A Romp in the Woods?

Harpers Ferry, WV, July 7, 2015 — I was privileged to see a sneak preview of “A Walk in the Woods,” a knockabout comedy staring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.  The show opens in 1,800 theaters on Sept. 2.

Redford.  Slapstick.  No way!!!  Indeed, it’s true.  The movie was a delightful midnight snack adding a light touch to Redford’s rich acting career.  If you recall, Redford and Paul Newman always had a comedic touch.

To my delight, the humor was practically nonstop.  The jokes kept coming.  Anyone would get them, but there was enough hiker and AT double entandre to evoke knowing nods and smiles from the audience.

From a potty trowel Christmas ornament available on line at www.appalachiantrail.com

Potty trowel Christmas ornaments are available on line at http://www.appalachiantrail.com

Potty humor on the trail isn’t new and this movie doesn’t disappoint.  The ubiquitous and sometimes maligned potty trowel makes more than a cameo appearance.

Redford with toilet paper in hand may have been added for shock value, but more likely, the potty trowel scenes are subliminal Leave No Trace messages using a subject not much discussed in polite, read the non-hiking, society.

Yup.  Bears aren’t the only ones who do it in the woods and wanna be’s need to know that and prepare to pull their pants down around that and other deeply personal subjects in advance.

To recap for the unfamiliar, author Bill Bryson penned a  best-seller in the late 1990s entitled, A Walk in the Woods.  It was a semi-fictional and somewhat autobiographical story based on chunks of the Appalachian Trail that Bryson sampled in preparation to write his story.  His sidekick, Steven Katz – played by Nolte in the movie –  is the foil and comedic counterpoint as their adventures unfold.

This New York Times best seller is credited with driving up the number of AT thru hike attempts by logarithmic factors since.

The screenplay differs a fair amount from Bryson’s original story, but the essence is there.  Two old comrades with diametrically opposite personalities reunite after decades of estrangement for one last adventure.

Neither this film, nor the recent movie “Wild” (based on Cheryl Strayed’s best selling memoir) are about hiking per se.  In each, hiking is the means to the end.  In this case, Bryson confronts career burnout and the remedy is a romp in the woods with his old buddy Katz.  Our treat is to go along for the ride and enjoy the laughs.

Kristen Schaal.

Kristen Schaal.

The cast is fantastic, especially Longmont, Colorado’s own Kristen Schaal who is brilliant.  Her character plays off a classic AT stereotype and the reappearance of her character could have been a hilarious punctuation point near the end of the movie when Bryson and Katz have to be rescued.  In stead, the dynamic duo are saved by other stereotypes they first hate but come to love. In reality, it doesn’t happen that way on the AT.  No spoiler alert here.

As with any movie about subjects we know intimately and love dearly, this movie has its share of nits to pick and quibble about.  Among them, in the movie: Gooch Gap comes after Neels Gap. McAfee Knob appears after Shenandoah National Park.  The duo has trekking poles strapped to their obviously empty packs, but never use them. The social aspects of the AT experience are mostly AWOL. The bears that steal Bryson and Katz’s food are grizzlies, not black bears.  (We know bears will do almost anything for food, but hitchhike from Montana?  That’s a bit much.)  Much of the movie was not shot on the AT. That’s dramatic license. So what?

The $64 dollar question is how “A Walk in the Woods” will affect the number of hikers in the future.  History is clear.  Major media events drive numbers up.

Given that most Millennials barely know who Redford and Nolte are, it may not have much effect on that demographic. Large numbers of Boomers, on the other hand, missed out when they were in their 20s.  Like me, they had to wait until retirement to find the time.  Could be that this will remind them to get off the bench and out in the woods.

More likely, we may expect the number of weekenders and short-distance backpackers to increase along the trail.  After all, Bryson himself didn’t hike the whole thing.  For those without the where with all or inclination to thru hike, sampling chunks of the trail is a viable alternative.

Hordes of uninitiated hikers can have a disproportionate impact on the environment.  That’s why the potty trowel metaphor is an effective vehicle to communicate the larger Leave No Trace message.  It creates awareness and opens the door to a broader discussion of appropriate behavior and practices.

Viewers come to movies like this with a truck load of preconceptions.  They’ve read the book, tramped around on the AT or other trails, and have their own inventory of intrepid experiences.  Hikers want a hiking movie with which they can self-identify and reinforce the attributes of the hiking experience as they understand it.

In other words, hikers will tend to want a certain label and vintage of fine red wine, e.g. perfection.  For some, this won’t that movie, and I’ll submit that there’ll never be one.  So, this flick may not be what you hope for, but it will still make you laugh because if you haven’t been there and done that, at least you’ve seen it.

As a feature film, this treat is tasty, but definitely lo-cal.  It never intended or tried to be an opulent double Dutch chocolate delight. In other words, here’s little to satiate the uncontrollable urge known as hiker hunger in “A Walk in the Woods” the movie, and unfortunately the lack of high caloric content may be unfulfilling to a few of the usual suspects out there in hiker land who never seem to be satisfied anyway.

By its end, “A Walk in the Woods” is a light comedy based on our favorite pass time with a sprig of deeply personal revitalization for the two main characters garnishing the end.  They all lived happily ever after.

When you think about it, isn’t that a big chunk of why any of us lace ’em up and grab our trekking poles?

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16 thoughts on “A Romp in the Woods?

  1. Though my plan right now is to climb Springer NOBO in April ’17, the hype may be too much to pass up. I think next spring I’ll hang out in North Georgia for a while and slack pack the first few miles of the AT. Might save a bunch on gear picking up all the discards from the unprepared and unwilling. “Hey buddy, want me to take that heavy overstuffed Osprey off your hands?”

  2. I read the book last year, thanks to you mentioning it. I liked it, previously I had seen people in the Whiteblaze forum criticize it as they were discussing about the movie being in production.

    I think it’s actually the huge increase in outdoor recreation since the 90’s that has caused these hiking related movies and documentaries to be made. There is also a ridiculous amount of TV reality shows about living of the grid.

    Outdoor recreation is now “in”, you’ve got be fit and go hiking, biking and kayaking. It’s not only the AT starting to suffer from over use, it’s the local parks too.

    It’s fashionable to be an adventurous adrenaline junkie, climb mountains and trek all over the world -selfie stick and smart phone are the most important gear, ’cause what is an adventure without Facebook postings. Ultimately it’s most likely the internet that’s fueling the increase in great outdoors and adventure travel. There is an abundance of pictures and film footage, blogs, discussion forums and info from any corner of the world.

    • I agree with your premise that the vast increase in outdoor activity is related to new media channels, content and the ability to self-publish. A new generation has also moved onto the scene. In many ways its attention to the outdoors is similar to what the Boomers did. Old times still tell tales about the hordes of Boomers who overwhelmed the trails beginning in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I can also tell you that there is a direct causal link between increased traffic on the AT and media coverage whether it be a National Geographic coffee table book or a feature length film. This trend extends backward to the 1960s.

      We’re also contending with a huge increase in population. The Millennial generation is practically as large as the Boomers were. That’s a lot of people. We see that impact in many ways. For example if only three percent of hikers are social deviants in terms of not generally following acceptable social norms, given the increase in pure numbers alone means that we have more problem children on the trail.

      Sadly, for my taste anyway, too many White Blaze inhabitants are trolls. That’s one reason why I don’t recommend it often. It’s also an antiquated and disorganized technological mess. Guess it’s worth what we pay for it.

      Nevertheless, the trolls on White Blaze seem to be yearning for a world that never existed and never will. They appear to resent technological improvements that make hiking easier or any media attention or other means that brings more people to the trail. In other words, they’re a little selfish. There is only one way. Their way. They’d love to keep the trail, its culture and their status in static form. Theirs is a rearguard action. In the most essential ways, everything has already changed. For their part, they either don’t realize it or won’t admit it.

      Thanks for a great comment and thanks for reading.

  3. We don’t go to a lot of movies — this is more likely to make our Netflix list in a couple of years. 🙂 But I enjoyed your review and also the comments. I do think both social media and the internet itself fuel outdoor/park use. But as with the tennis craze a couple of decades ago, or pilates or yoga, or any number of other pursuits (like quilting,) some will stick with it but most won’t. In the meantime you’ll have a big mess to keep after, and very little extra resources other than people’s good manners and good will to clean it up. Not just AT but any green space, whether the city park or the national forest. No one is real willing to fund them these days.

    So through my rambling comment, perhaps here is the bright spot: perhaps the surge in popularity and use of these spaces will also increase commitment in maintaining them, both through volunteer effort and donations, as well as taxes. We can hope…

  4. Your review and analysis was very thorough. You have the first hand knowledge to know what you are talking about. As Melanie said above, we will likely get to see it via non-movie theater. I will expect some good laughs at RR and NN on the AT.

    btw…I thought those bears looked way to big and brown for black bears.

    Thanks for your post, Jim.

    • In my career, I did a lot of projects with Hollywood. I learned that the feature length film is a terribly constricting format; and that creative license is overly broad. For the insiders and purists, this movie is diet Coke. I say take it for what it is and enjoy. You and Melanie have it figured out. 😉

  5. The outdoors is there waiting for all who want to expirence it wether it be on the AT, CDT, PCT or your local sate park . I just got back from the Nashville, TN & Kentucky area and there are a lot of great state parks in those states! Saw a lot of great water falls! We see the numbers rise and fall in the parks as does the budget for the parks. Some find it to their liking that there are few people are in the parks. Others see it as “wearing out” the parks when people are encouraged to visit parks and get out and expirence the outdoors. The parks are either half full or half empty. But, with continuing maintenance, a lot of hard work and a lot of TLC, hopfully they will always be there for whoever wants to enjoy them. Hike a park or trail !!!
    Can’t wait for the movie to come out!!

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