A Tale of Three Stories
A Walk in the Woods relates Bill Bryson’s account of walking the Appalachian Trail as a means for returning to America from years abroad. Last year saw the movie release of WILD with Reese Witherspoon portraying author Cheryl Strayed spending a hapless summer on the Pacific Crest Trail. The final piece of the trinity of these wilderness sagas was celebrated in 2007 with Sean Penn–directed adaptation of Into the Wild by John Kraukauer, his account of the wayward Chris McCandless.
Each these stories tend to have similar set-ups: A series of life changes bring about a certain disillusionment with common living, and the characters become inspired to seek answers in nature, regardless of their experience level or competence in the outdoors. The stories always seem to begin as a classic man versus nature narrative, and evolve into a man versus himself theme. They all eloquently describe the toil and discomfort that the characters put themselves through. They often make poor choices along the way leading to potentially bad situations, but it usually comes out all right in the end (until it doesn’t).
The similarities of the stories end however when we examine the unique motivations and values of each character. Each one sets out on their epic journey for uniquely personal reasons, the same motives that also direct their thoughts and actions. Most tellingly, each of these distinctive mindsets then also determines the principles and integrity of each hero.
Into the Wild with a Purpose
In a capable piece of investigative journalism, Krakauer follows the path of recent college graduate Chris McCandless as he quickly decides not to contribute to the rat race of the commercialized American culture in which he was raised. Instead he sets off train hopping across the country with no communication with his family. Along the way he works odd jobs, goes kayaking down the Colorado River to Baha, squats with hippies in the dessert, even hikes a section of the PCT. He even adopts the alias ‘Alexander Supertramp’, as he embraces the hobo identity.
But his ultimate goal was Alaska, the last frontier, where you could still live wild and free, eeking out an existence by living off the land. His encampment in the iconic abandoned school bus ends poorly for McCandless when he is trapped by rising rivers, unable to hunt enough to support himself and the wild onions he forages turn out to be poisonous. McCandless’s death is marked by the feeling it was entirely preventable. He was poorly prepared for his adventure, and it is clear that with some basic planning such bringing maps, and food staples, his expedition might have turned out quite differently.
The extraordinary thing about McCandless however is that it seems that he felt he had a righteous justification for his recklessness. In his disdain for capitalism, he was actively rejecting American consumerist routines, and took a sense of pride in limiting himself to basic amenities. He would have turned up his nose at the idea of a trip to REI to secure basic supplies and a proper guidebook. He happily draped himself in the mantle of a hobo based on principle. He chose to live the dirt bag life as a statement against what he saw as the artificial values of his culture. And he took that attitude to the grave. He was just 24 when he died on that school bus.
Hiking WILD Out of Helplessness
Cheryl Strayed spends the majority of ink in her memoir WILD relating her past before she decided to hike across two states on the PCT. Her simple, if chaotic upbringing, her fractious relationship with her enduring mother, her divorce from a loving husband are all chronicled as a lead-up to her hike. After her mother dies of cancer, Strayed’s subsequent spiral into couch surfing, gratuitous sex and drug use care spelled out in pitiful detail. Along the way, the reader gets the idea that Strayed’s situation is largely self-imposed. She seems to almost revel in her poor decisions as something she has earned a right to as product of her hard life.
This mentality of recklessness follows Strayed on her hike of the PCT. She has no experience with backpacking and none of her gear is tested. She becomes known as the ‘hapless hiker’ with her comically huge pack and her willingness to let others bail her out. As she manages to muddle on down the trail we get a sense of deliberate helplessness on Strayed’s part. She plays up her self-imposed struggle for sympathy points first from the people she meets on the trail, and later from her readers. “Silly me. I know I’m kind of a flake, but how could I know better. Don’t you feel sorry for me?”
We see the parallel of this mentality today on long distance trails with some hikers who don’t really take responsibility for themselves and end up leaving an impact on the trail environment and community. Leave No Trace philosophy informs us that outdoor users should be prepared and competent. Hiking responsibly demands a sense of selflessness and conscientiousness that was clearly farthest thing from Strayed’s mind.
A Blunder in the Woods
The final story of an imperfect lead who sets out on a wilderness journey comes courtesy of Bill Bryson in his chronicle of his summer on the Appalachian Trail, sometimes accompanied by his old friend Katz. Where Strayed was uncultivated and reckless, Bryson is thoughtful and insightful as he wanders over hills and hollows of the East. But make no mistake: Bryson was a greenhorn, with little outdoors or backpacking experience. However he seems adopt an air of proficiency as he goes, and for the most part is able to take care of himself. For example, where Strayed writes of having 20 cents to her name when she finished the trail, Bryson makes a point of supporting local merchants along the trail and often stays in motels when at town stops along the way – a luxury many hikers cannot afford.
The same cannot be said for his hiking partner Katz, who embodies the picture of irresponsibility. Arriving out of shape and mentally unprepared for his journey, Katz displays no regard for leave-no-trace ethics, as he dumps his heavy, unwanted gear off a cliff. Where Bryson comes across as smart and insightful, Katz is reckless and temperamental.
Somehow the pair manage to get along as they bumble down the trail together, as a testimony to the importance of tolerance and friendship, along with the clear need of both men for companionship.
The second half of the story sees Bryson hiking solo after Katz goes back home to work. Though it is clear he misses his friend, it becomes apparent Bryson’s real motivations for hiking: he is a natural-born explorer, with a sense of curiosity and appreciation of the wonder he finds on his journey.
Fortunately he is happy to pass the results of his inquisitiveness on to his readers, as he provides compelling insights on the human and natural history of the trail, the Appalachians and of America.
Bryson is clearly an environmentalist and his observations on the ecology of the places he visits along the trail are filled with a strong conservationist mentality. Bryson sets out to educate as well as entertain, and he does so with a dash of humor that makes A Walk in the Woods a joy to read.
Whether these characters embarked on their wilderness journeys for reasons of principle, desperation or insight, it is clear that these stories strike a chord with the public. We can picture ourselves in their shoes and identify with the feelings and emotions that go with personal struggle and discovery. A positive result of this wave of publicity would be if the readers of these books and viewers of these films can find inspiration to embark on their own journeys large and small, in the spirit of personal growth. Our hope is that they do so thoughtfully and responsibly in tribute to the finest moments of their literary inspiration heroes.