Book Reviews

Book Review: Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods – Flower and Fauna Were Never This Interesting

Over the years, I’ve toyed with the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail. It always seemed like something to shoot for in my on-again, off-again hiking hobby. Right now, I can drive about 30 minutes away and find the spot where it crosses closest to my home in the state of New Hampshire. For many hikers, the Appalachian Trail is the holy grail of hiking.

Humorous travel writer Bill Bryson tackles that very subject in his book A Walk in the Woods. Bitten by the fervor of hiking the trail once he’s found that it crosses the college town of Hanover, New Hampshire, where he lives in.

The Appalachian Trail, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a hiking trail that stretches from Maine all the way to Georgia. It’s approximately 2100 miles long (Bryson makes it clear that no one knows for sure exactly how long it really is) and goes through virtually no cities and only a few very small towns.

Bryson starts out with the noblest of intentions, to through-hike the trail from Georgia to Maine. Things get complicated along the way as real-life cuts into the best-laid plans and he ends up making his attempt in sections. He also begins to get nervous about hiking in the wilderness all by himself and begins to try to cajole and beg various relatives and friends to make the trip along with him, until one finally agrees. He’s an old buddy Bryson hasn’t seen in many years, whom he gives the name Katz.

Some of the names in A Walk in the Woods have been changed, so I don’t think Katz is the man’s real name. He is a recovering alcoholic whose body is feeling the years of abuse he’s given it. Neither of the two men are in particularly good shape, but Katz is definitely presented as being worse for wear. However, he does agree to join Bryson for the walk.

Bryson’s style of writing is nice. He doesn’t mind poking fun at himself as well as others. Just reading about the assembling of gear that he and Katz go through to make the trip is hilarious, especially considering this is a hiking trip, meaning everything will have to be carried through the wilderness. Many people will laugh at scenes like this because they can see themselves going through the exact same scenario Bryson lays out. His nervousness about the wildlife he might encounter, but especially bears, is quite evident throughout the book.

I had a lot of fun reading A Walk in the Woods and really thought it was remarkable that Bryson managed to get it written at all and with all the details he manages to convey. He must have sat down at night and taken notes of the day’s journey, even when so tired the two men were pretty much collapsing into their sleeping bags. Some of the details are obviously filled in later on, such as the history of the trail and some of the details of what’s happened to the trail and the forests throughout the years. However, much of the actual walk he and Katz take is recounted here, along with the details of the people he meets and the places he sees.

It’s all told with an affectionate humor, even when recounting the obnoxious hikers he meets, or other various troubles they face. For all of their noble intentions at the start, Bryson makes it clear that through-hiking the Trail is not an easy thing to do. The two men long for the comforts of the seedy motels they can find at various intervals within an “easy” distance of the places where the Trail crosses an actual road (in some cases it may be as much as 15 miles) but I had to give them credit for their determination even in the face of snow and insects.

As he traverses the various sections of the trail, Bryson also delves into the history of the area. While he is talking about how utterly boring the Trail is as it crosses through Pennsylvania, he manages to make this portion interesting by taking a few side trips to explore how humans have destroyed the landscape, including a hillside utterly devoid of all plant life from zinc contamination as well as a town that is burning from underground due to a coal fire that’s expected to burn for the next thousand years. Even serious subjects like this have a humorous tone as Bryson tells of his encounter with a security guard from the company responsible for the contamination while observing the zinc-poisoned hill, or the eerie feeling he gets in the town.

This is not a book of hiking tips, nor one that will inspire you to hike the trail if you are looking for it. I don’t think it will discourage anyone either, it’s just a frank appraisal of the thoughts and feelings he and his buddy have while trying to accomplish this daunting task. It’s not a book loaded with facts or advice either. My father, who has never hiked more than a mile down the road to where the mailboxes are, read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt at the end I had healthy respect not just for the Trail but for the hikers who do manage to through-hike it, a startling number of which just turn around and start doing it all over again once they’ve accomplished it. Why???

The book is charming and funny. I laughed a lot and read it as a book to unwind with at the end of the day. You might even learn something despite yourself and find yourself enjoying it. The only people I can think of who wouldn’t enjoy this read from Bryson are those who continually believe there are no problems in the environment in this country (even the staunchest Conservatives up in this neck of the woods recognize that issue, but there are still those who wish to turn a blind eye to it). It might smack of “environmentalist propaganda” to them when it is actually just a man laying out the facts of what’s going on.

This book would make a great gift as well. Anyone who reads a lot will enjoy the humorous look at this country and particularly how two overweight, out-of-shape, middle-aged men try to hike 2100 miles on a whim, really. You don’t have to be a hiker or even the outdoorsy type to really enjoy the various tales. We all probably know people like the type they encounter, and might even long to meet some of the sweeter people at the various inns and stopovers they make.

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