Monday, January 11, 2010

Calvin, McCandless, and Me

I've decided I'm going to walk the Appalachian Trail, and I'm pretty sure I want to do it in the next five years, otherwise I'll be older and smarter and full of the angst of unfulfilled dreams. Like most of the people I know.

It's really just because I love nature, and love being in nature, and pretty much sweat the whole thing. No, I'm not the guy that explores Central Park or the rest stop on the Interstate, I need to be surrounded by woods, and so far I've done decent jobs of it. Some in Alaska, a lot in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, some in Vermont (Green Mountain Range) and some in New York State (though not as much as I'd like). I've been around, but the Appalachian Trail is really what I want to do. I'm not sure when this fascination for nature came about, but I'm pretty sure it had to do with Calvin and Hobbes.

Probably the most famous of the comics from the eighties to the early nineties or whenever, Calvin and Hobbes was a mainstay in The Press of Atlantic City, my local paper when I was younger. Every Sunday (we only got the Sunday paper) I'd zoom outside and grab the paper, my feet clad in white socks with black bottoms from the wet driveway. On the way back inside I would shell the front page and sports section like a hard-boiled egg and run back into my room, to look at the only colored pages that mattered to me.

This was back before Nancy got reverted (badly) back to it's 1933 roots and when Charles Schultz was still churning out funny stuff from time time, before the Parkinson's got so bad none of the characters had straight lines. Beetle Baily still got stomped by the Sarge and Bloom County was still around (though hardly something I understood). I still read Family Circus, hoping for a funny joke here and there (although I think I mainly read them when Billy went on his adventures and a segmented line indicated his path).

But Calvin and Hobbes was the first one I read, every time, even when we started getting the real paper during the week (or at least Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays). It was the drawing that really got to me. Bill Watterson could really get trees down. I've always liked to doodle and draw myself, though I don't think I'd win any contests since mainly what I liked drawing was stuff I'd never seen before: Mountains. I liked drawing trees on cliff sides overlooking long, flat valleys and caves built into low foothills under the Rockies or perhaps an idle tower of rock poking up like a black tooth from a desert landscape in a lonely corner of Nevada (or Utah, or Arizona. Like I said, I'd never really seen any of those things, and the internet wasn't around).

What struck me about Bill Watterson was that he could draw those things, did draw those things, and the best part was that he captured them the way my mind saw them: as funny shapes against a stark background, or a wealth of color on a blank canvas. Calvin and Hobbes (even with the limited colors at first) spoke of an imaginary world that mimicked our own so well that no one would ever be able to tell the difference. It wasn't Utah, it was Calvin's backyard, it wasn't the foothills of Appalachia, it was the long, endless forest behind Calvin's house that he'd go traversing through, his best friend at his side, in search of hills to ride his wagon down, hidden flags for Calvinball, and cool rocks to carry back home and put on his windowsill.

I wanted Calvin's backyard, I wanted the otherworldly feeling I got from those comics, and to be perfectly honest, I still do. I've been camping many times, I've lived without electricity and powered lighting and cell phones and television, without the help of the internet, books, or even a tent. For me it was always about communing with nature, always about being free from the things that other people could not see living without. They were my Calvin trips. Sometimes I was alone (though I was surrounded by people), sometimes with my friends, but always with nature and the world. It felt good to cast all the woes and worries of civilization away with the phone in my car, left to wander for a day or so, or to leave all those things at home and go camp out for a week with little to no amenities from society.

But Appalachian Trail, man. That's where it's at, really. That's the Holy Grail for me. For some it's Alaska, like Christopher McCandless. McCandless was a kid from the East Coast who (like me) resented modern society and most of the bullshit stresses and warrantless misunderstandings of human nature. He (unlike me) however, decided to ditch the money he had, hop into his Datsun, and bail. He lived for two years on the road, never staying in one place for very long, never stopping to think too long and hard about anything. When he was tired he slept, when he felt like moving on, he did, and he let nothing tie him down (including his car after a flash flood had killed the battery). He lived month after month as a vagrant, a hobo, living off the land and needing nothing.

However, McCandless was also a little too loose, not unlike Calvin when he decided to run away to the Yukon. McCandless's dream, his Holy Grail, was Alaska. He decided to get up there, probably for one last big adventure, but unfortunately he had been reading a lot of Tolstoy and Thoreau, and not a lot of survival magazines or books concerning the biggest frontier in the United States. Five months after being dropped off with little more than a couple of tuna fish sandwiches and ten pounds of rice on the Stampede Trail just East of Denali State Park, Christopher McCandless was found dead in an abandoned bus, literally walking distance from food or help, starved to death (although some think it may have been due to poison from eating moldy seeds). He made two errors in his great journey: no map, no research. There was a line of cabins near the site where he died, but he had never found them because he thought he was in the middle of nowhere, and his return up the trail was stopped because the summer run-off from the mountains nearby had blocked his way out. If he'd had a map, he'd have found those cabins, if he had done some research (or hadn't stuck to the desert for most of his other travels), he would have realized that tiny streams in April can become untraversible rivers when the snow melts. Even Calvin read a map (though he thought the Yukon was literally inches away, because he had no idea how to read one. I mean, he's six.)

I'm not mocking McCandless, though. I totally understand where he was coming from, and agree with him on almost all points. Living on the grid does suck, it's a nuisance and worrisome and a pain in the ass. I'd love to go off and live like Calvin in the woods, alone or otherwise, finding and expereincing the beauty in the world all around us. However, though I want to, I probably won't. I like writing, I'd like to get a book out some day. I'd like to have a wife and kids and all that shit that McCandless didn't want or understand (and that Calvin didn't want to understand). I'll probably do the Appalachian Trail, or at least enough of it to make me feel accomplished, and I'll come back to the world and pay my taxes like a good automaton. Does this make me a sell-out, a grevious wretch who's going back on his ideals, cashing in on those things that make me lazy, weak, and misunderstood? Maybe. But I know that when I come back from the Trail and see my family and go back to work or whatever that I did something I had always wanted to do, gone somewhere I'd always wanted to go, and that I had accomplished something worth doing.

I think Calvin would understand.

"Christopher McCandless -." Wikipedia. Web. 11 Jan. 2010.
"Calvin and Hobbes -." Wikipedia. Web. 11 Jan. 2010.
Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild (MTI). New York: Anchor, 2007. Print.

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1 comment:

  1. I was looking for some reference for an assignment on Chris McCandless that I'm writing for my English class. This is very well written and inspiring! This is the first time I've seen your blog, and I can tell you not only like to write, but also to let people know what's on their mind. It's articles like this that help people expand on their own thoughts on life. Thank you for sharing this! :D