I’ve been on the lookout for non-fiction written by women who have undertaken solo wilderness treks: I want to read something in the same vein as Cheryl Strayed’s notable memoir Wild. Despite the promising look of the cover, Starting Out in the Afternoon by Jill Frayne unfortunately isn’t it. That said, Frayne’s story of adventure to and through BC and the Yukon is noteworthy in its own right.
Firstly, the primary criticism I want to get out of the way is this: the book bills itself as “A mid-life journey through wild land.” Wrong. If a road goes there, then it ain’t wilderness. Most of the author’s destinations in this book are accessed via roads with a car as the mode of transport (with the occasional use of bike and bus). Granted, the author’s kayak trip around Haida Gwaii definitely constituted exploring true wilderness, as likely did some her longer day hikes in the Yukon. The majority of her adventure, however, took place in small towns, front country campgrounds, and in one instance a new age yoga retreat in the Gulf Islands: hardly ‘wild land’. This bit of snipery aside (said snipery being fueled by my disappointment at this not being a ‘real’ wilderness story) Frayne’s travel memoir is still inherently interesting and gutsy in a different way.
Starting in her home province of Ontario, Frayne drove westward with the purpose of exploring the BC coast, Northern BC and the Yukon. I admire her spirit of undertaking this trip solo, and her ability to rough it along the way by tenting. Her tenacity in kayaking Haida Gwaii particularly impressed me: this junket of her trip was challenging in terms of both physical demands and skill, and the author rose to the occasion admirably. The best part of Starting Out in the Afternoon, however, is undoubtedly Frayne’s writing. She is a writer in every sense of the word: landscapes described by her become visceral, haunting scenes. Frayne is intelligent and astute. She is also broody and unflinchingly honest as she narrates her internal journey and challenges (she was grieving the loss of a long-term relationship when she undertook the trip) along with the external journey.
It is because of Frayne’s excellent writing that I stuck with the book as long as I did. The more the book progressed, however, the more it grated on me. Throughout much of the first half of the book are numerous reflections and lamentations about Leon, the object of her failed relationship. The mention of Leon is understandable – it was the loss of this long-term relationship that in part sparked the desire for the author to do a major trip on her own in the first place. But then, during the author’s sojourn through Northern BC, we encounter Bill: a campground worker with whom she has a brief fling for a few weeks. After the fling is over, and it is clear that Bill wants to go his own way, the reader is then subjected to pages of the author’s despair regarding this, and numerous reflections of all aspects of Bill, including at one awkward point, his genitals. Leon, I get. But Bill? Bill was just a dude – yeah, sure he had his good points: outdoorsy, charming, unpretentious, and according to the author – a decent kisser. But ultimately he was just a dude she knew for a few weeks. A dude, who in that few weeks also had noticeable faults: his penchant for driving drunk at all hours of the day and night being one of them. So why all this grief over him? By the time the author then moved on in her journey from Bill to someone named Jack, I was done, even though I was a scant 30 pages from the end of the book.
I was struck with a memory of what was probably one of the only moderately insightful lines from the show Sex and the City: “Why is it always about them?” The line was uttered in complete frustration and disbelief by the character of Miranda, who was complaining about men being the reference point for virtually everything in the lives of her and her friends. And so it is with Starting Out in the Afternoon. Jill Frayne is intelligent, strong, independent, insightful, and resourceful. Throughout her trip she had numerous breathtaking and unique experiences. And yet it was up to the man she left behind and the men she met along the way to provide a focus for any meaning – even though her travels and the challenges she faced were meaningful on their own. Frayne’s flaw, if it can be called such, is a need to ascribe an overdose of meaning (with the Bills and the Jacks) where there is only a finite amount, at the expense of missing part of the meaning that was literally, in her case, all around her as she made her way through some of the most extraordinary landscapes on earth.