4 Stars: “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson

Posted: 24th February 2014 by Jason Kristopher in Books
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From Amazon.com:

Back in America after twenty years in Britain, Bill Bryson decided to reacquaint himself with his native country by walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine. The AT offers an astonishing landscape of silent forests and sparkling lakes—and to a writer with the comic genius of Bill Bryson, it also provides endless opportunities to witness the majestic silliness of his fellow human beings.

For a start there’s the gloriously out-of-shape Stephen Katz, a buddy from Iowa along for the walk. Despite Katz’s overwhelming desire to find cozy restaurants, he and Bryson eventually settle into their stride, and while on the trail they meet a bizarre assortment of hilarious characters. But A Walk in the Woods is more than just a laugh-out-loud hike. Bryson’s acute eye is a wise witness to this beautiful but fragile trail, and as he tells its fascinating history, he makes a moving plea for the conservation of America’s last great wilderness. An adventure, a comedy, and a celebration, A Walk in the Woods has become a modern classic of travel literature.

Let’s face it: there are a lot of travel books out there. Many, many, many… well, you get the idea. Most of them are pretty dry, boring reference books. “So-and-so restaurant cost $$. This one costs $$$. The other one is $. Food is okay, not great.” And so on. Useful, if you’re in the area and want a handy reference guide for that location, though some travel books in that vein aren’t even that useful.

For what it’s worth, Yelp does the exact same thing, and is free. So do half-a-hundred other apps.

But you didn’t want to buy or download an app, did you? You wanted to buy a travel book. One that gives you insight not only into the price of various things and how other people have rated them, but into what they actually are, and what it’s like to be there, to experience these things, even if third-hand by proxy. And that’s exactly what Bryson provides in A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. As the blurb says, Bryson was an expat in Britain for 20 years, and came back to America only recently before this book was published.

Having taken up hiking in the interim, he decided – along with his friend Katz – to hike all 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, but more importantly (for us, anyway), he decided to journal his experience on the trek. Ambitious? Definitely. Foolhardy? Possibly. Humorous? Absolutely! Bryson shows us from start to finish exactly what it’s like to begin such an onerous journey, and what it’s like to conclude it. In between, we get the full details of wading chest-deep across icy rivers, of near-starvation when frustration gets the better of them, and the back-and-forth good-natured jibing that rapidly turns into full-on acrimony between two life-long friends as the rigors of the trail catch up to them.

What we get, in a nutshell, is the essence of what it’s like to hike the AT for those who haven’t attempted something quite so major before. In his defense, Bryson is an experienced hiker, but poor, poor Katz… well, to say he’s somewhat unready for the trail is being overly kind. I found myself identifying with him a large portion of the time, if only because I, too, hate exercise, and especially walking. But I also found myself enjoying the descriptions, the scenic views (if only in my mind) and the bonding that takes place between the two men.

I’ve long been a fan of the outdoors, having grown up in Colorado, so this book in particular was very interesting to me. But aside from my admittedly biased beginnings, I found the book hard to put down for many reasons. It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s thought-provoking – witness his description of the eco-ravaged landscape in the Lehigh Gap near Palmertown, PA – and most of all it’s like I was there. Granted, I have a darned good imagination, but even so, Bryson’s evocative wording, his down-to-earth style of prose, and his natural humor brought the book to life in a way I can only hope to one day emulate.

I’ll admit I was also intrigued, because I have some travel books I also want to write, about my visits to Hawai’i, to the Pacific Northwest, and to Italy (where I hope to go someday). I’ve read lots of travel books, but this was the first one that captured my idea of the ‘right’ kind of travel book – one that’s not just dry reference material, but actually tells a story, if a non-fictional one. A Walk in the Woods is exactly the kind of book I want to write about my travels, and I have a feeling I’m going to wear it out when I actually start writing them.

All in all, it’s a great book, with something for everyone. It’s easy to read, doesn’t take a PHD or economist to get through it, and it’s even being adapted into a movie, starring Robert Redford, no less. Pick up the book at Amazon, or better yet, in your local bookstore, and give it a read; you won’t be sorry.


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