I’ve finally read Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods.
I mentioned it last fall in a post about our weekend hiking trip when Hubby and I went for our own walk in the woods
. I remember observing how restorative walking in the woods can be. Or any wilderness, actually. And how we really needed that trip. The wilderness does seem to wield a special kind of power.
|A typical Algonquin Park scene. Trees, water, and more trees. October 2015.
I was excited to read Bryson’s book… couldn’t in fact understand why I had never read it before. I loved it. I learned a lot about the American wilderness, in particular about the Appalachian Trail which Bryson and his friend attempted to hike in 1996. I laughed a lot. Out loud. This was particularly embarrassing when I took the book along with me to my physiotherapy sessions (back issues, remember?) and read it while waiting by myself in a tiny cubicle, for my therapist to finish with another patient. I’m sure the guffaws coming from behind my curtain were a little unsettling for other clients. But then again… better than sobs, or screams.
Parts of Bryson’s book are a bit of a slog. The structure gets quite sloppy in the middle. At times it’s a bit preachy; Bryson does like his bully pulpit. But most of the time it is a great read. Bryson is so self-effacing; that’s partly what makes his writing funny. He makes no bones about the fact that hiking the Appalachian Trail is the hardest thing he has ever done. He and his friend Stephen Katz survive rain and snow, heat, bugs, annoying fellow hikers (Bryson’s description of their new ‘friend’ Mary Ellen is priceless), fatigue, and some pretty hairy mountainous sections. They do well to carry on as far as they did, in my opinion. One review I read was down-right hostile that Bryson had not hiked the entire 2,000 miles of the trail. Gad. Give the guy a break. He did cover over 800 miles, with and without Katz. Okay, some of it in small pieces. But however he did it, that’s still a lot of walking.
Bryson and Katz finally abandon their adventure after Katz gets lost. He’s pretty scratched up and quite shaken, and they decide to go home. As they reflect on how they feel about “leaving the trail,” Bryson muses that he “was weary of the trail, but still strangely in its thrall; found the endless slog tedious but irresistible; grew tired of the boundless woods but admired their boundlessness; enjoyed the escape from civilization and ached for its comforts.” Yep. The wilderness can be endlessly challenging, yet endlessly alluring.
Hubby and I watched the movie version of A Walk in the Woods on the weekend. Robert Redford and Nick Nolte have a lovely chemistry in the film, but it’s not a patch on the book. Especially the scene with the grizzly bears. Huh? Seriously? Everyone knows that grizzly bears are only found out west. Way out west. And the Appalachian Trail is way, way east. And if the filmmakers didn’t already know that, they should have read the part about bears in Bryson’s book.
After we watched the movie Hubby and I decided to make a list of our favourite books on the lure of the wilderness.
We both agreed that Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air about the ill-fated Everest climb of 1996 is perhaps the most compelling non-fiction book either of us has read. Krakauer, himself an experienced mountaineer, was hired by Outside magazine to write a story about “the commercialization of Everest.” His memoir of the climb is stunning. Twelve people died that season, nine of them on the same descent, many of them unskilled “tourists” who had paid $65,000. (excluding airfare and equipment) for the privilege of being guided to the summit. As Rob Hall, experienced guide and leader of the “fee-paying expedition” which Krakauer joined, said, “With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill. The trick is to get back down alive.”
Alastair Scott’s review in the New York Times
calls Krakauer’s book “a work of atonement.” Exhausted and as a result unable to do anything to save the members of his expedition team who were trapped on the mountain during a sudden storm, Krakauer survived. In his book he relives his experience and tries to answer the question “what went wrong?” The book is a wonderful piece of writing, and certainly (to my mind) a condemnation of those “bloody idiots,” as Hall called them, who have more determination and money, than ability or skill. Essentially it’s a sad book. When all is said and done, Krakhauer has no answers to his questions. And nine of the people who were on the expedition are still dead, some of them the Sherpas and guides, including Rob Hall, who were trying desperately to make the summit dreams of others come true. You can read Scott’s review here
The shot below is from a 2015 film which recreates the doomed 1996 expedition. The book is sad, and the situation on Everest, during that expedition, tragic and exasperating all at the same time. The film by all accounts cherry-picks the most dramatic and heart wrenching bits from the story, as films do. I really have no desire to see it. I don’t understand the lure of something as dangerous as climbing Everest, which as Krakauer says in his book, “is primarily about enduring pain.” And even if you are very fit and very skilled, it’s about putting yourself in grave danger. If you’re neither, it’s about putting others in danger too.
|Shot from the 2015 Imax film Everest which recreates the 1996 expedition. source
The next book we chose, Gold Diggers by Charlotte Gray, is the story of the Klondike gold rush. This book is Hubby’s choice; he’s fascinated by the north, the Yukon in particular. In 2006, we drove from Edmonton, Alberta, north along the Alaska Highway, to the Yukon. We fished, hiked in Kluane National Park (where they do have grizzlies, I might add), visited Dawson City, and Whitehorse, and then drove back south through British Columbia on the way to Banff, and then Calgary. It was an amazing six week trip. We even stayed a night in a cabin on a working gold claim on Bonanza Creek in the Klondike, site of one of the original claims a hundred years ago. We passed an interesting evening on the front porch of our cabin, drinking cold beers and talking to the owner who mined the claim. Hubby loved Charlotte Gray’s book. She is a great writer; I’ve read several of her other books. But this one I haven’t read, yet. Much to Hubby’s chagrin.
The shot below is of those gold crazy “stampeders
” hauling their heavy packs up the Chilkoot Pass enroute to the Klondike. The North West Mounted Police weighed the packs of every prospector before they began the ascent. Making sure they had the required “tonne of goods
,” enough supplies to survive a year, before being allowed to pass into Canada. A prospector might climb this hillside 30 to 40 times before he had carted all of his stuff through the mountain pass.
We all know what drove most of these men to strike out for the wilderness of the Yukon in the eighteen nineties. Gold. Adventure. A chance for a new life. Adventure enthusiasts can hike this same trail today. According to the website Nature Tours of the Yukon
, it’s a fifty-five kilometre, “multi-day, hike of moderate to hard wilderness trek.” Somehow I doubt that the trail is as crowded today as it was back in the gold rush. And it’s for sure the packs are lighter.
The last two books I want to mention are works of fiction by well known Canadian writers. When I mentioned the idea of wilderness and its power to provide solace, Hubby and I both thought of Rudy Wiebe’s 1966 novel First and Vital Candle. Set in the tiny, fictional Ojibway community of Frozen Lake on the shores of Hudson Bay in northern Ontario, Wiebe’s novel is the story of Abram Ross who is sent to Frozen Lake by The Frobisher Company to salvage the tiny community store on the verge of failure. But it’s really about Abram’s search for meaning in his life. Despite the hardship of life in the north; despite the violence of some of the people, he seems to find it. In the beauty and the often frightening power of nature. And in the connections he makes with the people he finds there. I read the book many years ago and yet I still remember clearly Wiebe’s description of Abram Ross skiing at night. Of the winter sky, the stars, and the sound of the wooden boards on the snow. First and Vital Candle is not described as Wiebe’s best work, not by a long shot. But somehow it had a powerful impact on Hubby and on me, that neither of us forgot.
I also wanted to give a shout out to one of my favourite books, Ethel Wilson’s 1954 classic Canadian novel Swamp Angel. Wilson’s main character Maggie escapes her home in Vancouver and her troubled marriage, and takes a job at a fish camp in the interior of British Columbia. Here she finds herself again. With the help of the lake, the trees, the hard work, and the fishing which she loves. And coincidentally which she learned during her childhood in her native New Brunswick. Ha. I loved that bit. Swamp Angel is a beautiful little book. Beautifully written. Many of the details I’d forgotten until today. I’ve spent way too much time leafing through the book rereading bits and I’ll never finish this post if I don’t stop. By the way, I was happy to see that both Rudy Wiebe’s book and Ethel Wilson’s are available on Amazon. Just saying.
As you know if you read this blog regularly, I’m not immune to the lure of the wilderness myself. And Hubby is more comfortable in his canoe on a lake in the bush than pretty much anywhere else on earth. Since we’ve been together, I’ve seen a fair bit of wilderness. Hiking, canoeing, fishing… or just walking. I’ve seen some beautiful sunsets.
I’ve spent some wonderful days on the lakes and rivers of Algonquin Park. Especially warm sunny days like this… watching Hubby do most of the hard work. Like tracking our canoe down a set of rapids.
Or clearing part of a beaver dam so the canoe can carry on downstream.
But of course the days are not all sunny, nor warm. A couple of years ago on Hubby’s May fishing trip with two longtime canoeing buddies, they awoke to this. Fog and rain …
And then, as the temperature continued to drop… snow.
The May trips are not my cup of tea. Ha. Not even close. But these guys love being in the bush. They brushed the snow off the tent, built a big fire, cooked breakfast. And even found time to build a little snow fishing buddy. It’s very elemental being in the bush. Keeping warm, keeping dry, and keeping well fed, are key. And when the snow melts and the sun comes out, there’s fishing. And later maybe a beautiful sunset as the fish sizzles in the pan on the fire.
Like I said above, I don’t go on the long, really tough canoe trips. Four days paddling and portaging and sleeping on the ground are about my limit. But there is something very special about those sunsets, and the sparks from the fire disappearing up into the night sky, and the sound of the loons on the lake. And the feeling of having accomplished something I never thought I would. On the way back to the truck on the last day I always feel stronger, fitter, and somehow, like Maggie in Ethel Wilson’s book, more comfortable in my own skin. And although at some point on every trip, exasperated with the hard work, the hot sun, the rain or …something… I always say: “I’ll never do this again”… I always do. It’s just the lure of the wilderness, I guess.
Hubby and I had fun brainstorming for titles for this post. Our very first blog collaboration. Well, except for when I’m blogging and he’s making dinner… that’s collaboration too.
Do you have any “wilderness” titles you might share with us? Do tell.