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  • Tuesday, December 29, 2015

    A Walk in the Woods

    With my affinity for walking long distances, I’m asked the question a lot. I even started to finish it myself.

    “Have you ever read—”

    “A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson? I’ve read it twice,” I’d say. “Four times if you count the audiobook.”

    Now I have a new response. Nearly two years ago, I received an email from the Propmaster on the set of the film adaptation of the book.

    “I found your blog while I was doing research,” he said. “And I was hoping to talk to you about using your blog on-screen.” After a quick internet search to see if this person was for real, I arranged a call to get more information.

    Hidden in the back warehouse of the office building where I worked, I dialed the Propmaster’s number. After he explained the details, I enthusiastically granted him the use of my blog, and divulged a very brief version of the following story to explain my enthusiasm.

    Bill Bryson’s bestselling trail memoir introduced millions to the Appalachian Trail, the quintessential American hiking trail that spans nearly 2,200 miles across 14 states. I completed my thru-hike in 2011, but was first introduced to the trail by my grandpa when I was a boy playing on his living room floor as he watched TV.

    “They had a lawyer on the news who quit his job to go on a six-month-long hike,” he said. The news wasn’t still on the TV, so he must have been daydreaming.

    “He walked for so long, he had to stop for new shoes along the way."

    I imagined a pyramid of old warn out shoes piled on the floor and thought of how one pair lasted me a whole school year. I was hooked ever since.

    My world at that time was a sixty square mile patch of flat Indiana corn fields and small towns John Melloncamp might sing about. I was happy to hop on my bike and explore an ever-expanding radius around my house, but I knew there was a much bigger world I wanted to explore, the world I found in movies, Encyclopedia Britannicas, and my stack of Ranger Rick magazines.

    I anticipated the day when I could freely travel the country. I made lists of places I wanted to visit on the epic road trip I would someday take. After buying my first car, I picked up a road atlas and began highlighting my route.

    Nevertheless, a few years went by and I still hadn’t left home. I pursued jobs and relationships like everyone else, but still only daydreamed about a life like the lawyer who left everything and set out on a great adventure.

    At 22, rather than finally leaving home, I opened a pet shop. I swear it seemed like a good idea at the time, but despite working 70 hour weeks, I barely kept the lights on and some months I had to choose between paying my gas bill or paying my taxes and just taking cold showers in the morning. Pride and the fear of not knowing exactly what to do next kept me working at it. I fully realized, however, that I had built my own prison cell, the opposite of the life I wanted.

    I still have dreams about being back in the store. Everything is just how I left it. For some reason, I can never get the shop lights to turn on, but the back is still filled with the swirling blue glow of aquarium light. I’m always surprised to see the fish still thriving and grown so big. The puppies, parakeets, and guinea pigs are doing fine too, barking, chirping, and squealing at me for food, as though I had never left. I wonder who has been taking care of them for the past ten years and hear a knock on the plate glass storefront. One of my old regular customers with his hands cupped around his eyes is peering in at me.

    I unlock the door and let him in. Although he rarely bought anything, he’d come in after work just to chat, still wearing his factory clothes and safety glasses. He asks if I’m back for good, but before I can answer, others in need of pet supplies have poured inside. The shelves are still full and I find cash in the register, so I figure I might as well let them shop. Before I know it, and despite lessons learned, I’m running a pet store again.

    I suppose it’s a testament of how stressful those years were that I don’t dream about any other time in my past. I don’t dream of being back at school anymore or even the more recent places I’ve worked. I eventually stopped dreaming about my friend who died when we were 18, which took many years. Yet sometimes when I go to sleep, I find myself once again ringing up customers, cleaning animal cages, and carrying bags of dog food to the trunks of cars.

    Two or three years after opening the store, my Jeep broke down. Since I didn’t have the money to fix it, I walked the two miles between the store and home. Most of my route went through a large cemetery, which became a favorite part of my day, particularly when walking home at night.

    One day, to prolong my time there, I stopped to sit under an elm that grew out over weather-worn tombstones. I pulled out my journal, which was always tucked into my back pocket, and wrote down something I had been thinking about:

    What if I didn’t stop walking until I reached an ocean? Who would I meet? What would I learn about myself? What stories would fill these blank pages?

    I pondered the answers to those questions more and more as the months passed. While cleaning aquariums or litter boxes, I’d be thinking about what was really needed to survive. I made lists in my journal then reevaluated them, crossing things off that I decided I could live without. I became obsessed with how short I could make the list.

    Eventually, I told my step-mom I was thinking about closing the store.

    “I just don’t know what I’d do for a living afterwards,” I said. “I’m afraid I’ve been out of IT for too long to find a job again.”

    “Well, if you could do anything you wanted, what would you do?”

    Without giving it any thought, I said, “I’d hike the Appalachian Trail.”

    For Christmas that year, she thoughtfully bought me a copy of A Walk in the Woods. I pulled off the wrapping paper and stared at the photo on the cover. There was a lush green forest in the background and the face of a bear looking at me. The subtitle said, Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. Staring at it felt like being told about the lawyer and his pyramid of worn out shoes all over again. I couldn’t wait to read it.

    That pride and the fear of not knowing what to do next kept the store open for another year or so. During that time, I read and reread A Walk in the Woods, and then every Bill Bryson book they had at my local library.

    When I finally decided to sell the store, I broke the news to one of my regular customers. In fact, the customer who is often peering through the pet shop window in my dream. He came in just to chat.

    “So what are you going to do next?” he asked.

    “I don’t know,” I said. “But I’ve never really known. Even as a kid, I never had an answer to the question, what do you want to be when you grow up.”

    I told him about a friend I had in fifth grade who wanted to be a doctor and that I recently found out he was in medical school. I’ve envied him for knowing his path for so many years.

    “How about now?” he asked. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

    I thought about it for a second, then said. “I want to be Bill Bryson.”

    “Who’s Bill Bryson?”

    “A travel writer. If I could do anything, I would go see the world, have some adventures, and write about them.”

    My photo used in the film
    So after taking another IT job, paying off all of my debt, saving money for a few years, and a lot of internal debate, that’s what I did. I haven’t made a career of it, but I honestly never expected to. I just wanted to have stories to fill the blank pages of my journal. I wanted to ensure that if some day I saw a news report of a lawyer leaving everything for one great adventure, my head would be filled with memories rather than daydreams.

    Robert Redford and Nick Nolte on Mcafee's Knob
    So my enthusiasm for the Propmaster's request wasn't only to do with seeing my photo on the big screen, but because of how it would be used.

    “I found a photo of you on what I think is McAfee’s Knob,” the Propmaster said. “I want to pitch that photo as a hero photo, which Bryson clicks onto during his internet research.”

    "So I would be portrayed, albeit fictionally, as the inspiration for a book that inspired me?"

    Of course, I said yes. I can be seen briefly 18 seconds into the trailer below, standing on McAfee’s Knob in Virginia. If you missed it in theaters, it is available today to rent or buy.