Iowa State Representative Scott Ourth Reviews Just Passin’ Thru
Just Passin’ Thru
By Winton Porter
A book review by Scott Ourth
There are a couple of qualifiers I am compelled to share with you right up front:
- I have “thru-hiked” the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine
- I have been a guest at Mountain Crossings
- I am thoroughly acquainted with Winton Porter
- I am a trained editor
I read hundreds of books, essays, short stories, and articles each year. A few of these pieces are written by friends and associates; nevertheless, I try to maintain an objective and unbiased eye as I ingest and analyze the product of their toil.
At first blush, you would think an editor would be a little softer, a little less harsh when dissecting the work of a friend. Not so. Human nature calls upon us to expect our friends to rise to a higher level than other mortals, to set greater goals, to achieve higher heights. We expect them to make us proud so we can brag on them, and thereby brag on ourselves, for being part of a circle of highly functioning, supremely intelligent, “important” human beings. After all, we chose them as friends because they, like we, are slightly superior – right?
When you read the work of a friend, the impartial critic part of your professional character goes out the window straight away. And – trust me on this one – it is not to your friend’s advantage. You expect Holden Caulfield or J.D. Salinger or Flannery O’Connor. What you get is usually a pile of paper strewn with poorly chosen words, embarrassing grammar, overblown and amateur attempts at simile, metaphor, analogy, and no cogent story construct whatsoever. Reading the “serious work” of a friend is dreadfully painful. You catch yourself physically wincing. You never feel quite the same about that friend again.
A year ago my friend Winton Porter told me he was wrapping up a book about life on the Appalachian Trail. He said the work was chock full of great Trail stories, cool characters, lessons from the backwoods, etc. The book was written from his unique perspective as an outfitter situated thirty miles north of the Trail’s Southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia.
He asked me to take a peek at a small galley proof, which I did. Then, when the book came off the press, he asked me to read it and give him my honest – painfully honest – review. I agreed to do that, too, and at that point I felt myself physically wince. My perception of Winton was about to change.
“I swear, Porkchop,” Porter insisted. “I think you’re gonna like it. I think it is a really good book. I know you, Buddy, and I know you’re gonna like this.”
“Everyone’s a Bill Bryson these days”, I thought to myself.
On March 3, 2002, I came sliding off Blood Mountain (Georgia’s highest peak) at about 90 miles an hour. Snow and ice were blowing sideways. The only exposed areas of my body were my upper cheeks, eyes, and forehead. I thought they would be laid bare to the bone. I felt as though I was walking through a refrigerated sandblaster. When I came crashing through the front door at Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi I was all banged up and half snow blind. My face was so affected by the weather that I had trouble coaxing those little muscles to the task of forming words. I’ve never been so happy to be anywhere as I was to be there at that moment.
“What’s your name?” asked a friendly looking guy with a pleasantly mild Southern drawl. “I’m Winton Porter. Let me show you the bunkhouse. You take a good hot shower and come back up and find me. Your pack is looking like it could use a shakedown, so we’ll take a look at it and see if we can’t lighten you up a bit. We gotta make sure you get all the way to Katahdin!”
“I’m The Flying Porkchop”, I gurgled. “Thanks.”
I found out then and there what a real outfitter does. Every person who came through that door became the immediate focus of Winton Porter. At the very moment he was greeting you, he was simultaneously assessing your health, your equipment, your state of mind, the condition of your soul. No cookie-cutter approach here. Everyone is unique, everyone gets their own custom designed plan for health and success on the Trail. Winton organizes data about people by deploying incredibly comprehensive, dead-on observations. There isn’t a subtlety or a nuance he doesn’t capture and register. This is part of what makes him a sterling outdoors outfitter. This is also the very center of what makes Winton a masterful writer.
Just so happens March 3rd is Mr. Porter’s birthday. He invited me and a couple others out to dinner that night for a small celebration with his family. I will remember the warmth and coziness and fun of that evening forever. I have called Winton every March 3rd for the last eight years. He is dear to me. He has become a lifelong friend despite the fact that I have not laid eyes on him since he sent me on my way to Katahdin all those years ago. I can still remember the warmth and gentle strength of his handshake as we bade each other farewell.
Just Passin’ Thru is a work of genius. The business of wincing gave way to a sense of honest-to-goodness incredulity. I was a couple of pages in before I was able to reconcile two facts: I was reading really, really good writing, and it had flowed from the pen of my backwoods, Georgia-boy, Appalachian Trail, outdoor outfittin’ buddy Winton Porter. I would love to have seen the look on my face as this unlikely fact penetrated my awareness!
When you do it correctly, great pieces of writing can have the same effect as great pieces of music. Beloved songs can take you back to your high school days and leave you feeling all warm and wistful. A familiar tune can remind you of the most powerful events of your life and leave you sitting and reminiscing about that first date or that first car long after the song has ended. Music reaches way down deep and calls forth from that secret spirit-place all that reminds us that life is sacred and good and worth the living. Literature can do that, too. The words are the notes, the sentences the chords. If tossed together haphazardly, notes and words can make a really bad noise. If strung like fine pearls, they can take us to the places we long to visit.
Just Passin’ Thru plays like a symphony. The movements rise and fall beautifully. Our emotions are swept along with them, every heartstring is plucked along the way. Meter and timbre change constantly. You are never at the same place for more than a moment. The scenery, the terrain, the people, the action – you close your eyes and find your mind has painted pictures – is tangible. You can smell the place. You can hear the voices. You are at the cookout, you are in the parking lot. You are uncomfortably watching an argument or feeling disgust at someone who has had too much to drink. You applaud eccentricity, you deplore arrogance. Winton does not invite you to read the story. He draws you in and suddenly, if unwittingly, you are in the story. Believe me. There is something about finding yourself there that just feels good!
This is what music and literature are meant to do. This is what they do as they rise to that exclusive sphere inhabited only by Art. They transport you to the space and time represented by the symphony, or in this case, the story. They do not supplant your reality or offer you some escape there from. If constructed along the ephemeral lines of art, they become your reality. Winton’s prose does this to the fullest measure. His art lays claim to your consciousness so completely you become oblivious of the fact you are holding a book and turning pages.
I read the book in one sitting. I caught myself laughing out loud on a number of occasions. I felt real, palpable anger and contempt for a character or two at different points, only to forgive them (as Winton gracefully does) a moment later. There is no release as sweet as grace, and Winton weaves that lesson into his work.
I wept at one point at something in the story that took me completely off guard. I remember holding my wife a little more closely after reading that passage. You will know when you reach that place in the story. Life is uncertain. Winton offers a powerful reminder to the part of us that prefers not to remember this inconvenient fact.
Although the setting may be Mountain Crossings, this isn’t a story about a shop and the people found there. What Winton Porter is really doing is telling us what he has learned. Life is complex, busy, baffling, rewarding, painful, and fun. There is the right way to live, and most of us think we’re finally getting a handle on that. Then there is the better way. Winton gently points this out. He gives us a beautiful, rhapsodic narrative that once read leaves behind this achingly pleasant residual. You want to read the book again because you want to feel “that way” again. It is said you can never go home, but you suddenly realize you feel this way because you just did. Yet you are left plainly understanding there is something of importance yet to do, something of great value for which to reach. Winton has just awakened you and whispered the assurance of his discovery. “It is good to feel deeply”, he breathes. “It is good to be alive.”
My impression of Winton Porter certainly has changed. It always does after I read the work of a friend. I now know he is a true renaissance man. I know now, much to my great surprise, he is a superb writer possessed of the rare ability to translate his experience to our reality with nothing at all lost in the process. I thought I knew how deeply he cares. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I did not.
To experience Winton’s mastery over the world of letters is to understand his mastery over the art of being human.
Thank you, Winton, for opening the window to your soul. Thanks for letting me crawl through and hang out for awhile. I selfishly, and longingly, hope you will invite me to come back.
Scott Ourth is a 2002 “thruhiker” of the Appalachian Trail. He is the former assistant secretary of state for the State of Iowa, and is currently the Democratic nominee from his district for a seat in the Iowa House of Representatives. He resides in Ackworth, Iowa with his wife Heather and their son Logan.