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


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Non-fiction to take you away (even if you want to stay put)

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With heat pulling my tender strands into frizzy curls already, it’s high time we talk about summer reading.

As a kid, I was the book geek already tearing through her assigned books before the current school year was over. I have fond memories of Dad taking my sister and me to Crown Books, the bookstore that sat where a Panera now resides, to thumb through their children’s and young adult section for the classics. We spent hours wandering the aisles — the first place I remember my parents giving us a tiny bit of independence. (Don’t worry: they were just around the corner, Dad in sports and Mom usually in magazines.)

I miss summer reading. That might be why I love reading review copies: it feels like I’m back in my English program in college, perhaps? With a stack of books I must read? At heart, I can be fairly indecisive about novels — and it often helps if I’m on a schedule. Who doesn’t benefit from a good deadline now and then?

I’ll admit that, you know, going rogue with my reading was definitely exciting post-college; I loved choosing books at random, especially when I worked at Borders, because it felt almost . . . illicit. After being handed a syllabus for so many years, doing what I wanted was exhilarating.

Now I’m tired and often cranky and don’t know what I want. I want someone to tell me what I want. Isn’t it funny how that works?

Anyway. Summer reading. Traveling! Adventure! With no one telling you what you must read, here I go giving you a list of sorts. But it’s a short one. Whether you’re readying for a plane ride or staying perched in your air-conditioned living room through September, don’t we all love a little escape through reading?

Flip-flops and sunscreen optional.


Awesome Non-Fiction
That Takes You Away
(Even If You Want to Stay Put)


Paris LettersParis Letters by Janice MacLeod — Bored by a humdrum advertising gig, Janice scrimps and saves enough to leave her desk job and book a flight for Europe. Falling hopelessly in love with Paris wasn’t part of her plan — and this artist’s journey was just beginning. Enchanting, romantic and fun, I’ve thought of this story often since finishing in the winter. It’s the perfect book in which to lose yourself — and live vicariously through another. (And then you can check out her blog to continue the fun.)


Walk in the WoodsA Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson — Though I’m late to the Bryson fan club, he certainly has a new member. I inhaled most of this book coming back from California and wanted to don hiking boots by the time we touched down. The story of Bryson’s epic journey hiking the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods manages to weave history, environmental issues and self-discovery into one moving, humorous package. Bryson’s language is evocative; you can almost feel the mosquitoes. (Better him than us.) Full review of this one to come once I’ve collected my thoughts!


The Lost GirlsThe Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett and Amanda Pressner — All at a crossroads, three friends climb off the corporate ladder to go and explore the world. Their year-long journey takes them to Brazil, Kenya, Australia and more, and their story of friendship and living for today was inspirational. A heavy dose of armchair travel with this one: you’re all over the place!


Bank of BobThe International Bank of Bob by Bob Harris — Featured in my reading honors for 2013, Harris’ account of traveling to meet those he has assisted with microfinance loans bears mentioning again. A travel writer, Harris has an open mind when he begins making $25 loans through Kiva.org — and his story is heartwarming without drifting into condescension. Funds are paid back by small business owners: hardworking men and women whose lives are changed forever by the money Harris once spent on coffee. We journey with him to Nepal and Morocco, Cambodia and India. The lessons reach far beyond the page.


Any favorite travel reads to recommend?
Just summer books you love?