Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Betty Of The Backcountry

A couple of months ago I stumbled on a forum post asking about a hiking or backpacking book for someone's wife. He wanted something from a woman's perspective so his wife could get a better feel for the subject. That, and join him on the trail, once she got inspired and had some of her doubts smoothed.

Well "Backcountry Betty: Roughing it in style" would have been a good bet. I just stumbled over it a couple of weeks ago and decided to read it myself. One thing that intrigued me is that, flipping through the book I could tell that the author was a good writer. The style is smooth and professional. Most outdoor books plod.

Reading this book is like taking a short run and sliding across clean, flawless, frictionless ice. But it isn't cold. Just the opposite. It's a warm book. The style is breezy and friendly, and you can tell that the author is in charge of every word, each nuance. She knows what she is doing.

Which isn't surprising. She makes her living from writing, has around 20 books out, and writes for major publications. That's hard to do well, and a tough way to earn your pay. Her name is Jennifer Worick. The illustrator is Kate Quinby. The entire editorial and publishing team is female. I thought this would be a good chance to understand the female outdoor perspective a little better.

First let's get some housekeeping done. Here are the chapters:
  1. First things first: hygiene.
  2. Getting your glam on in the Amazon.
  3. Eating out(side).
  4. Camping it up.
  5. Entertaining at Camp Betty.
  6. Wild thing, I think I love you.
  7. Let's get physical.
  8. The wild life.
If you're really interested, read it. I'm not going into excruciating detail. The chapter titles are all teasers, but you can guess about what each one covers. I think I could sum up the book's main themes as
  • How to deal with the icky outdoors.
  • How to throw a party in the icky outdoors.
  • How to decorate the icky outdoors.
  • Nooky in the icky outdoors.
  • Basic skills for the icky outdoors.
  • Assorted things about animals.
It became clear really fast that I wasn't going to learn much about women from this book. I'm sure that somewhere in a film vault, and maybe available now on VHS and DVD is a camping episode of "I Love Lucy". Spend a half hour with that or spend three hours with this book. You get about the same either way. One has sound and moving images and the other is more up to date.

For a while I wasn't sure how to categorize "Backcountry Betty". Categorizing any work of art sucks. It's plain dumb. Anything worth exploring is more than one dimensional, but categorizing something gives it a place to stay, a shelf to put it on. From there it's easy to pull it back down and give it attention. So I had to decide what I'd call "Backcountry Betty", in fewer than five words. Preferably one.

"Manual" is out. This is not a how-to book. No one is going to use the instructions on how to decorate a camp site with stone cairns and sticks, and make wind chimes out of pine cones.

"Satire" doesn't work either, though it's closer. The book, and the author's approach are too earnest. There isn't enough self-consciousness or self mockery. To play the satire game you have to mimic something and either show how ridiculous it is or go out of your way to make it ridiculous. You want satire, try "The Colbert Report". OK, now you get it. Considering the state of how-to books on the outdoors, this wouldn't have been hard, but it probably wouldn't have had much audience either, only a teeny-tiny one.

Next up I thought about comedy. That seemed closest. This book is supposed to be funny, even ridiculous in parts, but it still has truth. It's not grade school level silliness, but it isn't serious. I would guess that the author has gone on some hikes, and stayed out overnight a few times, and hasn't gone beyond that.

The author does a good job of covering the idea of "leave no trace" and mentions the essential items to take along (which is either the "Five Essentials" or the "10 Essentials" or the "16 Essentials", depending on whose list you read these days. There are sound words about how and where to build a fire, and bathe, and so on. This is the interesting part. I'd bet, as I said, that the author has basically no outdoor experience but she has done a slick job of folding in all those things that a knowledgeable and responsible writer should. She's a quick study then, as well as being a fine writer. I liked watching her do that.

But those sections aren't the core of the book. The core is fluff. Interesting, well-written fluff, but goofy. And fluff. Like this: "Looking good is important to women, no matter where we might find ourselves...Some might not consider sleeping in a tent and sporadic showering roughing it. For me, it was like journeying into the Middle Ages."

And later: "To sex up your bunk, consider draping exotic fabrics (which can double as a sarong) on your bed or from the ceiling. Secure it in the center of the tent and gently drape it and pin it to the sides for a billowing 'sultan in a sandstorm' effect...Hang or place camping lanterns or flashlights safely away from fabric and on the lowest setting. Affix acetate or clear plastic stickers to your lantern so that it emits a soft or patterned glow."

Anyone up for hanging a few gasoline lanterns around the tent after a 20-mile day? This isn't serious, and the author clearly knows it. She's playing with the idea of leaving pavement but not leaving sight of it. It's both fantasy and comedy. And it's done really well.

I admit that I didn't get a whole lot of fun out of reading "Backcountry Betty". No doubt there are hundreds or thousands of women who think this book is adorable. Hey, it is. But not so much for me, unless it had really been satirical, like Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat". Then I could have felt invited to the party. Not so much with the book that is "Backcountry Betty".

Try it yourself. Take a quote from Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat", published in 1889: "I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours."

Everyone can get that.

Try a longer quote from the beginning of chapter six:
It was a glorious morning, late spring or early summer, as you care to take it, when the dainty sheen of grass and leaf is blushing to a deeper green; and the year seems like a fair young maid, trembling with strange, wakening pulses on the brink of womanhood.

The quaint back streets of Kingston, where they came down to the water's edge, looked quite picturesque in the flashing sunlight, the glinting river with its drifting barges, the wooded towpath, the trim-kept villas on the other side, Harris, in a red and orange blazer, grunting away at the sculls, the distant glimpses of the grey old palace of the Tudors, all made a sunny picture, so bright but calm, so full of life, and yet so peaceful, that, early in the day though it was, I felt myself being dreamily lulled off into a musing fit.

I mused on Kingston, or "Kyningestun," as it was once called in the days when Saxon "kinges" were crowned there. Great Caesar crossed the river there, and the Roman legions camped upon its sloping uplands. Caesar, like, in later years, Elizabeth, seems to have stopped everywhere: only he was more respectable than good Queen Bess; he didn't put up at the public-houses.

She was nuts on public-houses, was England's Virgin Queen. There's scarcely a pub of any attractions within ten miles of London that she does not seem to have looked in at, or stopped at, or slept at, some time or other. I wonder now, supposing Harris, say, turned over a new leaf, and became a great and good man, and got to be Prime Minister, and died, if they would put up signs over the public-houses that he had patronised: "Harris had a glass of bitter in this house;" "Harris had two of Scotch cold here in the summer of '88;" "Harris was chucked from here in December, 1886."

No, there would be too many of them! It would be the houses that he had never entered that would become famous. "Only house in South London that Harris never had a drink in!" The people would flock to it to see what could have been the matter with it.
I get that too. It teaches me nothing about rowing a boat through Victorian England that I don't already know, from the technical end, and a lot of the specifics of Victorian England are beyond my ken, only strange, incomprehensible, picturesque details, but I can understand three scruffy guys flailing around in a boat, stumbling over each other, being alternately miserable and giddy with elation, and making fun of themselves and the whole damn enterprise.

Maybe I'm just stuck in the guy thing. I hear that women, most women, are disgusted and repelled by the Three Stooges. Most guys choke to death laughing. Jerome belongs on their side of the fence.

So there's some of that. I do not quite get it, "Backcountry Betty". Ultimately I decided that the right category for "Backcountry Betty" is comic books. This is not a put down at all, even though I'm obviously not absolutely tuned to the right frequency on this one. Comic books are now "graphic novels". This isn't a novel, but though the existing illustrations are fine, the book could have done with more. Many, many more. "Backcountry Betty" screams to be a comic book. That would suit it perfectly.

That would be a reasonable and entertaining excuse for how to mix fresh vegetables and sauces with freeze-dried food. Show us! The author pre-cooking and pre-packaging perishable foods for later gourmet meals on the trail. Show us! And what would really happen if she did. A perfect excuse to show us! Although this is a comedy the author deadpans (in a sprightly and entertaining way) most of the time. I would love to see illustrations of settling the back country kitchen into a pack. Here's a rundown of the essentials:
  • Camp stove and fuel [note: not a backpacking stove]
  • Cooler
  • Skillet
  • Saucepan with lid
  • Large mixing spoon
  • Plates
  • Sharp knife
  • Forks, knives, and spoons for each person [note: she doesn't say how many of each, per person]
  • Ziploc (to shake and bake and to secure your aromatic foods)
  • Thermos (for mixing up liquids)
Let alone the exotic draperies or assorted camping lanterns for evening fun. Me, I don't even carry a spoon anymore, or anything resembling a cooking pot, and don't actually cook either, so I would really, really enjoy seeing Betty, in full color, drawn well.

OK, overall I'll say this was a good read. It will never be my favorite book but I don't want one. You want a book that will make you scream and blow snot, check the end of this piece, but favorite books are like best friends. You can have a new one every week. So it's not an issue anyway. So let's get to the issues.

One, the author doesn't know what she's talking about when it comes to the outdoors. This is obvious, and OK by me. Not a defect. I really, thoroughly enjoyed watching a real pro pull together alien concepts and explain them in a clear and simple way without understanding them from bitter experience. (I always have to learn the hard way.) When I say simple, I mean it in the best sense of that short and sturdy word. Forget the idea of whipping up an impromptu Zen sand garden at the end of a day's hike to decorate the camp site. Yeah. Forget it. Not a problem. That's what this book is about, after all.

One thing does bug me, one thing only, which isn't bad. The editor or fact checker should have vetted the sections on poisonous snakes. "If you have a snakebite kit handy, wash the bite and place the suction device over the affected area. Do not suck the poison out with your mouth!" OK, the last sentence is fine. Unfortunately more gangrene, deaths and amputations are caused by people trying to hack themselves up with snake bite kits and do the sucky thing than are actually seriously harmed by poisonous snakes, even if bitten. This advice should be removed.

Sort of off in left field, there are other things buzzing around. "Backcountry Betty" obviously isn't a book on backpacking, and no woman who actually goes backpacking is likely to mistakenly take it seriously, but scents. Let's talk about them. A example: "Scent is important...amp up your tent with lavender and rosemary pillows or sachets...." Not good. In another place the author suggests more of the same, and it's all likely to attract unwanted midnight visitors, even in a drive-up campground.

So I have a couple of issues. One big one and a few tiny ones.

But overall this is a fine book. It's an easy read, it's a smooth read, it's a fine read. The author knows how to write good. I'd like to be so good when I grow up. Me write words good when I big too.

And now for something completely different. Try Mil Millington's "Love and Other near-Death Experiences". It is not about hiking or camping or backpacking. It is about relationships and about life and death and will make you squeal like a happy pig. No point in trying to convince you. Just go take a look. Try finding both "Love and Other near-Death Experiences" and "Backcountry Betty" at your library, and read them together. You ought to enjoy both of them.


Jennifer Worick
"Prairie Tales" blog by Jennifer Worick
Another woman's perspective on life, and traveling: "Dork Whore", by Iris Bahr
Jerome K. Jerome books online
"Things my girlfriend and I have argued about" web pages by Mil Millington