One of the nicer parts of being on the downhill slope of life’s run is being able to look back at your own beginnings objectively. I very often feel like one of Richard Pryor’s great characters, the old wino who sat on the sidewalk giving advice to young men. I’ve learned some things in my life, but the rewards of those lessons haven’t always been positive. Fate seems to be set in stone by young people early in their own lives, not worked out logically by older people with maturity and wisdom. By the time you get any of that, it’s too late to make the important decisions. You made those when you were eighteen.
In my case it’s interesting to pick out what I did and when, and why I did that and where it took me. Sometimes I made good choices and sometimes I made decisions which had terrible results. I think I don’t regret any of them, even the ones that caused years of misery and suffering. Eh, lessons learned. The rewards were important to me even though I will not repeat the lesson ever again. I’m going to remember those.
Of more interest to me are the reasons I made choices, because I find now that when I was sixteen years old and plotting my course through life, and when I was eighteen and taking the helm for the first time, I did that based on what I had read in books and seen in movies. (Good luck to the people depending on video games for sage counsel today). I did not pay attention to the advice of people around me unless it agreed with what I wanted to do. So if I have a bone to pick with anybody, it’s with people who wrote those books and played roles in those movies. Yes, I’m speaking of you, Earnest Hemingway, and of you, John Wayne, and Erich Maria Remarque who wrote All Quiet On the Western Front and caused me to ponder for days at a time what it would be like to kill my first human being. I’m thinking now that my life might have taken an entirely different course had those people portrayed life realistically instead of dramatically. What I encountered by emulating them was reality, which has been surprisingly different from any of their stories.
There were other influences equally powerful but less hostile. I read everything I could get my hands on when I was a kid. I took only a few things with me to the woods — just the basics. I’d have a canteen and a chunk of meat, always a knife and sometimes a rifle, something to make fire with, and a book. On many of my excursions I’d walk for miles to find a rock outcropping or the fork of a tall tree to sit on for the rest of the day, and I’d read that book. When it was nearly too late I’d set out for home and usually get there before dark. Visiting relatives would sometimes panic because I disappeared after breakfast and didn’t show up again until supper, but my family got used to it. I may have imprinted on some of the right books, and I may have imprinted on some of the wrong books. I’ve read that you can’t trust everything you read, but people usually do. Which does bring me to Henry.
I think the only book Thoreau wrote that I did read back then was Walden. I had in my head that I should appreciate this book and learn from it, but in spite of that it confused me. He was apparently living the simplest of lives, successfully, without money. Exactly how he did that wasn’t clear from the book, but because people recommended it so highly I took it seriously and several times in my later life did try to emulate it. I never found his concept to work very well. After about twenty years of experimentation with that philosophy I had learned two important things. First, poor soil makes poor farmers. That’s a fact and it can’t be changed, not even by hard work, faith, and education. The second bit of wisdom was that if you’re poor eventually you get bad teeth. When your teeth get bad enough that shooting out one of them with a pistol seems to make pretty good sense, it’s way past time to get a job and see a dentist.
So, Henry, at this point I do think there was something you weren’t telling everybody. Maybe there was a bank account in town or a wealthy relative who thought you were writing something profitable when you were lounging around Walden Pond, and that’s how you got by. I’ve met a number of people just like you, and I have as much respect for all of them as I do for chicken nuggets.
I just recently read another of Henry’s books, one I’d actually never heard of before until I signed up for Amazon’s free Kindle app for PC. Sorting through the free books the company offers (not out of the goodness of their corporate heart, but because they’re public domain books and giving them away is good advertising) I found a book by Henry about foot travel, one of my favorite things. It’s called Walking. If I had read this book when I was a kid sitting in one of my trees I’d have been in awe of the man and nobody would have ever seen me again. I’d have been sprouting daisies in some serial killer’s back yard since 1967. Henry paints an idyllic view of his countryside and his travels through it, and in specific circumstances it must be possible to actually experience the world on those terms.
But Henry, I’m not sixteen any more, and I do have some points to argue with you. Things were different in your day. Today when I go walking I’m not free to explore. The farmers don’t want me stomping through the cornfields because it messes up their crops, and I’d probably get ammonia burns on my feet from the fertilizer anyway. The woods around here are posted “No Trespassing” because it’s private land, and that is the way most of the country is today. All the frontier is used up and every square foot of it now belongs to somebody who doesn’t want people tromping on it. If it’s public land, that means the government owns it, not the public, and the government doesn’t want you there. Visit, and you’d better abide by the rules, which means leaving by ten p.m. or camping only in designated areas. Wandering isn’t allowed in most places — you’re required to stay on the trail.
Henry, I don’t think you’d like it here today, because there are too many people and not enough things that eat people. Even though you rejoiced in the fact that the savages and the animals were cleared out and your world was safe to tread, I don’t think you saw the larger picture at all. People like you who thought the best world was one innocuous for “civilized” people set in motion all the processes which created today’s maze of pavement and shopping malls and subjugated countryside. The world you saw as idyllic was just a phase it was passing through, and now we’re stuck with the consequences. This is all your fault.
At my age, knowing what I know, I’m voting for the lions and tigers and bears. If civilization ever falls apart around me I’m cutting the fences to let the buffalo loose, first chance I get. I know the nearest buffalo farm and I have the wire cutters handy. The next place I’m heading is the Big Cat Sanctuary (only six miles away), with the same wire cutters. The future will have Ligers in it.
Books still interest me. The good and bad about books is that they’re always full of advice, either blatant or disguised. I warn people who talk to me not to give me advice and get terribly angry when they do, because I know I’m bound to give them the benefit of the doubt and test whether they’re right or wrong, no matter how long it takes me and how pointless it is. I was doing ok without their advice and I’ll be doing even better when I scrape it off me. But I still read books, and books are full of that sticky icky stuff. You have to tolerate a certain amount or you can’t live in the world. Sometimes you even learn something, but that’s a rare thing. If you just enjoy something, that’s good enough on most days.
A few books have colored my own view of the world in interesting and pleasant ways, and I’d recommend them to other people but with caution. The one thing books don’t get across to anyone is pain. No matter how much of the book is dedicated to that, it will ultimately sound like fun unless either the book reaches out with a mechanical arm and plants a bowie knife in your thigh, or you try these things yourself. If your pain tolerance is low, you won’t enjoy many of the things I enjoy, and even for me the joy part is often kind of tough to spot. With that in mind, one of the books that started me out on the backpacking road, in the sense that most people know it, was The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher. Now published as The Complete Walker IV, it’s a great book about backpacking and about gear and it’s been updated several times over the years since it was first published. I learned much from it that no one in the Army taught me, because when you’re in the Army you can call in fire support and a medevac if necessary, otherwise you dig a hole and shoot things until people come to get you and take you home. In the military you don’t need to know everything. Some things learned in the military transfer well to civilian life and some things don’t. The Complete Walker helped me adapt to the wilderness world of modern America after returning from Vietnam, and I realized after reading it that there is gear which does not go bang. On the other hand, now that I’m fifty years farther down the trail I am beginning to think that there’s too much technical stuff involved in the Fletcher approach. I started out with a knife, a firestarter, a rifle and a good book, and I may eventually finish the trail with that same gear.
I usually don’t go to crowded places, even if they’re great places and really really well recommended. I’d place the Appalachian Trail in that category of destinations which are wonderful but too busy. Hiking the AT has become one of the things backpackers “Are Supposed to Do” if they want to be “real backpackers.” I “haven’t” and “I’m not.” I look for places people don’t usually go, and avoid the places where you can acquire the experience points. It’s a shame that the AT is so busy, but it is. You can’t camp anywhere but in one of the trail shelters unless it’s an emergency situation, which means many times you’ll be camping with people, ack. The AT is also a mecca for the sort who want to quickly get from Here to There and shave their gear down accordingly, rushing from one trailhead store to the next and texting accounts of their sojourn in the wilderness on their regularly scheduled fifteen minutes breaks. People often average 15, 20, or more miles on the AT per day. I don’t hike like that. I do occasionally read about people who hike the AT, and my favorite book about the AT and the Appalachian Trail experience in general is A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson.
This is my favorite AT book because it’s the only AT book I’ve ever read all the way through (I bounce away from the AT instinctively) and because Bryson’s adventures with his trail buddy Katz closely parallel my experiences with a dear friend of mine who I’ll refer to only as Joe. I won’t spoil the book for you by telling you about Katz, but I will mention Joe. Joe was an ex-Navy fellow I met in college after coming back from Vietnam. We were both living on the monthly pittance we got from the V.A. for going to school. We were both trying to stretch that out as long as possible. Officially we were bettering ourselves, while we actually tried to avoid classes as much as we could and to have fun instead. Joe had no survival training that didn’t involve a million ton Navy boat as basic gear, but he did have the willingness to go places. My first experience hiking with Joe was a trip most people would find totally miserable and very dangerous. We struggled a few miles into the mountains of western Washington on a very bad day, because we had both had so many hard times we couldn’t tell the difference between good times and bad times. When we made camp we were too far into the wilderness to change our minds about it, wet and cold and on the verge of several calamities you can read about in any survival manual. Neither of us thought much about this, and we each had our own views of what to do. I had practical gear but I expected to only have to take care of myself. Joe had a case of beer — not just any beer, he always carried Coors because it’s naturally brewed — and his car keys. When I found this out, I asked Joe what he would do if he didn’t have me in the picture, and he said he’d walk back to the car. Let me point out that it was dark by then, we were several miles into very difficult terrain over a dangerous trail we’d had trouble finding in the daylight, it was raining constantly, about ten degrees above freezing, visibility was very poor, we were on the edge of hypothermia, and camping in snowpack about twelve feet thick. Ack. I adapted. We had a good time living on half rations and beer for a few days, and we had many much better times after that since I was able to adjust very well to the system Joe presented. I took care of the things that kept us alive and Joe brought the beer. If you’ve been through that, you will of course love the story about walking the Appalachian Trail with Katz and I said I won’t spoil it for you so I’ll stop here.
Next on my list of good hiking books is one with a totally different adventure to describe. I’m drawn to it because I did something similar, although I didn’t have six years to spend on it. When in the Army, I was able to take several months of leave once I learned the convoluted system of paperwork involved. Condensing my method to a few words is tough (I had to learn to be the worst soldier possible to make this system actually function), but essentially I discovered that in the Army you could acquire a month’s leave by volunteering for a worse duty assignment than you already had. The key to this was that your company commander had to agree to it, and to make that happen your company commander had to actually hate you. I exploited this marvelous system to the fullest extent, until I ran out of horrible places to volunteer for and actually had to go to one. But I had great fun until I did land in Vietnam, and in many ways it was worth it. On my many thirty day leaves I chose to travel, charting a course theoretically to all fifty states, but actually blindly and stupidly and at random from strange truck stop to sinister bar, hitching rides with psychotic strangers and hiking pointlessly in between, trusting to luck and good weather to pull me through it alive. My gear consisted primarily of a sleeveless uniform shirt with “Vietnam or Bust” hand-lettered on the back, an Army rucksack with very little of any use in it beyond a sleeping bag, canned tuna fish, and a hefty container of pebble candy I bought at Yellowstone National Park and never could quite finish, and it took me back and forth across America several times. In fact, it took me a couple of years after Vietnam to actually run down and stop doing this. Vietnam turned out to be a much safer experience in many ways. If you’ve had a similar adventure you’ll love A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins. If you haven’t done that, you might love it anyway. It sounds like fun. Remember the book with the bowie knife example.
I also heartily recommend this book because at least for a while it involves a hiking dog. If you haven’t hiked with a dog, you won’t understand. There are dogs, and then there are Trail Dogs. Trail dogs aren’t pets. They’re equals. I was fortunate to hike with a trail dog for nearly fifteen years — always the same dog, an extremely hyper Dalmatian who was as unsuited to civilization as I am. I can’t say much about him today for lack of time, but he was an extraordinary person as well as an unusual dog. In fact, he was the only dog I’ve known who had his own buddies and an independent social life and didn’t simply anchor himself to the person he owned. I’d come home from work some Fridays and find a note on the door saying that he’d gone to the mountains for the weekend with friends. Not in his own handwriting, of course, but in his own words. I suspected at times during our relationship that all he really needed from me were those mysterious car keys. Maybe he and Joe were onto something.
I miss them both.