Chris McCandless and Cheryl Strayed: Tales of when Generation X wandered outside

books

I’m going to show my age a bit and talk about a particular time of transition.

If you grew up in the 1980s, chances are the stereotypes are pretty familiar: huge hair, lots of synthesizers, “greed is good,” and a general optimism that ended up giving us really bright colors in the stuff we wore and the things we had in our homes.

Most of the music sucked. At least I thought so. Even the hard rock and metal I listened to became overly formulaic — a few faster songs, the required power ballad, and vocalists trying to too hard to sound like Robert Plant in his Led Zeppelin II days. Every hair band was from the same cookie-cutter stamp, sort of like how country music artists are now.

At least we had hip-hop. That was original enough.

Then some things happened. We had riots in L.A., we went to war with Iraq and then had a recession. Crack cocaine went from being a Los Angeles/New York thing to a national dilemma, and crime soared. Suddenly all the factory-line optimism of the ’80s wore off, people started wearing flannel and music took a darker, more introspective and heavier tone.

We questioned everything, but not in the hippie, free-spirited way of the 1960s. Those guys/gals were our parents, and became fodder for our angst, by “our,” I’m talking about Generation X. We looked back at the glee of the 1980s and scoffed. No more Duran Duran or Poison. We were all about Nirvana and gangsta rap.

Some of us plowed through anyway. But some of us didn’t. Those few went a different direction. They went into the woods.

Hiking, backpacking, rock climbing — all those “adventure sports” that millions of people do now have always been there, but they just weren’t much of a thing for the masses until my generation came of age. I think it was partly a rejection of traditional sports (“ball sports” is how one doofus on MTV put it) and this funny fixation on “extreme” activities. “Extreme” being pretty much anything that involved jumping from a plane, hanging off a crag, riding your bike on dirt or doing something that could get you scuffed, hurt or killed without a ball being involved. That’s how it was billed, anyway. Never mind that people had been climbing, skydiving and getting “extreme” before that term became a marketing buzzword that got driven into the ground.

In any case, a good-sized chunk of Generation X got downright crunchy in the early 1990s, so much so that Nike started making hiking boots. Yeah, I bought a pair of those. They didn’t last long. But they did get me through a couple of alpine hikes in Montana as I hummed verses of “Under the Bridge” from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s not like heroin addiction in L.A. had much of anything to do with Montana hiking (though heroin was definitely a thing in the 1990s), but it was a big song in a big time in my life when I reconnected with my outdoorsy self.

Others were a little more profoundly immersed in it. Two of them became the subjects of books — one a biography/adventure tale, and the other in an autobiography. One lived to tell that tale. The other died and became almost legendary to a lot of young, aspiring adventure seekers.

It’s probably not hard to figure out that I’m talking about Chris McCandless and Cheryl Strayed. And to be sure, their stories have been compared frequently enough.

But aside from the compelling tales of their lives, I want to be clear on this fact: Theirs are generational stories. They are very Generation X. And I guess that’s why they resonate so clearly with me. These were my contemporaries, in their early 20s, when their defining moments unfolded in ways that only now, years later, I can fully appreciate.

Chances are, you know their tales. McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” rejected the life that was expected of him — college, then a job, then setting down with a family/house in the ‘burbs/career — and decided to wander the American West. He later took on an adventure in Alaska that, despite his pluck, took his life after a series of events, both of his own making and bad luck, proved too much.

Strayed, on the other hand, went into the woods on a whim to reset a life that had spiraled out of control. Unlike McCandless, she survived her foray into the Cascades, and came back a changed woman.

In McCandless’s case, the attraction to his story is hard to define. Certainly, the adept storytelling in Krakauer’s book – as well as some excellent reporting – has a lot to do with it. But there is more to it than that. A lot of the people who read the book felt drawn to wild places, to escape the endless sea of suburban rooftops and chain restaurants, unplug and test themselves in the wilderness. A few of those people make it a point to go to the bus where McCandless died, deep in the Alaskan bush. I get that, and so did a number of my contemporaries well before McCandless’s story became widely known. Hordes of us started disappearing into the backcountry before we knew who he was, mostly because we, as a generation, were seeking something, an experience of authenticity that was very anti-80s. Keep your “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” Mr. Leach. Just give me a flat spot to pitch a tent and a crag to crawl on.

That’s what McCandless sought, to extremes. A quest for authentic self, straight from my generation to the pages of a book and eventually in the minds of millions who have carried that torch decades later.

Strayed’s story brought about something else, and I believe something wonderful. The book came out only a few years ago, though the events occurred about 20 years before. She was part of a new kind of woman that wanted to break the mold of what women could do.

Now to be sure, there have been some seriously legit outdoor women going back a long way. But there was a turn of mindset back then where a lot of women decided that they, too, could test themselves in the wild. Male-dominated activities like backpacking, rock climbing and mountaineering saw an influx of female powerhouses as well as legions of everyday adventurers suddenly come forward. That has its roots well before Generation X took a breath, but the idea of women doing big things outdoors seemed to take flight somewhere around the time Strayed was lugging Monster around on her back, trekking north through the Sierras and learning a lot about the do’s and don’ts of how to make it on an 1,100-mile through-hike.

Now her book (a fantastic read, by the way) is a movie, and people are expecting a big influx of would-be “Wild” hikers to test themselves on the Pacific Crest Trail. In between the movie’s release and Strayed’s hike, growing numbers of women have been getting after it outside, to the point now where gear manufacturers  live and die not just by how good their products are, but how well they can reach and please a growing demographic of female outdoor adventurers. Strayed’s tale may not be unique, but it is emblematic.

So what does all this mean, and how does it relate to Generation X? In McCandless’s case, I’d say it reflected a general dissatisfaction with what proved to be an illusion of what American life offered. Naturally, the preferred escape route was the opposite of where we came from. We fled the cities and small towns and the expectations their denizens had of us, and we went into beautiful, indifferent and difficult places outside. That sentiment has always been there, but I’d say it’s never been more prevalent than it is now, going back to those times when we were all spinning Pearl Jam CDs for the first time.

And in Strayed’s case, it marked the beginning of the ubiquity of the outdoor woman. The guys may still outnumber the ladies when it comes to getting dirty in the woods, but the playing field out there is quite level now and fewer people question why a woman would get all scraped up climbing a big wall or spend days out on the trail by themselves. The oddity of old is now more routine. I’ve seen it, and seen it for years. Strayed’s adventure embodied empowerment of women in the outdoors.

For me personally, the common strains of their stories resonate deeply. When surrounded by the trappings (handcuffs?) of “normal” life, I feel that urge to jump in the car, load a pack and head west until I see towering peaks and a singletrack trail leading into who knows what. I feel the need to hear birds, streams, and, at times, nothing at all. A quiet retreat where I can unload my burdens into an eternal place that’s been around well before I was born and will be around long after I’m gone. I feel the need to empty myself through exertion, to solve atypical problems with only my wits and whatever I’ve hauled in on my back.

Peace comes out of that. A little meaning. And empowerment. Maybe the same tunes were running through Chris’s and Cheryl’s ears as they ventured out that first time, when we fled the plastic excess of the 1980s and headed outside – who knew that our stories might change the way people interacted with the wild.

Bob Doucette

Books: ‘The New American Road Trip Mixtape,’ by Brendan Leonard

roadtripcover

“What is a life?”

That’s the central question driving Brendan Leonard’s first book, “The New American Road Trip Mixtape,” an honest and sometimes raw look at the forces that propelled him out of what he thought would be a comfortable urban existence into something much more untraditional – that of full-time life on the road, working, travelling and bunking down in his car as he piled on the miles across the American West.

You may know Leonard from his semi-rad.com website, posts on the Adventure Journal or articles written for a number of outdoor magazines. In his book, he explains how the latest chapter of his life was born and where it’s taking him.

Like I said, Leonard is quite frank about his past: A failed marriage, followed by what he’d hoped was a better relationship with a woman whose interests matched his. But when that ended, he found a need to clear his head on the road.

Leonard works through the pain of the breakup as well as the observations and lessons he learns visiting friends scattered across the West while also taking us back to his younger years, the time when he became what he is now – a writer, traveler and climber.

The book is loaded with anecdotes of climbing adventures in the grand peaks of the Rockies, but is also takes us to lonelier moments where it’s just him, alone with his thoughts as he tries to get some sleep in the cramped back-end of a Subaru.

The highs and lows of his journeys are pretty well summed up when he writes, “But a true pilgrimage has to have some struggle, right? If there was no pain or suffering on the way there, was there meaning at the end?”

That resonates deeply with anyone connected to the outdoor community – the relishing of the sufferfest, working out your demons on hard treks, spicy routes or long journeys. Interestingly, Leonard surprises himself that the answer to his central question – “What is a life” – is simultaneously found in his observations of his closest friends as well as the realization that he doesn’t necessarily need to emulate them to find what he’s looking for.

Leonard’s storytelling is solid, and the indictments against many of the trappings of modern living are sharp and, honestly, very revealing.

The book is fast read, and with the weather warming up in time for all those dreamed-about road trips, it just might be the type of thing to get you going. You can get it in print for $9.62 on Amazon or on e-reader for $7.99 on Kindle and Nook.

Bob Doucette

Why do we climb? The question of risk, growth and achievement

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I’m reading a book right now titled “One Mountain, Thousand Summits,” a tome about the 2008 K2 climbing disaster. I’m drawn to books like these because the drama that often unfolds on the world’s highest peaks makes for some very compelling reading.

The writer, Freddie Wilkinson, makes a point of not only documenting what happened on the mountain, but also what happened in response to the tragedy in the rest of the world. In doing so, he followed media reporting – and reader comments online.

Some perspective: Eleven people died directly and indirectly from a serac collapse high on K2.

Some of the online comments about this story quoted in the book are as follows:

“Spirit of exploration? Please. K2 has been climbed before. Many times. It was ‘discovered’ a long time ago. Climbers today climb 8,000-meter peaks for one reason: themselves.”

Another was more blunt:

“This was not a voyage of discovery; it was an ego trip, as most mountain ascents are today.”

Similar sentiments were made after the 1996 Everest disaster, and just about any other report of a mountaineering accident that includes someone’s death.

Let’s go beyond the obvious callousness that goes in to writing something like that. There is a deeper philosophical question to be posed here: Do these armchair quarterbacks have a point?

Why do we climb mountains? For that matter, why do we do a lot of the physically challenging and at times risky things that we do?

The great mountains of the world have been climbed. The poles have been reached. The jungles and deserts of the world have, for the most part, been traversed and explored.

And yet, we still climb these peaks, journey to the poles and travel in some of the most inhospitable environments in the world. Often, people do this with a twist: trying to be the “first” at something (oldest, youngest, first woman, first blind person, etc.), and admittedly, some of these efforts are done for publicity’s sake. But more commonly, we just retrace paths already taken – often many times before – only for our own benefit.

I can relate. Every mountain I’ve climbed and every route I’ve taken has already been done, maybe hundreds or thousands of times before. Even though I’d like to fantasize about setting a new Class 4 route up Oklahoma’s Mount Mitchell, I’d never claim that because it’s probably been done before in anonymity years ago.

So outside of space and the oceans, much of the age of exploration has come to an end.

So why bother? Why risk injury and death to climb?

I set my book down and let this question rattle around in my brain for awhile, and then let the thought broaden. Mountaineering accidents, particularly high-profile mishaps, get a lot of attention. News articles, TV specials and books usually follow. But there are other things we do that draw parallels.

People die doing marathons. Not often, but it happens. Why run a marathon on Pikes Peak? People have had heart attacks and dropped dead trying that race. Even in my city’s local marathon, there has been a fatality. The people who have died in these races had, from all appearances, the fitness level needed for the task.

I know that’s extreme, but there are other less severe yet still noteworthy examples of how people have suffered incredibly by trying to run 26.2 miles or more. Training for such races can do a whole lot of damage to your body, consume a lot of your time and energy and change your lifestyle in ways that are not always positive.

Here’s a fact: The overwhelming number of people who run ultramarathons, marathons, half marathons, 15ks, 10ks and 5ks do so without even the slightest chance of actually winning the event. Or even placing high. Or even winning their gender, age group or whatever.

It is supposed to be a race, right? Why run a race you have NO SHOT of winning? Or no shot of even being the slightest bit competitive?

Move into other sports. Let’s talk football. It’s a great game, one of my favorites. Pro football in particular interests me because it is the game played at the highest level by the biggest, fastest and most skilled athletes in the sport. It’s such a difficult challenge to even win one game, not to mention a championship.

But at what cost? The concussion debate has been raging now for a few years. But there are a host of other injuries these guys suffer through on top of that, injuries which leave these fantastic physical specimens barely able to walk (not to mention run) when middle age sets in. Obviously, the money is a major reason why these men do this, but when the crowds no longer cheer and all you’re left with is a broken body (and in some case, mind), can you say that those years of abuse were worth it?

Here’s another question:

What’s the alternative?

The alternative is not to pursue the difficulties of planning, training for and finally attempting a mountain climb. The alternative is to stay inside, substitute your running shoes for a pair of house slippers and spend yet another mindless day on the couch watching TV or playing video games (which often portray characters doing epic things. Kind of ironic). The alternative is to never plumb the depths of your abilities to see just how far you can take your God-given talents.

If you never push yourself to see how strong you can be, you’ll never be strong. And that’s not just in terms of physical strength, but mental and emotional strength as well.

It’s these tests which tell us how strong we can be, and these tests often lead us to personal growth that can’t be replicated in the world of the easy and mundane.

None of us will ever be the first to climb Everest, K2 or thousands of other peaks. We won’t be the first to reach the north or south poles. Almost no one in this world of 6 billion people will set a new world record marathon time, and the tiniest fraction of all athletes will even do something as comparatively normal as actually winning a long-distance race. Sorry to burst your bubble.

But so what? These are the ways we measure ourselves, and indeed, promote growth. Even inspire others to try and do great things. Obviously, some pursuits are much more risky than others. But you won’t see me discourage others from such endeavors, provided they weigh the risks, prepare and do so with a healthy degree of humility for the task at hand.

Lace ‘em up, people. Buckle that chin strap. Climb on. If you want to criticize that, then enjoy your time on the couch. I’m sure it will be your faithful companion on your journey to the perfectly average for some time to come.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

A short, outdoorsy summer reading list

People often come up with summer reading lists. I’m not sure why summer is all of the sudden a season for reading, but that seems to be how it breaks down.

It also got me thinking about a few of my favorite reads. Some of mine are current events-type books, so I’ll spare you that. Besides, my favorite books tend to be more geared toward two things I really enjoy: good writing and a good yarn with an outdoors flavor.

One of my absolute favorites is “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer. It’s well-written, expertly reported and thoroughly engrossing. Many of us who are into the outdoors have often dreamed similar dreams as did Chris McCandless – chucking away our normal lives and going on a permanent road trip adventure. His story ended tragically, but the pulse of the book is one which matches my own, and it’s very much a Gen-X tale (my generation!). If you like Krakauer, then “Into Thin Air” (about the 1996 Everest disaster), “Eiger Dreams” (an anthology of his essays) and “Where Men Win Glory” (his excellent and sad biography of ex-NFL star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman) are worth a look.

Speaking of risk-taking authors, you really should check out the works of Sebastian Junger. He’s done some good work, but my favorite of his is his most famous: “The Perfect Storm.” Chances are you’ve seen the movie. The book is much better. Few people can put together the cold, hard facts of science and history into the human tales in which they are intertwined. Skillfully reported, he takes you into the wheelhouses and cockpits of the vessels and aircraft caught up in one of the freakiest storms to ever strike the Eastern Seaboard. See also his anthology “Fire,” which includes a great piece about Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance leader of Afghanistan who was killed days before 9/11.

The newborn runner in me is also really into the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. The writer takes us to the Copper Canyons of Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains and into the lives of the super-running tribe of Tarahumara Indians. Also in the book is quite a bit about the late Micah True (aka Caballo Blanco), the American runner who learned the Tarahumara’s secrets and founded the Copper Canyon ultramarathon. The popularity of the book is widely seen as the catalyst to the barefoot/minimalist running movement that has taken hold in recent years.

Are you as fascinated by Mount Everest as me? But also horrified by the circus that seems to kill unwitting climbers there every spring? “High Crimes: Mount Everest in an Age of Greed” by Michael Kodas is a very good read that describes just how seedy things have gotten on the world’s highest peak. Another good one in this vein: “Dark Summit” by Nick Heil gives another view of how ambition, greed and amateurism is transforming the narrative of high altitude mountaineering.

That’s a pretty good start. What books are you reading? Let me know and let’s discuss!

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Books: ‘The Will to Climb’ by Ed Viesturs

If you’ve followed the mountaineering career of Ed Viesturs at all, you’d know a couple of things: He’s been as successful in the Himalayas as just about anyone else alive, and he has achieved his reputation with a purist style and utmost regard for safety.

So for Viesturs to come back to Annapurna a third time after being turned back twice by the world’s deadliest mountain, you know that he is also a very driven man.

That’s’ the conflict posed in Viesturs’ third book, “The Will to Climb,” which examines his two failed attempts to summit Annapurna as well as his third and ultimately triumphant climb that made him the first American to bag all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks.

True to form from his previous books, Viesturs mixes his own experiences on the mountain with those from mountaineering’s past. The lessons learned from Annapurna echo from its history right through to his own observations while being on the slopes of this massive and incredibly dangerous peak.

Annapurna is not the highest, nor is it considered the technically most difficult of the Himalayan peaks, but it has a track record of being prone to avalanches and bad weather that take the lives of climbers at higher rates than even K2: One out of every three climbers who summit Annapurna die.

Viesturs does a great job looking through archival accounts of early ascents of the mountain — unbelievably, this peak was the first of the 8,000ers to be successfully climbed — while also taking a look at other climbs that were sometimes triumphant while other times tragic. He also dives into the personalities of those who dared to challenge the mountain, be they his friends and teammates or the more storied figures of Himalayan mountaineering royalty.

Like his book on K2, it’s more history than personal. But with “The Will to Climb,” Viesturs finds his voice a little better, and the storytelling is a little richer. I think part of that might have something to do with the fact that his love of mountaineering was born by reading the book “Annapurna,” which describes the harrowing tale of the French team that first climbed it. It also was the mountain that caused him the greatest trouble, planted the most doubt and scared him the most. By summiting it in 2005, he put a major stamp on his career and personal life.

The one common theme with all of his books, however, goes back to his mantra: Getting to the top is optional, getting back down is mandatory. The caution he describes in his adventures has often led to him turning back within sight of several summits, but he always came home safe, ready to return for another crack at the mountain.

And therein lies his key message of mountaineering, that of measuring risk and tackling a challenge while being as safe as possible. If only all climbers would heed this, there would be far fewer accidents and deaths not only in the Himalaya, but on mountains everywhere.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

 

Book review: ‘The Ledge’ by Jim Davidson and Kevin Vaughan

It’s probably best that most of us never have to be tested the way Jim Davidson was in late June of 1992.

Davidson was downclimbing Mount Rainier with his climbing buddy and friend Mike Price after a successful climb of the peak’s Liberty Ridge. But just a few hundred yards away from leaving a tricky glacier, a snowbridge underneath Davidson’s feet collapsed, exposing a gaping crevasse that opened up and swallowed both of them.

Davidson found himself more than 80 feet below the place where the snowbridge collapsed, perched on a tiny ledge that was the only thing stopping both of them from plummeting deeper inside the glacial  fissure and into a sure death.

Price was fatally injured and incapacitated. Davidson, the junior climber of the two, was also hurt and faced with having to undertake the toughest ice climb of his life with a spare amount of gear and an overabundance of fear and sorrow that threatened to immobilize him in what would be the toughest test of his life.

Davidson’s book “The Ledge” chronicles this fight for survival as well as how he dealt with the survivor’s guilt that followed. It’s a crisp, fast-paced read that covers a lot of ground, detailing how he came to be a climber, his friend’s impressive climbing history and the intimate details of how he managed to self-rescue in the most impossible of situations.

Davidson, who co-wrote “The Ledge” with journalist Kevin Vaughan, paces the book well while going back into his past experiences and how they helped him find the path and the will to save his own life and help rescue crews recover his friend’s body.

This is a terribly honest reading. Davidson doesn’t shy away from laying bare the thoughts and emotions he went through. He also spends a good amount of time describing how he dealt with the accident’s aftermath. That makes this more than just a story of adventure and survival. It almost operates as how-to for people who have to confront a disaster in which you survived, but someone you cared for did not. Interestingly, he pays homage to another story of wilderness survival, “Into the Void,” which he credits to helping him muster the mental strength to climb a vertical to overhanging icewall with very little gear and no one around to assist.

Climbers and mountaineers have, interestingly enough, been known to become good writers. “The Ledge” fits that mold, giving the reader great visual detail and a thorough account of what the author was thinking and feeling. Pick it up, and add it to your library.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088