Bill Bryson thinks he knows what to expect when he embarks on a journey to hike the Appalachian Trail — some 2,000 miles, stretching from Georgia to Maine. He knows about the wildlife, the heat, the inevitable exhaustion. He’s aware of the dangers posed by being alone in isolated areas, as well as the potential medical risks. But he’s also in need of something . . . reflection, reconnection, fresh challenges. And in the company of Katz, an old friend, Bryson sets off on a life-changing adventure.
First published in 1998, Billy Bryson’s seminal A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is a book I’ve had on my radar for ages — but one I wasn’t eager to pick up. Surprisingly, I had once convinced myself I wasn’t “into” non-fiction, preferring Jane Austen or Emily Giffin to someone like Bryson, but that started to evolve years ago. After loving Cheryl Strayed’s Wild last fall, Bryson’s name kept popping up as a recommendation.
And so at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park, where it’s literally impossible not to be awed by nature, I picked up a copy of A Walk in the Woods to keep me company on our plane ride home.
Appalachian Trail by Frank Kehren, via Flickr
Known colloquially as the bestselling “bear book” in my family, Bryson’s saga of attempting to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trial — or the A.T. — is a wonderful one. Filled with just enough history and facts to make the story both informative and entertaining, the trademark Bryson wit and style I’ve heard so many describe are on full display.
Bryson never claims to be a great hiker . . . and in fact, he begins his journey a middle-aged man carrying extra weight and more than a little trepidation. Though American, Bryson has spent 20 years in England — and walking the A.T. seems like a great chance to reconnect with his homeland after returning to the U.S. with his family. He’s not afraid to make fun of himself, and he’s certainly not embarrassed to admit his doubts. Bill knows he doesn’t have all the answers and he’s made mistakes, and that’s what makes him such an enjoyable — and trustworthy — narrator.
Bill’s friend Stephen Katz provides much — but certainly not all — of the comic relief in the story, occasionally dragging Bill down but often propelling him forward. Though his identity has come into question in the years since publication, he was a thoughtful friend (and occasional foil) during their joint trek. The story without Katz wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling, and certainly not as funny.
There are blisters. There are bugs. There are hungry days and lonely nights and sweat, sweat, sweat. The driving force of A Walk in the Woods — will they make it? can they really do this? — kept me turning the pages, and it was absolutely the perfect story to read coming back from a national park.
Does the story stand the test of time? Sixteen years have passed since publication, and even longer since the journey itself occurred. Aside from obvious technological changes (finding pay phones in small towns, say, and no mention of the Internet), A Walk in the Woods is pretty evergreen (pun quite intended). Taking a walk then is similar to taking a walk now, though routes can now be carefully planned online or with the help of a GPS in the wild, maybe. Such features weren’t available then.
I breezed through this book in a few hours, wanting so much to stretch my time with two friends on the A.T. Though I’m not outdoorsy in the least, I couldn’t help but finish wanting to dive into the woods myself. Bryson’s enthusiasm for nature is completely contagious. And even if the travel bug bit me long ago, I finished his tale with the overwhelming feeling that there are so many lessons — so much to see — out in our beautiful world.
4.5 out of 5!