I recently finished reading Lying on the Trail, a series of vignettes and tall tales by Just Bill. It was inscribed with the words “Page Numbers were invented to keep down the man” which went along well with the back cover material “Why waste your time reading some silly blurb on the butt of a book when you could be looking it square in the eye, and reading the words straight in the mouth?”
Sometimes irreverent, often snarky, and with a sort of honesty that can only come with exaggerated stories, Lying On the Trail is an outdoor book that reads like a campfire story. The starting chapters even set up the campfire scene and the end winds the fire down, letting the narrator go along his way with tales from trails and places around the country, infused with humor and lessons.
By taking the strategy that Lawton “Disco” Grinter’s I Hike takes—to tell single stories instead of taking on one thru-hike chronologically—the material in Lying on the Trail stays fresh and takes the reader to new and exciting places and situations. I love that Just Bill’s book doesn’t even pretend to be always truthful. I frequently think about how a small change in a story could make it even better.
From the reader’s perspective—the truth is less important than an entertaining tale—especially when the tale comes with a wise lesson.
Lying On the Trail is a quick read (I read it on a plane ride) but comes with a profundity that exceeds its brevity. Every hiking book talks a little about how the trail heals, how the trail teaches us that people are good, etc. etc. but some of the lessons in Lying on the Trail have the kind of wisdom that you can only get after thinking and walking on a topic for a long, long time. Despite the exaggeration of his stories, it rings with clarity that usually takes a lot of visits to a therapists’ chair to come to grips with.
Just Bill winds Native American tales and spirituality into the book, at times seeming slightly strange, and at times, insightful. The thing is, he knows that it’s weird and he admits he’s “just a white fella who grew up in the ‘burbs.” He knows that sometimes the words and concepts we use in English just don’t cut it, and can’t really be used to get across an idea that you only get from a lot of reflection.
As with any book of this kind, some of the vignettes were better than others, some of the quotes at the beginning of chapters were better than others. But my favorite vignettes were so good, that I had to take out my pencil and underline the words. And some of the quotes he uses at the beginning of chapters, I am going to steal and use as quotes in the beginning of my chapters. His most profound points in the book dealt with time and attitude and staying present—ideas that are enormously important to hikers, but are so, so hard to learn, even for those of us who have hiked a lot. His vignette about speed hiking and records especially struck me. And his Leave No Trace story was done so logically, so gently, so humanly, that it took a whole different approach to an ethic that can sometimes seem preachy and legalistic.
I’ve never met Just Bill, though I understand from his book that he is quite active on WhiteBlaze.net. Yet, I feel like I have an idea of his spirit and values from this book, and hope that one day, I can honestly say I understand the deeper message behind his book of lies.
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