Backpacking Movies Redux

So we have another backpacking movie, the amiable A Walk in the Woods, based off Bill Bryson’s memoir. It doesn’t approach Wild for emotional impact, but having two characters jawing most of the time yields more witty repartee.  Anyways it made GG wonder just a bit about what elements of backpacking make it attractive to backpackers and what part of that, if any, can transfer to the screen.

Certainly there are loads of hilarious backpacking stories, but they nearly all hinge on something that was uncomfortable, scary, or outright dangerous at the time, so it isn’t clear that this encourages future backpacks. (Hmm.  Maybe not all.  GG recalls a first backpack where a companion decided that the proper way to keep bears away was to place mothballs around the camp.  GG awoke from early slumber sick from dehydration to see said companion, naked save boots, walking around the camp with a flashlight dropping mothballs on the ground.  Yes, you worry about hallucination in that circumstance. You just can’t make this stuff up). OK, so a few come from the urban idiots in the wild routine, standard fish out of water stuff. Hollywood frankly has not come close to fully mining this vein (you find hints in Continental Divide and Wild and A Walk in the Woods  but it never is fully realized, and some not-quite-backpacker movies like City Slickers use some of the same ideas).

Obviously a key part of backpacking is simply absorbing a sense of the broader natural world. This is the landscape of the 19th century nature writers like Thoreau and Emerson and Muir and so on.  Most of us today are too jaded to glory the way Muir did (well, not all; GG recalls a double rainbow getting super high praise in a video not long ago). But there is definitely some rejuvenation there.

Certainly part of this is seeing stuff that can take your breath away.  One of the great things about backpacking is that you are out there the whole time; you aren’t eating in the restaurant when the sun sets, or driving in the car in the thunderstorm.  So you see things you wouldn’t see, and of course there are places you go you can’t get to otherwise.  It is hard to convey how special Evolution Valley is without going there, or the Bighorn Plateau at sunset, or coming up on Sky Parlor Meadow to see it ringed by snow covered mountains.

Some test themselves against the wilderness; this is more often climbing than backpacking and frankly some of it misses the point in GG’s view (setting a time record on the John Muir Trail is comparable to listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at 4x speed.  If you want to set time records, do it on roads, which are made to be fast). A lot of thru hiking can fall into this trap (GG would argue that the folks who do bites of these big trails over the years get more out than the epic summer of pain approach).

Hollywood is pretty familiar with comedy, so it actually seems a bit surprising that a full blown backpacking comedy never really materialized even as all movies with backpacking get at least a few good chuckles.  And certainly there are pieces of great cinematography in some of these movies, but film crews rarely get into the real wilderness (for one thing, land managers would refuse the permit for a typical film crew); there is room to really get that, but a problem is that any day now you’ll find Google Trail View will show you the whole of the PCT or Appalachian Trail, and anyways Google Maps will offer to show you all the photos folks have uploaded, so to really carry the emotional impact of these places as they become so familiar takes some genius. The internal journey a backpacker makes is a tougher nut to crack but is more the bread and butter of good scriptwriters.  It usually takes about 3 days before GG stops looking at his watch backpacking; to get that sense of engagement in a 2 hour movie is a real challenge. Wild probably gets closer than most, though the emotional baggage Cheryl Strayed carries in that film is far greater than a typical hiker; her journey was as much or more of recovery than discovery.

So it just seems that the perfect backpacker movie is still out there waiting to be made. Let GG know when you make it…


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