Personal Quest

Call it a walkabout, a pilgrimage or a spirit quest, but the idea is basically this: You’re so busy and burdened that to get back in step with your life you’ve got to walk away from it for awhile.

Lots of books and a couple of recent movies have popularized the concept — most recently “Wild,” a 2012 memoir written by Cheryl Strayed that popularized the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail and, in 2014, became a movie starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed (such a great name).

In 2011, Martin Sheen starred in “The Way,” written and directed by his son Emilio Estevez. Sheen plays a doctor whose distant son died while hiking El Camino de Santiago — a 500-mile spiritual walking trail in northern Spain. When he flies there to recover his son’s ashes, he decides to complete the trail carrying those ashes with him.

It was a personal movie for Sheen. Not only was Estevez producing it, another Sheen named Charlie had just become famous for drug-fueled behavior that got him fired from the hit TV show “Two and a Half Men.” (Remember “Tiger Blood” and “Winning!”?) And Martin, who is Catholic, had walked some of the Camino. In Christianity Today he said, “People take the pilgrimage for many reasons, and each comes to grips with the inner journey, which is really a yearning for transcendence.”

This summer’s end promises the release of another movie based on a book about a kind of spirit quest, but one with a very different attitude. Author Bill Bryson, who now lives across the pond in the United Kingdom, was living and writing in Hanover, NH, when his novel “A Walk in the Woods” was published in 1998.

In it, Bryson describes his decision to walk the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine with an alcoholic friend. Sounds simple enough, thus the title, but anyone who has read Bryson’s travel writing knows that he finds plenty of complications on virtually every path he treads. And finding — and overcoming — complications is just part of getting in stride for those who walk the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail.

Not only do Bryson and his friend not finish the trail, they play fast and loose along the way, taking rides and breaks and hop-scotching tough spots. By the end of his tale, Bryson only covers about 800 miles. Even so, the book became wildly popular and helped fix the AT in the public consciousness, though Bryson’s unorthodox approach irritated many who view the AT as a kind of sacred journey.

The film version probably won’t ruffle feathers. With Robert Redford playing Bryson and Nick Nolte as his friend, it seems more geared for the geriatric “adventurer.”

I got to interview Bryson when he was still living in Hanover and still drawing some fire from his AT detractors. I don’t recall his precise words, but over lunch at Murphy’s on the Green in view of the elite Dartmouth campus he reveled in having made the AT accessible to those who might not take it so seriously.

Going around the purists to invite everyone to try and succeed or try and fail doesn’t make it less special or sacred, he said. Sometimes you need transcendence, and sometimes you just need to get away for awhile and take a walk in the woods.


Categories: Editor’s Note