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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Dancing with Wolves

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With my daughter at W.O.L.F.

The ride from the flatlands of Greeley, Colorado to the wolf sanctuary in the foothills northwest of Ft. Collins is pretty mundane.  It’s a paved zip through the front range red rocks followed by a slower trundle on a dirt road that splits a narrow canyon in right down the middle. 

Once you get there, everything changes.

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The sanctuary is home to 30 wolves which are mostly wolf-dog crossbreeds.  It’s parked on 180 acres of land of which only a small portion can be used per edict of the Larimer county bureaucracy.

Wolves and crossbreeds that are substantially wolf are distinguishable from ordinary dogs.  Wolves eyes are close set, their snouts are longer, and on average they are armed with canine teeth twice as long a those of a large dog.  Obviously they need strong canines.  If they don’t hang on, they don’t eat. 

Wolves are highly intelligent with the energy level of a border collie.  They’re skittish and true wolves fear humans.  Wanna mess with one?  The sanctuary has had 150 pounders you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley… 

We learned disturbing news.  People crossbreed wolves and dogs thinking they’re creating cool pets. They’re gorgeous animals, but guess what?  They don’t have the laid back personality of your dog next door.  Sanctuaries across the country are full of animals their owners could not handle. 

My niece brought along some dog treats.  The first animals we met were guarded in their approaches, but most eventually succumbed to temptation.  In a couple of cases we were careful not to stick our fingers through the fence. 

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The electric wire is inactive in winter.  In summer it discourages bears from raiding the wolves cupboard.

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The enclosures are one third to one half acre, each with a male/female paring.  Seems like the females among them don’t get along with each other all that well.

Twice during our visit, the wolves began howling in unison.  Seems that if anything upsets one, the pack vocalizes its support.  If only we could get the intransigent members of congress singing on that song sheet… 

To be honest, the piercing harmony of thirty wolves singing in unison easily ignites primal human instincts.  I must say that it was nothing short of awesome.  But just as I know that black bears generally fear humans, I’m not sure I’d warm to the thrill of hearing the wolves cry up close while hiking alone! 

Howling aside, ambassador animals are habituated to humans and serve as community educators to help people understand wolves in general and that crossbreeding wolves and dogs isn’t a bright idea.  We got to spend some awesome time inside an enclosure with two of them. 

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My niece has been a volunteer at W.O.L.F. for several years.  Her posts about and photographs of her beloved wolves on Facebook are informative and fascinating.  She’s also exactly half way through law school, and I’m a very proud uncle. 

Learn more at http://www.wolfsanctuary.net

Conversion on the road to Damascus (VA)

Leave no trace hiking/camping has evolved from a concept originally called low impact camping.  It became possible after lightweight camp stoves made it possible to cook without building a fire.  Once camp fires are eliminated, coupled with some simple personal hygiene, it’s possible to walk to town without smelling like a Boy Scout as my mother used to say.

Just as there are ultralight enthusiasts, there are leave no trace militants.  To them no trace not only means no physical trace – not disturbing the ground or vegetation, packing out all garbage, burying human waste, no fires – but also very minimal visual impact.  This translates to dark earth tone colors – backpacks, tents and clothing.  The idea is to blend in so nobody even has to know you’re there.

This idea has merit.  Once, in Colorado, I was waiting for the golden hour at day’s end to photograph a stunning valley.  Just as the light began to glow its reddish blush, a group of 30 rubber duck-yellow dots waddled across the valley floor destroying my shot.  The next day I caught up with them to learn that Outward Bound dresses its students in yellow rain gear.  At that point I decided to be invisible out of courtesy to others.

Yesterday all that changed.  Tye Dye, a ’13 hiker I’ve been following posted an amazing photo of herself on trailjournals.com where she blogs about her hike.

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The colors jumped joyously into my head.  Epiphany!  Why hide in a trail civilization featuring shelters, zillions of people, picnic tables and enthusiastic folks like Tie Dye.  Why not have some fun and broadcast happiness with bright, upbeat and positive colors.  The bears don’t care.  I wrote her a message crediting her with a saved soul.

The back story is that Tye Dye’s daughter,  a college senior, thought her base layer was dull.  So, this artsy kid took matters into her own hands and generated a whole new brand and visual identity for dear mom.  Bingo!  My daughter, two years out of college, has a distinctively creative streak … maybe?

Unfortunately I’ve already acquired a black and gray pack, but that’s where it ends.  The sun will come up tomorrow, and when it does, I intend for me and it to be indistinguishable on the trail next year.