Have you ever thought of going hiking / bushwalking?

The more the more adventures I undertake, the more I hike or bushwalk or go cycle touring, the more people I talk to who want to know about what adventure I’m doing next. There used to be a time when some people would harass me for not ‘living in the real world’ or ‘getting a real job’ but thankfully those people now understand what I do is who I am and accept me and my choices.

Going on an adventure is always transformative. Not matter how many times you go out and challenge yourself something always occurs that is either unexpected or puts you in a situation you’re not comfortable with. Some adventures change you in significant ways, some in smaller more subtle ways. A significant change may be deciding what you’re going to do with your life next. This could be deciding to go on more adventures or change of career or move cities. A small alteration may be feeling more calm, deciding you’re going to be more active or eat better food. Maybe you’ll drink less alcohol and drive your stinky cars less? My point is there’s always a change.

Another piece of the puzzle that emerges out of these adventure conversations is that most people once dreamt and even came close to going on an adventure of their own, only to have some other aspect of life obstruct their plans. There are always sacrifices and you can’t be in two places at once. If I can make an unverified generalisation it would be this: most people who prioritise adventures care less about owning and maintaining their own house. Going on adventures creates the cycle of feeling like you need less material possessions and less material possessions enables you to go on more adventures. But being adventurous is not without its own sacrifices. You’re less able to build that sense of community with your local cafe or neighbours.

When you have time and funds to go traveling do you consider going hiking? Do you think: I’d like to go bushwalking, but I only have fours weeks holidays a year and I’m not wasting that when I could be lying in a pool or going to a great art gallery.

As I gear up and get ready to fly to Canberra to begin walking the Australian Alps Walking Track – as I walk to the park and practice setting up my new zpacks hexamid solo-plus tent, as I consider what food I’ll take and what stove I’ll use, the excitement builds and the nervousness grows. The unknowns make you fearful. Yes, there are exciting times, but mostly the experience is peaceful and rehabilitating. Yes, climbing a steep hill with a full pack is hard work, but sitting beside a pristine river reading a book  makes up for it. So I encourage you, if you’ve ever thought about going on a big long adventure, make the sacrifice, it’s always worth it.

 

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My tent set up in the park

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Horatio 

In Fremantle I walk from op shop to op shop, the heels of my feet growing sorer and sorer and every now and then I take a chunk out of a day old roll in a white paper bag and jam it into my mouth. I’m looking for a lamp but I end up buying an old book about walking in Lebanon. There are pages and pages about gods but most of it goes over my head. At the entrance to the final op-shop, I decide to finish the roll so I pace up and along the footpath chewing and breathing through my nose. Inside I’m a little short of breath and there are no lamps but lots of books so I’m looking at the books the way a tall person might enter a short doorway, when I see the great god-like artist Horatio perusing the cutlery section. Horatio’s texta masterpiece is on the western wall of Gino’s cafe and admired by many, including the art critic Marty M. M. who was so moved by the intricate work that a shower of gold coins splattered into a specially erected tip table. For my own part I was impressed by the way in which Horatio ignored Marty and I as we stood there observing the work the way some might view Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Other than the stoop in his shoulders (as he moved close to the wall with texta held like a world champion dart throwing), Horatio was no slouch.

As I edged my way along the book shelf my mind returned to my previous thoughts of some day engaging with Horatio. One small dream lead to another until I arrived at the thought of befriending Horatio and perhaps convincing him to partake in a friendly interview for my blog and then spending the afternoon together cackling over several rounds of double espressos and arguing about philosophy and greek gods and climate change. Surely a man who could create such moving works of art harboured an unfathomable and inexhaustible well of wisdom and he would choose me, me, J. P. Quinton to pass that wisdom on to other public intellectuals in the 6160 postcode. I looked up from a copy of Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net and saw Horatio was wearing a bowlers hat, and old but classy sports coat, jeans and sneakers. It looked as though our paths would cross in  final aisle. This was the moment, I thought, I’ll bag my next interview for sure right here in front of the cricket sets.

Excuse me, um, sir, I said, somewhat embarrassed. It was as if his bowlers hat moved first and his head followed. His eyes met mine and his body moved backward in a manner that suggested we were about go shopping in Sale of the Century. Are you the artist working on the wall near Gino’s? Yes, he answered. My approach was possibly too direct – straight for the art – like some inexperienced dealer. Oh, how long have you been working on it for? Horatio frowns as if he’d just downed a shot of lemon juice. Up until about ten minutes ago, he answers. No, I mean, I said, when did you begin working on it? I took a step back. He looked at the broken badminton racquets, How long is a piece of string? he answered with a question, everybody asks me that. I was too caught up in the moment to realise he was saying I was a stupid idiot for asking such a banal question. It appeared that he was asked the same question so many times that he now no longer met the question with any logic and preferred to answer his own question which was how much longer do you think it will take you? I was perplexed. My resolve the chase a story to it’s gritty end was being tested and those observing would see I didn’t have the guts. He hung around in the vicinity for a little while longer basking in the glory of his fame yet satisfied with having brushed off another annoying synchophant. Is that your work behind the buildings down on the corner of Wray Ave? I asked, in my final effort to salvage our future together, gesturing with my right hand in the direction of the associated public artwork. I failed again. He didn’t even answer. He looked at me like I had pooed on his mothers grave and walked off toward the pants.

In just a few short seconds I had gone from admiration, to the hope of a lasting and fulfilling friendship, to being flummoxed to ultimately regretting imparting with the dregs of my student stipend on that sunny day with Marty, who had a funny tummy from a previous night of drinking. Now everytime I walk past Gino’s I wonder what Michelangelo said whenever anyone met him. Michelangelo, when did you begin working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? To which he would naturally reply: How long is a piece of string?

 

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – review

Bryson is popular. His writing style allows for fast, readily digested prose. There appears to be no subject he is unable to broach. His narratives are simple and erudite. His messages are a mixture of learning and experience. In A Walk in the Woods (AWITW) Bryson attempts to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in America. His attempt is unsuccessful, for Bryson is someone who writes books, and decides to go for a hike, rather than the other way around. Bryson is more comfortable at home surrounded by books. The majority of A Walk in the Woods is Bryson relaying information from other books, sharing his experiences of hotels/motels/bunkhouses off the trail, and at one point a monologue about how he’d given up walking to reconnaissance the Appalachian Trail by car. A Walk in the Woods is not a book for me, even though I found it easy to read.

For such a well known author, little is written about Bryson’s style and technique in academic journals. Actually, most journals ignore him completely. Mostly it’s glowing reviews in online newspapers. One serious article ‘Including Appalachian Stereotypes in Multicultural Education: An Analysis of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods’ takes Bryson to task for his depiction of hicks and hillbillies.
Stefano Calzati argues in ‘Travelling and writing and the form of travel writing: Reconsidering Bill Bryson’s (supposed) postcolonial legacy’ “that travelling and writing are two “practices of knowledge” which promote per se the marking of differences. In this regard, travel writing, as the novelistic genre that derives from such practices, cannot help but reproduce the epistemological distance between the self and the world.” And this is the overwhelming feeling that I take from Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods – his account re-enforces, through his armchair approach, rather than eliminates, the distance between the self and the world.

Bryson’s phenomenology is filtered through his project, his style and his constant attempts to shock the reader to keep reading.
Bryson is more serious about writing a book than walking the Appalachian. There are three main elements that comprise AWITW. The elements do not always hang together well, but the writer is able, through his prose, to weave them together. The first element is his commission by his publisher to write a book. The second element, is the Don Quixote set up. The third aspect that pads the book out are the lectures. When Bryson gets bored with one element he falls back on the other.

The first, why would Bryson disclose to his readers that his publisher had commissioned him another book? What purpose does this give to readers? Bryson is attempting to build himself and his reputation up reminding us ‘these books don’t exist in a vacuum’. Also, Bryson, the man, is the main character in his books. He realises that the success of his career hinges on continuity across his works.

The second, the Katz/Bryson play off reminds me of Don Quixote and Sancho, except Bryson isn’t deluded beyond not knowing why he’s walking the trail. Bryson is deluded in thinking he can walk the trail in one season. After walking for a few weeks, Bryson and Katz are killing time in an outfitters which leads to him looking at an overview map of the AT. He figures out that that the trail is long, much longer than he anticipated and instead of resolving to finish the trail, as Don Quixote would, both Katz and Bryson are put off and dejected. The most interesting struggle in the book is Katz’s attempt to quit drinking, but it comes very late in the piece.
Thirdly, unlike Don Quixote, Bryson, the character, can not be too out there, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to enter into armchair lectures on the history and value of a range of subjects consisting of: how dangerous animals are, the history and design of the Appalachian Trail, how Americans use cars too often, underground fires in Centralia, murder, climate change, geology, diseases, how stupid and fat people can be, especially ones who look like they’re from the movie Deliverance, forestry, the rise and fall of townships, hikers preoccupations with gear, botany, misdirected government spending, meteorology, hypothermia, ludditeness, war, ecological destruction, and so on. After a while, the trail becomes a backdrop for these fireside lectures Bryson, one can assume, wrote before or after being on the trail. In this sense the book is about Bryson’s ability to take cues from the trail and weave them into his research. Where he gets this knowledge from we don’t know, there are no references.
There is a morality to his lectures – but his attitude is incongruous to the way he has set himself up to interact with his characters. Bryson wants to give his readers guidance on the one hand, and then ask them to suspend their disbelief in the name of humour. So, for example, when he discusses how the AT avoids towns and is cocooned in green corridors (in contrast to the apparently more advanced designs of English/European trails), Bryson concludes: “doubtless it is all to do with its historic impulse to tame and exploit the wilderness, but America’s attitude to nature is, from all sides, very strange if you ask me.” p258 This is symptomatic of the manner in which Bryson presents his lectures. His information is to serve an agenda and his research concludes at the point where the agenda has been satisfied. The agenda appears to be primarily to provoke people to keep reading. Surely he must know that not all Americans wish to tame the wilderness and that some Americans share his views.
So when we turn to the people Bryson meets on, and (more often) off, the trail we gain more of a reflection of Bryson, than of the people themselves. Again, the agenda is provocation. Here is his telephone interaction when attempting to find a taxi in Gatlinburg:

“‘How much would it be to take two of us to Ernestville?’ I enquired.
‘Dunno’ came the reply.
This threw me slightly. ‘Well how much do you think it would be?’
‘Dunno.’
‘But it’s just down the road.’
There was considerable silence and then the voice said: ‘Yup.’
‘Haven’t you ever taken anybody there before?’
’Nope.’
‘Well, it looks to me on my map like it’s about twenty miles. Would you say that’s about right?’
Another pause. ‘Might be.’
‘And how much would it be to take us twenty miles?’
‘Dunno.’
I looked at the receiver. ‘Excuse me, but I just have to say this. You are more stupid than a paramecium.’
Then I hung up.”

Bryson’s characters are there to make him look smart and to support the preconceived worldview he wishes to push. It is because of this that the subjects of his lectures do not become integrated and he doesn’t appear to recognise the ecology and interconnectedness of the world in which he inhabits. A more enlightening approach would be to manufacture or even seek out an intelligent person who may be more helpful and illuminating. He could work all of his home reading into the voice of his characters.
Because of this provocative style, Bryson leaves himself open to hypocrisy and inconsistency. At the end of the taxi driver episode (in which he and his Sancho (Katz) buddy decide on a whim to give up the idea of walking the entire trail), they find themselves back in the dearth of commercial America, amongst shopping malls and carparks, the opposite of the woodlands they had been walking through:

“But come off the trail, properly off, and drive somewhere, as we did now, and you realize how magnificently deluded you have been. Here, the mountains and woods were just backdrop – familiar, known, nearby, but no more consequential or noticed than the clouds that scudded across their ridgelines. Here the real business was up close and on top of you: gas stations, Wal-Marts, K-marts, Dunkin’ Donuts, Blockbuster videos, a ceaseless unfolding pageant of commercial hideousness.”
While it is not the role of a writer to be morally consistent, it is their role, especially in the context of non-fiction, to research thoroughly and to show their readers an interconnectedness. Instead, when recounting the phase of American history where demand for new world seeds and botanical interest was high, Bryson speaks with celebratory glee, apparently unaware of the relationship between that unregulated process and forestry the ugliness he describes above:

“The first people to venture deep into the woods from the east (the Indians [sic], of course had got there perhaps as much as 20,000 years before them) weren’t looking for prehistoric creatures or passages to the west or new lands to settle. They were looking for plants. America’s botanical possibilities excited Europeans inordinately, and there was both glory and money to be made in the woods. The eastern woods teemed with flora unknown to the old world and there was a huge eagerness, from scientists and amateur enthusiasts alike, to get a piece of it…These and hundreds more were collected in the American woods, shipped across the ocean to England and France and Russia and received with greedy keenness and trembling fingers.”

Contrast the above attitude to the one in this passage:

“In 1987, it [the Forest Service] casually announced that it would allow private timber interests to remove hundreds of acres of wood a year from the venerable and verdant Pisgah National Forest, next door to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and that 80 per cent of that would be through what it calls ‘scientific forestry’ – clear cutting – which is not only a brutal visual affront to any landscape, but brings huge, reckless washoffs that gully the soil, robbing it of nutrients and disrupting ecologies further downstream, sometimes for miles. This isn’t science. It’s rape.”

And then this one:

“And there was a more compelling reason to go. The Appalachians are the home of one of the world’s great hardwood forests– the expansive relic of the richest, most diversified
sweep of woodland ever to grace the temperate world–and that forest is in trouble. If the global temperature rises by 4°C over the next fifty years, as is evidently possible, the whole of the Appalachian wilderness below New England could become savanna. Already trees are dying in frightening numbers. The elms and chestnuts are long gone, the stately hemlocks and flowery dogwoods are going, and the red spruces, Fraser firs, mountain ashes, and sugar maples may be about to follow. Clearly, if ever there was a time to experience this singular wilderness, it was now.”

Bryson does not draw any comparisons between the seed collectors, the forestry service ‘rape’ and climate change. The author seems intent on shocking the reader into further reading without considering an overall scheme. People starting and finishing Bryson’s work appears to be a more important criteria to him than jettisoning contradictory elements in his prose. An argument could be made that being in the same book, and written by the same author would constitute the correlations being drawn, but my opinion is that the structure, the schism between the elementsof the book, prevent such a reading.
When Don Quixote lectures, (Cervantes’ Don Quixote) he is so clearly out of touch with both the other characters in Cervantes story, and to us the readers, that we all humour him. Within Don Quixote’s absurd lectures, however, are some incredible conclusions, some of which we tend to agree with. But the Don Quixote, the character of Bryson, in A Walk Walk in the Woods never strays into the absurd. Often his observations are blatant and his treatment of others’ is cruel. One has to ask that perhaps if we didn’t treat each other the way Bryson treats people in his book, whether the planet would be in the state that it is.

Of course, Bryson and his fans might rebut my above points by claiming ‘lighten up it’s just a bit of fun’, or, present the book as a gateway to more serious studies of wilderness, ecology and nature. It’s creative non-fiction after all, so don’t take the deliberate littering seriously. There are light moments and Bryson does indeed reflect on the wonderful aspects of bushwalking or hiking. These appreciative moments are added and sprinkled throughout as if to remind us that that he’s not a negative bastard. There are some arresting moments that lift the reader up from the negativity I seem to keep returning to. Here’s a moment, on day one of their hike:

“When, after ages and ages, you finally reach the tell-tale world of truly high ground, where chilled air smells of pine gap and the vegetation is gnarled and tough and wind-bent, and push through to the mountain’s open pinnacle, you are, alas, past caring. You sprawl face down on a sloping pavement of gneiss, pressed to the rock by the weight of your pack, and lie there for some minutes, reflecting in distant, out-of-body way that you have never before looked this closely at lichen, not in fact looked this closely at anything in the natural world since you were four years old and had your first magnifying glass.” p53

At the end of the book Bryson wryly states the trail did not change his life: “but I certainly gained an appreciation and respect for the woods and wilderness and the colossal scale of America” p350. Perhaps, if he did complete the trail from one end to the other, if he allowed the experience to become more than an exercise for his publishers, he might have let go of the preconceptions that inhibit transformative processes. It is somewhat troubling that a writer takes on a major project lasting a period of years to finally say to his readers, ‘don’t bother, my book is all you need’. Perhaps he is attempting to provide counterbalance to the apparently naive rights of passage accounts that pervade nature and walking writing? Overall however, Bryson’s work is an intellectual, rather than phenomenological one.

 

References:

Bryson, Bill. 1998, A Walk In the Woods, Black Swan, London, England.

Including Appalachian Stereotypes in Multicultural Education: An Analysis of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods
Herzog, Mary Jean Ronan, Journal of Appalachian Studies, 1 April 1999, Vol.5(1), pp.123-128 [Peer Reviewed Journal]

Stefano Calzati (2015) Travelling and writing and the form of travel writing:
Reconsidering Bill Bryson’s (supposed) postcolonial legacy, Journal of Postcolonial Writing,
51:4, 422-435

Interview with Jesse Fink

The more you find out about Jesse Fink, the more you discover he’s got his shit together. From an outsiders point of view, the release of his 2013 The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC appears to have lifted his standing in the non-fiction genre, but in my discussion with him it becomes clear he’s been at it for a fair while.

James: When you were a teenager, were you writing? If not, what did you get up to?

Jesse: In all honesty, my major preoccupation as a teenager, like most teenagers, was getting laid. I did writing at UTS in Sydney, which was rubbish and a complete waste of time. Far too focused on the theoretical/academic side of writing rather than the practical – like, how to get published; how to write a story that people want to read, etc. The best writing education I ever had was simply from reading great writers – people like David Lodge, Richard Russo, Christopher Koch – and I was fortunate that one of my first jobs was working at Gleebooks’ secondhand bookshop in Sydney. I read a lot of books while working there and spent virtually my entire weekly pay on books. But it was good for my soul and my writing.

James: Were you interested in running and/or soccer at the time?

Click here to read the full interview.

 

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Gearing up for the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT)

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If you click on this link you’ll be taken to the lighterpack website that shows a run down of the gear list I’m taking for the Australia Alps Walking Track.

I’ll be flying to Canberra on the 15th of Feb to start a end to end north to south hike. I’m going to get beat up. You’ll notice an over supply of electronics equipment in the gear list – I’m going to write my PHD on a iphone with a bluetooth keyboard.


Let me quote the great John Chapman to introduce the AAWT to those who have never heard of it before:

“Formerly called ‘The Alpine Walking Track’, the ‘Australian Alps Walking Track’ is a long route that passes through the mountains of Victoria and New South Wales. It is primarily a wilderness style walk as it passes through natural landscapes and there are no major facilities.

The track essentially follows the crest of the alpine range (the alps) from southern Victoria through to the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). On the way it crosses all the highest mountain regions from the Baw Baw Plateau, the Mt Howitt area, the Bogong High Plains, the Cobberras then the Kosciuszko National Park and finally into the Namadgi National Park near Canberra.

In many ways, it is the grandest and most difficult of all the long distance tracks in Australia. It is not the longest but with over 27,000 metres of climbing and descending it is indeed a tough walk (equivalent to more than 3 ascents and descents of Mt Everest!). This equates to between 550m and 800m of climbing and descending each day – definitely not a flat walk! It also crosses a lot of Australia’s best alpine scenery making it a very scenic varied walk.

The official length is 650 km but most follow the route described in the guide book which in the latest edition is 659.6 km. A fair bit of planning is needed, as while there are plenty of minor roads crossing the alps, there are no towns or re-supply points along the track (see itineraries below). There are several ski resorts close to the track, which can provide a rest with a bed and a hot shower, but there are few other facilities. Most end-to-enders spend about 3 days driving and pre-placing food caches before starting the walk.”

 

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Interview with Michael Browning

In October 2014 Michael Browning published his memoir Dog Eat Dog: A story of survival, struggle and triumph by the man who put AC/DC on the world stage. The book is available here through the publisher Allen and Unwin.

I met Michael in 2013 when I was researching my book Bad Boy Boogie: The Adventures of Bon Scott.

Michael was generous with his time and I spoke with him recently about Dog Eat Dog.

James: Your book Dog Eat Dog came out in October 2014 – what was your main motivation for writing it?

Michael:
I was getting hassled by relatives and friends to share my experience.

James: There was a rush of memoirs and AC/DC related books in the last few years – in your own experience, what made you decide ‘bugger it I’m going to put one out’? Do you think it was age that prompted people to record their experiences? Or did it have more to do with the resurgence of AC/DC popularity?

Michael:
I was not particularly motivated by the ACDC books other than to more mindful of conveying the feeling of what it was like actually being there and less obsessed with facts and timelines. I conducted no interviews. My book was entirely from my memories. Not to say that the other ACDC related books ain’t good . Mostly they are but the authors also had a lot of smoke blown up their arses

James: Okay. You credit Jeff Apter in the acknowledgements section at the back of Dog Eat Dog – what was his involvement? Did the manuscript get to a stage where you needed someone’s help? Did the experience of writing put you off?

Michael:
I sent my script to Jeff and he was great at making me go further. Sometimes I would assume the reader would understand what I was saying. But Jeff would make me spell it out. He is a great writer and talent and I was very fortunate to have him bring out the best of my writing

James: Your account is actually quite personal and touching, in a good way. Did you mean for this to happen? Or did you realize half-way thru that in order for the book to work you’d need to allow yourself to be vulnerable?

Michael:
I felt that I had to put myself out there. I am now at a point in my life where I don’t give a shit. So the great thing about speaking the truth is, it sets you free.

James: Have you been able to find long lost friends through the release of Dog Eat Dog?

Michael:
Not really. I was hoping to reconnect with Malcolm. Sadly this appears to be no longer possible. I loved everything about our relationship and always longed to reconnect with him.

James: Being separated from AC/DC meant you could apply your skills and use your contacts with other bands tho, right? INXS would’ve missed out on your experience?

Michael:
It was important to my self belief, post AC/DC to achieve something positive. So I came back to Australia with a view to discover a band that could also do well internationally. I just happened to sign INXS. But I signed them to my label Deluxe Records. For the record I didn’t manage them, I was their record company. Chris Murphy, managed them and he did a great job at it.

James: In Dog Eat Dog you say you felt guilty for not serving in Vietnam, but perhaps AC/DC and INXS wouldn’t exist if you did. Do you ever feel you served your country in a different way?

Michael:
No, I always felt that it was a useless war. But my best mate was a victim. So I felt guilty for not being at his side. I was never going to be there.

James: I see. Big difference. If you were twenty-odd today, would you get involved in music?

Michael:
Yes absolutely, the live music scene that I was involved with has now be taken over by the Internet which is equally exciting. All the old business models have gone and the possibilities are endless. A big day of social media hits is now the equivalent of playing to a huge live audience.

James: Great – and thank you for your time Michael. Last question: after Dog Eat Dog was published was there anything you thought about that you wished you included? Any subjects you might have come at differently?

Michael:
No

 

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