. That is to say that though thru-hiking is not typically considered a form of pilgrimage, it does not adequately separate itself in terms of the motivations held by the pilgrim. As such, thru-hiking may in fact be a form of pilgrimage, at least for the authors of these books.

Thru-hiking and Liminality and Communitas

            For Turner and Turner, liminality describes the ritual experience of disorientation between an old identity and new. Liminality encompasses the idea of communitas, which is a state of common experience between many participating in a ritual. Both ideas are present in the act of thru-hiking, as hikers go out to “find themselves” or undergo a change.

Turner and Turner discuss the idea of communitas, writing that “The decision to go on pilgrimage takes place within the individual but brings him into fellowship with like-minded souls, both on the way and at the shrine.” They continue, saying, “But pilgrimage is an individual good work, not a social enterprise.”[39] Not only does the state of communitas provide a camaraderie between pilgrims, but it allows for individual transformation. Communitas is very clearly present in thru-hiking, as many writers experience a kinship with others on the trail despite undergoing their own deeply personal processes. For example, Lewis-Kraus writes about the Camino, “There’s a real community in that shared suffering.”[40] Themes like these come up all the time.

            These ideas will be examined in later discussions on solitude, and thus will not be elaborated here. It is important, nevertheless, to bring forward the idea, as it is at the basis of widely-accepted ideas of what constitutes pilgrimage in the field of religious studies.


Thru-hiking and Space

            The final element of long distance footpaths I will discuss is space. Traditional pilgrimage routes are well-established, having a clearly defined path and destination. Often, religious pilgrimages revolve around a shrine or sacred site. This is also the case with long distance footpaths in that there is generally a single historical route to follow. Geographical landmarks take on a sacred quality, such as the case with Mt. Katahdin at the end of the Appalachian Trail. Points along the trail become a part of the shared narrative of the journey. And while the experiences surrounding the relationship to space vary, there is nevertheless a fixed way in which thru-hikers complete their hikes and a culture that forms around it. Trails take on a reputation for being sites of healing. For example, Cheryl Strayed says, “[The PCT] is a place for self-reflection and transformation,” suggesting that perhaps the trail itself can take on the role of a cult object used for the purpose of spiritual, emotional, or physical healing benefits. [41]  

            Thus, in providing examples of how popular thru-hiking novels conceive of ideas of transformation, community, and space, I hope to have positioned thru-hiking alongside pilgrimage as an equivalent act, so long as the motivation of the thru-hiker is to undergo a change. Furthermore, in showing the “seeker” forms of religiosity present in these books, I also believe that thru-hiking is an example of a prominent modern religious attitude in which one can be “spiritual but not religious.” As this is still a way of negotiating faith or meaning, I see that the definition of pilgrimage must include such acts.




In this chapter, it is my aim to begin to situate modern pilgrimage books within a broader historical context of American naturalist writing. In doing so, I briefly introduce this literary history and the cultural context of 19th-century America. Next, I examine key themes from the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two writers famous for founding the American Transcendentalist movement. I do this in an effort to trace the values presented by Emerson and Thoreau in modern works, these values being (1) nature and (2) self-reliance. Within these themes, I unpack more specific themes of reverence of nature, fear of progress, solitude, individualism, and survival. In looking at these themes, I argue that not only do modern thru-hiking books continue a particular American literary tradition, but also a spiritual tradition characteristic to Transcendentalism. Finally, I discuss ways in which these themes are problematized in modern books and other media.


The Literary and Spiritual History of Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism was both a literary and religious movement in American history.[42]  Inspired by European Romanticism, characterized by themes of nature as a refuge, individualism, and escapism, as well as having other idealistic and highly emotive elements, Transcendentalism arose in the early 19th-century. Transcendentalism is considered to be the first American intellectual movement.

Transcendentalists accepted but expanded upon Unitarianian values of reason, claiming that perception and personal experience trumped rational ways of knowing the divine.[43] Transcendentalism was also a response to the influence of Calvinism and its negative ideas of human nature, instead viewing human nature more optimistically. Under this view that the divine was within individuals, Transcendentalists viewed nature as playing a large role in nurturing one’s potential, prompting a sort of “natural religion” or belief in the power of nature to positively affect or awaken humans’ capacity to understand the divine.[44] A Unitarian minister by the name of Ralph Waldo Emerson is founded the Transcendentalist movement with his 1836 essay Nature, in which he outlines the beauty in nature and suggests that true solitude is the only way for man to attain wholeness.[45] Meanwhile, society, for Emerson, is a considered to be a distraction. These are ideas that continued to characterize the Transcendentalist movement through the 1830s with notable writers such as Henry David Thoreau, George Ripley, and Margaret Fuller.

By the late 19th century, values of nature promoted by Transcendentalists grew into what is loosely considered as the American environmental conservation movement with the contributions of activist and writer John Muir. It was also during this time that the American National Park system began to take shape, setting precedence for a national value in wilderness that continues today. Writers like Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and Annie Dillard continued in the vein of this writing style throughout the 20th century, further defining the literary genre and expressing the value and beauty in nature through their work. Transcendentalist writing and thought evolved into environmentalism, among other movements, creating a tradition around reverencing nature.

            The religious legacy of Transcendentalism has a life of its own. According to Lawrence Buell, “Transcendentalism is fundamentally an intuitionism, a belief that Truth can be intuitively perceived by higher Reason that this intuition precedes and invigorates all religious awareness, and that it can penetrate the various forms of world religions, extracting from them their essence.”[46] Taking great interest in Eastern traditions, Transcendentalists played an active role in critiquing Unitarianism (which was already a liberal form of Christianity at the time).[47] Transcendentalists’ turn away from organized religion, doctrine, and tradition instead promoted individual experiences of religion. It is likely that current religious trends in America—the “spiritual but not religious” attitude adopted by more and more people each year—take root, at least in part, in Transcendentalism.[48]

Much of the modern literature on thru-hiking draws upon this well-established tradition of American naturalist writing, in addition to the spiritual legacy. Themes of nature as truth, solitude, religion, individualism, and society continue to be negotiated through these works, alerting us to continuity between old and new discussions about the individual’s place in nature and society.


Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in 1803 to a Boston minister. For a short time following studies at the Harvard Divinity School, Emerson became a preacher at the Old Second Church, but resigned in 1831 following the death of his wife. After a trip to Europe, Emerson later returned to New England and made a career of lecturing and writing on his philosophy, which would become Transcendentalism. His most important work, the 1836 essay Nature, marks the beginning of this movement. He continued lecturing and writing, forming the Transcendental Club, starting a magazine called The Dial and publishing another seminal Transcendentalist work, Self-Reliance, in 1841.

Emerson was influential for other major Transcendentalist figures such as Margaret Fuller, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau; he was particularly supportive of Thoreau, even allowing him to borrow land for his experiment at Walden. Yet Emerson criticized the work of Thoreau, who was very active politically, particularly in their later years as Emerson became more conservative.

 It is in Nature that Emerson begins to speak of God as being knowable through nature and the self. He examines humans’ relationships to nature in eight chapters titled Nature, Commodity, Beauty, Language, Discipline, Idealism, Spirit, and Prospects. For Emerson, nature is the place where one can encounter God, or Spirit. Solitude and self-reflection are critical to this process. It is then through himself that one accesses the universal. In Self-Reliance, Emerson goes into detail on his ideas of the self. The largest message is for humankind to follow their own internal guidance and resist the influence of others. He urges his readers to trust themselves and express themselves honestly. Through this process, one accesses a universal kind of knowing which in turn reflects back outwards to society.


Henry David Thoreau

Born in 1817, Henry David Thoreau is perhaps the most prominent of Emerson’s mentees and took to applying his ideas. Thoreau was a native of Concord, Massachusetts, the epicenter of Transcendentalism. He attended Harvard College, where he was first introduced to the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was a high school teacher and factory worker following his time in school, as well as a budding writer. By this time, he knew Emerson, who encouraged Thoreau to write. Later, in 1838, Thoreau started a private boarding school, which focused on experiential learning. The school only ran for three years, after which Thoreau began writing on Transcendentalism more frequently, even joining the Emerson household for a short time. Thoreau became quite successful as a writer in the following years, publishing essays in national magazines.

While Emerson offered the abstract philosophies of Transcendentalism, Thoreau often found ways to put them into action, for example through political action or concrete lifestyle changes. Thoreau’s famous experiment at Walden was one such example of this, as Thoreau took ideas around the reverence of nature and solitude and with them decided to live alone in a small and remote cabin in the woods. In 1845, Thoreau moved to Emerson’s property on Walden Pond, where he built a cabin and committed himself to writing. He spent over two years there, though he spent several more years crafting the manuscript that was published in 1854 as Walden. Walden was an account of Thoreau’s application of Transcendentalist ideas as well as a reflection on simplicity, society, and nature. Prior to leaving Walden Pond, Thoreau took a trip to Maine, upon which he wrote an account of the experience titled The Maine Woods.

After his time at Walden Pond, Thoreau became heavily involved in the anti-slavery movement. In 1849, Thoreau published an essay titled Resistance to Civil Government in which he argued for the imperfection of man-made governments and justified breaking unjust laws. He continued writing and lecturing until his death in 1862. His essay known as Walking was published shortly after his death in 1862. Walking describes Thoreau’s reflections on wilderness, patriotism and the act of walking.



Nature as Restorative

            Perhaps the largest and most well-known theme of Transcendentalism is in the value of nature, particularly in its role as a restoration of the self. As Transcendentalists see it, nature is the place in which humans can reconvene with the divine and heal from the ills of a damaged society. As I will discuss, these themes are represented in Transcendentalists works and then again in modern thru-hiking books, marking continuity in the way nature is perceived.


Nature as Restorative in Transcendentalism

            In the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, nature plays an extremely important role; it is where one finds God, confronts their truth, and seeks refuge from the disappointments of civilization. I will focus on the latter of these points, exploring the ways in which the restorative properties of nature are discussed.[49]

            To begin, it is worthwhile to get a sense of how Emerson describes the power of nature. He offers a rich picture of nature, attributing it to having deep healing effects, in addition to causing one to confront his or her own true self. He writes,

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature. [50]


Emerson’s view is vivid in conveying the overwhelming transformative effects one can experience in nature. For him, nature is the ultimate healer, able to take away any disturbances that one might carry (any “disgrace” or “calamity”). It is a place of peace, beauty, the divine, and a loss of ego. Furthermore, he subtly attributes society and others as a distraction from its greatness.

            The ideal of nature begins with an understanding of society as being sick or somehow toxic to the human spirit. As such, a place of retreat is necessary. This is precisely the role of nature. As Thoreau writes in a journal entry,

I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her. There a different kind of right prevails. In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world were all man, I could not stretch myself, I should lose all hope. He is constraint, she is freedom to me. He makes me wish for another world. She makes me content with this.[51]


Here, Thoreau reaffirms the importance of nature as a place necessary for restoration, rightness, and joy.  He also points to a dissatisfaction of civilization, calling it a restriction on his freedom and a source of lost hope. Thoreau places nature and society in opposition to one another, one as health and the other as illness. In this distinction, he highlights a common Transcendentalist motif of nature as an ideal. To use this kind of medical terminology is appropriate, I think, as Emerson himself does so, writing, “To the body and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone.”[52] This reaffirms the belief of nature as a site of restoration, balance, and health.

            As I have shown, Transcendentalist conceptions of nature are positive, associating it with healing and restoration from a destructive society. Though the implications of this view are much larger than I can address, they serve as a solid foundation for considering modern thru-hiking books and the ways this view is preserved in new literature.


Nature as Restorative in Modern Books

            The premise of many modern thru-hiking books, and perhaps what defines the act as having some religious element, is the emphasis on healing and transformation. The role of nature in this is paramount; and like Transcendentalist writers, modern writers attribute similar powers to nature in restoring balance within an individual. However, unlike Transcendentalists, modern thru-hikers also have a more sympathetic view towards society, expressing positive feelings towards it as well.

            In one scene in Wild, for example, Cheryl Strayed has a special moment in nature reminiscent to that which Emerson wrote in Nature. She writes,

But walking along a path I carved myself--one I hoped was the PCT--was the opposite of using heroin. The trigger I’d pulled in stepping into the snow made me more alive to my senses than ever. Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.[53]


In this experience, Strayed is redeemed by nature, feeling at peace about herself amidst its beauty. She claims to be a part of it, and unlike her past with heroin, her current experience feels healthy. Like Emerson, she attributes nature to healing her of her calamity and disgraces.

In modern thru-hiking books, however, a more nuanced relationship with nature and society comes forward. Having an extremely immersive experience in nature, thru-hikers sometimes view society as a relief instead, flipping Transcendentalist ideas around. In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson writes “Whatever restorative effects a town visit offered always vanished with astounding swiftness on the trail.”[54] Throughout the book, he describes town quite positively, viewing it as a cheerful break from the monotony, depravity, and hardship of the trail. Thus, modern views of nature appear much more sympathetic towards what society offers, rather than rejecting it outright.

So, while modern thru-hiking books show nature as an all-powerful healer, they also are more reluctant to label society as toxic in the meantime. What comes forward instead is a more complicated picture of both nature and society, showing them each as holding the potential for goodness, depending on the needs of the individual.


Fear of Development

            A fear of development and overall opinion of society as sick underlies much of the Transcendentalist ideas surrounding nature. In the celebration and reverence of nature, an anxiety is generated over that which is opposed to it, that is, human society. I will first provide examples of Transcendentalist writings which communicate anxiety around society. Then, I will trace this idea in modern thru-hiking books, highlighting common ideas of society’s relationship to nature. In modern thru-hiking books, the same values are demonstrated. In addition to expressing fear around human progress, however, there is an additional element of promoting conservation. Recent travel and nature memoirs, I believe, are one of the ways in which Transcendentalist fears of society have manifested into an act of environmentalism. Lastly, I will discuss the act of thru-hiking as an expression of reverence for nature, despite the environmental impacts of many trails. It is my hope to trace feelings of unease around society in historical and modern works and later examine the act of thru-hiking itself as it relates to these feelings.

Fear of Development in Transcendentalism

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau’s fear of development can be examined as anxiety around humankind’s estrangement from nature and the actions of humans on the environment. A concern about humans’ separation from nature can be seen, for example, in Emerson’s Nature. He describes a “discord” between humans and their environment, writing:

We are as much strangers in nature, as we are aliens from God. We do not understand the notes of birds. The fox and the deer run away from us; the bear and tiger rend us. We do not know the uses of more than a few plants, as corn and the apple, the potato and the vine. Is not the landscape, every glimpse of which hath a grandeur, a face of him? Yet this may show us what discord is between man and nature, for you cannot freely admire a noble landscape, if laborers are digging in the field hard by.[55]


Emerson makes clear that nature is a reflection of humans. In being disconnected from nature, we are also somehow disconnected from ourselves. Thus, relationship to the wilderness is critical in a spiritual sense. In his final line, when commenting on laborers digging in the field, Emerson suggests a discomfort around the use, disturbance, and alteration of nature.

Henry David Thoreau makes more explicit the dangers of a disconnection between humans and nature. He extends this anxiety into an expression of weariness towards the actions of humans towards their environment, writing:

Nowadays almost all man's improvements, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap.[56]


There is little hope in Thoreau’s tone, as he disapproves of the treatment of nature in the name of progress. In using the words “tame” and “cheap,” one can conclude that nature, untampered with, is meant instead to be wild and rich. He is skeptical of human development, not believing it to be necessarily positive.

While it is unclear what the ideal Transcendentalist vision of society is, a general theme of uncertainty holds over how it might encroach upon the ideal of nature—wild, free, and untouched. The anxiety around this relationship is twofold, revolving partly around a disapproval of humankind’s disconnection from nature and a mistrust of the actions of humans towards the environment. While society’s disturbances to the earth appear minor for Transcendentalists—digging in fields or building houses—it is important to also realize that in the mid-19th century fewer threats to the environment existed. Thus in examining future works, it is important to account for these differences.


Fear of Development in Modern Thru-hiking Books

            Similar ideas arise in modern thru-hiking books, perhaps even more concretely than in early American literature. These books also offer explicit critiques on society’s treatment of nature, marking their partnership with the goals of environmentalist movements. Like Emerson and Thoreau, modern writers often express disapproval around society’s encroachment on the natural environment. The feeling of estrangement from nature, however, appears to be much more implicit.

A Walk in the Woods is the most notable example of a work with overt criticisms of the treatment of nature, as it makes mention of environmental issues consistently throughout the book.  Bryson discusses environmental issues of acid rain and tree health, for example, vanishing mussels, and logging, to name a few. He sprinkles comments throughout his narrative like “There were twice as many songbirds in the United States in 1948 as now,” or upon talking about the majesty of the loon, writing “Oh, and by the way, the loons are disappearing everywhere because their lakes are dying from acid rain.”[57] He criticizes the park service, writing that if given more funds, “nearly all of it would go into building more parking lots and RV hookups, not into saving trees and certainly not into restoring the precious, lovely grassy balds. It is actually Park Service policy to let the balds vanish.”[58] It is clear that Bryson’s writing calls for an awareness of  human impacts on nature and suggests a sense of responsibility over public lands. He brings awareness to explicit issues, offering clear and often times jarring examples of the failures of humanity in protecting the wilderness. Bryson’s criticisms do not reference the idea of progress or development as a culprit directly, but rather, imply it in the juxtaposition of modern and scientific facts.

            In Wild, Cheryl Strayed also makes a comment related to the environment, although this is hardly the focus of her narrative. Upon encountering land affected by logging, she writes,

The trees that remained standing on the edge of the clear-cut seemed to mourn, their rough hides newly exposed, their jagged limbs reaching out at absurd angles. I’ve never seen anything like it in the woods. It was as if someone came along with a giant wrecking ball and let it swing…

...I was hiking through national forest land, which, in spite of its promising name, meant that I was on land that the powers that be could use as they saw fit for the public good. Sometimes that meant that the land would remain untouched, as it had been on most of the PCT. Other times it meant, that ancient trees were chopped down to make things like chairs and toilet paper.[59]


Wild makes few statements of this kind compared to A Walk in the Woods, as Strayed focuses largely on her personal journey. Yet this passage echoes messages of the genre and thinkers that came before her, expressing a sense of concern for way nature is being used by humans. The message makes its way in, despite the unrelated drama of her account. Like Bryson, Strayed’s comment takes on an almost political motive, though both writers only show that there is a problem.

            In the thru-hiking blogosphere, the act of thru-hiking is often bridged with environmental motivation. Not only are environmental issues brought to the foreground, but solutions are proposed. A much more positive and proactive stance is taken. One couple writes,

Even in cities, our lives are intertwined with the environment and creatures around us. With this blog, we hope to raise awareness of environmental issues and inspire others to protect our planet for future generations.[60]


They include entries on Leave No Trace principles, urging hikers to be responsible in their lifestyles on and off the trail. “We encourage you to minimize your impact on our planet in everything you do,” they write. “Through actions like recycling, buying local organic produce, walking or biking instead of driving, and refraining from watering your lawn, you can help preserve the limited resources we all share.” The couple further incorporates messages like this within the content of their blog, recalling “depressing” scenes along their hike, for example:

It was shocking for us to walk through dense forest one moment and into an almost clear cut section the next. Seeing destroyed forest was incredibly depressing, and North Star started to tear up. In addition to the cut trees, almost all the vegetation had been ripped up by heavy machinery. It would take hundreds of years for the forest to fully reestablish itself. The land was devastated.[61]


They continue by offering ways in which one can protect the land; by buying used furniture, eliminating paper waste, and donating to conservation organizations, for example. Their environmentalism takes on a more tangible approach than other writers, but nevertheless the sentiment remains the same. Backpackers are expressing concern over the condition of lands in the U.S., an issue which is a side-effect of society.

            A fear of development, as I have shown, is present in Transcendentalist and modern works alike. However, the message has become less abstract, evolving from a concern to a reality. Though the format of the message has changed, the general tone remains. Anxiety around the balance between nature and society is clear, though modern writers at times offer more concrete criticisms.


Fear of Development and the Act of Thru-hiking

According to one study, the biggest consequence of hiking the AT is gaining values in environmental awareness.[62] While there are clear questions as to whether those who seek out hiking the AT are also already inclined to be environmentally aware, it remains an important question to examine how recreational activities affect the environment. As I have established, thru-hikers tend to share a value for nature that echoes Transcendentalist themes. However, the impact of recreational hikers has been shown in scientific studies to have adverse effects on the environment. Trail vegetation varies with use, for example, and recreational activity in parks is known to lead to erosion and litter.[63] This begs the question—do the effects of environmental awareness gained by trail users make a bigger difference on the environment than the consequences of overuse? While this question is beyond the scope of this project, it is my aim to at least suggest that pursuits that refine one’s values might be advantageous despite negative consequences that arise in the meantime.


            In addition to being the title of one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s most famous essays, self-reliance is a broad theme of the Transcendentalist movement. It encompasses several other themes such as (1) solitude, (2) individualism, and (3) survival, which I will explore individually. Within each of these smaller themes, I first will outline how they are conceived by Emerson and Thoreau. Secondly, I will explore how they are approached in modern works, highlighting continuity in the spiritual and literary tradition. Lastly, I will explore the motivations and receptions of modern works as they relate to these themes, in addition to any other noteworthy points.



Solitude and Transcendentalism

            One major theme and value of Transcendentalism is solitude. In the act of being alone, one is able to connect to his or her own truth. In Self-Reliance, Emerson describes this relationship between authenticity and solitude:

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.[64]


Emerson is not equating solitude with aloneness; rather, he considers it as a sort of state of being. It is in this state that one has cognizance of their “duty,” or a connection to their sense of self. He does not urge for complete isolation, however; rather, a conscious solitude. He elaborates on this balance between self and other: “To go into solitude,” Emerson writes, “a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society.”[65] Thus, the act of solitude is spiritual pursuit, a perspective that persists beyond one’s aloneness. Emerson alludes to a fine line between connection to others and connection to self.

Henry David Thoreau writes extensively of his own solitude, affirming its value. In Walden, for example, he writes “To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone.”[66] He continues, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”[67] Thus, the value of solitude permeates much of Transcendentalist thought.

Solitude, for Transcendentalists, is not merely an act of aloneness. There is suggestion towards a community of those in solitude or with the understanding it brings. In a different discussion entirely, presented in Walking, Henry David Thoreau suggests that one is born into the community of walkers. He presents walking as a disposition; one either has the drive or does not. In thinking of this idea as it relates to Thoreau’s thoughts on solitude, an interesting nuance comes forward. A natural community exists among all who walk, and presumably all who participate in the type of solitude Thoreau promotes. He writes:

We have felt that we almost alone hereabouts practiced this noble art; though, to tell the truth, at least if their own assertions are to be received, most of my townsmen would fain walk sometimes, as I do, but they cannot. No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of the Walkers. Ambulator nascitur, non fit. Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class. No doubt they were elevated for a moment as by the reminiscence of a previous state of existence, when even they were foresters and outlaws.[68]


The Transcendentalist picture of solitude, then, does not exist without some complexity. Solitude is copresent with community. In some instances, such as presented in Thoreau’s Walking, one’s particular community is a feature inherent to them, discovered in their own connection to the divine.


Solitude and Modern Works

This balance—the space in which one is both in touch with their sense of truth while still participating in a larger community—is commonly negotiated in modern works, just as it was by Transcendentalist thinkers. Bill Bryson describes a similar phenomenon in A Walk in the Woods. He speaks of being both profoundly connected to himself while being connected to his partner Katz, writing:

Even at busy times, however, the woods are great providers of solitude, and I encountered long periods of perfect aloneness, where I didn’t see another soul for hours; many times I would wait for Katz for a long spell and no other hiker would come along. When that happened, I would leave my pack and go back and find him, to see that he was all right, which always pleased him. Sometimes he would be proudly bearing my stick, which I had left by a tree when I had stopped to tie my laces or adjust my pack. We seemed to be looking out for each other. It was very nice. I can put it no other way.


Bryson’s experience on the Appalachian Trail is both an act of solitude and community. He continues, describing the trail community as a whole:

... you get to know your fellow hikers at least a little, quite well if you meet them nightly at shelters. You become part of an informal clump, a loose and sympathetic affiliation of people from different age groups and walks of life but all experiencing the same weather, same discomforts, same landscapes, same eccentric impulse to hike to Maine.[69]


Bryson describes an informal community that arises among what is commonly an act of solitude. Furthermore, like Thoreau’s “family of Walkers,” Bryson describes a shared “eccentric impulse” among thru-hikers. While many of these hikers are inspired by a need for solitude, they are also all united by a shared drive to do so. This passage also conveys a sense of “communitas,” or a feeling of togetherness and equality among those participating in a common ritual. The connection between solitude and community presents a clear example of copresence in the act of pilgrimage, as the experience is simultaneously individual and shared. Rather, a connection between backpackers exists in spite of their deeply personal experiences.

A similar theme arises in Wild. Often after spending some time with folks on the trail, Strayed remarks on the relief in returning to her solitude. “It felt good to be alone. It felt spectacular,” she writes in one of these instances, reaffirming the comfort of her aloneness. [70] Interestingly, upon meeting a fellow hiker, Strayed notes a sense of relationship to him, writing “...he was my kin.”[71] This statement is reminiscent of Thoreau’s idea of a “family of walkers,” a tribe among which Strayed implicitly identifies. She also expands on her thoughts on solitude in the following passage:

Their leaving made me melancholy, though I also felt something like relief when they disappeared into the dark trees. I hadn’t needed to get anything from my pack; I’d only wanted to be alone. Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the PCT had altered that sense. Alone wasn’t a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before.[72]


Strayed is in a constant negotiation between her connection to the trail community and to herself. Furthermore, she experiences her solitude in a profound way. Like other writers in the genre, including those from the 19th century, Strayed values her aloneness and finds a relief in it. She finds this on the trail and in communing with nature.

            Thus, the theme of solitude is a complicated one. As exemplified by Transcendentalist writers, it is a value that is found in nature, though not contained there. Solitude is a state of being connected to oneself, even if in the presence of community. In modern works, this theme continues to be central. It is perhaps the biggest experience of thru-hiking to be alone and one that is described in modern works extensively.


Solitude and Thru-hike Motivation

            Despite the clear, albeit nuanced, desire of many writers to retreat from society, the very act of writing their memoirs hinders their solitude. One journalist describes it perfectly in her discussion of Wild:

The paradox of all these accounts of lonely wandering is that they actively solicit the companionship of readers and viewers. Cheryl Strayed needed to be alone in the vast American outdoors, but she also needed to tell us about it. The film adaptation of her book — itself already a classic of wilderness writing and modern feminism — provides another reason to be grateful that she did.[73]


What is brought forward is the idea that although thru-hiking authors have strong desires for solitude, they also push it away in the act of writing their memoirs. As their popularity rises, the luxury of retreat becomes less possible. As strongly as they turn inward during their thru-hikes and in processing deeply personal experiences, so too they turn outward and reveal it to the world.  Thus, the value of solitude comes into a unique conflict with the very practice of going on a thru-hike and then publishing the experience, especially with the responsibilities that might follow. Certain aspects of solitude must be sacrificed in order to live up to the lifestyle that comes with popularity, an irony considering that solitude is a major motivation behind these thru-hiking experiences.


Individualism and Transcendentalism

            The idea of individualism is one which often arises from readings of Self-Reliance. It is often used to describe an idea in which personal needs trump all others. This idea, however, is commonly oversimplified; as one scholar writes, “Emerson’s ‘self-reliance’ is misinterpreted and misrepresented as laissez-faire.”[74] In reality, the idea as Emerson put it forward is more nuanced. For him, self-reliance is not only a way of experiencing a deep sense of individuality, but is a way of being social in that it gives one a place in their society. One scholar describes this idea like this: “Rather than rejecting submission in the name of freedom, as we’d expect, his individualism defines freedom as submission to unmodifiable law.”[75]  This quote is to be understood in legal terms, where “law” is synonymous with democratic government and “freedom” with legal freedom.  Emersonian self-reliance is complex in that it does not actually assert individualism as an act of defiance against the state, but rather, as creating unity in a society. For Emerson, when one cares for their own personal needs and follows the Truth as they believe it, they will not be led astray to anarchy, but rather, they will discover their place within a broader social system. Thus, individualism as defined in Transcendentalism goes beyond one’s personal freedom, but extends to include benefits to the group through independence.

            In Emerson’s Self-Reliance, he puts forward the idea that one must resist following the values of society. He writes, “The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.”[76] His sense of individualism requires that one go against the norm. In doing so, all of society benefits, as a self-reliant person has accessed his or her “genius”—a universal truth that can only be found by connection to oneself.  The biggest insights of Self-Reliance are about encouraging trust in one’s intuitions despite external expectations. In preserving the self, one goes on to benefit humankind. And while individualism is a complicated topic, it is with this understanding that I will look at modern thru-hiking texts.


Individualism and Modern Works

The embrace of individuality and autonomy is an interesting facet of modern thru-hiking books. Authors depict thru-hikes as acts of defiance against the norms of society, yet at the same time, their accounts paint the act as being a form of bondage in and of itself. Decisions to go on these journeys often reflect hikers as leaving one structure (society) for another (life on the trail), painting a complex picture of individualism.

This is a common theme in A Sense of Direction, in which the narrator repeatedly expresses the monotony and routine of his pilgrimage on the Way of St. James. He writes that “The Camino isn’t at all about freedom from restraint, but about freedom via restraint.”[77] More than once he recalls the comfort that comes with doing the same thing every day, writing, “You just let yourself be ushered forward by the arrows, and by the third or fourth one it already feels great to make zero decisions about where you’re going or when you’ll get there or what you’ll do when you arrive.”[78] For the author, pilgrimage is not about freedom, but rather about restriction; there are in fact few choices to make about how one completes their journey. There is a starting point, an ending point, and arrows to follow in the meantime. The structure of the act of walking a trail is described by all of my authors, who each express a paradoxical liberation that comes from conforming to life on the trail. It is actually through repetition, discipline, and depravity that these writers find freedom. There is actually little emphasis on autonomy, despite the perceptions one might have in considering these stories. While the act of leaving on pilgrimage might in and of itself be an act of autonomy, the pilgrim undergoes a new and different form of structure whilst on the trail.

Besides resisting tradition both in terms of life choices (by choosing to go on a thru-hike) and religion (as demonstrated previously), there still exists a need for structure. Pilgrims trade the struggles of their daily lives for a different kind of struggle. Life on the trail does not appear to be any different from modern life but merely a reenactment of it; a stark contrast from what others might glean from it. These books are often called “inspiring” or “brave,” calling forward feelings of awe over the uniqueness of the journey relative to everyday life. However, in their experiences which call fans to break through the monotony of their own lives, hikers undergo an alternative experience which includes conformity to a particular trail culture.


Survival and Transcendentalism

            An extension to the idea of self-reliance, especially as Thoreau interpreted it during his time at Walden Pond, is to be responsible for oneself. Self-reliance as described by Transcendentalists is not equivalent to the term “survival,” but it is often interpreted this way. This spirit of survival is also bound up with a value of minimalism.

Minimalism, the act of living with few possessions, underlies the Transcendentalist value of survival. As Thoreau wrote, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of humankind.”[79] He describes that modern comforts and luxuries get in the way of one’s spiritual path, deeming them not only unnecessary but harmful.

In the vein of survivalism, Thoreau glorifies a past without modern luxuries, writing:

It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them…for the improvements of ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence; as our skeletons, probably, are not to be distinguished from those of our ancestors.[80]


Here, Thoreau claims no difference between modern humans and our ancestors, implying that there is something natural about living in a more “primitive” way. In his experience at Walden Pond, he aims to do exactly that. Thoreau outlines the expenses of his new lifestyle, listing the materials needed for his cabin and the costs of food.

            Much criticism exists over Thoreau’s claims of “solitude” and “self-reliance”—he in fact made frequent visits to Concord while at Walden Pond and had his mother doing his laundry. He never left Concord for very long and had many visitors to his home. Nevertheless, he remains as a prime example of American self-reliance and an ideal of simple living. In the case of modern thru-hiking books, Thoreau’s acts of minimalism and survival are continued, however, in a new context entirely.

In the act of thru-hiking, the meaning of the word “survival” takes on a new meaning. As one walks, they are subject to a variety of dangers such as hypothermia, animal attacks, or getting lost. Thoreau’s values of minimalism and self-reliance are shared by modern thru-hikers, but in the context of backpacking, they are taken to a new level. Very often, new writers speak of the dangers they may face while thru-hiking. For example, Bill Bryson talks about the threat of bears on the trail, writing “Black bears rarely attack, but here’s the thing. Sometimes they do.”[81] Cheryl Strayed expresses the dangers of hitchhiking, which she needs to do at one point, writing, “Horrible things happened to hitchhikers…They were raped and decapitated. Tortured and left for dead.”[82] In both cases, large threats remain imminent to the narrators, a testament to the nature of life on the trail.



            Another important theme of Transcendentalism is truth, understood as an authentic voice or raw expression of one’s convictions and beliefs. Both Emerson and Thoreau speak multitudes on the importance of communicating one’s truth as they understand it, unashamedly and as a service to the world. The idea of truth is closely bound up with the previously discussed themes of nature and self-reliance, but has an additional element of union with the world beyond self.

First, I will unpack the ways in which Emerson and Thoreau conceive of the theme of truth. Secondly I will look at the theme of truth surrounding Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Interestingly, of all the books I explored, Strayed’s was most explicitly connected to this theme. On that note, lastly, I will explore what distinguishes Strayed from other books I looked at and suggest future directions for inquiry.

Truth and Transcendentalism

The theme of truth in Transcendentalism can seem indistinguishable from ideas such as authenticity and self-reliance. However, there is an important distinction between those ideas and what the Transcendentalists call “truth.” Truth has to do with self-expression. Not only is there a value in self-discovery, which underlies many other themes of the movement, but there is an additional value of sharing the discovery with society. Importance lies in conveying truth to others, as this provides richness to the world.

This idea can be understood in one of the most famous passages of Thoreau’s Walden, in which he describes his intention behind embarking on his two-year retreat. He writes,

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world. or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.[83]


Thoreau is motivated by the pursuit of truth. He aims to discover that which is not obvious in everyday life, even if that may not necessarily be comfortable. However, this endeavor is not only a personal one. As indicated in the final lines, Thoreau very clearly intends to make public that which he finds. Knowing the truth is not enough; it must be communicated. There is a sense of responsibility to share what is found. Later in Walden, he elaborates on this idea, writing, “I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments…” He continues, “...for I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression.”[84] Here, he emphasizes the communicative element of what it means to be “true.” In addition to finding his truth, Thoreau wants to speak it and give it to humankind. Furthermore, he suggests that speaking one’s truth is the best way to communicate and that anything else is simply not as effective.

Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke on the matter of truth before Walden, setting the groundwork behind this notion of radical self-expression. In Self-Reliance, for example, he speaks of the power behind truth, writing, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.” He continues, “Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense...”[85] Like Thoreau, Emerson offers reasoning behind why truth is virtuous. Speaking and publishing one’s convictions becomes a worldly affair; that is to say that through self-expression, connections are made to others. It is of benefit to society when one shares their truth.

            Thus, the value of self-expression, which Transcendentalist writers often call truth, adds depth to ideas surrounding nature and self-reliance. The notion that one can serve society by conveying that which they have found within themselves—their conviction, passions, ideas, and conceptions of the world—is at the heart of the Transcendentalist movement and a value that permeates modern literature and American values at large.


Truth and Wild

            Of all the books I examined, none were as aligned to the Transcendentalist value of truth as Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. While it is characteristic of the thru-hiking genre to offer narratives of transformation and vulnerability, Strayed and Wild are especially known for this. I will briefly offer examples of Strayed’s ideas on truth, in addition to the reception of her work as it relates to the theme of truth as understood by Transcendentalist writers.

            Strayed has made a career of writing and communicating her truth. In her advice to writers, Strayed says:

Be brave. Write what’s true for you. Write what you think. What about what confuses you and compels you. Write about the crazy, hard, and beautiful. Write what scares you. Write what makes you laugh and write what makes you weep. Write what makes you feel ashamed or proud. Writing is risk and revelation. There’s no need to show up at the party if you’re only going to stand around with your hands in your pockets and stare at the drapes.[86]


Like Thoreau and Emerson, Strayed emphasizes the importance of communicating what you know. In describing her MFA experience, she says, “I learned how to listen to the opinions of others and also to get to those opinions out of my head and trust my own instincts.”[87] Thus, her sense of truth is one that originates in herself. And while perhaps it is not explicit that Strayed views this act as a service to humankind like Emerson and Thoreau, she appears to have that effect.

Strayed’s experience as an advice columnist and reception as a writer suggest that she is accessing others through her own sense of self. Her impact on readers is noteworthy; she is received widely as being honest and influential as a writer. For example, one Amazon reviewer comments on Wild, calling Cheryl Strayed “brutally honest about her weaknesses as well as her strengths.” The reviewer continues, “Her work is of great value because she confronts and reveals parts of herself that others would deny and hide.”  The reviewer acknowledges that Strayed’s truth is everyone’s truth, an idea that echoes Emerson. The review concludes as follows;

Few have Strayed's courage to live their own truth and to tell that truth without wavering. She is remarkable as a person and as a writer. If you are willing to travel with a damaged woman who puts herself in harm’s way and tells about it with raw honesty, who looks at herself without blinking, and who emerges from her daunting journey with greater insight and wisdom, you want to read Wild. [88]


It is clear that at the very least, Strayed is received as one who speaks her convictions. She demonstrates the value of Transcendentalists’ understanding of truth by expressing feelings that are imminent for her audience.

            This opinion of Strayed as a vehicle for truth is widespread. Reese Witherspoon, who played Strayed in the film depiction of Wild, said “[Strayed is] no-nonsense, cuts through the B.S. and just tells it like it is—the same things that people really responded to with her book,” for example. [89] In another review, Eliza Donahue writes that “Strayed discusses her struggles with fear and self-doubt (and the doubt of others) with refreshing honesty...As impressive as Strayed’s story is, the humanity at its core is something that we can all relate.”[90]  Thus, the truth that Strayed conveys appears to have a strong impact on her readers. She appears to be demonstrating the power that Emerson and Thoreau ascribed to honesty and self-expression.

            In both her own philosophy on writing and in her reception by fans, Strayed aligns with the Transcendentalist notion of truth. In the first component, we can see her intentions behind writing, that is, in conveying that which she knows to be true. In the latter examples, we can see the impact that has had on readers. Together it appears that Strayed is in line with ideas of truth presented by Emerson and Thoreau in that it originates from within and consequently connects to the core of others.

Final Thoughts on Truth

            Despite only having one author who very clearly addressed ideas of truth in ways reminiscent of Transcendentalist writers—Cheryl Strayed—I chose to discuss the theme anyway as an interesting point for future focus. Strayed is the only female of my selected authors, a detail that I bring forward because gender very clearly plays a large role in Wild. Although it is beyond the scope of my research, I believe there is much to be said on the topic on women in the genre of thru-hiking literature and culture. As it relates to truth, it is my observation that Strayed’s narrative takes on a more personal and emotive focus than my other example books. Needless to say, this is an area ripe for further inquiry.


Direct References to Transcendentalism in Modern Pilgrimage Media

            While some themes of modern thru-hiking books serve clearly to unite them to American naturalist writing and intellectual movements of the past, overt connections are often drawn within the books themselves and in their perceptions by the public. Hikers sometimes cite these authors as inspiration, are compared to them by others, or allude to them in their work. I will provide examples of each circumstance with the aim of further situating these books within a broader context.

One Pacific Crest Trail blogger cites Annie Dillard as an influence on her writing[91]; another hosts a quote of Ralph Waldo Emerson on her page.[92] Such is a common theme among books associated with thru-hiking. References are made to early American naturalist writers, drawing upon a shared cultural knowledge. Such allusions evoke a sense of continuity between early American traditions of nature writing and the present.

Perceptions held by the public perpetuate these associations. In one review of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, the author relates Strayed to American naturalist authors, writing:


If she had lived in another time, Strayed and Thoreau might have been friends. Both ventured into the woods to find a way to live deep, to suck the marrow out of life. Both allowed themselves to get lost in nature, with the hope that, by getting lost, they might be found—that they might discover a richer, more meaningful way to live. Strayed hoped to emerge not as a different person, but as the person she had been in the past—the person she was before she lost her way. Here, she sold herself short. It is clear that, upon finishing the trail at the Oregon-Washington border (change of plans!), Strayed was far stronger than she ever had been before, or, at the very least, that she had learned enough to become far stronger. In this respect, it seems that another one of her predecessors, John Muir, was right: “In every walk with Nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” [93]


Not only is Strayed united with Thoreau and Muir by writing of her experiences in nature, but as the reviewer makes clear, she is united by her intentions and character as well. Strayed is assumed to share a kinship with figures of the past and what they stood for. She is assumed to be continuing the conversation that started with these early thinkers. Another such association is made in the following testimonial of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ A Sense of Direction:

Kraus is the type of soul that Henry David Thoreau would have enjoyed, a guy who is a savant in what the 19th century transcendentalist poet and philosopher referred to as the “art of walking.”  But while Thoreau concerned himself with the natural surroundings of his native Massachusetts, Lewis-Kraus focuses on a mix of family-inflicted mental maladies, existential boredom, and good old-fashioned shpilkes.[94]


Again, thru-hikers are seen as modern-day equivalents to American writers like Thoreau and Muir, replacing these images for something new.

I have introduced examples of direct references to America’s literary past through citations of inspiration and public opinions of modern thru-hikers and authors. I will extend this to include direct references made by authors themselves, exploring further the ways in which Transcendentalism and American naturalist writers are being addressed in the present.


A Walk in the Woods and Thoreau: An Example of Direct Reference

 I examine here a particular reference to Henry David Thoreau in A Walk in the Woods in an attempt to further situate thru-hike books within a larger literary and intellectual history, in addition to showing the use of direct references as a means of both honoring and problematizing conceptions of nature and simplicity within the American naturalist tradition.

In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson puts forward a brief yet noteworthy criticism of Henry David Thoreau, writing,

The American woods have been unnerving people for 300 years. The inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau thought nature was splendid, splendid indeed, so long as he could stroll to town for cakes and barley wine, but when he experienced real wilderness, on a visit to Katahdin 1846, he was unnerved to the core. This wasn’t the tame world of overgrown orchards and sun-dappled paths that passed for wilderness in suburban Concord, Massachusetts, but a forbidding, oppressive, primeval country…[95]


Bryson points to two particular points of judgment; (1) Thoreau’s engagements in town and (2) his fear in the Maine woods. Interestingly, Bryson’s account of hiking the Appalachian Trail  shows him to be guilty of similar patterns.

First of all, Bryson’s allusions to Thoreau’s cakes and barley wine is in line with many criticisms of Thoreau; his cabin at Walden Pond was close to Concord, which afforded him the ability to buy supplies and groceries in the city. In his own account of hiking the AT, however, Bryson appears to have a similar relationship with the towns and conveniences he encounters. At multiple moments in A Walk in the Woods, Bryson expresses an excitement towards the society from which he has chosen to retreat. For example, upon reaching the Smoky Mountains, Bryson eagerly anticipates the commodities of a potential visitor’s center. He writes,

We hastened down the trail to it as we had an inkling that there was a visitor’s center there, which meant the possibility of a cafeteria and other gratifying contacts with the developed world. At the very least, we speculated excitedly, there would be vending machines and rest rooms, where we could wash and get fresh water, look in a mirror--briefly be groomed and civilized.[96]


He has a similar moment later on upon seeing the city of Waynesboro from the trail. Bryson writes,

...the feature that made us gawk was a town--a real town, the first we had seen in a week--that stood perhaps six or seven miles to the north. From where we stood we could just make out what were clearly the large, brightly lit and colored signs of roadside restaurants and big motels. I don’t think I have ever seen anything that looked half so beautiful, a quarter so tantalizing. I would almost swear to you I could smell the aroma of grilling steaks wafting up to us on the evening air. We stared at it for ages, as if it were something we had read about in books but had never expected to see….We had been a week on the trail and were going to town the next day. That was self-evident. We would hike eight miles, get a room, have a shower, phone home, do laundry, eat dinner, buy groceries, watch TV, sleep in a bed, eat breakfast, return to the trail. All this was known and obvious. Everything we did was known and obvious. It was wonderful really.[97]


            Both of these passages depict civilization as offering redemption from the deprivation of backpacking. Bryson claims that a town has “restorative effects,” and certainly, he shows this in moments of gratitude and excitement for the towns he encounters. [98] His staple food of Snickers bars and recurring fantasies of Coke, for example, demonstrate an engagement with the luxuries he denounces for the sake of thru-hiking and an attraction towards the very society he criticizes. Just as Thoreau did not completely renounce the conveniences and comforts of modern life, nor did Bryson.

            Bryson subtly teases Thoreau’s fearful reaction to “real wilderness” while on his 1846 expedition to Mount Katahdin. Thoreau gave an account of this trip in a work titled The Maine Woods. In that work, Thoreau reflects upon this wilderness, writing,

Perhaps I most fully realized that this was primeval, untamed, and forever untameable Nature, or whatever else men call it, while coming down this part of the mountain. ...It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man. We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and dread and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful...It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made for ever and ever, — to be the dwelling of man, we say, — so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific, — not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not for him to tread on, or be buried in, — no, it were being too familiar even to let his bones lie there, — the home, this, of Necessity and Fate. There was there felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man. It was a place for heathenism and superstitious rites, — to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we.[99]


Thoreau conceives this landscape to be powerful, frightening, and humbling. He continues, describing the scene further;

What is most striking in the Maine wilderness is the continuousness of the forest, with fewer open intervals or glades than you had imagined… It is even more grim and wild than you had anticipated, a damp and intricate wilderness, in the spring everywhere wet and miry. The aspect of the country, indeed, is universally stern and savage, excepting the distant views of the forest from hills, and the lake prospects, which are mild and civilizing in a degree.[100]


Thoreau’s descriptions of this expedition are vivid, conveying the vastness and savageness of the Maine woods. Interestingly, Mount Katahdin is a landmark at the end of the Appalachian Trail; it is a mountain peak which, upon summit, marks one’s completion of the thru-hike. Thoreau was also famous for attempting to climb it in 1846. In fact, the Maine portion of the Appalachian Trail is considered to be the most difficult section, containing what is called the Hundred Mile Wilderness, the most remote stretch of the AT. Despite Bryson’s criticism of Thoreau’s toughness and attunement to the wilderness, he himself has a profound experience in the Maine woods, one comparable perhaps to Thoreau’s.[101] He writes of the woods:

At the edge of the woods when we alighted there was a sign announcing that this was the start of the Hundred Mile Wilderness, with a long, soberly phrased warning to the effect that what lay beyond was not like other stretches of the trail, and that you shouldn’t proceed if you didn’t have at least ten days’ worth of food and weren’t feeling like the people in a Patagonia ad.


It gave the woods a more ominous, brooding feel. They were unquestionably different from woods further south--darker, more shadowy, inclining more black than green….This was a woods for looming bears, dangling snakes, wolves with laser-red eyes, strange noises, sudden terrors--a place of ‘standing night’, as Thoreau neatly and nervously put it.[102]


In this reference to Thoreau, Bryson seems to validate the ominousness of the Maine woods and the limits of their strength. In the chapters that follow, Bryson loses his hiking partner Katz in Hundred Mile Wilderness, a climax to the book. Like Thoreau, Bryson depicts the danger of the woods, writing that “...once you were lost in these immense woods, you would die. It was as simple as that. No one could save you.”[103] After a night alone, Bryson finds Katz and the two men share a moment of relief:

“To tell you the truth, I’ve never been so glad to see another person in my whole life, and that includes some naked women.”

There was something in his look.

“You want to go home?” I asked.

He thought for a moment. “Yeah. I do.”

“Me too.”

So we decided to leave the endless trail and stop pretending we were mountain men because we weren’t.[104]


At that moment, the men ended their thru-hike and began to return home. “So we didn’t see Katahdin,” writes Bryson.[105] Like Thoreau’s experience in 1846, the sheer power of the wilderness proved to be overwhelming.

As demonstrated in this example of Bryson’s reference to Thoreau, it is characteristic of some modern walking literature to allude directly to Transcendentalist writers, further situating these books within a broader historical context of American naturalist writing. Furthermore, upon further exploration, these direct references serve to pay homage to writers of the past while simultaneously drawing out the nuance of ascetic practices in the American wilderness.

            In comparing themes of nature and self-reliance between modern thru-hiking books and Transcendentalist writers, I have contextualized modern works within a broader literary and spiritual American tradition. Themes might remain the same, as with the reverence of nature, or they may be taken further by modern writers, such as with survival or fear of development, but nevertheless, modern genres participate in an ongoing cultural dialogue. Thru-hiking as pilgrimage, I believe, can be understood within this tradition.



The experience of thru-hiking is hardly contained to the trail. In some cases, the trail experience is removed from the landscape and placed into the public eye, represented through the media such as books, films, and blogs. Often, it is used as a promotional tool for companies as a means of brand endorsement. In other cases, the outside world is brought onto the trail, as is the case when hikers use social media and technology to communicate or enhance their experience. In both instances--whether the trail is brought into the world or the world is brought onto the trail--the experience of thru-hiking is a collective one, creating a dialogue between community insiders and outsiders. In this section, I will look at the ways books, films, and the internet are being used by hikers and non-hikers and the ways in which they engage the idea of the thru-hiking experience. In doing so, I hope to show that media has an influence over the idea of thru-hiking as pilgrimage.

In a study surveying AT hikers mid-hike, it was found that hikers with more backpacking experience were less likely to think about personal responsibilities while on the trail.[106] I find this to be in line with my examinations of these media, as non-hikers typically feel inspired by popular thru-hiking media and are drawn to more narrative-driven accounts. I believe that the prospect of transformation through thru-hiking is attractive to non-hikers, driving the change in the genre towards more personal accounts.



            Thru-hiking books situate themselves within the intersection of nature, travel, self-help, and memoir writing. Most often they engage all of these elements, focusing, for example, on the wilderness experience, travel through new landscapes, gear and training, and personal development. More recently, they have become stories of “finding oneself” through experience in the wilderness, highlighting personal narratives over factual accounts. They are often consumed by hikers and non-hikers alike. Upon introducing the history of this modern genre, I will discuss the way these books are used and received by hikers and non-hikers in order to later demonstrate the influence of books on the idea of thru-hiking as pilgrimage by contemporary U.S. authors.

Thru-hiking books, like any other form of literature, have not stayed the same throughout history. Until recently, guidebooks were the dominant form of trail literature. They have been available since the 1930s and continue to be published yearly as technical sources, meant to assist with planning and backpacking logistics. These are not books that circulate far beyond the backpacking community. However, the current genre of thru-hiking literature, which has significant readership in non-hikers, focuses on the experience of hiking and more recently, on the personal lives of the authors. This marks a change in the way thru-hikes are represented, giving emphasis to stories of transformation and growth. These books have clear connections to earlier nature books, for example, John Muir’s quintessential My First Summer in the Sierra (1911). By the late 20th-century, however, books like Appalachian Hiker: Adventure of a Lifetime (1971), The High Adventure of Eric Ryback (1971), and Walking with Spring (1981) became popular, offering more personal accounts of trail experiences and intentions of the hiker. It is not until the early 1990s and 2000s that the genre rises in popularity and begins to look like the more distinctive and popular form of literature we see today. In this new wave of hiking literature, books become more focused on the hiker and less on the trail or sport itself. Some examples of these kinds of books include On the Beaten Path: An Appalachian Pilgrimage (2000), and A Blistered Kind of Love: One Couple's Trial by Trail (2003), in addition to Wild (2013), A Walk in the Woods (1998), and A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and Hopeful (2013). These books often showcase the trail as a background to more central stories of love, death, family, or spirituality. Titles depicting grand trips and stories of “finding oneself” such as Into the Wild (1996) and Eat, Pray Love (2006) are often compared to thru-hiking books as well, as they are similarly focused on the personal experiences of their protagonists. While thru-hiking books and similar stories are not entirely new, they have undergone a significant change in the past several decades, now including stories that are driven by narratives of healing and change, in addition to ever-present themes of adventure and pioneering.[107] While the books mentioned are all published and widely distributed, it is also worthwhile to mention that some self-published thru-hiking memoirs are circulated around the web as well.

            Books about thru-hiking, perhaps not surprisingly, are read by thru-hikers. While the community largely consumes technical guides, it is also common for hikers to read popular trail memoirs and journals as well, all in preparation for their own trips. While some backpackers cite these books as their inspiration to thru-hike, most do not. In fact, among backpackers, perceptions of these books have varying presentations, which include (1) appreciative; (2) neutral; and (3) weary feelings about their impact on the sport. However, no matter the opinion, it is clear that these books do not go unnoticed by thru-hikers.

            To showcase some ways thru-hikers are commenting on these popular books, I navigated thru-hiking internet forums and noted general themes in the reception of books such as Wild, A Walk in the Woods, and others. A majority of comments make recognition that popular books do not capture the “real” thru-hiking experience, though they are still interesting to read as a story. Rather than depicting the depravity, monotony, or boredom often present on thru-hikes, books, particularly popular ones, glamorize the act instead. Additionally, backpackers seem to disagree over whether these books will have positive or negative impacts on trails and the backpacking culture at large.

            Within backpacking forums, neutral receptions of popular books dominate. On the value of thru-hiking books to hikers, for example, one user wrote,

I think a lot of people who identify as hikers (or prospective hikers) want something that focuses primarily on the actual experience of long-distance hiking, rather than a story about something else that happens to use a long trail as a backdrop.[108]


This comment echoes a common opinion which establishes a separation between “real” hikers and those who simply enjoy popular hiking narratives. There is an understanding that the depth of a thru-hiking experience is not captured in books. Another commenter writes, “...whilst I think [A Walk in the Woods] was a good book and entertaining, it doesn't represent the trail experience.”[109] There is a sense of division between the hiking community and other readers, yet no tension between the two is noted. Comments like these show a neutrality towards the genre, appreciating them for what they are but not including them as representations of a genuine thru-hiking experience. They are not met with overwhelmingly positive nor negative opinions, but simply place such books into a category of their own.

            However, the distinction made between hiking readers and non-hiking readers can be grounds for both acceptance and animosity for “armchair travelers” or readers who have not thru-hiked. Among readers who express distaste for the genre, there is often a fear of non-hikers ruining the trail experience for “real hikers,” interrupting the culture and the spirit behind the act. One comment is as follows:

...if you want to see the AT and know what the AT is like, then do what I did and go find out for your self. then when others ask you what it's like, tell them the same thing. go find out. the AT is nestled between very densly populated areas in places that have very little 'natural lands' left. I'm wary of any hiker whose out there to make a documentary or write a book. the AT and all natural lands in general should be respected, not exploited.[110]


Here, the user expresses a common fear within the community, claiming that increased attention to the Appalachian Trail will damage the land as well as the personal thru-hiking experience.

However, many voices stand in opposition to this kind of hostility towards non-hikers. In a spirit of embrace for new books, one user writes:

Wild is worth a paid view, in my opinion. Have no interest in seeing it again, but as a backpacker I will take any chance I get to consume media related to backpacking. Especially here considering there should be a pretty big opportunity for dialogue to open up between backpackers and those casually interested after watching the film (or reading the book). This is a good thing(!!), and I wish people would stop lamenting every hiking themed movie or piece of entertainment that comes out as if it is some personal slight to them because it doesn't portray THEIR idea of what the outdoors experience should be.[111]


The success of the book and film Wild is portrayed as uniting hikers and non-hikers, embracing opportunities for new people to take interest in hiking and the outdoors. The user also allows room for interpretation around what makes a good experience, perhaps in line with HYOH mentality.

Along a similar vein of acceptance of new thru-hiking literature, some backpackers express that non-hikers pose no threat to the authentic trail experience, as a majority are simply not cut out for it. One user says “People don't walk to Canada because they watched a movie,” pointing to the idea that thru-hiking is simply too great of a commitment to be sustained by the inspiration of a book or film.[112] In these kinds of commentary, the identity of thru-hikers and the purity of the trail remain intact regardless of the genre’s rise in popularity.

            On the other hand, within non-hiking circles, modern thru-hiking and wilderness books provide an entry point into a new experience. Some trail organizations report increases in hiking traffic following the release of major books, and reviews often verify that such books inspire readers to go into the outdoors. One Amazon reviewer comments on a book titled Hiking Through, writing,

I'm not an outdoorsy person. I hate camping and I hyperventilate at the thought of aerobic exercise, although I do enjoy walking. I've done, and mostly enjoyed, short hikes here and there over the course of my life, and I walked all over Rome and Florence and Paris, but I cannot fathom hiking 2,220 arduous miles over mountainous terrain. Yet, Paul's account of his experience hiking the Appalachian Trail makes me want to go hiking myself.[113]


She expresses an interest in the trail, despite the fact that the story hardly focuses on the details of the physical experience. Thus, it appears that these books, in being approachable and character-driven, attract readers to the act of hiking, despite the fact that hiking is seldom the focus.

            Broad audiences, as I have shown, consume modern thru-hiking books. As perhaps the most widely accepted example of thru-hiking media, these books prove to influence the ways in which the hiking and non-hiking worlds connect; their reception is both unifying and dividing, a dichotomy which problematizes what it means to be an authentic trail user and also demonstrates the widespread influences of media broadly.



            Thru-hiking, as well as pilgrimage, is often the subject of major films. While books are more plentiful, they are not necessarily more impactful, meaning reaching broader audiences. Trails see increased hiking activity following the release of major books, however, it is small compared to the increased popularity following a film. Thus, movies bring an important experience to those who are not experiencing thru-hiking directly.

Thru-hiking films are perhaps more popular than ever, only having been created in the past decade or so. Most thru-hiking films are adaptations of books and stories, for example, The Way (2010), The Way Back (2010), Into the Wild (2007), Wild (2014), and A Walk in the Woods (2015). This is not always the case, however, as with films like Southbounders (2005) and Mile Mile and a Half (2013). They mostly take the form of documentaries or dramas.[114] A significant amount of low-budget and personal films and youtube series have also been created around trail experiences. Similar to books, these films blend together themes of nature, sport, and personal development, often featuring extensive landscape and natural visuals.

            In considering what films do differently than books, it seems that there is little difference; like hikers’ reactions to books, films within this genre are often regarded as an incomplete picture of the thru-hiking experience. One forum user writes,

I have a theory that a hiking movie can either be successful or accurate, but that you must trade one for the other; you can't have both.

A thru hike is an epic journey, and I mean that in the literal sense. It takes a ridiculous amount of time to achieve, and that time is densely packed with significant experiences. The best any filmmaker can hope to achieve in 90-150 minutes is a sort of "highlights reel.”

Plus, an important part of the overall experience is the weeks of repetition. Get up, walk, eat, sleep, repeat. Maybe add some rain for variety's sake. Get up, walk, eat, sleep. This simplification of one's life can result in a zen like state of enlightenment or even bliss for the hiker. For an audience member, this equals boredom. At best, a filmmaker can rely on a montage, which gets the point across to the viewer, but feels... diminished from a hikers perspective.

I'd love to see a ten or thirteen part miniseries that follows a small group of protagonists, exploring their change over time, interactions with each other and their folks back home, how they each face the trials of hiking differently (or the same!), how they overcome, how they fail.

If the current trend continues and the genre really takes off, maybe we'll get lucky and HBO or Vince Gilligan could take on the trails and give us something that actually looks and feels like what we really do, but for now I don't see it. Perhaps my inability to see this is why I'm not a screenwriter.[115]


Again, hikers accept how much more there is to thru-hiking than could ever be captured on screen or in a text. Nevertheless, films remain a part of the thru-hiking experience in some regard, as they are consumed by hikers.

What appears to be more well-received among hikers, however, are low-budget films surrounding thru-hikes, as they provide a way to access memories from specific trails. For example, in one stop-motion film of the entire Appalachian trail, most comments came from hikers who remember their own experiences. One writes, “Thanks for the flashbacks!” and another “I enjoyed re-living my 2005 thru hike and was able to name almost all the areas shown.”[116] In this form, films serve as a way to access a hiker’s own memories on the trail, reminding them of their own journey rather than the journey of another.

            In the armchair crowd of non-hikers who enjoy hiking books, receptions of films are generally inspiring. Furthermore, in the cases of Wild or Into the Wild, for example, they are seen by many people, often becoming a cultural meme. Here, experiences of walking and the wilderness enter the experience of those who are simply enjoying a well-known or exciting story. The fact that it takes place in the wilderness or on a hike is not as important as the drama.

Even in the cases of low budget and personal kinds of cinematic works, non-hikers express their own desires for thru-hiking. One commenter writes, “Amazing. Would love to do this someday,” while another says “Makes me want to go for a hike.”[117] Thus, the impact is similar to books, giving people off the trail a reason to go onto the trail.

            As a form of media, thru-hiking films are not as common as books, yet can make greater impacts on their audience. Furthermore, they may also attract broader audiences and more easily enter the common media experience. Regardless, the presentation of the trail into the outside world generates some conversation over the value and joy in hiking and being outdoors.


The Internet

            With reasonable internet access on most thru-hiking trails, the internet serves an important function in hosting dialogue between thru-hikers and beyond. Blogs, online journals, forums, and social media all serve the purpose of bringing the trail experience to the web, and as a result, into the world outside the trail.

One popular form of media surrounding thru-hiking is blogging. Usually, blogs are created by thru-hikers about their trail experiences, in real-time, being updated as one completes their trip. Blogs often include personal route information, gear lists, and memorable moments from the trail. This is an example of the trail experience being projected out to the world, yet, it is unique in that it is seldomly done after the fact. Thus, readers can follow the experience as it unfolds, or view it in its entirety after the thru-hike ends.

            Blogs and online journals have become a common tool for trail organizations to communicate trail conditions or up-to-date experiences, allowing them to serve as a marketing and communication tool on behalf of the trail. The PCTA website, for example, provides links to thru-hiker blogs throughout the season, while sites like provide a forum for any hiker to submit stories from particular trails or trail segments. Like books, these media can take on a practical function--discussing trail conditions, animal sightings, the weather, or gear requirements. However, they can also take on a more personal function, describing one’s trail experience in the context of their emotional journey (in mourning the death of a loved one, following military service, discovering purpose, or losing weight, for example). Often times, they are used to communicate to family members and friends as well. The ease of blogging compared to making a film or book allows for amateurs to document their experiences and potentially access a large readership. It is for this reason that the blogs and other internet resources outnumber other media forms.

            Online groups uniting hiker “classes,” or hikers who share a thru-hiking season, exist to create a community supplementary to that which is found on the trail. Pages on Reddit or Facebook, for example, serve as popular platforms to host discussions of trail information, but also to arrange for meet-ups and hiking partners. These online communities offer a way for hikers to find each other off the trail as well, something that was not always possible.

Lastly, the use of social media on the trail is rampant as thru-hikers document their experiences for their immediate social group and more. Hashtags like #thruhiking, #PCT, #AT, and #caminodesantiago mark posts on Instagram and Twitter, displaying photos and messages to the public, often documenting entire journeys. Common photos and tags involve landscapes, gear, permits, food, and relationships established on the trail. Gear companies and trail organizations participate in social media as well, using it as a branding and marketing tool. Social media, as I hope to have shown, offers a dynamic way for thru-hikers to exhibit their experiences and bring attention to their journeys.

The multi-functionality, access, and ease of the web provides an exciting platform under which thru-hikers can communicate their experiences to the world. Meanwhile, folks off-trail can provide support, learn more, become inspired, or live vicariously through those who undertake these hikes. It is from all of these sources that thru-hiking becomes infused into everyday internet use, providing visibility to the sport and connection to the community at large.


The Expectation of Transformation

            The expectation of transformation while thru-hiking, due in part to influences of media, can sometimes be greater than any actual transformation that is achieved. Cheryl Strayed describes the hopes she had for the trail prior to hiking. Upon asking herself difficult questions about how she got to where she is, she writes,

These were questions I’d held like stones all through the winter and spring, as I prepared to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The ones I’d wept over and wailed over, excavated in excruciating detail in my journal. I’d planned to put them all to rest while hiking the PCT. I'd imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes. I’d thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips.[118]


In her fantasy of the PCT, Strayed imagines her problems being resolved. She imagines a “cathartic” experience upon which she might attain a sense of inner peace. She does to some degree find this at the end of her journey—this much is true. However, while hiking, she does not feel herself healing or finding the peace she is looking for; only physical hardship. In one documentary, a man says “I don’t feel that I’m learning that much new about myself” while hiking the AT, echoing a similar disappointment in the effects of his journey. [119] So while hopes may be high by thru-hikers that a transformation will occur within them, they may find themselves disappointed, at least in the midst of the undertaking. The experience of transformation is often realized after the fact, as was the case with Strayed and Lewis-Kraus.



            An interesting phenomenon of thru-hiking is sponsorship. This occurs in two ways; when a company or brand supports a thru-hiker in exchange for publicity, or when a thru-hiker hikes to raise money for a charitable cause. In both cases, the thru-hike is used to elicit a response from their audience, prompting financial support towards a cause or to a brand.

            The idea of sponsorship by a company is attractive to both the thru-hiker and the brand they represent. Through social media and connections on the trail, the sponsored thru-hiker endorses a product to the public, increasing the awareness of that brand. In exchange, companies provide thru-hikers with discounted gear, free gear, food, and in some cases, a stipend. This relationship brings the outer world onto the trail through product samples and brings the trail into the outer world through the use of social media.

            Secondly, sponsorship can take the form of charity. In this case, a thru-hiker completes their journey, typically recording it in some public way. In doing so, they support a cause or charity and accept donations for that cause for every mile walked. This has been done for disease, human rights, and veteran organizations, bringing awareness and money to them. It also occurs that hikers simply ask for donations to support their hike directly, using blog traffic as an opportunity to gain financial support. Nevertheless, thru-hiking can be leveraged into an act of activism or as an opportunity to draw attention to other causes.

            Sponsorship as it relates to thru-hiking can serve as an endorsement of a product, brand, social cause, or personal journey. Regardless of the motivation, however, it serves as a strong example of the conversation between thru-hikers and non-hikers.



The use of technology on the trail is a topic that goes widely discussed in the thru-hiking community. While technology can enhance the experience, allowing hikers to communicate beyond the trail or stay in touch with society, others fear that it is a detriment. Gear is a crucial part of trail culture, however, technology that goes too far beyond backpacking essentials is often met with uncertainty, despite the fact that they are embraced by some.

Backpackers are notoriously obsessed with their gear, particularly with having the most functionality for the lowest weight. High-tech devices designed for backpackers are all over the market; products like the Handspresso Wild Hybrid, a portable outdoor coffee machine, digital recording binoculars, radios, and portable grills, for example. While it is an essential part of trail culture, too much technology is also a major point of criticism.

Disdain over the use of technology on the trail is widespread. In one article, the author writes on the use of phones on the trail. He expresses weariness towards too much connection, writing,

...although I am a huge proponent of the “hike your own hike” mentality, I strongly encourage aspiring thru-hikers to use their electronic devices as sparingly as possible while still preserving your sanity.  Make an effort to go long periods without the crutch of your iFriend.  Chances are, your AT thru-hike will be the only opportunity you’ll have to get away from our hyper-plugged in society.  Take advantage of that.  Make a point to connect with your fellow hikers and your surroundings.  It’s a far more rewarding experience.[120]


He uses language suggesting that the trail is an escape from society and that technology diminishes the rewards of thru-hiking. This is a common theme in modern book as well. For example, Bill Bryson writes in A Walk in the Woods,

I hate all this technology on the trail. Some AT hikers, I had read, now carry laptop computers and modems, so that they can file daily reports to their family and friends. And now increasingly you find people with electronic gizmos like the Enviro Monitor or wearing sensors attached by wires to their pulse points so that they look as if they've come to the trail straight from some sleep clinic.[121]


Bryson observes what he considers to be too much technology on the trail. Another writer, Gideon Lewis-Kraus of A Sense of Direction takes a similar notice about internet access, writing, “[the pilgrim welcome center] has free internet, so we stop to check our email, which we hadn't had the chance to check in at least sixteen hours.”[122] Clearly, the opportunity to go online is plentiful for Lewis-Kraus; this turns out to be a repeated theme in his book. These examples show some ways technology is being mentioned and criticized within the thru-hiking community, regardless of the fact that it is used by everyone to some extent.

            Despite the ability of technology to enable communication beyond the trail, too much is met with disdain. In their escape from society, many thru-hikers loathe too much connection and too much luxury, considering it harmful to the authenticity of the experience. Despite the popularity of gear and gear-talk on the trail, there is a line beyond which some consider inauthentic or diminishing of a meaningful experience.

            Thus, the power of media, whether in the form of books, films, or the internet, have impacts over the ways hikers and non-hikers are relating to trails and to the sport at large. While non-hikers often feel inspired by these media to go out into the woods—a potentially positive thing for the environment—hikers at times express discomfort around the idealization of their sport and the potential for the experience to be threatened by too much attention from the public. Nevertheless, discussions around thru-hiking provide some access into considering the experience, in addition to how that experience may be changing with media influence.




            Based on narratives of popular media accounts, I have begun to demonstrate thru-hiking as an act of modern pilgrimage based on its transformative, community, and spatial elements.

In chapter 1, I provided examples of transformation, community, and relationship to space from three popular thru-hiking novels. Whether considering Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ forgiveness towards his father or Cheryl Strayed’s recovery from a period of drug-use, extramarital sex, and depression, these books are very clearly narratives of redemption and change, one of the qualities that defines pilgrimage. Next, these books make mention of the community found on the trail or the unique relationship shared between hikers. Finally, in following these historical trails, with their own history and culture, these authors connected to space in a way characteristic of pilgrimage in which objects or sites are believed to provide spiritual, emotional, or physical benefit. Through these three elements, my selected books showed thru-hiking to be an act that is largely indistinguishable from traditional conceptions of pilgrimage.

In chapter 2, I showed that thru-hiking literature is both like and unlike earlier forms of American nature writing.  With regard to the theme of nature as access to the self and solitude, I found that modern books are very similar to Transcendentalist ideas. With the theme of fear of development, I highlighted a greater and more concrete urgency in modern works towards preserving the environment, yet also a greater sympathy towards society. With the theme of individualism, I brought forward the paradoxical reception of modern books as acts of freedom while also showing the restraint and structure inherent to the trail experience. With the theme of survival, I have shown that modern novels take the idea further than Transcendentalists, exercising ideas of self-reliance to new levels. Finally, with the theme of truth, I suggested that the notion of accessing the self in service of society is present in modern and past works alike, marking continuity between them.

In chapter 3, I showed that the understanding of thru-hiking as modern pilgrimage is impacted by media like books, films, and the internet. In examining differences between the reception to different media forms by hikers and non-hikers, it appears that media provides inspiration to non-hikers and mixed reactions among hikers, some of whom feel that popularity to thru-hiking will threaten the authentic experience. I also provided examples of how technology and social media are being used on the trail, which fundamentally changes the thru-hiking experience.

Thus, it is my conclusion that thru-hiking can be characterized as a form of pilgrimage. While might be easier to categorize it as “secular pilgrimage,” I maintain that more individualistic forms of religiosity merit recognition as religious practice. Of course, three popular accounts do not necessarily represent the entire phenomenon of thru-hiking, so I also maintain, like others, that motivations behind the act by the pilgrim are essential in making a thru-hike become a pilgrimage.

            This work provides an example of the role of media studies in the academic study of religion. As a dominant force, media provides a timely and broad perspective on the dynamics between religion and society, allowing us to examine discourse surrounding particular actions such as pilgrimage or thru-hiking. In the context of this work, media helps in not only looking at the act of thru-hiking itself, but the ways in which this act is received and understood by outsiders to the sport. I believe this to be an area rich for future work, as the intersections between media and religion are fruitful in providing new perspectives on old ideas.

            The contributions to religion and society are such that thru-hiking has the potential to (1) impact the environment and humans’ relationships to it, (2) provide deeply transformative experiences to those outside of organized religious traditions, and (3) generate popular narratives that form collective identities around values of wilderness, solitude, survival, individualism, and truth. In shaping ideas around the value of nature as an agent for personal growth, popular thru-hiking media offers potential for tangible changes to how Americans treat their natural environment. Also, it brings forward opportunities for understanding extreme practices such as long-distance walking as a form of healing devoid of an explicitly religious context. This is also interesting in that it demonstrates the way religiosity can be redefined and represented in new social contexts. Lastly, it points to the influence of media in directing and reflecting these values.



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Bratton, Susan. The Spirit of the Appalachian Trail Community, Environment, and Belief on a Long-distance Hiking Path. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2012.


Bryant, Lynn. Pilgrimage to the National Parks: Religion and Nature in the United States. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.


Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.


Collins-Kreiner, Noga. "Researching Pilgrimage: Continuity and Transformations." Annals of Tourism Research 37, no. 2 (2010): 440-56.


Chávez, Karen. "Appalachian Trail Popularity Spurs Registry." Citizen Times, February 20, 2015. Accessed March 25, 2015.


"Completion Medals and Certificates." Pacific Crest Trail Association. Accessed March 26, 2015.


"Day 98-101: The Land of Many Uses." Wandering the Wild. July 30, 2012. Accessed March 26, 2015.


Diamond, Jason. "Roads to Somewhere: Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ “A Sense of Direction” Reviewed." Vol. 1 Brookyln, June 1, 2012.


Donahue, Eliza. "Review: ‘Wild’ Provides Insight on the Growth of Self." Santa Fe New Mexican, February 19, 2015. Accessed March 25, 2015.


Eddie Hill, Marni Goldenberg, and Barbara Freidt. "Benefits of Hiking: A Means-End Approach on the Appalachian Trail"Journal of Unconventional Parks, Tourism & Recreation Research 2.1 (2009): 19-27.
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Kehe, Marjorie. "Cheryl Strayed Talks about "Wild"" The Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 2012. Accessed March 26, 2015.


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Lewis-Kraus, Gideon. Interview: Gideon Lewis-Kraus on A SENSE OF DIRECTION. ONE AT PUSHKIN PRESS, 2014.


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Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.


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Törn, A., A. Tolvanen, Y. Norokorpi, R. Tervo, and P. Siikamäki. "Comparing the Impacts of Hiking, Skiing and Horse Riding on Trail and Vegetation in Different Types of Forest." Journal of Environmental Management, 2009, 1427-434.


Turner, Victor W. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure. Chicago: Aldine Pub., 1969


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"2,600 Miler List." Pacific Crest Trail Association. Accessed March 26, 2015.


[1] Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods (New York: Broadway Books, 1998), 274.


[2] Cheryl Strayed, Wild (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 311.

[3] Cheryl Strayed, "Frequently Asked Questions." (Accessed March 26, 2015.

[4] Gideon Lewis-Kraus, A Sense of Direction (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), 369.

[5] Rick Bolger, "The Slackpacker's Lexicon," (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[6] Facebook, (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[7] User Dave ‘Dah Wah-He’ Foley, Facebook, (Accessed March 26, 2015.).

[8] Bryson, 274.

[9] User Chris Darby, Facebook, (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[10] Pacific Crest Trail Association, "Completion Medals and Certificates," (Accessed March 26, 2015).

Appalachian Trail Conservancy, "Appalachian Trail Conservancy - 2000 Miler Application,"  (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[11] For more information on MacKaye’s vision of the Appalachian Trail, which urged for a trail, shelter system, community around the trail, and food and farm camps, see:

Benton MacKaye, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning”. (Journal of the American Institute of Architects 9 Oct. 1921): 325-330.

[12] Appalachian Trail Conservancy, "Our Mission, Vision & Values," (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[13] Appalachian Trail Conservancy, "2000 Milers," (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[14] Karen Chavez, "Appalachian Trail Popularity Spurs Registry,” Citizen Times, (Accessed March 25, 2015).

[15] Pacific Crest Trail Association, "2,600 Miler List,” (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[16] "The ‘Wild’ Effect: Pacific Crest Trail Expects More Hikers Thanks to Movie," NY Daily News. (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[17] Pacific Crest Trail Association, "WILD Movie and Book - Cheryl Strayed and Reese Witherspoon - Pacific Crest Trail Association," (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[18] P.J. Margry, Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World New Itineraries into the Sacred (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2008).

[19] Victor W. Turner and Edith L. B. Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978).

[20] Arnold Van Gennep, Monika Vizedom, and Gabrielle Caffee, "The Territorial Passage." In The Rites of Passage. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960),  15.

[21] Van Gennep, 20.

[22] Victor W. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure (Chicago: Aldine Pub., 1969), 94.

[23] Turner, 96.

[24] Margry, 20.

[25] Margry, 302.

[26] Margry, 319.

[27] Margry, 20.

[28] Ian Reader, "Pilgrimage Growth in the Modern World: Meanings and Implications." Religion 37, no. 3 (2007): 210-29.


[29] Lewis-Kraus, 94.

[30] Lewis-Kraus, 132.

[31] Lewis-Kraus, 86.

[32] Amazon User David Withum. “Direction in the directionless.” (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[33] Lewis-Kraus, 94.

[34] Interview: Gideon Lewis-Kraus on A SENSE OF DIRECTION. ONE AT PUSHKIN PRESS, 2014.

[35] Strayed, 134.

[36] Strayed, 23.

[37] Marjorie Kehe, "Cheryl Strayed Talks about "Wild"," The Christian Science Monitor,  (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[38] Strayed, 57.

[39] Turner and Turner, 31.

[40] Lewis-Kraus, 117.

[41] Pacific Crest Trail Association, "WILD Movie and Book”

[42] Arthur Versluis, American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[43] Russell Goodman, "Transcendentalism," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[44] Bron Raymond Taylor, "Transcendentalism." In The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. (London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2005).

[45] Emerson, Nature, Chapter I.

[46] Versluis, 12.

[47] Versluis, 12.

[48] Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. (Oxford University Press, 2001).

[49] For a contemporary discussion on humans’ relationship to nature, see: Marc Bekoff, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence (Novato, California: New World Library, 2014).

[50] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1849), Chapter I.

[51] Henry David Thoreau and Bruce Rogers, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (Walden ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), entry 3 January 1853.

[52] Emerson, Nature, Chapter III.

[53] Strayed, 143.

[54] Bryson, 68.

[55] Emerson, Nature, Chapter VII.

[56] Henry David Thoreau, "Walking," (Accessed March 28, 2015).

[57] Bryson, 123, 138, 92, 47, 111, 263.

[58] Bryson, 94.

[59] Strayed, 209.

[60] Wandering the Wild, "About Us,"  (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[61] Wandering the Wild, "Day 98-101: The Land of Many Uses," (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[62] Eddie Hill, Marni Goldenberg, and Barbara Freidt, "Benefits of Hiking: A Means-End Approach on the Appalachian Trail," Journal of Unconventional Parks, Tourism & Recreation Research 2.1 (2009): 19-27.

[63] N. Lynn, "Effects Of Recreational Use Impacts On Hiking Experiences In Natural Areas," Landscape and Urban Planning: 77-87.

A. Törn, A. Tolvanen, Y. Norokorpi, R. Tervo, and P. Siikamäki, "Comparing the Impacts of Hiking, Skiing and Horse Riding on Trail and Vegetation in Different Types of Forest," Journal of Environmental Management, 2009, 1427-434.

[64] Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self Reliance," In Essays. (New York: Charles E. Merrill, 1907).

[65] Emerson, Nature, Chapter I.

[66] Henry David Thoreau and Pauler, Walden and Civil Disobedience , 132.

[67] Thoreau and Lauter, 132.

[68] Thoreau, "Walking."

[69] Bryson, 50.

[70] Strayed, 306.

[71] Strayed, 87.

[72] Strayed, 119

[73] A.O. Scott, "Walking With Solitude, and Her Baggage," New York Times Magazine.

[74] Joseph L Blau, "Emerson's Transcendentalist Individualism as a Social Philosophy." The Review of Metaphysics 31, no. 1 (1977): 80-92.

[75] Christopher Newfield. The Emerson Effect: Individualism and Submission in America. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 7.

[76] Emerson, "Self Reliance.”

[77] Lewis-Kraus, 126.

[78] Lewis-Kraus, 137.

[79] Thoreau and Lauter, 47.

[80] Thoreau and Lauter, 45.

[81] Bryson, 16.

[82] Strayed, 47.

[83] Thoreau Lauter, 101.

[84] Thoreau Lauter, 258.

[85] Emerson, "Self Reliance.”

[86] Strayed, "Frequently Asked Questions."

[87] Strayed, "Frequently Asked Questions."

[88] Amazon User Gentleheart. “A Journey within a Journey.” (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[89] Nancy Mills, "Women Gone Wild," (The Costco Connection). 27.

[90] Eliza Donahue, "Review: ‘Wild’ Provides Insight on the Growth of Self," (Accessed March 25, 2015).

[91] Carrot Quinn, "About Me," (Accessed March 25, 2015).

[92] A Little Wanderlust, "About Me," (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[93] Emily Wynes, "The Bull in Either Direction: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed," Far North.

[94] Jason Diamond, "Roads to Somewhere: Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ “A Sense of Direction” Reviewed," Vol. 1 Brookyln.

[95] Bryson, 45.

[96] Bryson, 88.

[97] Bryson,126-127.

[98] Bryson, 68.

[99] Henry David Thoreau, "The Maine Woods," In The Writings of Henry David Thoreau in Twenty Volumes. (Vol. 3. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864).

[100] Thoreau, "The Maine Woods.”

[101] Bryson, 45.

[102] Bryson, 254.

[103] Bryson, 261.

[104] Bryson, 266.

[105] Bryson, 268.

[106] Susan Bratton, The Spirit of the Appalachian Trail Community, Environment, and Belief on a Long-distance Hiking Path. (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2012) 183.

[107] Satirical books of the genre are also coming forward—for example, a Wild spoof title Rabid: The Pacific Crest Trail. ‘Cause Therapy Ain’t Working. by Libby Zangle. An Amazon book description reads, “Rabid is a semi-fictional account of the weird and wonderful world that Libby found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a world where time is measured by distance from Mexico, where poop is a casual conversation topic, and where hikers are stalked by the worshipful followers of their trail blogs. Darkly humorous, Rabid tells of the beautiful, high-energy, technology-permeated, sometimes-overcrowded, modern thru-hiking experience.”

[108] User bogus83, "What Makes a "good" Hiking Movie? (or Book) • /r/AppalachianTrail,"  (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[109] User Mateza, "What Makes a "good" Hiking Movie?”


[110] User DICKSUBJUICY, "My Thoughts, Questions, and Rants on AT Documentaries. Feel Free to Share Your Thoughts as Well. • /r/AppalachianTrail,"  (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[111] User horsefarm, "Opinions on the Movie, Wild? • /r/AppalachianTrail," (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[112] User couchst. "How Do You Think the Movie Wild Will Effect the PCT? Do You like the Attention the PCT Is Getting, or Would You Rather Not Have It? • /r/PacificCrestTrail," (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[113] Amazon User Holly, “Enthralling and captivating. One of the best books I’ve ever read,”  (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[114] An exception to this is the 2014 horror film Beacon Point, which takes place on the AT.

[115] Garmachi., "What Makes a "good" Hiking Movie?”

[116] Written by users Beau Falkner and Mark Booth, respectively., "Green Tunnel." (Accessed March 26, 2015).

[117] Written by users Sam Morrill and RDJim, respectively,"Green Tunnel."

[118] Strayed, 85.

[119] "Beauty Beneath the Dirt - Official Trailer," (Accessed March 28, 2015).

[120] Appalachian Trials, "[Mailbag] How Do I Keep My IPhone Charged on the Appalachian Trail (Accessed March 26, 2015)

[121] Bryson, 213.

[122] Lewis-Kraus, 95.

Old Crested Butte and New Crested Butte, Evan Fernandez

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Old Crested Butte and New Crested Butte: The Development of Identity and the Irony of Environmentalism in a Western Town


In the first half of the 20th century, Crested Butte was one of Colorado’s most prominent and productive coal mining towns.  The primarily emigrant miners and their families established and ran the small town themselves.  However, the town underwent a drastic change in 1952 when Crested Butte’s Big Mine closed.  Crested Butte was left without its fundamental economy, source of jobs, and purpose.  Consequently, the town turned to the ski industry in the second half of the 20th century to revitalize its economy.  The local Old Crested Butte mining way of life was replaced with a wave of New Crested Butte residents that established themselves on the foundation of tourism and the ski industry.  These fundamental changes to the town’s identity brought about massive tensions in the later years of the 20th century.  One the one hand, New Crested Butte beat out Old Crested Butte economically and politically, but on the other, Old Crested Butte remained firm as the core of the town’s cultural identity.  This history is significant because it explains the surprisingly complex society of Crested Butte as it is today.  Through examining events, like the debate over the discovery of molybdenum, it is evident that the presence of the Old Crested Butte culture persists, despite New Crested Butte defining the town’s economic and political identity.  Ultimately, these events demonstrate that the transformation of Crested Butte has been an incomplete process, and that the divisions between the Old and the New, miners and skiers, are less polarizing than they initially appear.

            Crested Butte was founded in 1880, and became one of Colorado’s most important mining towns.  The Big Mine was the foundation of the coal economy, and was one of Colorado’s biggest and most productive sources of coal.  However, the coal era came to an end when the Big Mine closed in 1952.  The town’s historical website presents several key reasons why the mine closed.  First, the demand for coal decreased as more railroads converted to using diesel fuel rather than coal.  Second, mills in Pueblo, and other Colorado towns became of higher importance as they were a more easily accessible supply of coke(a form of fuel extracted from the ground).  The cost of mining in far away Crested Butte was no longer as efficient.  And, lastly, the mine closed due to a broader societal shift of greater utilization of electricity and gas, rather than coal, for power.  These factors brought the highlight of the mining era to a close, and left the town without the fundamental economy and purpose it had grown itself around.[1]

            The closure of the mines was very important because it was this change that would lead the town to eventually become a skiing destination.  After 1952, the town’s population decreased substantially as many were left with no jobs.  For example, the population of the town decreased from 730 in 1950, to under 300 in 1960.[2]  Along with losing the mining economy, the displaced local residents began to feel a drastic sense of lost identity.  Duane A Smith, in his book, Crested Butte: From Coal Camp to Ski Town, stated:  “The main economic pillar had collapsed and the residents now needed to find some new savior that would allow their town to continue a significant life.”[3]  Just ten years before, Crested Butte had been a thriving coal mining town, but had now become forgotten.  Consequently, some residents began to favor the possibility of establishing a ski area in order to bring tourists, revenue, and life back to the displaced town.  The ski economy was an attractive alternative to coal because snow was highly abundant in Crested Butte, and it was one of the few options the town had.  These desires clashed with those that wanted a similar end goal of revitalizing Crested Butte, but instead wanted to achieve it through reviving the town’s mining potential with copper and other resources.[4]  These were the core ideas that would define the local tensions of the late 20th century in Crested Butte. 

Old Crested Butte included emigrant miners that established the town, and many of their descendants who would maintain the mining culture they had been raised with for generations into the future.  The Old residents carried a distinct sense of pride knowing how hard they had to work to establish and maintain a remote mining town.  They were pitted against New Crested Butte which was composed of mostly outsiders, and some former miners, that came to build the skiing industry.

Crested Butte was one of many Western coal mining towns that were forced to stop mining in the mid-20th century.  Such places were coal mining “boomtowns” that were once thriving with production and importance.  However, the old mining “boomtowns” were disappearing, and the new skiing “boomtowns” were becoming the modern norm.  This transformation occurred due to a variety of causes, not least of which were an increased awareness of environmentalism, and the simple fact that resources like coal were finite and expensive to produce, while snow was not.  As William Philpott quoted one observer of Vail, Colorado, “A new city is rising of far greater splendor than that of the past...White Gold has made Vail City!”[5]  The notion of snow as “white gold” served perfectly to describe the remarkable growth of the ski industry in Colorado.  The “white gold” was the direct contrast and counterpart to the coal “black gold” that had been dominant for so long.  The situation in Vail also reflected the situation in Crested Butte.  A theme of New Crested Butte was a strong focus on environmental awareness with recreation.  Environmentalism opposed the Old Crested Butte inhabitants that came from a mining tradition.  However, the ski industry capitalized on their opportunity and fairly quickly grew to dominate the competition between the contrasting boomtown mentalities.  This process occurred not just in Crested Butte, but in Colorado as a whole.

Crested Butte’s transformation played into the developing American movement of vacationing in the Colorado High Country.  Post-World War II suburban life created a culture of traveling to Colorado ski destinations, especially after the construction of Interstate 70, which made access to mountain destinations easy by car.  These developments brought in a vast influx of visitors and newcomers to what were before small Colorado towns.  However, the types of people that were able to make these trips were restricted to wealthier social classes.  And in turn, small towns were transformed into luxurious and expensive resorts that matched the social class of the consumers.  The business developers who constructed these resorts held perspectives that strongly clashed with that of the locals of the towns.  Such conflicts were demonstrated in the tensions over the construction of Aspen, Colorado as a ski destination.[6] 

Crested Butte also saw a grand population spike.  People began moving to the town in large numbers in result of the establishment of the ski areas.  The population increase helped Crested Butte begin to shed the ghost town title it had started to receive.  Smith wrote: “The ski area offered a potential that had not been seen since the exciting days of the late 19th century.”[7]  But similar to what happened in other transforming towns, the increase of population brought in people that did not feel the same loyalty to the land that the mining families maintained.  Along with the tourists, came many who opened new businesses and established new communities in Crested Butte.  The influx of consumers created large opportunity and demand for suppliers.  These newcomers lived and worked in the town, and consequently had a claim to the local residency, but were different from the Old Crested Butte locals.  The struggle was epitomized by a stark contrast of a perspective rooted in maintaining an a tradition, vs. one that was focused on building a new ski town.[8] 

The Old residents carried a distinct sense of pride knowing how hard they had to work to establish and maintain a remote mining town.  The requirement of the work resulted in a tightly-knit society that formed a familial sense of community.  Another reason why the town’s transformation aroused so much tension was due to Old Crested Butte’s determined identity.  Sandra Cotner, an Old resident who first came to Crested Butte in the 1960’s, expressed the spirit of the Old culture in her book Crested Butte...Through My Lens.   She wrote one memoir about her early time in Crested Butte while the town was struggling to survive after the closure of the mines:

Long snowy winters at high elevation bred a community that was tough, resourceful, and

self-reliant...With the exception of a few ski area employees, almost everyone in Crested

Butte had been born or raised here.  The men grew up laboring in the coal mines...or family ranches...The women raised the children and kept the house.  Money was scarce after the mining companies pulled out and the railroad service was discontinued.  Everyone from child to elder worked hard...People refer to a “sense of community” in trying to pin down its appeal.  Here’s the secret: the town was one huge family, literally... While I was slowly becoming accepted in the late 1960’s and early ‘70s, the first hippies and drop outs of my generation started trickling into Crested Butte.  The old-timers were tolerant at first.  Later they complained about their being “trust-funders,” subsisting on monthly checks sent from Mom and Dad, and doing drugs.  They felt the newcomers didn’t share their industrious work ethic.[9]


This reminiscence, although partial to the Old-timers, expresses clearly the pillar of Old Crested Butte’s identity: communal pride in working extremely hard to maintain their town and sense of place.  Understanding the Old social identity reveals why the emergence of the newcomers and their efforts to change the town aroused so much animosity from the Old residents.  The Old locals felt a loyalty to the place in that they had established it themselves, and consequently defined what it meant to be a member of their community.  In conjunction with that sense of pride was a reluctance to accept outsiders that did not appreciate the values that Old Crested Butte had built itself upon. 

The distinction between Old and New was not only a matter of mining vs. skiing, but was a product of differing means of living.  And possibly the most important distinction between Old Crested Butte and the New was a difference in social class.  As illustrated by Cortner, many of the New hippy/skier types lived off of their parents’ finances. They arrived in Crested Butte to be the consumers for the wealthy business builders as the town slowly turned into a wealthy skiing destination.  Thus, the New residents clashed with the Old working-class miners who valued Crested Butte’s humble origins.  New Crested Butte also brought an awareness of environmentalism that had not before been present.  Smith embodied this struggle when he stated:

Progress did not come without problems and heartache...Property values started to creep did taxes.  New people and new lifestyles arrived, and more were on the way.  These people had no ties to and little memories of the coal mining days and ways.  Some had money, some did not, and all were strangers to the old Crested Butte.  The time might be coming where old-timers could not afford to live there, or would not want to be a part of the new Crested Butte and its changing ambiance.  It happened in Aspen, Georgetown, Telluride, and Breckenridge, as they were transformed from decaying mining communities into tourist and/or skiing meccas.[10]


The result of creating a new kind of town in Crested Butte would be that new types of people would arrive.  Differing values and identities collided to produce long term social anxieties that still exist in Crested Butte today.

However, the emergence of New Crested Butte and divisions between the members of the Old and New did not happen instantly.  It was a slow process that unfolded gradually, which is why the tensions manifested so greatly over time.  The transition from a mining boomtown into a ghost town into a skiing mecca is often one that is glossed over as an inevitable and overnight occurrence.  However, the transition and the development of Old vs. New was not such a black and white process.  The complexity of the town’s social identity was evident in a 1978 issue of a local newspaper, “The Moly News,” which described a reunion of many of the Old miners and their families that worked the Keystone mine.  The newspaper was sponsored by American Metals Climax (AMAX), and the Keystone was a metals-oriented mine contemporary of the Big Mine.  In the 1978 issue, AMAX officials brought in the Old timers to exhibit the Mount Emmons Project (which will be discussed more later in this essay) which was where the Keystone mine used to be in Crested Butte’s neighboring mountain of Mt. Emmons.[11]  This newspaper article is significant because it demonstrates the fervent Old sentiment that still existed well into the late 1970’s in Crested Butte.  The article stated:

It seemed like old times Sept. 7 as 42 Crested Butte residents got together for a tour

of the Mt. Emmons Project.  Most of them had more than a passing acquaintance with the project, which they knew “way back when” as the Keystone Mine and Mill.  Joe Sedmack, who once put in his time in the timber shed, got a laugh when he picked up a piece of moly ore and remarked: “we used to throw this stuff at the chipmunks.”  The scene is changing fast at the mine site, but some of the buildings familiar to the old timers are still standing.  Lots of memories were stirred...No one could remember an occasion in the past couple of decades when so many of the old timers had been together in one group.[12]


The reminiscences of these Old miners expressed how fervently they maintained their culture and perspective.  These former miners had to find another means of generating income, and several may have even grown to support the tourist industry to revitalize Crested Butte, but they still held dear their tradition.  By this point in 1978, New Crested Butte was firmly established, but many of these Old families had lived in the town throughout its entire transformation.  Yet, the fact that many of the Old families were still there demonstrated how the divisions of Old vs. New were a manifestation of long term developments, and not an overnight procedure.  And even when Crested Butte became firmly established as a tourist destination, cultural remnants of the Old still persisted. 

A further example of how the Old vs. New dichotomy was not distinct as it appears, was how these miners were members of Old Crested Butte, but moved on from their mining careers and found new employments.  The fact that the miners had to find new jobs is important because many who study this history characterize the dichotomy as miners only vs. skiers only, but the reality is that those distinctions blurred over time.  The newspaper article demonstrated how those that toured the Keystone mine reminisced about their past experiences and still held the Old perspective, but were no longer physically miners.  These people had found a new niche for themselves in New Crested Butte.  Thus, the notion of rough miners aggressively pitted against young skiers/business builders is not fully accurate in this history.  The division of Old Crested Butte vs. the New is an important distinction that did exist, however it should be understood as a more complicated dichotomy and not a distinct black and white struggle.        

An embodiment of the tensions between Old Crested Butte and New Crested Butte arose over Howard “Bo” Callaway, and his efforts to expand Crested Butte’s central ski resort in the 1970s.  Callaway was a politician from Georgia, and a co-owner of the Crested Butte Mountain Resort.  He had previously served as Secretary of the Army under President Richard Nixon, and was then the Campaign Chief for President Gerald Ford.  The controversy arose in the Spring of 1976 when he allegedly asked the Department of Agriculture to approve the expansion of his resort, after the U.S. Forest Service had already denied the request.  Callaway was also suspected of using his contacts in the U.S. Forest Service to get his request approved.  Additionally, he supposedly used his influence to obtain positions for some colleagues and personal friends within the Department of Agriculture to ultimately help his own cause.  Callaway even took a leave of absence from his position as President Ford’s campaign manager while he was the subject of this inquiry.  The investigation was eventually dropped, and the expansion was approved, after no conclusions of Callaway’s guilt was found.[13]

            Along the way, however, Callaway and the controversy exemplified the struggle and tensions unfolding in Crested Butte.  Callaway was an outsider, a member of New Crested Butte, and demonstrated how this New wave of people did not see the town the way the Old locals did.  Developers saw the town as an opportunity for a bright economic future.  An Old local later stated how such outsiders and businesses: “treated the town like a toy.”[14]  The anger and backlash that the controversy aroused in the members of the Old Crested Butte hinted at how strong their cultural identity still was.  It also brought attention to the fundamental differences between Old and New Crested Butte.  When Callaway himself spoke before the Congressional hearing that investigated the controversy, he stated:

Ski owners view themselves as partners with the American people in providing a

wholesome, healthy, recreational experience.  Throughout all of this development, Crested Butte has been recognized as one of the most attractive ski areas in the country.  It is also one of the fastest growing, increasing from approximately 75,000 skier days in 1970 to a projected 280,000 skier days this season.[15]  


Callaway’s statement fully depicted the distinction between Old and New Crested Butte.  Callaway made clear how he saw the town as a giant opportunity for a recreation destination.  Referring to the town as a ski destination and its quality as attractive for healthy, outdoor (and thus seemingly environmentally-conscious) recreation, was illustrative of the way the New residents perceived Crested Butte.  His statement also distinguished how far New Crested Butte had come, in that Callaway referred to Crested Butte as a ski destination and not a former mining town.  The Old residents saw the town not as a playground, but as as their place of work, community, and life.  New locals saw Crested Butte as a place of wonderful potential for recreation, business, and a different type of residency and community.  Both groups understood the value Crested Butte had, but differed greatly on what that value was.  That distinction was at the core of the difficulty with the town’s social transformation.  By this time in the late 1970s, some of the most influential leaders of the town were New locals, which demonstrated that New Crested Butte was starting to economically and politically beat out the Old.  However, as the Callaway controversy attests, Old Crested Butte identity had not gone away.

Where the Callaway scandal hinted at the persistence of the Old Crested Butte, the discovery of molybdenum (an extracted metal used in manufacturing) in Crested Butte’s neighboring mountain, Mount Emmons, made it clearer than ever.  Molybdenum was discovered in the mountain in 1977, and created a genuine opportunity for the revitalization of a mining economy in the town.  American Metals Climax (AMAX) seized upon that potential when they purchased the rights to mine in the mountain.  AMAX was a prominent international mining company and had become well known in Colorado for mining in Leadville.  Their proposed Mount Emmons Project, had the potential to generate over 3,400 jobs in construction and mining.  It would also revitalize the Old economy and purpose.  It was “music to the ears of old-timers.”[16]  To Old Crested Butte locals, this was their chance to see their old way of life reborn.

However, the Old locals were no longer in the majority, and went up against those of New Crested Butte who did not want this project to take place.  The New opposition to the AMAX project was based on two distinct principles.  First, transitioning Crested Butte back to a mining town would interfere with the ski destination that the New locals had worked so hard to create.  Crested Butte was beginning to become defined solely as a recreation destination, and bringing back coal mining to Crested Butte would be counterproductive to that process.  And secondly, New Crested Butte represented a younger generation that was deeply steeped in a more modern perspective of caring for the environment.  Environmentalism was a rapidly growing national movement, and was a key factor in distinguishing New Crested Butte from Old.  Supporters for the AMAX project, and those in opposition, passionately defended their sides.[17]

The opposition initially spoke out against the pollution that mining would bring, and also expressed concern over what would happen to the town if it did indeed bring back a mining boom in Crested Butte.  They worried, somewhat ironically, that the small town could be overwhelmed by too much growth and expansion of contrasting ideologies, which would be detrimental to the recreational quality of New Crested Butte life.[18]  New residents wanted growth and transformation, but hoped to control the pace and type of growth – geared primarily for affluent skiers and consumers. 

In response to the opposition’s environmental concerns, AMAX’s response was that they would make plans to ensure that there would not be runoff pollution or the possibility of the mountain caving in on itself after the mining was complete.  In response to the concern over the town’s social aspect and quality of life, AMAX stated they would build and use a road that went around, rather than through, the town of Crested Butte for their mining purposes.  It was to be a line of transportation from the mountain to the town of Gunnison, where most of the miners would live.  AMAX stated that the road was a good idea because it would bring much needed population growth to Gunnison, while also not interfering with Crested Butte’s New town concept.  But it would also ensure that the community of working class miners would not interfere with the high social class tourists that would be visiting the town.[19] 

Thus, again it is evident that the social class distinction between the Old and the New played a large role in the battle over the AMAX project.  New Crested Butte had developed a distinct idea of the quality of life they wanted the town to have; and that they had partially achieved a critical mass of town residents who shared this viewpoint, was one of the main reasons why they were able to organize against AMAX.  This resistance was significant because it was one of the first instances of New Crested Butte expressing itself as its own established place. 

AMAX eventually abandoned the fight in 1983 without being able to put their project to the test, and barely mining any molybdenum at all.  Their failure represented how the economic potential of the ski industry had beat out its mining counterpart.  As well, the mayor of Crested Butte at the time was W. Mitchell, and he himself was one of the key leaders of the campaign against the molybdenum mining.  Thus, New Crested Butte also controlled the town politically.  The leaders of Crested Butte were New residents, and were in the position to lead the town towards further establishing this transformation in economy and identity.  If Old Crested Butte was ever going to make a comeback, the AMAX project would have been the time for it to happen.  But that they were unsuccessful was the turning point that demonstrated that mining could no longer compete with the ski industry.[20]

New Crested Butte continued the process of officially establishing its New identity by working to label and promote the town as primarily a ski destination.  New Crested Butte’s emerging dominance was evident in the Master Plan for an additional expansion of the Crested Butte Mountain Resort that resort officials proposed in 1980.  Although this plan was proposed three years before the AMAX debate ended, the sentiments included in the document mirror what would be more officially highlighted in 1983: New Crested Butte’s economic and political control.  The proposal stated:

In the preparation of the Master Plan, emphasis has been placed upon the careful

integration of skiing and support facility capacities.  This has been done with attention to

an ongoing balance between destination tourists and local day skiers...The principal goal of the C.B.M.R.[Crested Butte Mountain Resort] is to provide high quality, year-round recreation, accommodations, entertainment and services for destination guests and residents of the region and thereby enhance the ability to operate as a successful economic entity.[21]


This excerpt clearly identified Crested Butte locals as skiers.  It made no acknowledgment of the balance of former miners vs. local skiers.  It only expressed a general concern for the locals as skiers who cared to participate in and benefit from the growth of the industry.  Skiing was the economic face of the town’s business builders, like those that proposed this expansion, as well as the locals who relied on the tourism.  The need for accommodations and entertainment services mentioned in this excerpt were referring to the businesses the New locals created.  That was the supply needed to match the demand of the tourist/consumer increase.  Furthermore, the reference to Crested Butte operating “as a successful economic entity” within the context of skiing, further highlighted the firm  establishment of New Crested Butte’s economic identity.   Such distinctions were a stark contrast from Old Crested Butte, whose locals operated within the economic sphere of coal mining.  This official proposal demonstrated the transition swinging in the favor of New Crested Butte.  The result of the AMAX debate later embodied those sentiments.

A significant component of this history was that New Crested Butte’s environmentalist perspective was fundamentally ironic.  Developers like Callaway emphasized the notion of Crested Butte as a place for recreation.  Their connotation of recreation was that it was a healthy endeavor for both people and the Earth.  They emphasized this perspective in order to contrast with the mining position and to frame an extraction economy as harmful to the environment.  The aforementioned resort expansion proposal stated that one of its goals was: “Taking the necessary steps to ensure that Crested Butte Resort takes full advantage of the intrinsic skiing quality offered by Crested Butte Mountain which...will allow the Resort to gain the reputation for quality which it deserves.”[22]  Such statements highlighted Crested Butte as place with so much potential, which was the foundation of the mindset of so many that flocked to Crested Butte after the mines closed.  However, the New environmentalist ideology was fundamentally ironic because the proposal's discussion of the mountain’s potential and the recreational need to expand, would also automatically be accompanied by heavy construction and more development on the land.  For example, the expansion proposed “five new ski lifts...three new lodge buildings...a new and expanded parking lot...and twenty-three new trails,” which would create access to 526 total acres of accessible trails.[23]  These developments would have an undeniable effect on the land of Crested Butte mountain.  In addition, the proposal’s estimated square footage for the construction new lodge buildings, which included new ski lifts and parking lots, totaled at 52,390 square feet.  Consequently, the maintenance facilitates needed to support the expansion would require another 14,000 square feet, and another 4.4 acres of parking space.[24]  These figures were evidence to how the expansion for skiing would affect the land of Crested Butte.  These developments would require substantial construction equipment and would also essentially destroy the areas of land where the construction would take place.  The harmful consequences these developments would bring to the land illustrate the fundamentally ironic nature of the New Crested Butte environmentalist perspective.  These New business builders believed that recreation endeavors, like skiing and hiking, were not harmful to the environment because such activities did not directly pollute the Earth and did not extract materials that would contribute to pollution.  However, the construction and increased human presence in Crested Butte ultimately would have a negative effect on the land.  New ski runs require deforestation, and the construction of new buildings and parking lots require changing the land to be able to support the concrete and large buildings.  Thus, the sentiment of a ski industry may appear as healthy for the land, but the human developments that come with a growing ski industry, are not.  The expansion proposal is demonstrative of that ironic dichotomy.

Another facet of the irony of the New Crested Butte perspective was that as the ski industry grew, it only furthered human exploitation of the land.  Manipulation of the land is evident in statements made by Callaway, the authors of the resort proposal, and many other New business builders.  For example, Callaway’s congressional hearing and the resort expansion proposal both discussed the potential of the land and the consequent needed expansion to match the demand.  For example, the proposal stated: “The purpose of this Master Plan is to identify the physical improvements needed to take the maximum practical advantage of the...Crested Butte Mountain that the best recreational experience can be provided to the skiing public.”[25]  This quotation directly highlights the irony because it demonstrates how ultimately skiing and its associated endeavors only serve to exploit the land.  Recreation may at times be a healthy activity, but it can often represent a clear example of humans manipulating the land for their own use.  And the resulting deforestation, trail-forming, and building construction that accompanies a growing skiing economy, exploits the land even more. 

These developments are significant because it helps to identify the irony of environmentalism in Crested Butte.  Similar to how the transition of the town was not a black and white process, neither should Old Crested Butte vs. New Crested Butte be viewed that way in the context of environmentalism.  Mining directly is exploitative of the land as it extracts material for human use.  However, as the evidence has demonstrated, a skiing/tourist based economy is not one free of human exploitation and manipulation either.  As well, the very mindset of the environmentalists was ironic because it highlighted the potential of the land for human use, which consequently further emphasized how humans could use a seemingly harmless endeavor to exploit the land.  This dichotomy was not an intention of New Crested Butte, but is important for explaining this history.  Thus, it is evident that the distinctions between the Old vs. New perspectives should be viewed as a murky grey dichotomy, and not a distinct harmful vs. healthy or black vs. white process.

A further result of the AMAX debate was that it also demonstrated the fierce spirit of the Old Crested Butte.  Thirty years after the closure of the Old Mine, Old Crested Butte could no longer compete with the New one economically or politically, but that sense of Old cultural identity was still firmly rooted in the town.   For example, the Starika family was one of the most important Old Crested Butte mining families of the 20th century.  Michelle Starika Asakawa was born in Crested Butte in the 1960’s and represents the current generation Old Crested Butte culture.  Asakawa stated:

I grew up in Crested Butte during the nascent operations of the ski area, when the Big Mine outbuildings stood like weathered sentinels above town and the old miners still met nightly for a beer at the Wooden Nickel or Frank & Gal’s. I remember the interesting divide of the population then, with “hippies” and young skier types slowly coming to replace the largely emigrant mining community, but even as a girl I was aware that they all agreed the land had value (whether in minerals or snowfall) and shared an appreciation of Crested Butte’s natural beauty.[26]


The sense of identity that Asakawa is describing in this statement, could have easily disappeared in those 30 years, but the children of those miners kept their heritage.  Asakawa’s sentiments help to make clear that the spirit of Old Crested Butte will likely always be present in the town.

            Old Crested Butte’s spirit is significant for the town’s history because the maintained mining heritage helps to define the town’s identity still to this day.  The Old culture is still evident in how the Crested Butte Heritage Museum sponsors events, for locals and tourists alike, that emphasize the town’s history.  For example, the “Historic Pub Crawl” and the “Miner’s Ball” are both social attractions that serve to highlight the remembrance of Old Crested Butte.  The continued presence of the Old spirit is fundamental for New Crested Butte, as the town relies on the cultural presence of Old Crested Butte as a component of the town’s draw to tourists.  Crested Butte prides itself on coming from such a rich tradition, which distinguishes it from other Colorado ski destinations.  For example, the Crested Butte historical website states: “Crested Butte is not only a heritage tourism site, but a playground for people of all ages and interests.”[27]  The special element of being a heritage site and a recreation destination would not exist without the Old culture and spirit.  Old Crested Butte is a valuable part of what tourists visit for, and of what constructs town’s identity.  The cultural identity of the Old makes the allure of the New stronger.  Asakawa further wrote:

To this day, the spirit of the mining founders lives on in the town’s historic preserved buildings, its wonderful heritage museum, and an edge of roughness that one doesn’t see in many other former-mining-towns-turned-ski-areas.  Even years after the water tower was dismantled and the Big Mine buildings were moved into town, I feel the spirit of the miners—my grandfathers and their ilk—in Crested Butte. The repurposed fraternal halls (Croatian, Slovenian, and Odd Fellows), concrete tipple and slag piles by Peanut Lake, and weathered iron fences protecting the long-dead in the town cemetery, including the monument to those killed in the Jokerville Mine explosion, remind visitors that this popular summer getaway and winter ski resort was once a thriving Colorado Fuel and Iron company town.[28]


This statement truly brings to light how those who came from the heritage of Old Crested Butte see the presence of their tradition, and its significance today.  The way she refers to the “spirit” and “ilk” of the Old timers reveal the pride and essence of how the current generation of Old Crested Butte view their heritage.  That pride is one of the fundamental reasons why that culture is still remembered.

The spirit of the Old culture in the AMAX debate, the reliance on its tradition for the tourist attraction today, and the fact that the current generations of Old Crested Butte still are present, demonstrate that Old Crested Butte will always be a part of the town.  The economic and political identity of the town is defined by New Crested Butte.  That is firmly established, and it is not likely that a large scale mining will again challenge this dominance.  However, the culture of Old Crested Butte serves as the spiritual core of the town.  The town’s identity today will always have a component created by Old Crested Butte.

Thus, Crested Butte’s transformation is still not a fait d’accompli.  It is easy to think that so many of these former mining “boomtowns” have completely transformed and have no ties left to the way they used to be.  On the contrary, there are a plethora of Colorado towns that still are built upon an extraction economy.  And many of the towns that did change, still carry with them components of their heritage.  As well, it is important to understand that whether it is mining or skiing, human interaction on the land always manipulates the land.  This notion expresses how complicated the divisions between the Old and the New can be.  New Crested Butte united over time on a position of environmentalism, but hindsight reveals that their position was flawed by irony.  The Crested Butte Mountain Resort, as it stands today, is very reminiscent of it’s luxurious contemporary counterparts in Vail and Aspen.  With the resort’s tall buildings, expensive restaurants, large parking lots, and a seemingly wealthy-only environment, Crested Butte’s ski resort reveals the irony of the environmentalist and recreational nature of New Crested Butte’s intentions.  Thus, Crested Butte serves as a prime example of a town whose history should not be thought of in simple dichotomous terms.  Tensions between Old and New residents still resonate today in Crested Butte and in a variety of Colorado towns.  The development of these Western towns is not resolved or complete, but understanding how these broad transformations occurred is important because it aids in explaining how these places exist today, and what factors shaped the development of their identities.



[1] Town of Crested Butte, “History of Crested Butte,” Accessed April 15, 2014.

[2] Duane A. Smith, Crested Butte: From Coal Camp to Ski Town (Montrose: Western Reflections

Publishing Company, 2005), 177, (hereafter: Smith, Crested Butte).

[3] Smith, Crested Butte, 178.

[4] Smith, Crested Butte, 178.

[5] William Philpott, Vacationland (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013), 171.

[6] For more on this Colorado history, see: Vacationland.

[7] Smith, Crested Butte, 183.

[8] For more on natives vs. “neo”- natives, see: Hal Rothman, Devil's Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-century American West, (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998).

[9] Sandra Cortner, Crested Butte Stories...Through My Lens (Crested Butte: Wild Rose Publishing Company, 2006),  pg xi, 5, 12, 15.

[10] Smith, Crested Butte, 182.

[11] “Ex-Miners, Wives Tour ‘Keystone,’” The Moly News, October 1978.

[12] “Ex-Miners, Wives Tour ‘Keystone,’” The Moly News, October 1978.

[13] William Yardman, “Howard H. Callaway, Strategist Who Helped G.O.P.Rise in South, Dies at 86,” The New York Times. March 21, 2014,  Date Accessed March 24, 2014,

[14] Smith, Crested Butte, 188.

[15] United States, Inquiry into the preparation of the East River Unit Plan, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado: hearings before the Subcommittee on the Environment and Land Resources of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, United States Senate, Ninety-fourth Congress, second session (Washington : U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1976), 87.

[16] Smith, Crested Butte, 184.

[17] Smith, Crested Butte, 184.

[18] Ibid., 185.

[19] Ibid.,, 186.

[20] Smith, Crested Butte, 186.

[21] [Sno-Engineering, Inc., prepared for Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Inc.], Mt. Crested Butte Ski Area Master Plan, (Aspen, CO: Sno-Engineering, 1980), pg 1-2, (hereafter: Mt. Crested Butte Ski Area Master Plan).

[22] Mt. Crested Butte Ski Area Master Plan, 2.

[23] Ibid., 3-4.

[24] Ibid., 42 and 44.

[25] Mt. Crested Butte Ski Area Master Plan, 1.

[26] Michelle Starika Asakawa. Email Interview by Evan Fernandez, April 15, 2014, (hereafter: Asakawa Interview).

[27] Town of Crested Butte. “History of Crested Butte,” Accessed April 15, 2014.

[28] Asakawa Interview.

La Biblioteca Medicca Laurenziana, Alyssa James

(Back to Top)

Hope Within the Inferno of a Tormented Man’s Mind

La Biblioteca Image 1



Michelangelo Buonarroti is an immediately striking figure within history. His talent seemingly had no end, as he stretched from sculpture to architecture and everything in between. The works he created were beautiful and captivating, capturing the imagination of his contemporaries and modern viewers alike. However, the desire to simply label him as a genius is a gross underrepresentation of this human. Manifold influences contributed to his achievements, and he cannot be fully appreciated until these underlying influences are understood.

This thesis began in response to a question that arose the first time I viewed the Laurentian Library. I noticed the repetition of circles throughout all three rooms and in the plans for the never-built rare book room. Upon inquiring into the symbolism of these circles, I found a gap in the scholarship. Michelangelo was undoubtedly an incredibly intentional man, and something as innocent and as simple as a circle reflects complexities and unspoken desires. Upon a deeper investigation, it became clear that the circles were indicative of a much deeper symbolic meaning within the Library, which required a trifold approach to parsing it: Michelangelo’s classical education, his Catholic piety, and his personal humanity.  

A man of conflicted loyalties, Michelangelo connected strongly to the incompatible forces of the city of Florence, the Medici, Catholicism, and his Neoplatonic education. The Library, as a secular building, affords a rare view into that internal struggle. The three rooms of the Library each represent a facet of both a Dantean philosophy of hell, purgatory, and paradise, as well as the Neoplatonic trifold progression of the human soul. This philosophical convergence in the Library exhibits Michelangelo’s covert beliefs of both the power of hell, and its permeability.



Chapter 1: Introduction


The Laurentian Library manifests the rich contradictions that sculpted and tormented the mind of Michelangelo Buonarroti. In order to put the Laurentian Library into its proper context, we must first understand the 48-year-old man who was commissioned to design it. At this age, Michelangelo had already had many of the formative experiences of his life. His childhood and youth were over, and he had reached old age by the standards of the day. He had experienced acclaim and artistic triumph, but also loss, frustration, and disappointment. From his written record in both correspondence and poetry, it is clear to see that Michelangelo was deeply affected by these experiences. They influenced his life and art alike, and thus it is prudent to examine these factors within the lens of the Library.


Family History

Michelangelo was born into a minor noble family in Florence on March 6th, 1475.[1] The Buonarroti Simoni had risen to esteem during the fourteenth century during the struggle for stewardship of Florence between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. During this epoch, Italy was in no way a unified whole. Indeed, the cities so vastly differed from the other that there was no true sense of being “Italian.” The loyalty to one’s city was seen as the epitome of national pride and citizenship. The Guelph/Ghibelline divide began with the struggle for power between the pope and the emperor. The Guelph party supported the pope, and the Ghibelline the emperor.[2] As such, this conflict over Florence was a matter of grave importance and it would influence Florence for many years to come. Deeply entrenched in this struggle was the noted poet Dante Alighieri. His prominent position within the Guelph party led to his eventual expulsion from Florence, and fueled his epic The Divine Comedy.[3] The Buonarrotis were devoutly Guelph, and as that faction rose to power, so too did the family.[4] The distinction of what it meant to be Guelph changed slightly over time, and when Michelangelo was born it was more appropriately deemed the party of the people, whereas the Ghibellines were the proponents of the aristocracy.[5] The importance of the Buonarroti’s connection to the Guelph party—and thus Florence and Dante—would later manifest itself within the work of Michelangelo.    

The active struggle in the 14th century between these two factions lessened, and Florence began to rise as a major metropolitan city filled with wealth. The Buonarroti family shared in this, and established their status and nobility.[6] However, the two generations directly preceding Michelangelo had somewhat diminished their fortune. Their lack of funds in no way lessened their self-perceived stature. From birth, Michelangelo was taught that he was a member of the nobility and was expected to act accordingly.[7] Throughout his life, this aristocratic heritage was a source of much pride. In his old age, much of his extant correspondence is to his nephew Lionardo. He regularly reminds his kin of their bloodline, and of the duties attached to that status. He chastises Lionardo for poor handwriting and lack of propriety with funds, constantly stating that Lionardo’s actions directly reflected upon the noble name of Buonarroti.[8]

Michelangelo inherited this dignity from his own father, Ludovico Buonarotto, who staunchly upheld the family’s consequence. Ironically, Ludovico shared the common belief that art was not a glorious nor worthy profession for an individual of importance.[9] He wished for his son to be well educated, to eventually hold a powerful political position like their esteemed ancestors. Such was not the desire of the son. Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo’s contemporary and biographer, cites tales of a young Michelangelo running away from lessons to churches, where he would copy the art.[10]

A compromise presented itself in the form of the Medici Sculpture Garden.[11] The most notable familial connection the Buonarroti family claimed was some distant, yet impactful relationship with the Medici.[12] The Renaissance was a time in which kin was the strongest of ties, and even a distant relationship would have still been held as an almost unbreakable bond. This powerful family’s offer to nurture the budding talent of Michelangelo afforded him the context in which to develop. Michelangelo’s time in the Sculpture Garden would set the precedence for his relationship to the Medici. Living in their household, Michelangelo cemented the foundations for both a set of future patrons and personal relationships with the cousins he grew up with.[13] This mix of professional, familial, and friendly connections with the Medici would end up manifesting in a confusing and difficult adulthood of divided loyalties and strained relationships. 

La Biblioteca image 2

Figure 1

The Medici

            The most influential and powerful family in Florence was the Medici.[14] With a seemingly unending supply of money and resources, this banking clan was soon the de facto ruler of that city. Their palaces were grand, their tastes rich, and their desire for Florence to be an artistic epicenter would be a major motivating factor for the Renaissance. Cosimo di Medici, the patriarch of the family, was deeply interested in the template of Ancient Greece.[15] Major excavations in Greece and Italy during this time had unearthed both the physical evidence of the Classical world and spurred an interest in Humanism as well as interest in them.[16] Cosimo, as a rare educated man, was most profoundly interested in the art and philosophy of these ancients. Classical philosophy was a mainstay throughout history, but specifically Neoplatonism had been revived by the interest and passion of Marsilio Ficino.[17] Cosimo was deeply fascinated by this branch, which led him to founding The Florentine Academy in 1462.[18] This school was loosely based on the romantic notion of the school of Athens, with incumbent scholars Plato and Aristotle influenced on the work of Socrates.[19] This was particularly appropriate for a school based on Neoplatonism, and their main agenda within the school was to read and interpret Plato’s works through Neoplatonic eyes.

            The interest in the Greeks did not end with Cosimo. The most famous of the Medici was his grandson Lorenzo, known as il magnifico.[20] A charismatic man, he is remembered as being a patron of the arts as well as a savvy businessman and politician. It was Lorenzo who founded the Medici Sculpture Garden, and it was also Lorenzo who formed preliminary notions of art, philosophy, nobility, and genius in the mind of the young Michelangelo.[21]

Michelangelo’s relationship with the Medici was far from over after he left the garden. The Medici’s influence spread from Florence to envelop much of Italy. During his long life, Michelangelo worked for two Medici popes.[22] The Medici would also be one of his greatest patrons, and an intimate friendship with several of the sons his age is clear.[23]


The Siege of Florence

The citizens of Florence had a complex relationship with the Medici. Often, their influence was regarded as tyranny. This was particularly true of members of the Guelph party. The Guelphs, who had originally supported the pope in his power, were now staunch believers in the power of the populace and were excited by the idea of establishing Florence as a republic.[24] They viewed the Medici as their main opponents in this suit, as the family had a veritable monopoly of power within the city. This conflict grew to a climax in which the citizens of Florence expelled the Medici from their city. The family returned in force, laying siege in an attempt to break the fledgling republic the revolutionaries had desired and established. During this war, Michelangelo was pulled from both sides. The Medici were his kin, his patrons, and his educators. Florence was his home. In the end, Michelangelo decided to stand with the people of Florence. This may have been in part due to the nostalgia and loyalty he felt to both his father and his brother, who had both died recently, and who had both deeply loved Florence.[25] He took up the role of engineer for the city’s fortifications against the Medici’s siege.[26]

The citizens of Florence had, however, flown too close to the sun, and like Icarus, their hopes fell. The Medici ultimately regained control of the city, which had consequences for Michelangelo. Doubtless, the relationship between Michelangelo and the Medici was strained for the remainder of his life. However, they still maintained their patronage of his talents with many commissions, including designing the Laurentian Library.[27]


Fortifications of Florence

            While the walls of Florence have long since been destroyed by the juggernaut of modernity, plans of Michelangelo’s fortifications remain (Figure 2). They are slightly difficult to parse at first glance, with strong triangular shapes and sharp bafflements. Their meaning is elucidated when we turn our gaze to his plans for the rare book room in the Laurentian Library.

 The Humanist thought of the Renaissance did not end with asking Michelangelo to be an architect. Indeed, his genius must, like Leonardo da Vinci, also reach into engineering and the art of warfare.[28] It is because of this thought that Michelangelo was asked to take up arms against the Medici in the form of their engineer for fortifications of the Florentine walls.

            It is understood that this must have been an incredibly difficult choice for Michelangelo. Turning his back on the Medici went beyond merely personal strife, but into the realm of the most egregious sin. Within Dante, the ninth level of hell is reserved for betrayal, with a designated area specifically for those who betray their kin.[29] While Michelangelo’s family was only tenuously related to the Medici, the tie was still enough for this betrayal to offend both his personal relationships with the Medici as well as his Catholic beliefs. Additionally, this action compromised his entire artistic career. The Medici represented a hefty chunk of his patronage. By siding with the common people, he risked being permanently unemployed as an artist, and his hopes of achieving great fame dashed.   

            In order for Michelangelo to side with the Florentines, he must have believed his ties to them to be stronger. He must have had deep loyalty to the reimagined Guelph party, as well as to the place his father and brothers called home. He must have believed the sin of betraying his city to be worse than betraying the Medici. This shows us how deeply Michelangelo loved Florence, and what he was willing to risk to protect it.

            In his role as civil engineer, Michelangelo designed fortifications of the Florentine walls. The Renaissance was the era in which firepower entered military conflicts.[30] Up to this point, the most elaborate technology was the crossbow. While it could inflict considerable damage, any thick wall could easily repel an arrow. As such, military movements were more like complex posturing, with an artful eye towards strategy. Each side was aware of the limits of the other. However, gunpowder changed this landscape into the bloody and devastating reality it still is today.

            The main reason Michelangelo was conscripted into fortifying Florence’s walls was because of this paradigm shift in warfare. The walls utilized in the medieval era were straight and punctuated regularly with tall towers. While these were effective against an arrow, a cannon blast could easily tear through walls. Therefore, the emphasis was turned towards bastions and intellectual manipulations of existing structures to make them impermeable. [31]

            In the end, the walls were not what caused the fall of the city. Michelangelo’s plans and inventions were one of the reasons that the city stood as long as it did. He brought his trademark sensibility of stone to this venture, along with his omnipresent knack for approaching everything through the eyes of a sculptor. However, the Medici had returned en mass, with their ally’s armies in tow. They laid siege to their own city, with only these walls keeping them at bay. It seemed that Italy was not prepared for a republic, however, as there was little order and much confusion. Their own mercenary armies ended up turning against them; the Medici’s money tasted sweeter than the hollow ideals of the citizens.[32]

  La Biblioteca image 3

Figure 2

La Biblioteca image 4      

Figure 3     


Education in the Sculpture Garden

Within the Medici Sculpture Garden (Giardino Mediceo), Michelangelo was taught the foundations upon which his later life would be built.[33] The Medici supplied the young man with marble and tools, the materials that would define him. From the fragmented remains of his fledgling efforts, it is clear to see that he showed great aptitude with spatial awareness; his fawn’s head and Battle of the Centaurs both twist throughout the air, intertwining and interweaving with their surrounding space (Figures 4 and 5). However, many of the romantic notions surrounding the Garden are unsubstantiated, and based on the highly biased beliefs of Vasari.[34] What is not disputed is that a garden did exist in which Michelangelo learned his craft. It is also widely accepted that this garden housed antiques in the collection of Lorenzo, which would be used to teach the students the craft of classical statuary.[35] It is clear that Michelangelo fostered an obsession with antiquity—his first major commission was the first freestanding life-size figure since antiquity. From there, he continued to try to best the ancient masters; the David was a distinct response to classical tradition, and his Florentine Pietà was an attempt to create the first statue with four figures from a single piece of marble.[36]

La Biblioteca 5

Figure 4

La Biblioteca 6

Figure 5


 However, the Medici education was not merely limited to the craft of art, and Michelangelo’s obsession with antiquity was not limited to their statues. The Medici ensured that he was extensively educated in literature and philosophy. He was taught the Tuscan poets—Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio—alongside Plato and other classics.[37] The two distinct genres would have held an equally distinctive and influential role in the mind of the young man. Indeed, he was most likely educated using the very same books that would later rest within the Laurentian Library.


History of Architecture

            The art of classical architecture returned during the Renaissance. After nearly a millennium, the style of the Romans was back with a vengeance. The Italians were vastly curious about these ancient peoples, and venerated their arching designs. This curiosity was enabled by the writings of Vitruvius. This ancient had the singular luck of having his writings about architecture and proportion survive, which was translated in the 1400s by Alberti.[38] These texts vastly altered the notion of architecture as art. Instead of merely emulating the Roman style, Renaissance artists could interpret their theory. This theory vastly influenced literally every great mind of the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci is famous for his Vitruvian Man sketch, and Michelangelo’s one existent statement about his architectural theory almost exactly emulated the ideas set forth by Vitruvius. Indeed, Vitruvius writes, “Architecture consists of Order…Arrangement… Proportion, Symmetry, Propriety, and Economy.”[39] As such, architecture was able to divorce itself from its purely utilitarian roots and become the playground for the intelligentsia. Renaissance architecture is difficult to parse for the majority of modern viewers, as it was intended to have the same elevated levels of intellectual stimulation as the other fine arts.[40] As such, it is complicated and deeply symbolic, which is a departure from the more sensual and aesthetic desires of today’s architects. This is deeply important within the context of the Laurentian Library, as it is expected for Michelangelo to include much of his personal philosophy and genius within the very design.

            Alberti was not the only architect that assisted in the revitalization of Roman art. The distinction ‘Roman’ is important, as the Italians did not really have a sense for Ancient Greek architecture until much later. However, they had easy access to the plentiful ruins of Rome, and as such Renaissance architecture is influenced by Roman tastes.[41] The resurgent interest in the vast domes and structures of Roman antiquity is largely attributed to Fillipo Brunelleschi. The Duomo of Florence had remained uncompleted for many years, with the technical capabilities for completing the 138½-foot diameter being non-existent.[42] Brunelleschi performed an act of engineering brilliance, and erected the still-standing Duomo of Florence. Such an act was so impressive that it caused Florence’s sister-city, Rome, to be jealous, and later enlist none other than Michelangelo to build a rival dome in St. Peter’s Basilica.[43]

However, arguably the greatest figure in the popularization and proliferation of this Roman style was a man by the name of Donato Bramante. He rekindled the notion of artful design within architecture; previous structures displayed much rigidity in their composition, with function dominating over style. Bramante moved the focus of architecture away from the walls and back towards the space the walls created. The interior spatial volume dictated the building, and therefore the buildings were designed with cylinders and spheres in mind rather than circles and squares.[44] This change vastly influenced the geometry of fifteenth century Italy, and shifted the art of architecture indelibly. While Michelangelo’s architecture differed greatly from Bramante’s, he absolutely accepted the notion of designing for spatial shapes rather than rigid walls. Michelangelo also inherited another of Bramante’s innovations; he modeled his buildings rather than drawing them.[45] This was another way these architects could better understand shape and flow rather than merely function. From Bramante onwards, architecture would forever be a marriage of both function and design. 

Bramante’s architecture was highly in demand, but often was unrealistic. The desire for perfect radial symmetry often led him to creating floor plans that would block all the light from entering the building, and his arching ceilings were often impossible to actually build.[46] Nonetheless, the popes adored his aesthetic, commissioning many buildings from him. Perhaps the most notable commission was Saint Peter’s Basilica in the heart of Vatican City. However, this building proved to be incredibly difficult to erect. After the death of Bramante, it bounced down through his heirs until finally being given to Michelangelo, 41 years after Bramante created the initial design.[47]

            Michelangelo’s style was a vast departure from the beloved intricacies of Bramante’s aesthetic. Vasari described Michelangelo’s style as lacking decorum, or an adherence to the traditions of the classics.[48] Indeed, while his style appears to be classical to the modern eye, it was actually a rejection of the current obsession with the Romanesque style.[49] He was often viewed as the last resort for design, with his buildings taking a strong geometric approach with clear lines. His buildings were still grand and complex, but with attention to practical matters, such as light and flow. Indeed, Michelangelo did not consider himself an architect, and expressed surprise at this role being handed to him.[50] However, the Renaissance was the time of Humanism, and with that came the expectation of the overarching genius of the individual. He was expected to be sculptor, painter, architect, poet, aristocrat, engineer, and whatever else he was called upon to do. Michelangelo would have doubtless preferred to spend all his time on his favorite medium, marble, but was commissioned to do a plethora of other projects. It is important to remember this when viewing Michelangelo’s architecture. He approached each task with the eye of a sculptor, and thus each work is tinged with his inherent love of supple stone.

It was only after the death of Bramante and his students—most notably, Raphael of Urbino—that the popes begrudgingly turned to Michelangelo for completion of the overly ambitious project of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo, however, brought an invaluable talent with him. After years of working with stone, he had engineering sensibility. What others started, Michelangelo could finish. His buildings were sound and his designs in line with tangible realities. This aspect, along with changing tastes, brought this once undesirable architect to the public eye. Once there, Michelangelo made many contributions to the skylines of both Florence and Rome. He also made his way into the lore of both cities; one of his lasting marks is a still-used children’s rhyme: Sará a Roma a far la sua sorella, lei é piú grande ma certo non piú bella (I go to Rome to build your sister, she is larger but clearly not more beautiful).[51] It speaks of Michelangelo’s departure from Florence to build the dome of St. Peter’s, which the loyal Florentine children state to not be any more beautiful than their beloved Duomo. The continued use of this chant in playgrounds across Italy is testament to Michelangelo’s influence, however begrudgingly, as an architect.




Chapter II: The Laurentian Library

            The Laurentian Library was, admittedly, a rather minor note within the canon of Michelangelo. It was vastly outshone by his greatest architectural achievement, the completion of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The layman often overlooks even that achievement; Michelangelo is usually only presented as a sculptor and painter. The fact that he was the architect for this building is generally considered uninteresting in the face of the towering presence of The David or the overwhelming feat of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. However, it is specifically because of this that the Library is of particular interest. His peers and patrons doubtless thought much the same as we do now, and were much less apt to scrutinize or consider the underlying philosophy of a building than a piece of fine art. The aspect of practicality inherent within architecture often undercuts more intricate analysis of the artistic meaning. As such, it was precisely the perfect opportunity for Michelangelo to express his frustrations, curiosities, and unusual beliefs.


La Biblioteca 7

Figure 6

La Biblioteca 8

Figure 7

La Biblioteca 9

Figure 8


Michelangelo’s Theory of Architecture

Michelangelo left us with an extensive amount of literature, both in correspondence and personal notes. This text is vital to understanding Michelangelo, as it offers another view from which to look at all of his works. While he fleshes out his philosophy of art quite extensively, he only mentions his theory of architecture in one letter.[52] Furthermore, this letter is fragmented, without known date or recipient. However, within this brief overview of his thoughts he displays a vast of information regarding his philosophy. He does not part absolutely from the symmetry of Bramante, but rather moves it from radial symmetry to linear. Additionally, and most extraordinarily, Michelangelo utilizes the metaphor of a body when discussing a building. Indeed, he writes:

When a plan has diverse parts, all those (parts) that are of one kind of quality and quantity must be adorned in the same way, and in the same style, and likewise the proportions that correspond. But where the plan is entirely changed in form, it is not only permissible but necessary in consequence entirely to change the adornments and likewise their corresponding proportions; the means are restricted (and may be chosen) at will; similarly the nose, which is in the center of the face, has no commitment either to one or the other eye, but one hand is really obliged to be like the other and one eye like the other in relation to the sides (of the body), and to its correspondences. And surely, the architectural members derive from human members. Whoever has not been or is not a good master of the figure and most of all, of anatomy, cannot understand anything of it.[53]


His assertion that those who do not understand the human body cannot understand architecture is a rather shocking one. In this, he asserts that architecture has much deeper importance and intricacies than merely a building. Indeed, unless one has the requisite knowledge, nothing can be gleaned. Within the context of the Library, this assertion is deeply influential, as it allows us to understand that there is intended meaning in architecture, and that we must look to understanding of the human body to parse it. Furthermore, the line, “…the architectural members derive from human members” is vastly important. The word Michelangelo uses to describe the connection between architecture and the human body is dipendono, which more accurately translates to “they depend on” than “derive.”[54] This shifts the understanding of that line, from merely being sourced in the human body to depending on it. In this, Michelangelo is telling us that were it not for the human body, there would be no architecture.  

            Michelangelo easily demonstrates this connection between architecture and the body when we view his work. When given the task of St. Peter’s, he rejected Raphael’s intricate and vast basilica in favor of one much more akin to Bramante’s original (Figures 9, 10, and 11).[55] However, he rejected absolute radial symmetry with the addition of a columned porch, which created flow from the front to the back. The altar was clearly placed opposite the opening, with the two side chapels appearing smaller and therefore not detracting from the flow. Here, Michelangelo has created a body of sorts; the porch is the legs, the smaller side wings the arms, and the altar the head. This was especially appropriate for St. Peter’s, as the supposed tomb of the saint was positioned at the heart.

La biblioteca 10

Figure 9

la biblioteca 11

Figure 10

la biblioteca 12

Figure 11


            This notion of architecture as a body is poignant, even beyond the physical and obvious metaphor. Indeed, this distinct idea is central to any parsing of his buildings. Renaissance artists were deeply aware of the manifold layers within their work. Art was not just aesthetic; it was religious and philosophical. Art was the tool through which meaning was translated to a vastly illiterate population, which needed pictures to understand the complex notions inherent in both. As such, this allusion to the human body would have not been stated merely for the body’s function or beauty. Remembering that Michelangelo was first and foremost a sculptor, it is understood that he approached the design and construction of the Library with the same desire for intrinsic meaning in his work. Michelangelo utilizes the human body in his painting and sculpture to represent the entirety of a human. He places figures within the Last Judgment to represent the status of their souls, and he binds slaves in his statuary to show their spiritual entrapment (Figures 12 and 13).[56] Therefore, when Michelangelo speaks of the body of a man, he is also speaking about the human’s mind and soul. Indeed, Michelangelo would have been doubly conscious of this mind-body connection, as both a Neoplatonist and a Catholic. According to his beliefs, the body, being designed by God in his own image, was representative of the perfect form. It also housed within it a soul, which, according to Dante, took the exact same shape in the afterlife.[57] Therefore, when he speaks of a body, he is also discussing the mind and soul. As such, we must look at his buildings and understand them to clearly represent a human: mind, body, and soul.

La Biblioteca 13

Figure 12

La Biblioteca 14

Figure 13




Overview of the Library

Understanding that the possession of texts and information is one of the most poignant expressions of power and status, the Medici spent a vast amount of time and money amassing an extraordinary collection of manuscripts and books. Lorenzo il magnifico was one of the main procurers of these tomes, with his personal interest and cunning ambition fueling this elevation of his family both mentally and socially.[58] Wealth was the sign of a merchant, but education the sign of nobility. While the Medici had begun their juggernaut with money, they wished to end it with nobility. The construction of a library would make public this collection, and cement their status. While the Library is housed within the compound for San Lorenzo, the Laurentian Library (La Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana) was actually named for Lorenzo il magnifico, he who most fervently desired this.[59] At 48, Michelangelo had the rare experience of being a living artist of mythic fame. He was the obvious choice for architect, as the school of Bramante had reached a close.

The first mention that we see of the Library is in one of the letters to Michelangelo. Dated to January 2nd 1524, a man named Giovan Francesco Fattucci briefly mentions being contacted by a member of the Medici to conscript Michelangelo into building a library.[60] However, he states that he has no further information about where or what kind they are imagining. The next instance within his personal correspondence is another letter, dated to July of the same year, in which Michelangelo cites issues of payment at the beginning of the Laurentian commission.[61] This points to a slight annoyance and strained working relationship that doubtless influenced the artist. Work finally began in 1549, as Michelangelo was busy juggling several other clients and commissions at the same time. [62]

In the interim between correspondences, Michelangelo received the information needed regarding what and where the Library was to be. The site for the Library was chosen to be on the monastery of San Lorenzo. A couple of places within the compound were suggested, only for Michelangelo to reject them as being unsuitable due to lack of light or concerns about blocking the extant façade of San Lorenzo. Finally, a place was settled upon, on top of the existing cloisters. This proved to be an interesting challenge for Michelangelo, as he was not working with a virgin site. Rather, he had to include the extant structure beneath in all of his plans. However, a second story library was in canon with the libraries of that time.[63] A concern in the housing of books was dampness, which was lessened by raising the books higher into the air.

Another influencing factor in the library was the commissioner. While the first letter merely states that the Medici contacted him, it was in reality Pope Clement VII.[64] A son of the Medici—one that actually grew up with Michelangelo—Clement was especially direct in his approach to the commission. Extensive correspondence exists between the two, in which Clement stresses the desire for the utility of the space. Michelangelo, in contrast, is much more interested in the decorative and artistic elements he wished to explore.[65]

Construction of the Library after its initial design was not Michelangelo’s greatest worry. Indeed, he was not even in Florence for a fair portion of it, sending instructions via friends and assistants.[66] This proved to be particularly difficult for the staircase due to its unprecedented appearance. Additionally, Michelangelo’s instructions were difficult to execute. Michelangelo left Florence in 1534, never to return or see the manifestation of the Laurentian Library.[67] Completion could only happen via the assistance of others. Michelangelo still maintained plasticity within his design process even as he sent them to his assistants, and as such it is clear that the influences of his move and its effect on him was a deep influence within the finalized structure of the Library. However, his entire vision never materialized. The vestibule and reading room were built, but the planned rare book room was not. Its incomplete status, like the rest of Michelangelo’s non-finito works, is a testament to the extenuating circumstances and pressures of his life. While the rare book room was never built, it was and is a part of the unified whole imagined by Michelangelo. However, the Library was finished in this truncated form, and the results are still employed today as a functioning landmark of Florence.


The Vestibule

            The most striking room in the Library is the vestibule. This is attributed to its oddity and the discomfort of those who enter it. Immediately, it does not seem like a classic entryway. Rather, the wall with the opening into the reading room appears to be a façade of its own (Figure 14). This false front is housed within the inorganic space created by the walls of the vestibule, with the overall effect of being transported from the bustling streets of Florence to an altogether different realm. It is from this new space that we are then invited to ascend into the Library proper, via a particularly strange staircase.


La Biblioteca 15

Figure 14

La Biblioteca 16

Figure 15

La Biblioteca 17



Figure 16

The staircase is the most immediate feature any visitor confronts. Extending down from the entry to the reading room, it stands in three parts. The center stair appears to be a vicious, flowing entity that cascades down, with two classic flights flanking it on either side. The staircase is a dark gray color, which ends at the herringbone brick of the floor. The vestibule itself is a narrow room, and this staircase extends almost all the way to the other door and flows out to either side. There is no room to enter and observe; rather, one is immediately thrust upon the liquid stairs. The room appears too small to house this enormous staircase.

What the vestibule lacks in depth it makes up for in height. The walls are soaring, extending far beyond the ceiling of its adjoining room. They are decorated with manifold crests and curls, with compressed columns dispersed throughout. Between the columns are squares created with three pieces of stone, with a large triangle or curved ridge capping them off like a window. Above these is a line of demarcation, and above it are true windows. They are square and allow light to enter only from the highest plane of the room. Foreboding colors of dark gray, lighter gray, and the red brick of the floor dominate the entire vestibule. Even the Tuscan light appears harsh as it bounces off of the gray walls to the floor.


La Biblioteca 18

Figure 17

La Biblioteca 19

Figure 18


            The room is disconcerting. A vestibule is traditionally the space in which guests transition from the street to the building. It passively provides a transition. The Laurentian Library vestibule does the opposite. Indeed, it provides a disruption between the street and the reading room. This catharsis is only added to by the staircase, which appears to be so fluid as to discourage walking on it. Most visitors opt to walk up the traditional staircases flanking the main one.

            In looking at a cross-section of the Laurentian Library (Figure 6), one sees that the vestibule is much taller than the reading room. The practical explanation for this is the fact that the Library is built on top of an existing cloister. The vestibule is the vehicle by which people ascend from the ground to this second story library. However, that does not account for the width or for the fact that the ceiling extends above that of the reading room. As soon as the vestibule is entered, one is presented with the immediate reality of the curved stairs. As soon as the second room is entered, the ceiling is much lower.

            Both of these factors combine to create a feeling of compression within the vestibule. Upon entering, the visitor is immediately thrust upon the stairs and is pushed onwards by both the discomfort of their surroundings and the architecture, which squeezes them upwards and inwards. The vestibule gives the overall impression of urgency and is discombobulating.     


The Reading Room

            Once the reading room is entered, that feeling of pressure is alleviated. Perfect linear symmetry and equidistant spacing dominate this room. Large windows flank both sides of this long and narrow space. They let in large swaths of the golden, Tuscan sun as they stand like sentinels at equal intervals down the length. The ceiling is decorated in large square blocks, which are intricately patterned.

la biblioteca 20

Figure 19

            Michelangelo also decorated the furniture within this room; large desks with attached chairs were fastened to the floor at the same intervals of the windows, to allow the greatest amount of ease and light for those reading at them. The desks were home to the pride of the Library: the Medici’s rare and valuable collection of manuscripts. Each desk had a number of books chained in place, with lists at the end of each desk denoting which books were there.

la biblioteca 21

Figure 20

 The walls of this room are a continuation of the color pallet of the vestibule, with light gray accented by dark gray columns. However, a rich floor patterned with red and yellows, as well as the dark brown of the wood used in the furnishings and ceiling, contrasts the gray. Furthermore, the drastically greater amount of light allowed into the room bounces off of the ample wood, illuminating it with an altogether cheerier glow.

            This room exemplifies order and consistency, with each part of the room appearing much the same as its twin. Indeed, each quadrant of the room is identical. The only bisections are horizontally, by a door, and vertically, between the door leading to the vestibule and where the rare book room was planned to go. The reading room is eerily perfect, with absolute order, absolute geometry, and absolute equality.


The Rare Book Room

            The rare book room is the only of the three that was not built. Its intended use was to house the extremely rare and valuable manuscripts belonging to the Medici. However, as it was not built, the analysis must be based purely on the surviving sketches made by Michelangelo.

la biblioteca 22

Figure 21

            This poses an inherent problem, as Michelangelo had an eccentric style when it came to designing. Often, he would make many changes to a building, even during production. His approach was plastic and based as much off of sight and instinct as predetermined planning.

Nonetheless, the sketches do give us a rather clear understanding of his plans. The ones that do exist elucidate a triangular room with rounded nooks along the edges. In the middle of the plan is a large circle, whose function is unknown. Also unknown are the coordinates of windows. What is clear is the striking geometry of this room. The triangle and circle dominate, with smaller circles and semicircles being the only other discernable features. While Michelangelo would have doubtless added manifold flourishes to this room, there is no denying that the existing idea is much different from the other two rooms; it is bolder and more simplistic. The overall effect would have been in accordance with the desired notion of the room: it housed things rare and valuable, it was distinct, and it was important. 


Chapter III: Arguments


            After inspecting in detail the tangible and intangible facets of the Library, it is clear to see that there is a great distinction between each of the rooms. It is also understood that Michelangelo was designing from the assumption that any buildings would function like a body, or soul, of a human. It, too, is apparent that Michelangelo was creating this at a time of great personal and professional stress. He had reached a cleavage point, and the Laurentian Library shows his attempt to assimilate all of this confusion into one whole.   


The Library and Dante

            There is no denying the indelible impact that Dante Alighieri had upon all of Italy. The Divine Comedy was a masterpiece in more ways than one; it created a standard Italian language from all of the dialects, it fleshed out folklore regarding the Catholic afterlife that is not specified in the bible, and it was an epic the likes of which had not been seen in over a thousand years. The effects were immediate and extraordinary. People across Italy heard this tale, and they venerated Dante with extreme devotion. His work is still read alongside the Ancient Greek classics, and his genius generally unquestioned.

            However, The Divine Comedy is not as straightforward as one might believe. This is no mere tale, but a complex series of commentaries. Throughout this poetic journey, Dante encounters many figures from his Florentine life. Still smarting from the devastation of being exiled from his home, his approach is vengeful and his placement of these figures is a political statement. Dante discusses heavily the notions of sin, placing those he is most guilty of in a less severe light than those he abhors in others. Indeed, the inner, most severe circle of hell is reserved for betrayal. While this is in line with common belief at the time, it is also demonstrative of Dante’s deep pain at the betrayal of his city. Lucifer cries as he chews in his three mouths Cassius, Brutus, and Judas, which also shows the absolute sorrow and loss of Dante as he faced the reality of never being able to return home. However, while the political message is clearly central within the work of Dante, he also provides a description of the common beliefs regarding the afterlife.

            The Divine Comedy deeply and personally affected Michelangelo. Born only a hundred or so years after Dante’s death, Michelangelo was still functionally his contemporary. He would have passed the Baptistery where Dante was baptized, and walked daily through the streets of Florence whose architecture gave the framework for that of hell. The cultural craze surrounding the epic had not died down, and the story would have been discussed in great length in the streets. Furthermore, Michelangelo’s Guelph ties made him especially amenable to Dante’s influence. The political commentary would have been one that Michelangelo doubtless agreed with, which made the story and the struggles it presented a particularly personal one.

            As his life went on Michelangelo’s ties and similarities to Dante only grew. He, too, left Florence, never to return. He saw different social and political regimes rise and fall, and he would have been able to relate to Dante’s distaste for the pettiness and hypocrisy of both parties. Michelangelo immortalized his veneration of Dante in one of his poems, titled simply “Dante.” It reads:

What should be said of him cannot be said;

By too great splendor is his name attended;

To blame is easier than those who him offended,

Than reach the faintest glory round him shed.

This man descended to the doomed and dead

For our instruction; then to God ascended;

Heaven opened wide to him its portals splendid,

Who from his country’s, closed against him, fled.

Ungrateful land! To its own prejudice

Nurse of his fortunes; and this showeth well

That the most perfect of grief shall see.

Among a thousand proofs let one suffice,

That as his exile hath no parallel,

Ne’er walked the earth a greater man than he.[68]


This poem clearly demonstrates his frustration with Florence, deep veneration of Dante, and unfailing belief in what he wrote. When Michelangelo speaks of this “ungrateful land,” he is referring to both of their homelands. This is reinforced by the country’s description of being “closed against him;” both of these are emotions that Michelangelo would have been familiar with and empathetic to. His closing line, “Ne’er walked the earth a greater man than he” unequivocally demonstrates Michelangelo’s absolute adoration of this human. It is no great stretch to believe that he would wish to emulate his idol’s thoughts and images within his forte: visually rather than Dante’s verbally.        

The Library’s three rooms are a clear representation of The Divine Comedy. The disturbing vestibule veritably screams, “Abandon every hope, who enter here,” which Dante describes as being the epitaph above the gate to hell.[69] Likewise, the reading room is a strong representation of purgatory, and the rare book room a representation of paradise, or heaven. The visitor would, much like Dante himself, have to pass from hell to paradise when experiencing this library.

Beginning with the vestibule, the first thing one notices is the darkness of the room. The lack of natural light combines with the gloomy color palate to give a stark contrast to the bright Florentine street. This transition into darkness is parallel to Dante’s at the beginning of his journey. Dante writes:

The day was now departing; the dark air

Released the living beings of the earth

From work and weariness; and I myself

Alone prepared to undergo the battle

Both of the journeying and of the pity,

Which memory, mistaking not, shall show.[70]


 Twilight signals the transition into hell, just as the shade of the vestibule signals the beginning of the journey into the Library. Likewise, entry into this building would also separate one from the crowded streets, which would simulate the feeling of isolation and release “from work and weariness.”    

The parallel to Dante’s experience continues when one comprehends the internal space of the vestibule. While Michelangelo was radical in many of the designs of the Library, he continued Bramante’s philosophy regarding designing for the space created by the walls rather than the walls themselves. This is quite clear in the Library, where the internal space of the vestibule is so striking and disorienting. This discomfort is due to the high ceilings and narrow width, which seems to have no immediate rationale.  However, when the room is viewed in cross-section (Figure 6), the staircase creates a line from the opening into the reading room to the bottom of the opposite wall. The narrow space between the two acts as a pseudo-step to connect that line. If the pattern of the staircase were to be repeated from the top of the entryway to the height of the ceiling, the resulting shape would look like a spiral, with the jagged lines of the steps differentiating the spiral from a cone. This is in canon with Dante’s Inferno. Hell is represented as a spiral, with each circle being distinct, like each step. Dante describes the Inferno being a series of nine circles, each with a distinct placement for each shade of each sin. Every circle is smaller than the one before, ending with the body of Lucifer wedged in the opening between hell and purgatory (Figure 22). Michelangelo approximates this by giving us this staircase, ending at the opening to the purgatory of the reading room.


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Figure 22


The lack of space in the vestibule before the staircase interrupts the floor further develops the experience of being immediately placed into spiraling out of control. The tall ceiling adds to this. The height gives the feeling of space, which appears smaller and smaller as one ascends the staircase. This entire experience coalesces into the feeling of moving through a chaotic realm into the comparatively minute opening of the door. This feeling is emphasized by the optical illusion that appears when looking up the staircase from the ground; each step looks smaller than the one before it, creating a funnel.

Furthermore, the staircase itself is odd. A common word used to describe it is “vicious,” a term usually reserved for blood. Its seeping onto the deep red of the bricks further validates that connection. This bloody staircase makes it uncomfortable for the visitor to ascend. Rather, one feels pulled down with the flow of the stairs, much like being pulled down into the depths of hell. Dante makes it exceedingly clear that hell is final, and leaving only happens in the rarest of circumstances.[71] This is emulated in the overwhelming size of the staircase flowing down, with only the narrow steps on either side allowing the visitor to ascend in comfort. Likewise, the curved steps are sectioned off into parts. The bottommost three steps are the most rounded. The number three and the rounded shape bring to mind the repetition of the number three within Dante’s works; there are three destinations in the afterlife—hell, purgatory, and paradise—and within these places there are multiples of three, such as the nine circles of hell, or three times three. It is also connected to the three rooms of the library. The flanking staircases on either side of the central one each have nine steps as they ascend; a step for every circle of hell. Here, again, Michelangelo is drawing a distinct parallel.    

The motif of three is continued on the walls. Each one is sectioned into three parts. On the two walls flanking the staircase, three window-esque openings stand in the negative space carved out by the compressed columns. Each of these spaces are furthermore divided into three, with the bottom part housing the scrolls, the middle part housing the window-esque openings, and the upper part housing the windows. To further emphasize the Dantean link, above each window is a circle—three on each wall. 

Michelangelo also decorated the room with medallions. They appear in niches over the doors, and are presented as a pattern of concentric circles. It is divided, again, into three main sections, with the innermost circle patterned and containing another ring. This repetition of circles in multiples of three again links back to the Dantean principles Michelangelo emulated.

The viewer mimics Dante’s journey and ascends the staircase, moving up to and through the opening between them. From there, they are presented with the expanse of the reading room. In the first Canto of Purgatorio, Dante describes his great relief at being able to view the blue of the sky. He writes, “The gentle hue of oriental sapphire/ in which the sky’s serenity was steeped—/ its aspect pure as far as the horizon—.”[72] Upon entering the reading room, the viewer would first be presented with the view of the sky pouring in from the massive and plentiful windows. This sight would be a stark departure from the vestibule, in which the windows are placed so high as to not be easily seen. Dante continues, “[the sky] brought back my joy in seeing/ just as soon as I had left behind the air of death.”[73] So too, would the visitor to the Library be glad at seeing the sky again as soon as they had passed through the vestibule.

The motif of circles extends into Purgatorio and into the Library. Purgatory is slightly different than hell in its structure; while it still manifests as a spiral of circles, there are only seven proper levels. The other two are anti-purgatory at the bottom and earthly paradise at the top (Figure 23). This is manifest within the reading room. The ceiling is immediately striking; intricately carved boards are held up by the infrastructure of the room. The central motif of the ceiling is an ornate oval. The same design is repeated over and over again down the laudable length of the room. The diminishing size of the ovals act in the same way as the staircase; it creates an optical illusion of being drawn towards a point at the end. Indeed, the fact that they are made up of ovals rather than true circles only heightens this illusion. Likewise, it also is representative of a spiral, with concentric circles decreasing in size. The oval is more germane for purgatory than the circle, as it is a place of in-between. While hell and paradise are both absolutes, purgatory exists only so long as the earth is still functioning. Catholic doctrine believed that the earth would only exist for a set amount of time, with the birth of Jesus Christ marking the halfway point. When the time was over, Jesus would make a second coming, purgatory would end, and all the souls would be sent to their final resting place without hope or change. This is shown through the ovals, which are themselves created piecemeal from four different sections. This demonstrates a continuation of the circle motif, while emphasizing the fluidity of this space. It is transient in a way that neither hell nor paradise is, while still being contained within the overarching whole. 

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Figure 23

The rare book room arguably demonstrates the most distinct connection to The Divine Comedy of any of the rooms. This could be attributed to the fact that it only exists in sketches. The plans we do have are bold in their composition, with clear, large circles. It is important to remember that they may have been convoluted during their construction, and that Michelangelo brought an unprecedented level of malleability to his design. Nonetheless, what we do have shows a clear connection to Paradisio. The middle of the room is dominated by the theme of the circle. While its overall shape appears to be a triangle, the corners are rounded. Furthermore, the edges themselves are dotted with semicircles throughout. The visitor would have walked along bookshelves placed in a triangular pattern. However, this can be attributed to the practical requirements of a bookshelf; straight edges are more easily viewed than rounded ones. The experience of walking through them would have been circular, with the individual returning to the same place he began. Furthermore, the shelves create a sort of concentric circle. There are three sets of bookshelves, and the visitor would have had to walk around three times to see every book, returning to the same spot after each rotation. This returning spot is marked in the design with a series of concentric circles—three, to be exact.

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                Figure 24

 Furthermore, the triangular shape does not detract from the overall symbolism of the Library. It accents it. The reading room combines the circular motifs with the number three. The triangle has three sides, and Michelangelo then truncates the corners of the triangle to give it another three while simultaneously creating a rounder shape.           

Due to this triangular shape, it can be assumed that, no matter where the windows were placed, the rare book room would have been absolutely flooded with light. Windows would have been available from all angles. As the sun moved through the sky, the room would have remained illuminated until the last possible moment. This is in stark contrast to the vestibule, with only meager and feeble sources of light. We are aware of the deep impact of light within the work of Michelangelo, as he chose the site of the Library based on exposure to light. Light is likewise central in the work of Dante. Hell is described as being an extremely dark place, with the only light arising from the fires constantly ablaze. Indeed, one of the most famous lines in the entire Comedia occurs after Dante and Virgil have climbed on Lucifer’s fur to escape hell. He line reads, “E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle” (…we emerged, to see—once more—the stars).[74] This reference to natural light highlights its importance, which only grows as they move to purgatory and paradise. At the boundary between the last level of purgatory and earthly paradise, Dante is finally reunited with Beatrice, his muse. She is presented in a progression accompanied with flags made of rainbows. The Rose Bowl is likewise spoken of with great reverence to the light of the place. Michelangelo’s use of light, moving from the dark vestibule to the glowing rare book room, underscores this connection.

            Dante is the least descriptive in his narration of paradise. So much so that Botticelli, who illustrated The Divine Comedy, merely showed the cantos within Paradiso as circles with human figures floating around in them (Figure 25). Nonetheless, what is clear is Dante’s strict adherence to the notion of the levels of heaven, and the levels being circular. This culminated as the Rose Bowl, where the Virgin Mary and Jesus himself resides.[75] This ambiguity is likewise concurrent with Michelangelo’s plans. Their simplicity and their openness are testaments to Michelangelo’s desire to accurately represent the cantos of The Divine Comedy. Barring explicit description, he alludes with overarching shape.

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Figure 25


The geometric shapes within all three rooms are of the utmost importance. It is understood that Dante describes the afterlife as having perfect geometry because the divine creator crafted it. In this, Dante is equating geometry to godliness. Michelangelo, with his abundant use of geometric shapes within the Library, is clearly alluding to this belief. While previous architects did use geometric shapes, they usually hid it beneath ornamentation. Michelangelo is incredibly clear with his shapes. Triangles, squares, and—most notably—circles are displayed boldly. Their stark and naked appearance is another link to the Library being a representation of this afterlife. Michelangelo displays the shapes clearly, to emulate to perfect geometry utilized by a divine creator.

All this evidence converges to enunciate the deep impact that Dante Alighieri had upon Michelangelo Buonarroti. His original vision for the Laurentian Library was deeply influenced by Dante and The Divine Comedy. He connected to this seminal work on many different levels—human, Florentine, Catholic—and chose to venerate it though his use of shape, form, light, and most importantly, geometry.


The Library and Neoplatonism

Neoplatonism is a slightly misleading term. The basis for this philosophy is not Plato, but the Enneads by Plotinus, written in the 3rd century C.E.[76] He was deeply influenced by the ancient philosophers, specifically Plato, but reimagined their notions within his own works.[77] Neoplatonism can be described as a deeply mystical philosophy, with complex notions of the human soul within the universe. In this, there is a trifold progression over the Chaos of Nature. The point of climax within Neoplatonism is union with the One, the Good, the Ultimate, or the Beautiful.[78] All these terms are an attempt to convey the meaning inherent in the original Greek word, which has no English approximate.

            Plotinus and his school did not call themselves Neoplatonists. This was a term that was ascribed to them much later, when interest in the mystical movement returned in mid-ninteenth century Germany.[79] However, this was not the first time this particular belief system was highly regarded; it had reached extreme popularity in the Renaissance. This was mainly due to two major factors. Interest in the antiquity had soared, and Neoplatonism had rare compatibility with Christianity.  The connection can be traced back to Plotinus’ own time, because an overlap was found in the notions of omnipotence of both the One and of God.[80]

            The Renaissance became reacquainted with the figure of Plotinus through the person of Marsillio Fincino. A Catholic priest with an avid penchant for philosophy, he made the first translation of the Enneads in 1492.[81] A complex character, he also translated the works of Plato, was the central figure in the Medici’s Florentine Academy, and was vastly influential on every major thinker of the day. His impact extended to a young sculptor named Michelangelo.

            After understanding Neoplatonism, it is very clear to see that the Library is also heavily influenced by this philosophy. Michelangelo’s very thought process regarding architecture is deeply based on the Neoplatonic understanding of the body as the ultimate, and the manifestation of the deepest aspect of the divine.

While Neoplatonism is distinct from Plato, it is still intrinsically linked with his writings. Likewise, Michelangelo would have read Plato and been familiar with his works. Plato’s impact on Michelangelo is most clearly shown in the Library through the use of circles. Plato spends much of his extant literature discussing the notion of Good.[82] It is difficult to parse this notion within a modern context, as so much has been lost with translation and differing eras. However, Plato gives some overarching notions that can be utilized in order to understand this complex idea. One of these is the manifestation of Good within his Allegory of the Cave as the sun. The sun, which gives light to the nature of reality (or ‘Being’), is the lamp through which the path for the philosopher is illuminated once he has escaped the cave.[83]

            This is shown in the Library through the repeated use of circles through all three rooms. The circles (or suns) light the path through the three rooms, highlighting the philosophical journey of the visitor. The circles give light to the ‘Being’ of the room, which is deeply influential within the reimagined Neoplatonism of the Renaissance. The sun metaphor is not purely symbolic—the physical light of the rooms intensifies as one progresses through them. The vestibule is almost a cave, and the rare book room would have caught all the possible light. As such, the walk through the three rooms would mimic the departure from the cave, into the light and into the reality of Being.  

            Platonic education was mainly focused on creating a mental metamorphosis from the tangible realities of the world to the purer and simpler truths that can be abstracted from them. This education reached its summit with the study of the science of Dialectics, which is known as the study of comprehendible Being.[84] This education is likewise mirrored within the Library, as one moves from the glaringly real masses within the vestibule to the simple, abstracted lines in the planned rare book room. The Library also manifests a Platonic postulate in the Timeaus, in which Plato discusses his creation myth. His belief was that the creator (Artifice) imposed form on Chaos, which rejects and repulses all order. This Chaos is the realm from which all things arise, called a “disorderly receptacle.”[85] The vestibule demonstrates this attempt to impose order upon chaos; the pure geometry of the space, as represented by the circles and squares, are pushed into the walls of the disorienting room, which bring a sense of tenuous order into the disorderly receptacle of the vestibule. While many of the elements inherent in both Neoplatonism and the Library were lifted directly from Plato, Michelangelo did not exactly emulate the thought of Plato.

            Also included within Neoplatonic thought were ethics postulated by Aristotle.[86] The central idea within this ethical philosophy is happiness cumulated via the pursuit of the Good. This was to be achieved by meditation and contemplation of this Good. However, the word Aristotle uses is eudaimonia, which has no English translation. While it does loosely mean “happiness,” the happiness encompassed by the notion of eudaimonia is one of deep contentment after cultivating a harmonious and balanced life.[87] As such, the incorporation of this notion into the philosophy of the Neoplatonists should be understood to mean a desire for absolute fulfillment of the spirit through contemplation of the Good.

            This manifests itself in the Library in the physical form of the Library itself. It literally lends itself for contemplation of the Good in the form of geometry and proportion, order and accessibility to Greek and Latin manuscripts. As the visitor entered the Library, they would have begun a subconscious meditation, as the oddity of the staircases, the flowing shapes, the order of the reading room, and the planned clarity of the rare book room would snare their attention. This would have been supplemented by the conscious intellectual engagement reading these books would require, and the total experience would assist in the elevation of the visitor. Additionally, the notion of eudaimonia would be expressed through the dual impact of meditation on both the conscious and subconscious mind. By the mere act of walking into and through the Library, the visitor would be striving for Good. In this, they would be achieving eudaimonia, leaving with a heightened, more balanced state of their soul.   

            While Plotinus was deeply affected by both Plato and Aristotle, he took much inspiration from his own direct experience.[88] He speaks of this and teaches his insights, specifically the belief that an individual human is representative of the entire universe. Granted, the notion of the universe was slightly more flexible at this point, but the mystical undertones we glean now were intended at the time of writing. The fact that each individual is a condensed, microcosm of the cosmos links the human with this notion of the Soul of the World. This entity is understood to be the rational soul, a derivative of the ancient Logos. Logos, or “reason,” is the entity that manifests the visible universe out of the chaotic substrate through meditation on form.[89] Therefore, the highest activity of the mind is to likewise engage in logic and reason, which brings understanding and clarity to the quagmire of the internal state.

            Two aspects of this notion stand out strongly within the Library. Plotinus’ understanding of the human body as a small example of the cosmos directly reiterates Michelangelo’s theory of architecture, which has been identified as being representative of the human body and soul. Plotinus is likewise not merely speaking of the human body when he references the form, but the mind within it. Indeed, Plotinus speaks of the human body as being “a faded image of the Intelligible,”[90] which includes within it Being, levels of consciousness, and eternity. While the form may decay, it houses within it that which is eternal. Here, we see Michelangelo’s base beliefs echoed, as is represented by his pious nature, his theory of architecture, and in his other works.

            The second notion of Plotinus that resounds within the Library is Logos. A library is a particularly pertinent place in which to elaborate and extrapolate the notion of the logical and rational soul, as the structure houses the texts in which logic is employed. Moreover, the very nature of the Library demands the visitor to piece together the oddities and fragmentations, bringing reason to why the staircase is the way it is and why the scrolls in the vestibule are overlapping. Neoplatonic idea links the rational mind with the true self, and the puzzles within the Library are the vehicles through which the visitor is guided on the journey towards higher progression of the human soul. Once subconscious Logos is engaged by the oddity of the vestibule, the visitor is allowed to enter the reading room, where conscious Logos can flourish. 

            It is understood that three is perhaps the most central motif in the Library. This has been demonstrated physically, as well as in the philosophy of Dante. This motif is also strikingly clear within Neoplatonists. Plotinus sketches out the universe as transcending from Chaos with Nature. Nature is all that is material within this world, and it is eternal. From this base level, three “hypostases” transcend. Each one is beyond this material realm, yet they grow from the previous one. These three are known as Soul, Intellect, and the Good. The Soul arises from Nature, Intellect arises from the Soul, and the Good comes from Intellect. The main goal of the Neoplatonists was union with the Good.[91] As with Plato, we must remember that ‘Good’ is a translated term, and as such cannot be taken from our modern association with the term. Rather, the Good is incomprehensible. While it contains many ideas, such as “…Power, Will, Beauty, even Love,”[92] the overarching feature of this Ultimate entity is its transcendental nature. Indeed, the Good is also known as the One, this unifying space in which all else can occur. The Neoplatonists desired their own human soul to reach the internal point of still, which would allow progression through the three hypostases to reach the One—the Beautiful, the Good, and the Ultimate.  

            The three rooms of the Library are representative of the three hypostases. The vestibule is representative of the Soul. While it much more chaotic than the rest of the Library, it nonetheless contains within it ordered shapes that bring order to the chaos of base materials. In this, Nature (represented by the stones and materials of which the Library is made) has been harnessed and transcended via the use of Form. Michelangelo meditated upon form when designing the Library, and as such brought the Soul out of Chaos.

            The reading room builds upon the Soul to attain Intellect. This is in no way surprising, as this is the room housing the texts that allow for cultivation and stimulation of the intellect. The continuation of the color scheme, as well as the opening to the vestibule, shows that the Intellect has grown from the Soul; reaching past it, but not fully cutting away from it.

            The One is finally reached when one would have gone into the rare book room. There, one would have had access to truly remarkable texts, the kind of stimulation that would allow for a transcendental experience. The clear geometry and absolute simplicity of the place would have, likewise, allowed for this attainment. However, it is understood that the One is contained within all things, shattering and splintering out into both the Intellect and the Soul. This, again, is shown in the Library, with both other rooms containing the circles representative of the One.

            Plotinus speaks of how a human soul is unique in that is has the ability to pass through realms of attainment.[93] However, there is a constant struggle between one’s higher self and the more base, material qualms. It is only through intellectual engagement that one can finally find eudaimonia. Michelangelo designs the entire Library to facilitate this journey, with the ultimate goal of happiness.  

            The progression of the human spirit is also represented in the accessibility of the Library. The vestibule is accessible to all humans. Anyone could wander in to look at the forms and images crafted by the space. The visual information is not exclusive. The reading room, however, consists of both visual and intellectual aspects. Only literate individuals can grasp the full meaning of the room, with the geometry and forms combining with the intellectual stimulation and engagement of the books they house. Therefore, a certain amount of progression is required for this room—which connects to a step up in the Neoplatonic progression of the soul. This is heightened in the planned rare book room. All books in the Renaissance were valuable—indeed, the books in the reading room needed to be chained in place to deter theft. Therefore, in order for a further differentiation between these and the books in the rare book room, the tomes housed in that theoretical space must have been extraordinary. The individuals that would have been allowed into this room would have been the extreme elite—the rare scholars capable of parsing these texts and those of status warranting access to objects of unique value. These individuals would have had the level of intellectual sophistication required for attainment of the Ultimate, the Good, and the Beautiful, in Neoplatonic terms. Likewise, they would have the benefit of the visual stimulation of form in all three rooms of the Library, which would, again, add greatly to their attainment of the Ultimate. Their intellectual sophistication would be equal to the number of forms presented for their meditation. Therefore, while the masses—which exist at the most base levels of progression—could enter the vestibule, the number of individuals decreases with each room, in accordance with the rarity of levels of attainment.  

            The clarity of the connection between the Laurentian Library and Neoplatonism is almost startling. It is clear that this mode of thought had a much deeper and more indelible impact upon Michelangelo than was previously thought, specifically around the time when he designed the Library. The entire space is designed to simulate and stimulate the progression of the human soul, through both intellectual and visual aids.            


Evidence in Other Works

            The possibility does exist that the seemingly clear links in the Laurentian Library to both Dante and Neoplatonism are nothing more than quirks of architecture; an overlooked feature of a medium Michelangelo was unused to. In order to dissuade this, we must look to evidence in his other works, which echo the same sentiments. A close view at his portfolio reveals a plethora of such examples.   

Perhaps the most similar work by Michelangelo to the Laurentian Library is the Medici Chapel. It shares much of the same history and many of the same features. It, too, was commissioned by the Medici, Michelangelo had to complete it via correspondence, and it has strange qualities.[94] The Chapel is the final resting place of two of the Medici brothers, though neither of them was of much consequence. The initial plan was to include the body of Lorenzo il magnifigo, but his tomb was never even started. The oddity exists in the non-finito nature of some of the statues, Michelangelo’s portrayal of women, and what the statues on the tombs actually mean. The figures on the tombs are intended to be some sort of allegory, yet what was being eluded to still escapes us. The popular explanation of this space is that it, too, is Neoplatonic. The proof of this is complex, yet quite similar to the proof presented above for the Laurentian Library.

The Medici Chapel serves as an external validation of the Neoplatonic nature of the Laurentian Library. However, it also furthers the notion of a Dantean influence in both. The Medici Chapel also has the concentric circle medallions that appear in the vestibule, which are shown over draped flora; flora that look strikingly similar to a laurel wreath (Figure 26). Dante is constantly shown as being crowned in laurels, as a sign of his genius and competence (Figure 27). This was a symbol of the Ancient Greek greats. By showing the medallions with the laurels, Michelangelo is linking the motif of circles and of three with his modern genius, Dante, and their shared idols in antiquity—notably, Plato. As such, both claims regarding the Library are solidified and emphasized in the Medici Chapel.  

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Figure 26

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Figure 27

            Perhaps the most famously Neoplatonic work by Michelangelo was the Pope Julius II tomb. This project would haunt Michelangelo and prove to be one of the biggest issues in his life. In the arrogance of youth, he promised the then pope the most magnificent of tombs—so magnificent, in fact, that there was no way Michelangelo could have sculpted it all even in his long life. The original tomb was never to reach completion, with the newly famous Michelangelo being called from commission to commission. After the death of Pope Julius, his heirs would hound Michelangelo for almost all of his life to finish the tomb.[95] It exists now in a truncated shade of the planned glory. However, we still have several artifacts from this first planned venture. The sketches for the tomb remain, as do several of the started statues (Figure 28). Most notably, Michelangelo’s slaves, which remain in the non-finito, were originally intended to be the bottom layer of the magnificent tomb. All evidence combines to show us the vision that Michelangelo had—a Neoplatonic progression, with three layers representing the trifold progression of the human spirit. The slaves, which are bound, represent the human soul before its spiritual enlightenment. The compressed columns within the vestibule resemble this extremely closely. Furthermore, the wall upon which the columns are placed is demarked into three distinct areas, much like the tomb itself. The top, which houses the circles and the windows letting in the light, shows the Beautiful and the Ultimate. The presence of the circle is also a reminder of Paradisio, where the stars and light of heaven are set in perfectly circular surroundings. 

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Figure 28

            To prove that Michelangelo had unusual beliefs regarding the afterlife, we must turn to The Last Judgment. This supplemental piece done in the Sistine Chapel was completed late in his life, and is deeply demonstrative of his beliefs and frustrations.[96] It displays all the major biblical figures, as well as a clear representation of both heaven and hell. The figures within it are highly metaphorical, and it is clearly extrapolated that Michelangelo was painting this as an extrapolation of his emotions towards his own inevitable judgment. Here, too, the work of Dante is strikingly obvious. His representation of hell, complete with Charon taking souls across the river in his boat (Figure 29), is almost verbatim Dante. However, issues arise when one looks at the rest of the painting. The Bible states that, at the last judgment, all horns will blow. Interestingly, two angels are not blowing their horns. As this is a painting, every piece of it had to be planned and executed deliberately. Therefore, every part of it is meaningful and intentional. This angel not blowing his horn is not a mistake; rather, it is a subtle belief that, perhaps, the end is not final, and there is still hope for the poor souls in hell.  

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Figure 29

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Figure 30

Chapter IV: Convergence

            While a clear connection between the Library and Dante has been established, and another incredibly strong connection between the Library and Neoplatonism has also been established, the true fascination of the Library comes when we view their convergence. The isolated ideas speak clearly about influence and education, whereas the overlaps discuss the personal beliefs and understandings of Michelangelo. What is clear is that he was an even more complex character than is readily apparent. Fiercely intelligent, he was able to juggle differing and intricate notions, which he then incorporated into his works. We must view Dante, Neoplatonism, the Medici, and the Florentine Siege within the same lens in order to parse how these ideas sat with him, and what he ultimately believed in.

            The two notions that immediately appear to be most polarizing are the finality of Catholicism and the transcendence of Neoplatonism. However, Dante and Plotinus are not nearly as incompatible as they immediately seem. While Dante does describe this horrifying, overwhelming hell, and while he literally says that the gates of hell read, “Abandon every hope, who enter here,” Dante enters and leaves. Dante, the man who makes the journey and literally climbs on Lucifer’s fur to escape, is the one Michelangelo so adores. Indeed, he has more reverence and respect for his dead countryman than he appears to have for any pope of his acquaintance. Perhaps Michelangelo did not merely admire Dante because of their similarities and extreme piety, but because of the hope Dante brings. This is ironic, given hell’s warning, but hope is precisely what Dante gives. The hope that, even when looking at Lucifer’s piteous sobbing, a human being can still find the courage to leave.

            This is consistent with the Neoplatonic notion of transcendence. When Dante views Lucifer and writes extremely elaborate poetry about the experience, he is intellectually meditating on both the visual forms and the reason behind it. Dante looks at why Lucifer is suffering so, and understands the rationale as to why he is stuck in the gap between worlds. He contemplates why each figure is being chewed in each mouth, and processes the information to the extent that he is capable of relating that information to the masses. In this small microcosmic moment of The Divine Comedy, Dante displays all the necessary pieces for Neoplatonic progression from the Soul to Intellect. He meditates upon these images, and turns them into poetry. He speaks of geometry within hell, and alludes to their rationale. In this, he is able to leave hell.

            The constant theme of circles within the Library is also an area of overlap. The Medici family crest has six spheres on it (Figure 31). Six, also being a multiple of three, is a convergence of the repetition of the circles throughout the Library. This is understandable, as they are the ones who commissioned the Library. However, it also demonstrates a convergence between the Medici and Dante in the mind of Michelangelo. The six orbs of the Medici coat of arms represented the six original sons. By placing circles throughout the three rooms, Michelangelo was continuing the Dantean tradition of a political statement. Circles, or members of the Medici family, are met as the visitor walks through hell, purgatory, and the planned paradise, just as Dante encountered political figures from his generation. In this, Michelangelo is again in parallel with his idol Dante while simultaneously making a statement about the members of this complex family.  

la biblioteca 32

Figure 31

            The Library links to Michelangelo’s Medician frustrations in yet another way; the plans for the jagged fortifications of Florence look strikingly similar to the ones for the rare book room. When viewed side by side, one might believe that they are merely incarnations for the same project, with the overarching triangular shape and circular details remaining constant. While the fortifications have two side protrusions, and thus look much more lethal, the overarching similarities are apparent. It is difficult to believe that the similarities were mere coincidence. Rather, they seem to be indicative of Michelangelo’s complicated relationship with the Medici. The statement about the Medici within the plans for the rare book room and their similarity to the fortifications of Florence points to a deep commentary on the part of Michelangelo. The Siege of Florence had broken up Michelangelo’s familial ties, and was doubtless one of the most emotionally traumatizing experiences of his life. Being asked—or rather, demanded—to work on the Library after the completion of the war would have been difficult for him. Some lingering resentment must have existed, and it is no far stretch to believe that this would have impacted his work. As such, it is important to understand that Michelangelo’s relationship with his patrons deeply affected his works, and that this link speaks volumes about Michelangelo’s emotions towards them.  

The rare book room is, however, representative of paradise and connection with the One. It is odd to think that he would take this sacred space and turn it into a battlefield for personal issues he had with the commissioners. By adding in the Neoplatonic and Dantean views of the Library into this equation, it seems that the possibility exists of the similarities not arising out of spite, but rather out of hope. Hope that, even with the splintering that occurred when he sided with Florence, unification was still possible of the Medici and the Florentine people, and of Michelangelo himself. Even the jagged triangles of the bafflements could not distance their fraternity in the eyes of the Ultimate.     

            Dante and Plato are likewise much more compatible than they immediately seem. The notion that the base level of the world is Chaos with order and form being imposed by the Artificer in Plato is almost identical to hell for Dante. Hell exists in chaos; the contents of the rings are the epitome of disorder, with no reason or justification linking them. In particular, the circle for fraud is made up of different bulges, called malebulge.[97] Each pocket is full of such disarray that the word has even made its way into contemporary Italian for a particularly crowded public place, one in which no one would wish to enter. The chaos of hell is contained by the order of its structure. While the internal structure of hell is chaotic, the circles themselves are structured, clear, and distinct. This is because the divine creator, who Dante constantly describes as being manifest in perfect order, formulated hell. In this, the hell is the manifestation of order being imposed on chaos, just as in Plato, the Artificer imposes form on Chaos. Both of these convergent ideas are manifest within the vestibule of the Library. The oddity of the staircase, the height, and the intersecting curls are representative of barely contained chaos, an idea that strongly resounds in both of Michelangelo’s beliefs.   

            As Dante and Plato shared beliefs, so too did Michelangelo and Plotinus. Namely, the notion of the Good is also understood as “the infinite Principle of creation” or “the Wellsping that engenders the whole sum of existence.” This sounds strikingly familiar to Revelation 22:13 in the Bible, in which God states, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and Last, the Beginning and the End.” This verbiage is repeated throughout the Ennead and the Bible, further strengthening the connection between these two. As Michelangelo was very well versed in both documents, these similarities would not have been missed nor ignored. Rather, the notion of the Good was likely absorbed into his notion of God, furthered by his contemporaries who made claims about the similarities between Neoplatonism and Christianity. This rationale explains why both ideas and ideals were fostered within his mind; they existed symbiotically. It was only in the execution of these notions, specifically by the Catholic Church, that discrepancies existed. For Michelangelo, the largest and most devastating disparity was the notion of hell, which fundamentally disagreed from the Neoplatonic view that the base level of Chaos could be transcended. This is a far cry from “Abandon every hope, who enter here.” This must have been confusing and conflicting, as the amygdala response of fear of hell would have sent him in the direction of Catholicism, and the seedling hope of Neoplatonism grew over time.  

            It is important to remember that these interests and curiosities could not have been explored openly. The Renaissance was a time in which heresy was met with swift retribution, and no one was safe. In a time rife with changing, jealous powers, being outspoken was dangerous. Therefore, it is within the subtleties that true expression resides. Something as seemingly innocent or accidental as an angel not blowing their trumpet is echoed within Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, and those small details scream more loudly than any clear protestation.

However, a counter-argument presents itself in the form of the classical interpretation of the Library as Mannerist. Mannerism was a style of art that arose at the end of the Renaissance, which plays with notions inherent in classical design to add tension and oddity within the works, rather than the serenity and perfection seen in the art of antiquity and the early Renaissance.[98] The vestibule does share many of the main identifiers of Mannerism, as it most definitely disorienting and tenuous. The labeling of the entire Library as Mannerist, however, is inappropriate. The reading room is particularly within canon, as it almost exactly mirrors the precedent laid forth in the reading room of the library of San Marco. This room was likewise set on a second floor, with ample light, and extreme symmetry.[99] Michelangelo’s reading room does not derivate from this model in a way consistent with Mannerist works. Likewise, what can be parsed from the rare book room plans also does not appear to be a classically Mannerist design. The only similarity seems to be in the vestibule, and the strangeness inherent within. However, the Mannerist reading does not negate this Dantean/Neoplatonic interpretation. If anything, it strengthens it. The fact that there is no consistent Mannerist thought throughout the whole building points, again, to an unexplained inconsistency. The fact that this break happens between the vestibule and the reading room underscores this notion of exiting chaos and entering order. This difference in style between these two rooms remained a point of mystery even in a Mannerist context, and the Dantean/Neoplatonic reading offers an explanatory framework that houses this enigma.     

Furthermore, Michelangelo’s life seems to validate the reading of the Library as his personal struggle with impending oblivion rather than merely an exploration of a new style. His poetry regarding fear of death, combined with his friendship with known reformers, allows us to understand that Michelangelo was strangely obsessed with the afterlife. He does not reject either Neoplatonism or Catholicism, nor is he completely divorced from Mannerist thought, but rather looks for the connections between them. This manifests in the central idea, the calmness and the omnipresence, to which the human soul can connect. Indeed, this also manifests within the rare book room, which, never being built, must remain a mystery—like death itself. Furthermore, Michelangelo has been credited with his major contribution to Mannerism being a God-like mastery of his forms and materials, which also ties back to the central ideas presented here.[100] The Laurentian Library became the battleground for this man’s internal wars, which were fought over the course of the many years he worked on it. His plasticity in design allows us to see how he achieved even a modicum of peace, with varied treaties and the finality of inescapable surrender in death.   




Chapter V: Conclusion

Michelangelo was an extremely tormented man. However, the question remains as to why. He suffered greatly, and while he produced extraordinary works, always seemed to be at odds with himself internally. He desired to be religious, and yet was also deeply ambitious about his fame and glory. With time and distance, it is easy to remove the human component from Michelangelo as an entity. His life has been mythologized, and in that, he managed to achieve the fame and glory he so yearned for. This came at a price; Michelangelo was always deeply isolated. Living with an insatiable hunger for art and achievement left him peerless, and his long life proved to be as much curse as blessing in that he outlived the few who managed to make it into his confidence. All the while, Michelangelo was aware, as every human is, of the call of oblivion.

By viewing the Library within the context of Michelangelo as a man, not a myth, we are afforded the opportunity to form an empathetic link with him. He was neither the first nor the last human to feel torn from all sides, and he was likewise not alone in fearing the unknown and having questions about what happens after death. It is a bittersweet irony that this questioning, the thing that kept him gagged during his lifetime, is the very doorway through which modern humans have to connecting compassionately with Michelangelo the man.

The Laurentian Library displays the personal beliefs and curiosities of Michelangelo Buonarroti. Within the two existent rooms and the planned one, he teased out differing beliefs to find the overlaps. What was discovered was no surprise—life is complicated and muddled by fear and intrapersonal influence. We are never really free, as the very beat of our hearts within the bars of our ribcage is nothing but a timer counting down towards oblivion. However, relief can be achieved when we can, for one moment, allow ourselves to contemplate something bigger. Whether that is reason or learning or God or the One—none of that matters, so long as it helps with the weight of living. By creating this building with swirling shapes and confusing steps, Michelangelo allows the visitor to rest against his backbone for a moment. We understand that no matter the difference in age or language or fame, we are one and the same. In this moment of compassion across time, Michelangelo is finally able to transcend to the One, and, so too are we.








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———. Paradiso. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri 3. Toronto: Bantam, 1986.

———. Purgatorio. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri 2. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.


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List of Images

Figure 1: Medici Family Tree, Digital Image. Available from: (accessed October 17, 2015).


Figure 2: Detail of Figure 3 showing Lorenzo de Medici’s sculpture garden.


Figure 3: Pietro del Massaio, Plan of Florence. 1472-80. From: Ptolemy’s Cosmographica. Paris, Bibliotèque Nationale, MS Lat. 4802.


Figure 4: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Battle of the Centaurs, 1490-92, marble, 3’0” x 2’9”. Available from: (accessed October 17, 2015).


Figure 5: Cast of a fawn’s head, once attributed to Michelangelo’s Head of a Fawn. Digital Image. Available from: (accessed October 17, 2015).


Figure 6: Laurentian Library Plan. Digital Image. Available from: (accessed October 17, 2015).


Figure 7: Laurentian Library Plan. Digital Image. Available from: (accessed October 17, 2015).


Figure 8: Overview of the San Lorenzo complex. Digital Image. Available from: (accessed October 17, 2015).


Figure 9: Donato Bramante, Plan for St. Peter’s Basilica,1506. Digital Image. Available from:   


Figure 10: Raphael of Urbino, Plan for St. Peter’s Basilica, 1513. Digital Image. Available from:


Figure 11: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Plan for St. Peter’s Basilica, 1547. Digital Image. Available from:


Figure 12: Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Last Judgment, 1536-41, fresco, 48’ x 44’. Digital Image. Available from:


Figure 13: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Rebellious Slave, 1513, marble, 7’. Digital Image. Available from:


Figure 14: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Vestibule of the Laurentian Library, 1524-71, Florence. Digital Image. Available from:


Figure 15: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Vestibule of the Laurentian Library, 1524-71, Florence. Digital Image. Available from:


Figure 16: Drawing of the Laurentian Library Vestibule. Digital Image. Available from:


Figure 17: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Vestibule of the Laurentian Library, 1524-71, Florence. Digital Image. Available from:


Figure 18: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Vestibule of the Laurentian Library, 1524-71, Florence. Digital Image. Available from:


Figure 19: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Reading Room of the Laurentian Library, 1524-71, Florence. Digital Image. Available from:


Figure 20: Drawing of the books chained in place in the reading room of the Laurentian Library. Digital Image. Available from:


Figure 21: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Plan for the Rare Book Room of the Laurentian Library, 1524-71, Florence. Digital Image. Available from:  


Figure 22: Map of hell from Dante’s Inferno. Digital Image. Available from:


Figure 23:  Map of Purgatory from Dante's Purgatorio, Digital Image. Available from: (accessed October 17, 2015).


Figure 24: The Organization of Paradise from Dante’s Inferno, Digital Image. Available from: ). (accessed October 17, 2015.


Figure 25: Sandro Botticelli, Paradiso. 1480s, Sketch, Digital Image.  Available from: (accessed October 17, 2015).


Figure 26: Michelangelo Buonarroti, New Sacristy, Tabernacle, Digital Image. Available from: Flickr, (accessed October 17, 2015).


Figure 27: Dante, Digital Image. Available from: (accessed October 17, 2015).


Figure 28: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Tomb of Julius II, 1505, Sketch, Digital Image. Available from: (accessed October 17, 2015).


Figure 29: Detail from Fig. 12 showing Charon crossing the river.


Figure 30: Michelangelo Buonarrotti, Last Judgement, Sistine Chapel. 1536-1541, Fresco, 48 x 44 ft.,Digital Image.  Available from: (accessed October 17, 2015).


Figure 31: Medici Family Crest, Digital Image. Available from: Flickr, (accessed October 17, 2015).


[1] John Addington Symonds, Creighton E. Gilbert, and Michelangelo, The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti: Based on Studies in the Archives of the Buonarroti Family at Florence, Repr (Philadelphia, Pa: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 4.

[2] Charles de Tolnay, The Youth of Michelangelo, 2nd ed. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1947), 3.

[3] Dante, Barry Moser, and null, Inferno, trans. Allen Mandelbaum, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri 1 (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), i.

[4] John Addington Symonds, Creighton E. Gilbert, and Michelangelo, The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti: Based on Studies in the Archives of the Buonarroti Family at Florence, Repr (Philadelphia, Pa: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 2.

[5] William Roscoe, The Life of Lorenzo de Medici, Called The Magnificent (London: D. Bogue, 1825)., 6.

[6] de Tolnay, The Youth of Michelangelo, 4.

[7] Ibid., 3.

[8] de Tolnay, The Youth of Michelangelo, 7.

[9] Ibid., 5.

[10] Ibid., 12.

[11] Ibid., 11.

[12] William E Wallace and Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 34.

[13] Ibid., 35.

[14] Roscoe, The Life of Lorenzo de Medici, Called The Magnificent., vii-x.

[15] Katharine Dorathea Ewart, Cosimo de Medici (Florence: McMillan and Company Ltd., 1899)., 227.

[16] Peter Murray, The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance (New York: Schocken Books, 1986)., 52

[17] R. Baine Harris, ed., The Significance of Neoplatonism, Studies in Neoplatonism 1 (Norfolk, Va: International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, Old Dominion University, 1976).,18.

[18] Ibid., 17.

[19] Jackson J Spielvogel, Western Civilization (Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012)., 91.

[20] Roscoe, The Life of Lorenzo de Medici, Called The Magnificent., viii.

[21] de Tolnay, The Youth of Michelangelo., 16.

[22] David Watkin, A History of Western Architecture, 5th ed (London: Laurence King, 2011)., 232.

[23] de Tolnay, The Youth of Michelangelo., 19.

[24] Dante, Moser, and null, Inferno, 323.

[25] Symonds, Gilbert, and Michelangelo, The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti., 402

[26] Ibid., 409.

[27] James S. Ackerman and John Newman, The Architecture of Michelangelo, 2nd ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986)., 31.

[28] Ibid., 120

[29] Dante, Moser, and null, Inferno., 293.

[30] Ackerman and Newman, The Architecture of Michelangelo., 120.

[31] Ibid., 122.

[32] Alf Johnson Mapp, Three Golden Ages: Discovering the Creative Secrets of Renaissance Florence, Elizabethan England, and America’s Founding (Lanham, Md: Madison Books [u.a.], 1998)., 29.

[33] de Tolnay, The Youth of Michelangelo., 16.

[34] Caroline Elam, “Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Sculpture Garden,” Mitteilungen Des Kunsthistorischen Insitutes in Florenz 36 (n.d.): 41–84.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Wallace and Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo., 262.

[37] Ibid., 41.

[38] Murray, The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance., 53.

[39] Ibid., 11.

[40] Christy Anderson, Renaissance Architecture, Oxford History of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)., 1

[41] Murray, The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance., 7

[42] Ibid., 31.

[43]  Wallace and Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo., 228.          

[44] Ackerman and Newman, The Architecture of Michelangelo., 27.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid., 34.

[47] Wallace and Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo., 223.

[48] Ackerman and Newman, The Architecture of Michelangelo., 31.

[49] Symonds, Gilbert, and Michelangelo, The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti., 4.

[50] Charles Callahan Perkins, Raphael and Michelangelo: A Critical and Biographical Essay (Boston: J. R. Osgood and Co., 1878)., 171.

[51] Wallace and Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo., 228.

[52] Ackerman and Newman, The Architecture of Michelangelo., 35.

[53] Ibid.

[54] This distinction comes from my own personal translation as an Italian speaker.

[55] Ackerman and Newman, The Architecture of Michelangelo., 194.

[56] Helen Gardner and Fred S Kleiner, Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective (Boston, MA; Australia; Brazil; Japan; Korea; Mexico; Singapor; Spain; United Kingdon; United States: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2014)., 470.

[57] Patrick Boyde, Dante, Philomythes and Philosopher: Man in the Cosmos (Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983)., 270.

[58] Patrick Boyde, Dante, Philomythes and Philosopher: Man in the Cosmos (Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983)., 96.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Michelangelo Buonarroti, Il Carteggio Di Michelangelo, vol. 3 (Firenze: G. C. Sansoni Editore, 1973)., 17.

[61] Ibid., 93.

[62] Bruno Santi, The Medici Chapels and San Lorenzo (Florence: Becocci/SCALA, 1997).,74.

[63] Ackerman and Newman, The Architecture of Michelangelo., 96.

[64] Ibid., 97.

[65] Ibid., 98

[66] Bruno Santi, The Medici Chapels and San Lorenzo., 74.

[67] Wallace and Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo., 166.

[68] Buonarroti, Michelangelo, and Anthony Mortimer. Michelangelo, Selected Poems and Letters. London: Penguin Classics, 2007.

[69] Dante, Moser, and null, Inferno., 18.

[70] Ibid., 14.

[71] Ibid., 22.

[72] Dante, Barry Moser, and null, Purgatorio, trans. Allen Mandelbaum, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri 2 (New York: Bantam Books, 1984)., 4.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Dante, Moser, and null, Inferno., 317.

[75] Dante, Barry Moser, and null, Paradiso, trans. Allen Mandelbaum, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri 3 (Toronto: Bantam, 1986)., 280.

[76] Gregory, John. The Neoplatonists: A Reader. 2nd ed. (London ; New York: Routledge, 1999), 3.

[77] Ibid., vii.

[78] Ibid., 13.

[79] Harris, R. Baine, ed. The Significance of Neoplatonism. Studies in Neoplatonism 1. (Norfolk, Va: International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, Old Dominion University, 1976), 2.

[80]  Gregory, John. The Neoplatonists: A Reader, viii.

[81] Harris, The Significance of Neoplatonism., 18.

[82] Hugh H. Benson, ed., A Companion to Plato, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy [37) (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)., 371.

[83] Gregory, John. The Neoplatonists: A Reader, 8.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Ibid., 9.

[86] Gregory, John. The Neoplatonists: A Reader. 2nd ed. (London ; New York: Routledge, 1999), 11.


[87] Kraut, Richard. “Aristotle’s Ethics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer Edition 2014.

[88] Gregory, John. The Neoplatonists: A Reader, 12.

[89] Ibid.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Ibid., 12-14.

[92] Ibid.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Ackerman and Newman, The Architecture of Michelangelo., 69-94.

[95] Wallace and Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo., 188.

[96] Ibid., 184.

[97] Dante, Moser, and null, Inferno., 161.

[98] John Shearman, Mannerism: Style and Civilisation, Repr, Penguin-Books (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990)., 71-73. 

[99] Ackerman and Newman, The Architecture of Michelangelo., 96.

[100] Shearman, Mannerism., 75.

[8] de Tolnay, The Youth of Michelangelo, 7.

[9] Ibid., 5.

[10] Ibid., 12.

[11] Ibid., 11.

[12] William E Wallace and Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 34.

[13] Ibid., 35.