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.
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.
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?