Saturday, February 14, 2015

2014-02-14 Book review: Lying on the Trail, by Just Bill

Tall Tales under Tall Trees

"Never let the facts get in the way of a good story," Sam Clemens is widely reported to have advised an aspiring author, "unless you can't think of anything better." In this volume, Just Bill takes Clemens's advice to heart. From the very moment that he introduces himself, he boisterously proclaims that he is a liar.

He then launches in on a series of stories - lies, if you will. They range far and wide: in his own words,

This isn't your typical ball of yarns concernin' life on the trail. No step by step story of a single walk taken. It's a haphazard collection of bright and shineys for your entertainment. Keep in mind that I may offend, disgust, or displease you from time to time and for certain; I'll lie to you.

A few common threads bind the tales. There are moments shared of a southbound thru-hike attempt on the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, aborted in Pennsylvania with a combination of injuries and Lyme Disease, of another aborted attempt to make a record time completing the Vermont Long Trail, of grand canoe outings in the Boundary Waters and of climbing Colorado Fourteeners.

Interspersed among them are extended meditations upon Nature and our relationship with Her, couched in the framework of Native American stories. In these, Just Bill attempts to create a mythos for our time, a spirituality for Twenty-First Century wanderers. Do not expect to find him telling the traditional tales of any nation. Coyote the Trickster appears often, sometimes as Just Bill's alter ego Coyote Thunder Owl. Nevertheless, Bill is not telling the traditional takes of Coyote; he is telling his own - either made up out of whole cloth, for Just Bill is a liar, or else whispered to him by Coyote himself, or heard in the breath of the Spirit That Moves in All Things.

There's the occasional tale shared at second hand - lore passed from hiker to hiker, with the tales growing in the telling. These tales are like their subjects - gifts given for the sake of the trail, and repaid by the trail with interest in surprising ways. Borrowing and repaying a spoon turns into a magnificent adventure in minimalist backpacking in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness of Maine. A gift of a few fuel tablets for an Esbit stove turns into a long chain of "trail magic" given and received. "It was something special," stammered out by a reminiscing hiker, is the inadequate but true sentiment as what goes around, comes around again and again.

Younger and more sensitive readers will not enjoy these tales: sexual innuendoes, scatological stories, and Rabelaisian accounts of overindulgences will be found here. Readers with a hiker's earthy sensibilities, nevertheless will find that like Paul Bunyan, Just Bill walks with his boots in the mud (or some other, more unpleasant substance) and his head in the clouds. From the lofty perspective he dispenses truths, in the guise of lies, to inform the side of his being that remains anchored to the dirty ground.

"Just Bill, are you really a liar?"

...

Finally, he turns to answer your question. With the last gasp of firelight dancing in his eyes, he gives you an answer.

"Sometimes."

"Just Bill" (Townsend, William M., III)
Lying on the Trail: a collection of lies told by a liar
Self-published, 2014
ISBN 13: 978-1503193871
ISBN 10: 1-503-19387-X

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