“I pushed on, filled with mild disquiet, feeling like someone swimming too far from shore.” -Bill Bryson, A Walk In The Woods
There are a lot of things I like about Bryson’s book, but one of the biggest is that, in the 176 pages I’ve read, he’s as bumbling, inexperienced, and confused as I often feel–and he’s still doing something wonderful. Bryson and his friend Katz set off to hike the Appalachian Trail, a 2200 mile stretch that connects Georgia to Maine. Along the way Bryson happily, playfully shows us his own stumbles: his first look at the overwhelming pile of his gear, his despair at another dinner of noodles, his brief consideration of toenail clippers as a weapon against bears. (Probably wouldn’t work). He takes cabs to get around sections of the trail, wanders around without finding the trail, and wonders what the heck he is doing. But he keeps doing.
Years ago, I was backpacking in the Sierra mountains with my older brother. We set up a rock climbing rope and he (four years older, several inches taller, a good deal handsomer as far as I could tell) climbed a section of cliff. I belayed him. Then it was my turn. Halfway up the hard granite there was a thin ledge, perhaps an inch deep, with a sharp edge. The trick was to put both hands on it and heave yourself upwards to the next handhold. I tried, and couldn’t read, and fell until the rope caught me. I tried again, and couldn’t. I tried. I couldn’t. By this time my hands hurt from the sharp rock. My brother, handling the rope behind me, suggested I stop or take a break. He suggested we set the rope on a different section of cliff. I refused, angrily, loudly, and kept trying until my hands were cut. Eventually, crying in frustration and hurt and anger at myself, I stomped off without a word to sit by a little pond.
My brother let me have my space for a little while, and then he came over quietly.
“You know,” he said, “The challenge was never the rock.”
Bryson doesn’t come off as an accomplished mountaineer, or even as an experienced hiker. (He does come off as a connoisseur of hamburgers). But the challenge was never the Appalachian Trail: the Trail was his starting point, the doorway to his adventure. It’s the main thread of his book, and it’s a thread he can’t hold onto: it breaks when he tries to grab it, and the trail goes on without him. But that leaves him someplace else.
By continuing to walk, and watch, and think–by listening, to others and himself; by reading about the land around him; by writing–he is finding his adventure. I’m not sure where he’s heading (I finished the book since starting this, but it seems fitting to let him stay where he was, wandering off ahead of me), but I know this is a book where the writer did not manage anything close to what he set out to do, and still did something truly wonderful. I love that.
The challenge is never the rock. The real challenge, the challenge my brother and I hiked into the mountains to find, is inside. Like Bryson, we can trust that something happens when we swim in the sea out past our shore, when we’re open to the disquieting and the mysterious. We can live on, not through what we planned to see, but through what we find.