Bill Bryson, My First 5k, and a Reckless Betrayal of My Childhood Sanctuary

It seems like all of us have a favorite musician or author, someone whose every work lines our shelves, bought simply because it was produced by an artist we admire. For instance, my husband automatically buys every MXPX album. For my own part, I collect the works of a few people: the Indigo Girls, Garrison Keillor’s collections of the News from Lake Wobegon, and the works of Bill Bryson.

Ah, Bill Bryson. Synthesizer of history, relater of amusing anecdotes, shameless lover of the adverb “arrestingly.” The first work of Bill Bryson’s that I came across and immediately had to have was A Walk in the Woods, his fascinating and humorous book on the venerable Appalachian Trail. I’m a fan of travel writing as I rarely travel and certainly have not done any of the sort of world travel I envisioned myself doing when I was a kid. I’m a huge fan and student of the natural world and I love history. Combine all of these interests and you have the ideal reader for A Walk in the Woods. While I’ve enjoyed and even relished reading his other books, it’s this first one I read that I keep coming back to.

Now, you may recall my summer hike at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with my sister, Alison. If not, you can read about it it here, here, here, and here. I’m already looking forward to and brainstorming our next hike. We can’t take off weeks and months at a time, leaving work and family behind, to hike through whole states, but the impulse to get outside and just start walking down a beguiling trail that disappears into the woods is one I feel often. So imagine my glee at finding a used-yet-never-opened audio version of A Walk in the Woods read by Bill Bryson himself. Now as I drive I am accompanied by Bryson, the incomparable Stephen Katz, the insufferable Mary Ellen, and a host of other wonderful people walking the AT.

These were my companions as I drove to my hometown of Essexville on Friday in preparation for my very first 5k race on Saturday. I’d been training since late July (ever since my muscles stopped screaming at me after my hiking trip, in fact), though I slacked off a bit in October (for some strange reason I can only be diligent at something–anything–in two-month intervals). But as I drove toward the “thumb-pit” of the Mitten and listened to Bill Bryson talk of mountains, I had a renewed sense of the value of real physical exertion, of sweating and struggling to accomplish a goal with one’s body.

When I started running in July, my goal was simply to be able to run for five kilometers without having to stop. That’s it. And I was so far from that goal, I thought I would be very lucky to reach it. In fact, it only took a month of running three times a week to reach that goal. In the process I lost more than ten pounds (I was also watching what I was eating) which, according to knowledgeable people, is the equivalent of losing 30-40 pounds of pressure off your joints whilst running. So the process of training has been very beneficial and I was just happy that I wouldn’t completely embarrass myself.

The morning of the race was dreary, cold, and drizzly, and during the first mile I thought perhaps my fingers might go numb, but by mile two I was feeling good. My sister and I ran together the entire time and crossed the finish line at almost the same second. Our time was more than twice the time of the winner (who ran it in 18:56–just over 6 minutes a mile) but we did it and it was for a good cause.

The route brought Alison and I past our old junior high and high schools, my husband’s childhood home and church, many former homes of friends, and our own house, which we lived in from 1983 to 1998. We jogged by and marveled at the size of trees we remembered helping our father plant. We puzzled over the strange fencing choice of later owners. And I realized with a measure of horror and sadness that someone had cut down my beloved apple tree.

My tree. The one I spent untold hours sitting in, just me and my little girl thoughts. The one I could scamper up in but a moment, knowing, as I did, where all the right limbs were. The one that was covered in perfect, fragrant white blossoms that gently rained down on us each spring. The one that dropped bucketloads of tiny, deformed, sour green apples all over our lawn, which my sister and I would then have to gather in plastic grocery bags before dad mowed. (Alison, being the older, more responsible sister, would rush out to do the chore immediately upon being asked, while I, the slow-moving and distracted second child, would wander out once I heard the mower in the side yard to find that she had picked up all the hard green apples and left me the brown, gooey, rotting ones. Every time.)

It was gone. In its place was a little chintzy wooden jungle gym with a plastic slide, such as you might buy at Menards or Home Depot. A jungle gym? Why would you remove a gorgeous tree God clearly made for climbing and replace it with a freaking jungle gym? Did they not see that this was like draining a perfectly lovely lake only to replace it with one of those hideous blue inflatable above-ground pools? Now, I had asked my parents several times for a jungle gym as a child. Our neighbor had one, but we could only use it if he was out there, already playing, and invited us to come over. But Dad always said no. He didn’t want one because he thought they were tacky. They are. Still, you wouldn’t have had to cut down the world’s most perfect climbing tree to fit one into the yard. Why would they do such an idiotic and heartless thing?

But the race went on and I had to leave behind the monstrosity of the jungle gym in order to complete the task at hand.

On the way back to our parents’ condo after the race, Alison and I stopped at Tim Horton’s for coffee and a snack and met someone that Bill Bryson might describe as “an arrestingly congenial white-haired gentleman wearing a bright red shirt that declared on the front in bold white block letters, ‘Official Canadian Greeter,’ and on the back ‘Cliff, Numéro 1.'” When pressed, Cliff admitted he was not Canadian but that he had visited Nova Scotia with his wife. He said many other charming, old-man things and was a delightful addition to our respite from the gray drear outside.

After showers and lunch and Scrabble, I headed home again accompanied by the voice of Bill Bryson describing his dissatisfying attempts to cover portions of the Appalachian Trail a bit at a time without his boon companion Stephen Katz. His vague disappointment matched the rainy weather through which I drove. And then about the time he and Katz met back up to tackle the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine, the rain stopped and the clouds in the distance over Lansing broke open, pouring the evening sun down upon earth with gracious abandon. At home I weathered an attack with Nerf swords carried out by my four-year-old son and chased a foam football around the yard as he, with fits of giggles, threw it backwards over his head to me in the deepening twilight.

We have no good climbing tree at our house, a thought that occasionally pains me as I see my boy scampering around at the many parks in our city. I feel in some way I have failed him by not providing that essential structure that afforded me so much desired solitude. But at least, I can now tell myself, there’s nothing sacred for some heartless future homeowner to cut down.

3 thoughts on “Bill Bryson, My First 5k, and a Reckless Betrayal of My Childhood Sanctuary

  1. Oh, har, har. The only tree I want to cut down in our yard has been visibly dying for the past seven years. I will replace it with lovely, blossom-heavy tree anyway. 🙂

  2. A Bill Bryson fan! Hands down, one of my favorite writers. I’ve got most of his books. Really enjoyed your post. Thanks Erin!

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