ME AND THE BOY Journey of Discovery, Father and Son on The Appalachian Trail By Paul Hemphill Macmillan. 208 pp. $16.95
TWO YEARS AGO Paul Hemphill set about making amends to David, the son he had left -- along with some siblings and their mother -- a decade before. The compensation was to take a walk together, a 2,142-mile walk to be exact, the length of the Appalachian Trail. Paul was 48, a journalist and novelist (The Sixkiller Chronicles), and an alcoholic. David was 19, a student at the University of the South (Sewanee), a young man who tended to be hard on his father but no less hard on himself. Supplied with Paul's book contract, a pile of new gear, and a strong urge to get to know each other better, they started from the trail's southern terminus in northeast Georgia. In some ways the hike was a fiasco. Paul's knees gave out early and often, David sulked and usually hiked miles ahead of his father, and they covered only about a fourth of the total mileage. Afterwards Paul got soused again, and David flunked out of college.
Yet in the essentials the trip succeeded. After taking great under-age pains to acquire some bourbon for himself on the trail, David poured it out when it proved tempting to Paul. Paul bridged the gap between them by reminding David it was unfair to demand heroism from his father -- love should suffice. In the end David returned to another college, where at last report he is doing well. Paul joined Alcoholics Anonymous and wrote this painful, affecting book, all the more impressive because it eschews the TV-melodrama shapeliness we tend to expect of such material.
TO AFRICA WITH LOVE A True Romantic Adventure By Carroll Baker Donald I. Fine 205 pp. $16.95
CARROLL BAKER -- the actress, of Baby Doll fame -- writes stilted prose and exudes the self-absorption you might expect of a star. Yet extraordinary things happen to her, and she recounts them with zest. Reading her new book is the literary eqivalent of sitting next to a garrulous but fascinating dinner guest. Between films in 1971, she went to St. Moritz for the Christmas holidays. There, at a costume ball, she met a Frenchman whom she calls Sheldon, a strikingly handsome, charming and whimsical character about 15 years her junior. He also suffered from epilepsy, a condition, like Billy Budd's stammer, which rather embellished his romantic image.
In a trice they agreed to run away to Africa together. There they concentrated on lovemaking and big-game observing. Baker writes as if no one had ever been to Mount Kilimanjaro or the Ngorongoro Crater before, but her wide- eyed enthusiasm is infectious. On a detour to the Seychelles Islands, the comfort-loving Baker had to pick up primitive ways fast. When the tide kept their hired boat from retrieving them from their island hideaway for three days, she and Sheldon ran out of food and fresh water. Quelling her squeamishness, she ate raw lizards and strangled a albatross for Sheldon to roast.
The affair -- like the book -- ended abruptly. But Baker's enrapt observations on hyenas, elephants, hippos, and man- eating ants are worth reading, and her lament for vanishing African species is worth remembering.
RETURN TO THE HIGH VALLEY Coming Full Circle By Kenneth E. Read University of California Press 269 pp. $18.95
THIRTY-ONE YEARS after leaving the village of Susuroka in Papua New Guinea, the Australian- born anthropologist Kenneth E. Read returned on a visit both scholarly and sentimental. Great changes had beset the tribal culture he had studied and written about in a previous book, The High Valley. Disco-dancing, B-movies and public drunkenness had arrived, and the brutal initiation ceremony for young men had departed. Read's conclusion about these shifts is that the old way of life "had been often harsh and strident yet seldom as depressing as some of its present ingredients."
"Depressing" is, of course, a judgmental word, and Read is quick to disavow Olympian aloofness. Anthropologists, he insists, are not dispassionate observers when they live among other peoples in the field. The bulk of his new book records the emotionally-charged interactions between him and the Gahuku people, whom he came to love during his earlier stay.
Above all he cared for Makis, the group's unofficial leader, who adopted Read as a younger brother. In the 31-year interval between Read's visits, Makis was killed in an auto accident, and with him went much of the group's coherence. In this lovely book Read, now a professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle, offers an elegy to Makis as well as to his own impressionable younger self, who, when he first saw New Guinea in 1950, "felt I could cup every detail of the landscape in my two hands."
MEDITATIONS AT 10,000 FEET A Scientist in The Mountains By James Trefil Scribners. 236 pp. $16.95
JAMES TREFIL, professor of physics at the University of Virginia, is one of those rare people who can both reckon and write. His previous books include A Scientist at the Seashore, a maritime counterpart to this mountaintop excursion into what he calls the "fifteen or so laws of nature."
Typically, Trefil's modus operandi is to paint a mountain scene and then pursue the scientific associations it brings to his agile mind. For example, Chapter Eight begins with a look at a mountaintop rock fragmented by repeated freezings and thawings. From there Trefil segues to a startling generalization, that "if ice weren't less dense than water, life on earth could very well be impossible." The reason? Ice would sink to the bottoms of lakes and streams, building up until they were frozen solid and hostile to life.
Another chapter starts at Devil's Tower, the rock formation that mesmerized Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For Trefil the mountain serves as the springboard into a meditation on geological time and dating: "I know of no better way to bring home the sheer magnitude of the geological process than to stand at the foot of the tower, look up, and realize that 60 million years ago you would have been buried under a thousand feet or more of solid rock."
This is not a book for skim-readers or those who let a currency of scientific terms intimidate them. In some cases Trefil's arguments require a second reading and a perusal of the book's myriad photos and diagrams. But the rewards for this mild perseverance are ample and intellectually invigorating.
SEVEN SUMMITS By Dick Bass And Frank Wells With Rick Ridgeway Warner. 384 pp. $19.95
WHILE SOME OF us are theorizing about mountains, others are scaling thm. The co-authors of this book were both in their well- established fifties -- Dick Bass the entrepreneur of the Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah, Frank Wells the president of Warner Brothers Studios -- when via mutual friends they discovered they had a mutual dream. They hoped to accomplish a mountaineering first, climbing the highest peak on each of the seven continents: Aconcagua in South America, Everest in Asia, McKinley in North America, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbrus in Europe, Vinson in Antarctica, Kosciusko in Australia.
Never mind their being novices on the upper slopes. They insinuated -- and bought -- their ways into other expeditions and learned fast. By the time Bass capped their agenda on his third try to conquer Everest, they were bona fide members of the climbing elite. (Wells abstained from the finale because of marital considerations: his wife had spent so many sleepless nights worrying about him that she threatened to leave if he went up Everest again.)
With the help of Rick Ridgeway, himself a climber and the author of The Boldest Dream, about his own Everest adventures, Bass and Wells tell a story riddled with close calls and come-from-behind victories over weather. After it was over, their record nearly foundered on the shoals of imprecision. A surveying recalculation deleted several hundred feet from the supposed altitude of Mt. Vinson, possibly relegating it to second place behind another Antarctic peak, Mt. Tyree. Luckily Mt. Tyree also turned out to be shorter than it used to be, and Bass' first was assured. Wells has since become chief executive officer of Disney Inc., where presumably his penchant for dreaming Big Dreams is coming in handy