127 Hours Between a Rock and a Hard Place
By Aron Ralston
First, let's cover some blog business. As you can see, I've changed the name of the blog to something more indicative of my living (and reading) situation and the challenges that I have as a reader. I appreciated all the suggestions and I also appreciated all the people who showed support for My Life in Books. I briefly considered keeping it, but the idea of adding Taiwan into the title was too enticing to pass up. I'm going to try Reading in Taiwan on for size for the immediate future, but if I think of something more clever along the way, don't be surprised if I change it again.
Second, someone (I believe it was Zohar from the fabulous blog Man of la Book) who urged me to read more Taiwanese fiction and blog about that. Good god, I wish I could. Fact is, there is precious little Taiwanese literature that is translated into English. I have tried to get my hands on as much as I can but I usually end up with non-fiction books about Taiwan history or culture written by Western writers. It would be nice if there was more Taiwanese literature available to English readers but until that time, I'm stuck reading what I've got. Sorry.
Anyway, let's get on with the blog. I actually have something to say about 127 Hours, or, more specifically, Aron Ralston aka the guy who amputated his own arm in Blue John Canyon in Utah in 2003 after being stuck with minimal water for 127 hours. The book is divided into two alternating stories. The first is Ralston's time trapped in the canyon, his right hand pinned between the canyon wall and a chockstone, is a relentless story of survival that had me riveted to the page. It's a textbook in perseverance of the mind and body and a testament to fitness both physical and mental. The alternate story is Ralston's backstory. Had the book focused entirely on the ordeal in Blue John Canyon it would have been fine. My issue is not with the 127 hours in the canyon, it's with the rest of the story.
To begin, I want everyone to know that I'm going to listen to Aron's mother who, at the end of the book asks park officials and media: "don't be judgmental." I've decided that I will try to remain objective about this but I fear this may skirt perilously close to a rant. Aron Ralston is obviously quite intelligent and certainly knows more than I about surviving in the wilderness. Christ, he cut off his own arm with nothing more than a blunt camping tool, a Camelbak and a little elbow grease. That takes a hell of a lot more grit than I'm afraid I have. I'd like to say I'd do the same in his position but mercifully I haven't been in his position and hope I never am. But Ralston is not a writer and I must be mindful that perhaps an element of nuance is missing from his story.
It is also important to note here that I would probably like Aron Ralston. No, I've never met him in person and they only things I know about him are what he wrote in his book. I was in Taiwan when this media storm played out in 2003 and I haven't seen the movie that was recently released so for all intents and purposes this book was my first exposure to Aron Ralston. Aron Ralston almost seems like the sort of guy that I could hang out with. We share common interests in hiking, biking, climbing and camping. I will not profess to be as experienced as he claims to be (and I hate skiing) but commonality goes a long way, regardless of how many hours you have invested. I do say"almost," however, and there are two reasons...
The first is Aron Ralston comes across as a douche. While I appreciate Ralston's love for the outdoors and his dedication to pushing his body and mind to the limits I couldn't help read the thinly veiled contempt Ralston seems to have for anyone who is not climbing 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado or biking 100km a day in the Moab. There's a certain inherent ostentatiousness in his recollections. It often doesn't sound so much like he's recounting stories so much as showing off. In fact his entire life seems to be a game of one-upmanship with his friends and family. It's a constant competition for stories to tell over margaritas and a fat joint (dude likes Phish and the String Cheese Incident... he cleaned the drugs out of the book but don't even try to convince me Aron Ralston isn't a pothead). Hell he even thinks to himself that cutting his own arm off will make a great story WHILE HE'S CUTTING OFF HIS OWN ARM! Seriously, that's a pretty douchebag move and his entire life sounds like a bad Mountain Dew commercial.
The second thing (and it sort of relates to the first) is that for someone who loves engaging in high-risk activities he sure is an irresponsible shit. I've done my fair share of camping, climbing, canoeing, hiking, biking and such and I'm not suggesting that I have been 100% careful on each and every trip I've been on, but I make an effort, especially when I go out alone. But Ralston's complete disregard for safety protocols borders on the pathological. In one story Ralston tells of a particular skiing excursion in which Ralston leads two friends down a ski run that he knows full well is prone to avalanche. The results are predictable and one of his friends almost dies. Before the end of this story I was shouting at the book that if I was either of these two I'd have clocked him upside the head (I was gladdened to learn that neither spoke to him again). And don't even get me started about his story about the bear.
Ralston is exactly the sort of outdoorsman that I would never, ever go into the wilderness with. For all his rescue training and know-how he's reckless and dangerous not only to himself but others. It's ironic that the accident that would claim his arm has nothing whatsoever to do with his reckless behavior. However, the fact that he didn't tell a single person his knew and trusted exactly where he would be and when he would be back as careless, thoughtless and downright stupid. One doesn't simply up and wander into slot canyons in Utah without leaving a plan, carrying a cell phone, checking in with a ranger station, or something.... anything. Ralston's mom can say all she wants about being judgmental (and I admire her son for many of the other things he has accomplished and experienced) but by not leaving his route (even a general idea of a route) with someone not only put his life in danger but those that would be charged with searching for him as well.
Sorry if I come off as heartless or nit-picky here, but these issues really bothered me throughout the reading of this book (a book that I thought could have been about 200 pages shorter to be better). Like I said at the outset, I admire Ralston's gumption and his intense will to live. No matter how snobby or reckless a person is, nobody deserves to go through what Ralston went through. But I hope some good came from the ordeal. and I truly hope he learned how to be a better person during those 127 hours in the desert and I wish Ralston the best of luck in life from here on in.
Nothing personal, just my observations.