Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Garden of the Wild: 'A Walk in the Woods'

            I had two brief tastes of the Appalachian Trail, once in Maine with Anne, once by myself in Massachusetts. Impressions of the experience offered by the first hikers we encountered, resting (or feeling stranded) in a trail shelter somewhere in the middle of Maine, remain with me:

            "It gets old."
            Contrary to the charming title of Bill Bryson's classic book on hiking the Appalachian Trail, when you're on the trail you're not just taking "A Walk in the Woods." You're carrying everything you need, or think you may need, on your back.
            Walking in the woods remains one of life's best, simple sources of pleasure and wonder. Anne and I do it regularly. For about an hour or so. Maybe two, sometimes. I know that some hikers our age still walk big hunks of the Appalachian and other wilderness trails, or even their whole length. But I can't really imagine how.
            And I certainly can't imagine Robert Redford and and Nick Nolte, the main characters of the recently released film version of Bryson's book, walking any apprecible length of the Appalachian Trail. They don't look up to it. Redford's wrinkled features come between every shot in the film and my willing suspension of disbelief.
            After seeing the movie version of "A Walk in the Woods" last weekend, I tried to remember what I liked so much about the book. Well, the main thing is probably that Bill Bryson wrote it. And whatever happens in the movie, it doesn't capture much of Bryson's narrative voice.
            For instance, the matter of black bears. In researching the subject of deep woods hiking before undertaking the journey himself, Bryson came across several accounts of bear attacks. These are rare, but Bryson's treatment of their actual-factual occurrence my have set back human-ursine relationships a few decades. He writes:
            "Black bears rarely attack. But here's the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn't happen often, but - and here is the absolutely salient point - once would be enough.”
            It's that "absolutely salient point" that gets me. Other writers might say something like, "Bears rarely attack, but the few examples we know of are worrisome." One or two might even make the deeply involving observation that if you're the exception to the rule, the results are disconcertingly fatal. But only Bryson would write that whole sentence that exact way, fatally co-opting the reader in his own personal ownership of that slight, but stunningly terminal possibility. After reading Bryon's account of bear attack incidents, I could never quite regard black bears in my previous happy-go-lucky environmentalist way.
            He's less concerned about moose: “Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old.”
            Hiking a small piece of the trail for four or five days as we did (long ago) makes you wonder what it's like to hike, or try to hike, the entire, 2,200-mile trail, as 'through-hikers' do. Anne and I crossed paths with a few of these through-hikers. None of them could tell us much about the experience. We met one youngish man who was trying hard to hike the whole thing in about half the number of days most hikers allow themselves. That seemed to be the point for him. He was carrying a lighter pack than we were because he had arranged for planned "food drops" along the whole route, so he carried only a few days worth of food. He traveled light and owned the latest, lightest equipment. His girl friend was planning to meet him somewhere not too far off in a car; he would spend a night in a motel before getting back on the trail. The appeal of the expeience, for this hiker, was the physical challenge. It was about the speed. Having given us the amount of time it took to drink a cup of water, he said good-bye and got back to the job.
            But in Bryson's book we get a deeper picture.
            "Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret."
            This is what's missing from the movie: Bryson's voice. A first-class writer's insights and, surprise-surprise, his ability to put the gist of a meaningful experience into words. Not only does your sense of space change for the typical long-distance hiker, Bryson tells us, the role of time in your life does as well.
            "Time ceases to have any meaning. When it is dark, you go to bed, and when it is light again you get up, and everything in between is just in between. It’s quite wonderful, really.... you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation..."
            I remember finding that 'tranquil tedium' a little difficult to get used to. In ordinary life after you spend a few hours out of doors (or, rarely, a whole day) you can say, "all right, now I'll go into my house." Indoors you move from one room to another, significantly changing scenery; you turn on the TV or the computer, or pick up a book, oblitering physical surroundings in favor of a virtual or mediated world. These options are not available on the trail.
            Day after day of hiking changes the way your mind works, Bryson writes: "... most of the time you don’t think. No point. Instead, you exist in a kind of mobile Zen mode, your brain like a balloon tethered with string, accompanying but not actually part of the body below. Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing..."
            I didn't stay long enough on the trail in my two immersions, a handful of days each time, to reach that state of zen-like walking. Though I got a taste of that 'automatic' quality of walking for hours.              Reading Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods" at the very least gives you food for thought. (And you don't even have to carry it around on your back.) My review of the film version? Read the book, skip the movie.