Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Walk in the Woods

Over Labor Day weekend, I took my mother to see A Walk in the Woods, the movie version of Bill Bryson's 1998 travelogue of hiking the Appalachian Trail. I first read the book about ten years ago and it remains one of my all-time favorite examples of travel writing. The movie version makes (of course) some changes from the book, one of the biggest of which is the casting of the leads. When Bryson set out to hike the AT, he was 47. In the film, he's played by Robert Redford, who is in his late 70s. That alone changes the story considerably - Bryson is no longer facing a mid-life crisis; rather, he's being influenced by funerals and a TV interview that suggests he doesn't have anything left in him to write about.

Since seeing the film, I've heard some criticism that it's "grumpy men on the trail" and some sniffs of derision from purists, but I say ignore that and go see this film - on the big screen, please. The Appalachian Trail is one of the most thrilling monuments to the wilderness that we have here in America, and it's within a day's drive of half the country's population. It's also heart-stoppingly beautiful and Ken Kwapis's film doesn't stint on that, even if Georgia is standing in for large chunks of the trail that are actually located further north.

Originally, Redford wanted Walk to be a joint project with Paul Newman, and we can only wonder at what that might have been like, especially back in the day when Redford and Newman were at the height of their masculine beauty and sharp wit. However, Nick Nolte as the out-of-shape, possibly on the run, lecherous Katz is a marvel. Nolte is one of those actors whose personal life overtook his talents for a time, but here he's a force to be reckoned with. 

Neither Katz nor Bryson truly understand what they've gotten themselves into, although they're better prepared that Cheryl Strayed was in Wild (also - the Pacific Crest Trail is far wilder than the older AT, which is generally pretty close to civilization and boasts an impressive chain of rustic shelters). There are threats on the trail, including annoying, much younger, hikers and bears, but also having so much time to think. 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to tell you that my mother is the woman who instilled a love of the outdoors in me. I was riding a pony on my own before I could write my name in cursive and I hiked Mt. LeConte several times before I was ten, including one time when an early winter storm left the balance cables coated in ice. I think people who behave like the wilderness is their own personal playroom are morons of the first order and people who are disappointed that the bears in Yellowstone aren't Yogi probably shouldn't be allowed to roam around unsupervised. We have so few wild places left that it would do us all good to get out and spend some time in them and feel small when standing in the middle of it all. Until you can plan that, go see A Walk in the Woods - and mourn the passing of the American chestnut and rejoice that science may yet bring it back from the brink.

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