WALKING MY DOG, JANE By Ned Rozell Duquesne University Press 342 pp., $24.95
Few adults can set aside an entire summer to take a really long hike. Fewer still would opt to walk 800 miles along an oil pipeline stretching across Alaska, America's most remote frontier. Yet who hasn't yearned for the adventure of being alone with his or her own thoughts, in a setting where these thoughts can be examined and tested?
Three years ago, Ned Rozell took this ambitious adventure, though he wasn't entirely alone. Throughout his walk along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, he was joined by Jane, his chocolate labrador retriever. During parts of Rozell's trek, he also was accompanied by friends, including Smits, his selfless girlfriend, and John, a member of his tiny support team. But Rozell's trip mostly was taken as a man-dog duo.
For four months in 1997 - the 20th anniversary of the construction of this controversial pipeline - Rozell followed the pipeline path. Heading north, he fended off bears, moose, and mosquitoes. He forded streams, and he hiked across terrain that ranged from deep-woods to mountains to tundra. He encountered the people sprinkled across the great North - people mostly from elsewhere who wouldn't be happy living any place else.
Rozell is a science writer, and during the trip he used a computer to supply his employer, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, with weekly columns that also were printed in several Alaska newspapers. This year, his experiences emerged as a book - "Walking My Dog, Jane, From Valdez to Prudhoe Bay Along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline."
Rozell is in august company. Some of the most respected authors have produced books about long journeys innocent of formal objectives - people like John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, William Least Heat-Moon, and Bill Bryson. But Rozell's opus can stand with its tail held high among this body of work.
"Walking My Dog, Jane" is at once an adventure book, a travelogue, an environmental piece, and a man-dog love story. Generous helpings of science and Alaska history enliven otherwise uneventful episodes. Meanwhile, his prose, his descriptions, and his insights are as fresh as the Alaskan air.
He reflects, for example, on his own relationship with the pipeline: "As much as I think Alaska would be better off without the pipeline, I couldn't separate myself from it. Not when my tent is made of oil." He examines the issue of companionship: "I've realized that we're all alone anyway. No matter how close you are to another person, most of the trail is walked solo."
Large parts of the book are given over to what he learns about the people he meets. Rozell goes so far as to track down workers who wrote their names on the pipeline 20 years earlier. Mostly, his on-the-road profiles are colorful and telling, though several seem too lengthy.
Ultimately, this is a journal of very personal observations by a young man who is defining how he relates to the state he's adopted. Given what he discovers about Alaska and about himself, 800 miles doesn't seem like such a long distance to walk.
*David Hugh Smith is a freelance writer who lives in Newton, Mass.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society