Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Cap'n's Bookshelf: Two Coots in a Canoe and Becoming Odyssa

One of my recreational pleasures is reading what I call self-propelled travel memoirs. I can't stand travelogues that are full of passages like "Our driver warned us..." and I have a hard time relating to windshield memoirs. I like Paul Theroux's books about train travel, and his books where he travels partly under his own steam, like Kingdom By the Sea where he walks a good deal of the way around the coast of England, and The Happy Isles of Oceania, where he kayaks around a number of Pacific islands (traveling between them by ship and plane). I've discovered a number of memoirs by other authors that involve long walks, bike rides or paddles.

Earlier this year I read Two Coots in a Canoe, by retired conservation advocate David Morine, describing how he and his friend Ramsay Peard canoed the length of the Connecticut River. Morine's conversational style made for easy reading, but some of the emotional content was honest and raw, with a surprising twist at the end.

One intriguing aspect of this memoir was that Morine and Peard, both around sixty years old at the time, agreed that they wouldn't camp out once during the trip. Instead they collaborated with other conservation advocates and used the connections they had built over their lifetimes to arrange for free room and board, usually with local activists involved in preserving or restoring a section of the river. In giving voice to these activists and describing their campaigns, Morine paints a picture of the current state of the river and the challenges in sustaining its flow and its wildlife.

After I finished that, I read Becoming Odyssa, an Appalachian Trail memoir by Jennifer Pharr Davis. Pharr Davis's style is a bit overwrought with metaphors, but she gives you a good feel for trail culture, and her honest discussions of her own emotional reactions to the trail are insightful and illuminating. As an atheist, I appreciated that she described her Christian religious beliefs and observances as matters of fact without any attempt to proselytize.

Sustainable transportation advocates will be most interested in the passage when Odyssa (as the author named herself, an Appalachian Trail tradition) comes upon the scene of a suicide. Realizing that the deed has been done, she numbly continues on the trail and dials 911 from her cell phone. On page 204 there is this exchange with the dispatcher:

"I need to know where your car is," she said.
"I don't have a car. I hiked here."
"Well, where did you park your car?"
"I didn't park anywhere. I'm an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker."
"What county are you in?"
"I don't know what county I'm in. I'm at Sunrise Mountain in New Jersey."
"So where do you live in New Jersey?"
"I don't live in New Jersey."
"Then where is your car?"

After ten or fifteen minutes of this, someone else in the 911 call center overhears their conversation and tells the woman "Patch her through to the police now."

Pharr Davis may not have had a car at the time, but in both books I was struck by how much time all three travelers and their companions spent being driven around by friends, relatives and hosts. The amount of driving involved in the average Appalachian Trail through-hike is pretty amazing.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Nice post. Remember that the AT is not the East Coast Greenway, and purposefully goes through parks and forested areas relatively far from built-up areas. So through-hikers need to get to the trail from where they live, and if they take a break either to visit a friend or just get a shower, they need to get from the trail to the friend's house, usually by motor vehicle.