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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A secret garden

Secret Garden


Despite being someone who screams in the presence of bugs (I’m working on that, I swear), something about nature still calls to me. I love gardens, brooks and streams; love walks in the woods and the quiet, the calm.

When I’m wandering a stone path, I can’t help but pretend I’m Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden — searching, restored and healed by nature. I fell in love with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic as a kid and loved the 1993 film just as much.

Though I have no idea how to go about it, I’m looking forward to planting our new yard. We have a flower box already with green shoots pushing upward; I have no clue what they are, but they look like bulbs. Potential flowers, hopefully. And the front yard? Around the stone path leading to the front door, the remnants of old beds still shift hopefully. Things are growing. Life is still forming.

I’ve never gardened. I shouldn’t feel so clueless and awkward asking for help, but I always do. And when a friend visited the new house last weekend, she immediately reached down to carefully pluck a spring of poison ivy from near the garage.

Poison ivy. Be still my terrified heart!

It’s fun to imagine learning, though. Though we’re more concerned with what’s happening in the house than out (short of cutting that grass) for a while, I’ve always wanted to cultivate a green thumb. I’d love to have an herb garden and window box filled with happy flowers. I’d love to see pops of color whenever we open our door.

Since we have to start where we are, I have to admit to knowing nothing about creating my own secret garden . . . beyond the fact that I’d like to. Eventually.

It’s exciting: the not-knowing. There’s excitement trusting I’ll learn.


Seeking green spaces


Spencer gets the credit for really introducing me to the woods.

Growing up in rural Western New York, my boyfriend has fond memories of playing on the family property and appreciating the great outdoors with his family. While I was eating ice cream and watching Nickelodeon as a kid in suburban Maryland, Spence was disappearing behind trees and digging up the backyard. He likes to camp, builds stuff (like bonfires) — and I consider him pretty rugged. Me? I’m more of a whiny, wilting flower.

Though air conditioning and running water are my friends, I’m coming to appreciate the splendor of being outside. Of stepping out of florescent lighting and getting real sun on my skin. Of turning off my phone (okay, who am I kidding — putting my phone on silent) and soaking up the moment. Working a standard 9-to-5 office schedule, I don’t get moving much . . . so when the weekend rolls around, I get antsy if I’m cooped up the whole time. I like slathering on sunscreen and wandering out with my camera.

So we go to parks now. Spencer introduced me to walking through Southern Maryland, my home of more than two decades, and we’ve found places I never knew existed. All that greenery helps me step beyond my own head — part of some much-needed perspective. I love walking through green spaces now, even seeking them out. When Lu took my sister and me to Washington Square Park in Manhattan weeks back, I could barely take in all the gorgeousness.

Sunlight and nature? They make you feel alive. Took me a while to learn what others have known forever, but sometimes that’s the way with me.


Lu and me in Washington Square Park


Spence in his favorite woods