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Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail have a few things in common–most notably, long trails and long titles–but are quite different books. Long walks in nature are right up an environmentalist’s alley, so despite the title of this blog, they were books I was excited about reading. Neither totally lived up to my expectations, but both were thought-provoking. Here are a few of those thoughts.

Wild

wild

I actually wrote an essay about fear and hiking once, so this book resonated with me. The overview is that the author decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail partly in an effort to deal with big stuff in her life–her childhood, her mother dying, her divorce, her drug problems–and she basically succeeds (“from lost to found” kind of gives it away). The point is not what she did in her past or goes on to do in her future; the point of the book lies squarely on the trail, on the self-discovery that takes place as she shoulders an ambitious pack and loses her toenails.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is that Strayed does not shy away from describing the physical discomfort and emotional disquiet of her trek. From my own hiking experience, I doubt she’s hyperbolic about her physical woes (especially considering she hadn’t broken in her boots and overpacked in the beginning). Among other things, she’s a somewhat petite female–just from trying on hiking backpacks at REI, I can tell you that it is very hard to find a pack that truly fits. And for reference, a long hike like the Pacific Crest Trail can require something like 50 pounds of supplies. Carrying 50 pounds is a much different experience for a 100-pound woman (like Strayed, or myself) than for a maybe 200-pound man (Bryson).

Solo-hiking as a youngish female is also an extremely different experience than hiking with a buddy as a middle-aged man (Bryson). At times I felt that Strayed’s story verged on the repetitive: she was anxious, then she had a physical complaint, then she has some anecdotal experience with someone at one of the trail stops while resupplying, then she’s anxious again, etc. I think the book could have been much shorter and just as effective, perhaps even more intense. And the experience was an intense one.

A Walk in the Woods

AWITW

A Walk in the Woods is a book I’ve been meaning to read since reading Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue in high school. Bryson’s tone is light and clear, mixing detailed factual information and humorous personal observation in down-to-earth, easily digestible prose. So, that’s good. And if you’re looking for a general-interest book about the Appalachian Trail, it’s a solid choice. Living rather close to the Trail and having friends who have hiked portions of it, I’m not as bowled over by the history of the trail as maybe I could be.

Bryson has a book contract before he steps out, so he has a lot of the mental load taken off him–one of the biggest worries plaguing Strayed during her walk is money: she uses basically all her savings, carefully meted out along the trail, to do the hike, and she’s doing it on a budget. It might seem like hiking is always a budget activity, but there are still options. While Bryson spends many nights in trail shelters, there are also more days in hotels and more solid meals than Strayed records. He doesn’t spend outrageously, but the small luxuries add up–and the apparent freedom of his budget is a huge luxury.

Bryson also decides to section-hike and skip large portions of the trail, so it’s important to note that this book is not about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, but is rather about the Trail itself–as an experience, as something of a natural wonder. This gives A Walk in the Woods a more varied structure so I found it to be a slightly more engaging book. There is more history and a wider range of information–in a journalistic vein–than Strayed provides about the PCT, although it should be noted that she also includes this sort of information.

While I did enjoy AWITW, I was a little bored in the end. As far as I can tell, Bryson doesn’t “rediscover America on the Appalachian Trail,” he just walks a little bit, gets somewhat bored by trees, and spends some strange weeks with a friend who volunteered to go along with him. It’s very tame. That’s not to say there isn’t interesting information about the Trail in here, and it’s funnier than your average trail guide. But it’s not a trail guide, and it’s not a particularly good story.

And then what…? 

Neither book totally lived up to my expectations. That’s not to say they’re not worth reading; they are. However, don’t push them to the top of your list. If it comes down to getting out and actually hiking or reading one of these books, hiking would be far more worthy of your time and effort. But for most of us, dropping everything and hiking for several months is something that–at the very least–would require significant life rearranging. In the meantime, we can get two tastes of very different trail experiences through these voices.

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Even if I wasn’t worried about oil companies trying to buy fracking rights on my family’s land, I would be interested in seeing Promised Land, a 2012 movie by/with Matt Damon. So I watched it, a little a year over it came out, far away from the family property.

My ‘bias’ if you will is clear: I’m decidedly anti-fracking. Theoretically, I think I should be embracing this movie, since the anti-fracking people ‘win’ in the end. (Oh yeah–SPOILER ALERT.)

Although the movie ends on a high point for the ‘against fracking’ side of the debate, the movie has two major flaws (and many other minor ones).

First, it tries to use a façade of inter-personal conflict between Matt Damon’s and John Krasinski’s characters (whoever they are) to make the movie appealing to a mass-market audience, but in doing so the movie fails to really put fracking at the forefront of the film. It’s more about who will win–it often devolves into just another head-butt competition between two males trying to get the girl and/or town on his side. I’m sort of sick of that plot line, and it doesn’t have anything to do with what’s actually going on in the real world. I worry that in making fracking seem like a me-against-you issue in the film, the film perpetuates the notion that fracking is about sides (environmentalists or gas companies) winning or losing.

It’s not. It’s really a question of risk assessment and prioritization of resources. Personally, I’m against fracking because not only is the risk to drinking water high and dangerous, but also because it is an extremely short-term solution to a permanent problem: energy. We need energy, not necessarily natural gas. Resources–human resources like engineering skills and economic incentives, like tax breaks–should go towards energy solutions that have promise for the future. Not the 20-years-future, but the 200-years-future, the infinity and beyond that kids my generation dreamed about watching Toy Story.

Anyway.

The second big flaw in this film is that, while the motivation sphere of the gas company is extremely clear–MONEY–the alternative sphere of values is not. Let me put this another way: throughout the film, Matt Damon’s character (who works for the gas company) seems to genuinely believe that money is the solution to the problems of the small town he is trying to buy up. Money is on his side. There are a lot of specific numbers thrown out about how much the gas company will make, how much each landowner will make, etc. Matt Damon’s character gets into a bar fight because he (to paraphrase) “just can’t understand why everyone in the town doesn’t care about money.”

The movie does not specify which small town Damon & his sidekick Just-a-Job visit, but it’s no wonder they leave that to the imagination: money is a really serious motivator, not just for the one or two idiots in this unnamed small town, but for everyone–including a lot of real people in real small towns. Humans are hardwired to make decisions that are fairly short-term in nature. We can think a little farther in the future than, say, dogs, maybe (we can save up to buy something later), but we don’t think in terms of centuries or millennia.

Americans, I think, also have a rather abbreviated sense of history, because our own country’s history is so short. For perspective, I went running the other day under a bridge that dates back to Roman times. That bridge could have been built well over one thousand years ago! By contrast, America was “built” within the past few hundred years; the West particularly still has something of a new penny shine. Since our country has only been around a little over two hundred years, it’s no surprise that 20 years–or 25, or 50–still seems like a relatively long period of time. If we think that an energy source will last for 20-50 years, that feels like, somehow, “enough.”

Fracking doesn’t make sense for economic reasons, not “just” environmental ones. If you make $2,000 for rights on an acre of land and the ground water becomes toxic, suddenly not only are you polluting and doing a naughty when it comes to the wild animals and livestock who depend on natural water sources, you’re also poisoning yourself out of a home. Further, the value of the home becomes completely depreciated, since no one else can live there either. Finally, you poison yourself, your kids, your community–quite literally. Now the $2,000 per acre you made that was supposed to help send your kid to school or whatever doesn’t matter so much.

It’s theoretically possible that fracking could be accomplished safely–theoretically. But that, like every other factual point about fracking, wasn’t really discussed in the movie. The focus was on human relationships. This makes sense for a film, particularly one that is hitting mainstream theaters. However, the human relationships fail to illuminate the real issue in such a way as to even make it seem real. There is a great scene where an older man in the community speaks up against fracking early on in the film, but even this character later devolves into a nostalgic type, a cliché of a grandfather espousing the values that I think a lot of Hollywood directors think country people still hold dear.

But those values–a sense of place, a sense of ownership of the land that comes with a deep sense of responsibility, a vision of the world that empathizes with nature and the future–are not well-articulated in the film. Instead, Damon (as director) relies on heavy-handed symbols like a garden planted by a schoolteacher to teach her children to “care for things.” He makes clear that money is associated with the bad guy, but even that is a garbled message.

For many people, if not Matt Damon, money is actually in very short supply. It totally makes sense that poor people would want money–yet this film presents that set of motivations as being completely ridiculous. As much as I support the notion that money isn’t everything, if you’re actually struggling to pay bills and actually not able to adequately feed your children, then you know what? Money is everything.

Until you can’t drink the water.