Woody Harrelson sits on a blanket near Jackass Peak, watching a bunch of teenagers smear peanut butter and jelly on pita and listening with growing impatience to their unappetizing stories. His pale blue eyes move from one narrator to the next as each waxes eloquent about a head-severing wreck or a face attacked by flesh-eating bacteria. Finally, Harrelson can't restrain himself. "In Central America," the actor says, "they have this insect that burrows into a person's head . . . " As the high school students stuff their mouths with gooey food, Harrelson brings life to the image of a bug metamorphosing beneath his scalp. "One thing you can do," he says, gesturing, "is lay a big slab of raw meat on your head and try to suffocate it. Or you can just let it grow and grow until," his face contorts and his fingers splay, "it explodes!"
"Urgh!" "Oooh!" The students shriek with sincere appreciation. But when a talkative young man named Steven follows with a tale of a worm that incubates in a human's mouth and makes impromptu appearances during conversations, even Harrelson is humbled. "OK, Steven!" he shouts, leaping up with outstretched arms. "You win the gross-out contest."
Harrelson is not a guy who has much trouble getting in touch with his inner adolescent. In fact, since the day in 1985 when he infiltrated the culture with his debut on "Cheers," people have been waiting for some semblance of an adult to emerge. On this chilly spring morning at Henry W. Coe State Park near San Jose, though, all anyone expects from him is another rippin' yarn and a bite of coconut.
The day before, Harrelson had hiked in four miles and set up camp at Poverty Flat with these students from San Francisco's Thurgood Marshall Academic High School. The kids came with their teachers and volunteers from the local Sierra Club's Inner City Outings, a nationwide environmental education program. Harrelson came to fulfill the community service sentence handed him for his scramble up the Golden Gate Bridge to protest the logging of an ancient California redwood forest.
Putting Harrelson together with a bunch of kids was not everyone's idea of solid judicial or pedagogic
judgment. State Sen. Quentin Kopp, still angry over the enormous traffic jam Harrelson caused, calls the punishment soft and Harrelson "a selfish, thoughtless, arrogant twerp."A Kentucky teacher who invited him to her class a few years ago to discuss the industrial uses of hemp--a cause Harrelson supports to the point of wearing hemp boots, pants, shirt, jacket and cap--was fired.
Today, though, intermittent rains have soaked the hills into an aromatic balm and serenity prevails. Hiking back to the campsite over wildflower-strewn slopes, the actor chats with a multiethnic mix of students--Donnie, Otto, Antonio, Veronica--about enzymes and his strict vegan diet. He samples miner's lettuce growing alongside the trail and lets out little bursts of song: "I . . . I'm hooked on a feeling!" He talks about clear-cutting, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and sustainable living. Mainly, though, he tells stories: about the moonless night in Costa Rica when he and a pal leaped from a cliff into the black ocean on a dare; about a self-imposed "vision quest" near Santa Barbara, where, after lying all night on a ridge, he lost the trail and got helplessly entangled in the chaparral.
These stories invariably feature Harrelson as comic relief. Which is pretty much how life unfolds on the hike back down, too. Two of the boys confess that they each lugged in a 12-pack of Coca-Cola--a horror to true backpackers, who would saw off a toothbrush handle to save weight. But Harrelson, the supposed nature boy, just gives them his crazy hayseed grin. "Now I don't feel so bad," he drawls. It seems his own all-hemp backpack hauled in a good 50-pound food supply--consisting solely of 10 whole, hairy coconuts.
Steven, in particular, is amused by the new kid. "Woody was telling us this story about being in a bar and he got in this fight," he says.
"Don't be telling that story!" Harrelson interrupts.
Steven shakes his head and grins. "There's a movie!" he says, " 'The Life of Woody.' "
Seven months after the camp-out, Harrelson wheels his motorcycle into a Santa Monica driveway, pops off his helmet and smiles. As we walk into the backyard, he's still warbling song fragments: "And how you suffered for your sanity."