Gail Straub lives in the mountains of upstate New York among a range of rolling peaks called the Ashokan trail. She’s spent 37 years walking these trails — observing its inhabitants, and understanding her own life through the landscape. Straub is an activist and a self-described weekend warrior writer. She spent the past three years walking the trails and taking notes in solitude. The result is 36 mini-essays broken up by the seasons to make up her latest book, “The Ashokan Way.” She’ll be at Bunch of Grapes on Friday, June 22, for a reading and discussion at 7 pm.
“It started on Thanksgiving,” Straub said in an interview with The Times. “I was feeling a lot of gratitude while out on the trail, and that’s when I started to take notes.” The trail serves as Straub’s escape for whenever she finds herself drowning in emails, or lost in technology’s temptations. “When I was writing the book, my walks were about an hour long,” she said.
Every essay begins with a detailed description of her surroundings. She brings to life the color and mood of the morning, the vastness of the mountains, the birds and all their stripes, and how the seasons prod us differently. “The book is a love letter, in the purest and truest sense,” Straub said. “It’s a love letter to the place I feel so blessed to live near. To be able to go out and find my solace, my comfort, and my muse.”
Straub and her husband started a business called Empowerment Institute, which works with NGOs in Africa, the Middle East, and India to empower women. They work with local leaders of NGOs, and train them to be practitioners of empowerment, and help give agency to women with little control over their lives.
“In the global South, when you’re living in extreme poverty, the idea that this life is your own is something very new,” Straub said.
She and her husband have been working on this initiative for about 10 years, and have traveled and made connections all over the globe. Still, she always finds herself back on the Ashokan way.
“Often, it would only be walking on the Ashokan way that would allow me to come back into equanimity after that work,” Straub said. “It’s not only a love letter to the land, but also a love letter to the fact that it’s allowed me to maintain balance as an activist.”
This is Straub’s sixth book, and she describes it as the easiest one she’s written. “It’s the first time I used the form of tiny little essays,” she said. “I liked that form a lot. It just seemed to come very easily.”
As we enter summer solstice, Straub hopes her book gets in the hands of people drawn to nature. The book came out in March, and since then she’s been getting feedback from people describing “The Ashokan Way” as an inspiration to spend more time in nature.
“Even in New York City,” Straub said. “I did a reading there, and people said Central Park was their Ashokan way.”
Whether you live among the Catskills, or on an Island like Martha’s Vineyard, Straub said the natural world is one of the few things potent and mysterious enough to break through our technological overload. “Even if people can’t put words to it,” Straub said. “There’s a reason why you get back from a walk and think, Wow, I feel better.”
Straub is part of a women’s group that meets on Martha’s Vineyard twice a year. They’ve been meeting for almost 40 years.
“We try to come for summer solstice, and then again for autumn equinox,” Straub said. “Your Island, for me, is like an Ashokan way. When you arrive, you feel like something is right with the world.”
As Vineyarders, we are no stranger to the concept of finding solace in space. I can’t describe the number of times these ocean vistas and rolling hills have stopped me in my tracks. Straub’s favorite Island spot is Long Point Wildlife Refuge in West Tisbury.
“My time on your Island is always very precious to me,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the reading. I always love doing those. I’ll read a little, but mostly I want to hear from you. What’s your Ashokan way?”