No Thanks for the Memoirs…
Previous Walk It Off Post: Trial By Error.
My wife recently handed me another PCT memoir. And while her taste in books is usually much better than mine, I admitted to having trouble getting through it. The book in question was Gail D. Storey’s “I Promise Not To Suffer.” This is not the first memoir I’ve had problems with getting through. I told my wife that I was willing to give the book the benefit of the doubt and not pass judgment on it until I’d met the writer. One of the other memoirs I had the distinction of meeting the author and she turned my opinion of the book around. Storey was here at a local bookstore last night on tour, so I stopped in for a second to get a better feel for the writer.
What I saw was something I’m coming to see all too often in these sorts of books and it’s starting to annoy me. I saw the author, in attendance with two people wearing name badges for the PCTA. She was dressed very much as you see her on the cover of her book in skirt and brand spanking new shiny hiking boots. They were putting a cardboard box sign on her that advertised the book. It was a spectacle. It was a publicity stunt. And I left disgusted with the whole affair. I will not finish the book. I don’t think I Can finish it without formulating what I feel is wrong with the book, and that’s unfair to the writer. My beef isn’t with Storey specifically. My beef is with a theme that I see emerging with the memoirs of writing about hiking and the “famous” scenic trails out and about.
I’m going to cite from books and material that I’ve actually read, so there are probably a lot more arguments for and against the points that I’m going to make that I am not aware of, but here goes.
I’m starting to see a lot of memoirs and narratives out there (thank you wifey for distinguishing the two for me) that almost seem to want to be about pilgrimages, about walking the trails and coming into oneself that I can respect, but get played off by overblowing everything else that’s going on in a writer’s life and less about the trail. It’s almost more about what they learned and less how they Got there. And that is a huge disservice to the concept of the walking the trails as a learning experience. It turns the powerful experience that is the long distance journey into a publicity stunt. It turns the world you walk into a cheap carnival ride that you pay a couple of bucks to go through.
When I went to an REI in Sacramento to see Suzanne Roberts, who wrote “Almost Somewhere“, I wasn’t a fan of her book. When I left, I had much more respect for both the writer and her story, but less for the industry that put it out. She said that while she’s hiked the JMT since then, those were hikes that went better and were boring stories. She asked us who would want to read those, compared with the story of the first hike that was a near disaster? The publishing industry, made up of people who have never, and probably WOULD never, go on these journeys and learn those things, have reduced the experience to something they Can understand and sell. It’s marketing. And admittedly, I liked Roberts a hell of a lot more because she got up in front of a bunch of people who ARE avid hikers and shared an obvious passion for that journey.
Do yourself a favor, go watch “Mile, Mile and a Half“. Now take a day to digest that. And now realize that there is a whole publishing industry that is trying very desperately to both wrap their brains around that concept, and are trying in bits and spurts to market that in some context that sells books to people who have NO context for that sort of thing whatsoever. And what they result in most popularly is things like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild“, which tries to be a story about what’s going on in her life and less about the trail, and lightly touches on what she learned from the trail. These accounts leave me frustrated about hiking and enjoying the wilderness when I compare them with other narratives that are more substance and less flash, like Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” or Barbara Egbert’s “Zero Days.”
As a hiker, as the guy who goes out there, I don’t want to read the story about everything else that’s going on in a writer’s life. That, while powerful and meaningful, is also private. It’s something you take from the trail for yourself, and it’s Not something you can easily share because every trail experience is different. “Your Mileage May Vary” is a universal and understated truth on the trail. But to a lot of hikers, there is no need for trying to explain that powerful experience. We all have it.
Now let me break out the sledgehammer of Beating-the-Idea-IN-your-skull.
WE ALL HAVE IT. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. OF. US.
No, not all of them are good. No, not all of them are bad. But what all of them ARE is the sort of unique learning experience that is what a person needs to learn about and FOR themselves. That’s why there are still pilgrimage trails to this day. And it’s not the sort of experience that you can just pass along for everyone else because Your Mileage WILL Vary. You can’t just take that powerful, and powerfully PERSONAL experience, and put it out there like a carny ride and charge a couple of bucks and tack on a moral at the end. To me, that’s like dressing a nun up in prostitute’s clothing and putting her on the street corner to sell you on Grace, because Hey, That’s What Sells.
Let me also be plain about something. When I go hiking, when I go get back in touch with everything greater and grander than I am and get reduced to weeping in joy because I know my place in the universe is small and that the rest of creation is great and wonderful and out there to explore, the last thing I want to see is someone who’s utterly clueless about this walking around expecting to get the exact same lesson that they read about in a book. “There are more things on Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” (Hamlet) The point is not to learn someone else’s lesson, it’s to learn your own. That’s what you’ll find out there. That’s what’s for YOU out there. It’s not what Strayed went through, unless you’re a woman who’s mom’s death turned you into a heroin addict with bad taste in men who decided to do the PCT on a whim and skipped out on most of it. Your Mileage Will Vary. And if you want a bit more on “Wild”, this guy was rather thoughtful about it.
But when you Do write about it, don’t tell me about you. I’ll get that as I go. If you want to tell me your experiences, the way you handle bears, or the trail spot you stayed at for the awesome sunrise is worth more to me than telling me that you didn’t want to be out there in the first place. Telling me what gear you took and what you left is worth more than the cheap self laugh of “Hey, I went on this awesome shopping spree and can’t carry it all! See How Stupid I Am!” I don’t want to know how stupid you are. If you’re a writer writing this, it makes it damned hard for me to respect you as a person, and if I can’t respect you, I can’t respect your story, and guess what? I Won’t Buy It.
Also, Dear Publishers, That goes For You As Well. You want to make a buck off me? Write something I can respect. Have it written by people I Can respect. I Respect Roberts and Egbert and Bryson because they didn’t come off as shallow narcissistic people writing a story that comes across as an autobiography that takes place on the trail and has a cheap moral tacked on the end. Sorry, as the song sings “I get my kicks Above the waistline, sunshine..” Actually, it’s more above the neck line. Most of you in the publishing industry (except those at Wilderness Press) have no idea what it is to actually Do these things. Take a note from Bryson and if you can’t go with the experiences as they are out there (and you can’t, Your Mileage Will Vary) then take the writer out of the writing. Bryson didn’t write about his life so much as he wrote about the history of the trail. He wrote about the world around him. He wrote about the people he met. He Didn’t Write About Himself and tack a moral on the end of it. He left it up to the reader to decide and judge for themselves. He understood Your Mileage Will Vary. Even if he Did suffer from the “Hey I’m an Idiot on an Awesome Shopping Spree!” syndrome, he got over it.
And lastly… Dear PCTA, Really?? Really?? Since when is the PCT a carnival ride? Since when is it a publicity stunt? YOU FOLKS SHOULD KNOW BETTER. The marketing campaign for the outdoors isn’t in dressing a woman in a short skirt, obviously brand new never-been-used hiking boots and a box. What. The. Fuck. (pardon the swearing, I’m a bit passionate about this..) Scrambler would never be in a box. Anish would never be in a box or shiny hiking boots. Is this really the image you want to portray? Is Any Publicity, Even Bad Publicity, worth it? No. You peeps should go sit in your corner and go think about what you’re doing.
Next Walk It Off post: Everybody’s Different