Book review: ‘A Walk in the Woods’ by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the WoodsBill 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.

Excellent choice.

Appalachian Trail by Frank Kehren

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 Woodswill 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.

Thanks, Bill.

4.5 out of 5!

Pub: 1998 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

20 thoughts on “Book review: ‘A Walk in the Woods’ by Bill Bryson

  1. As soon as you started talking about it, I immediately thought of Wild (which I loved too…can we get a big Amen for the upcoming movie???). See, I could totally see myself doing this. My husband and I are huge hiking enthusiasts, and we do it when we can. Which isn’t much lately with Florida humidity and teenagers, but still. Camping and hiking trips is what we used to do before kids at least. I’ve heard such good things about Bryson, and have a couple of his audios loaded, so for sure I’m going to add this one to the list.


  2. This book has been lurking on my ‘to be read’ shelf for years now + I’m not sure why I haven’t read it yet! After reading this review, I can’t wait to get home + get my hands on it. It’s funny how certain books can sit for years, but still have such an impact on the reader. Great review!


  3. Well when you decide to hike part of the trail, let me know and I’ll join you. 😉 Katz was definitely the highlight for me with this book and I would have loved to have even more of him…even though he was incredibly irreverent. I was quite thrilled the other day when we were driving through Pennsylvania and I saw a little sign for the trail. One day! And I’ll be sure to re-read this one when the time does come.


  4. One of my favorites! Parts of this book made me laugh out loud – something I rarely do while reading. It will always have a place on my bookself.


  5. This book is one of the rare ones that make me laugh OUT LOUD. Truly LOL. A friend sent it to me several years ago, and simply said “Read it!” So I did. I’ve re-read it at least once and maybe twice.
    I agree the story NEEDs Katz. Most definitely!


  6. I had to read this for a geography class in college and I’m glad my professor made us because then I never would’ve discovered Bill Bryson. I remember liking this book because of Katz and those history lessons 🙂


  7. I read a bunch of Bryson’s smaller pieces in college and he truly is wonderful at writing about nature. I definitely want to pick this one up someday especially since I’ve been venturing into hiking and experimenting a bit with backpacking. One of my close friends just wrapped up a shortened stint doing the John Muir Trail (he had to cut it short since one of his company fell seriously ill). He is trying to gear me up to commit to joining him next year! Eek.


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