The world you thought you knew

I read two books in quick succession this past week, which is a considerable clip for me. They were "The Accidental Universe" by physicist-novelist Alan Lightman and "Grandma Gatewood's Walk" by Ben Montgomery, a reporter for The Tampa Bay Times whom I met last June in Sanford, Fla., while covering jury selection for the George Zimmerman trial.

I knew of Ben from his online showcase for features journalism, so it was nice to meet him in person. I don't remember him mentioning anything about a book then, but he must've been in the throes of it. Anyway, "Grandma Gatewood's Walk" is an easy read in the best kind of way, effortless and clear but also subtle enough to sneak up on the heart and give it a strong tug near the end. The grandma in question is Emma Gatewood, a great-grandmother, actually, and at 67 the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail solo, then the first person ever to hike it twice and three times. You'll finish the book and feel like a missing sliver of your American identity has been restored.

"The Accidental Universe" is a compact 145 pages parceled out in seven essays that,  in the tradition of Carl Sagan, render theoretical physics in conversational language without sacrificing the inherent majesty. The book's subtitle is "The World You Thought You Knew," and that might've also worked as the subtitle of "Grandma Gatewood's Walk." I don't think it's a stretch to consider Grandma Gatewood alongside the British physicist Brandon Carter, who pops up in Lightman's first chapter and whose anthropic principle states that the universe must have its particular parameters because we are here to observe them. In other words, our existing intelligence to measure the universe means that those measurements must be such that we can exist with intelligence. Right? I thought of Grandma Gatewood as I read Lightman's first chapter, chiefly because she was fresh in my mind. Ben sniffs out certain motives for her quixotic walk on the 2,050-mile trail, but paramount — at least in my interpretation — is that she walked it because it was there to be walked. "I took it up as kind of a lark," she said. "I just do what I want to do," she said. She read about the trail, told herself she was going to do it, and did it. Her matter-of-factness masked deeper motivations, but the point is the trail existed to be walked, so she walked it. And Grandma Gatewood exists, in our national history, because of the trail. The universe is because we are, and a trail is because we walk it. Sometimes it's not more complicated than that.

Grandma Gatewood died in 1973, the same year that Brandon Carter articulated his principle, but she had illustrated it years before, in a way.