Monday, May 9, 2011

On the Trail: A Review of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

Synopsis: Bill Bryson, whose previous travelogues The Lost Continent, Neither Here Nor There, and Notes from a Small Island have garnered the author quite a following, now returns to his native United States after more than two decades of living abroad. In order to rediscover America by, as he puts it, "going out into an America that most people know is scarcely there," he set out to walk, in the company of Stephen Katz, his college roommate and sometime nemesis, the length of the Appalachian Trail. His account of that adventure is at once hilarious, inspiring, and even educational. (from Goodreads)

Review: I'm going to say, but I'm not positive, that it was one of my friends named Ben (there are three of them) who suggested that I read this book. I had heard of Bill Bryson but the idea of reading about someone's hiking trip didn't really appeal to me. If I wanted to experience hiking, I thought, then I could just go do it myself. Thank gods I finally decided to sit down and read this book. I absolutely adored it.

The very succinct synopsis above doesn't even begin to do the book justice. This book is the true story of two middle-aged, overweight guys who set out on one of the most grueling journeys a person can take. A guy that I used to work with decided to hike the trail as a graduation present to himself and from the update e-mails that he sent my then-supervisors any time he was back in civilization were enough to tell me that this is not something that you should enter into lightly. Bryson's book cemented that idea. And it also made me desperate to attempt my own hike of the trail sometime in the future.

The book is short, at just under 300 pages. It's also a very quick read, mostly because you don't want to put it down. I had been expecting a dry account of Bryson's trip up the trail. What I found, instead, was a witty, smart, fun book that really resonated with me. I've never done a huge trip before; my hiking experience is limited to quick jaunts in Letchworth State Park. Even still, I could feel the exhaustion, elation, excitement, and fear that Bryson and Katz felt. The humor in this book is outstanding, as is the writing itself. Bryson is a skilled author that knows how to use description and dialogue to their full advantage.

Bill Bryson

He also knows how to weave historical and environmental information into the primary narrative. In between his retelling of his hike, Bryson informs his reader about the Trail--its history, its plant and animal life, the problems that were facing it in the 90s. While much has probably changed since then, probably for the worse, a lot of what he talks about--endangered species, logging, etc.--is still with us today. With the threat of global warming, political apathy on environmental issues, and financial difficulties that are shutting down parks all over the country, Bryson's words are no less pertinent today. I'm a bit of a tree-hugger so maybe I'm just biased, but Bryson's descriptions of the things that are happening to America's flora and fauna really disturbed and haunted me. None of this information is boring and it's relayed in Bryson's signature funny way.

Bryson's co-hiker, Stephen Katz, is one of the reasons I found this book so enjoyable. While the other people they meet on the trail are interesting and, often, funny, Katz takes the proverbial cake. A lazy, fat, ill-tempered guy, Katz seems like the last person to hike the trail. But he does it. He grumbles about it and he and Bryson argue from time time, but he actually does it. He doesn't just give up; he keeps going. Despite his personality, I find Katz to be a sort of inspiration. I'm not the most in-shape of guys, but if a Twinkie-loving, out-of-shape, middle-ager can do something like this, what the hell am I doing sitting on my couch?

Katz, above all else, is what has given me the idea to one day attempt the AT. It won't be for several years--not until I'm in better shape and have quit smoking cigarettes and can walk up a flight of stairs without wheezing--but someday I'm going to get a friend or two together, gear up, and tackle the Appalachian Trail. Bryson and Katz (*spoiler alert*) don't actually walk the entire thing (for reasons you'll have to read the book to find out) but they do quite a bit of it. If I can do even half of what they did, I'll feel good about myself; if I can do more, perhaps the whole 2,000-something miles of it, I'll feel even better.

I will say that the second half of the book wasn't as good as the first. This is because they took a break from the AT and Bryson spent a couple of months driving and hiking small portions of it. There was a lot of great extra information in these chapters--did you know that there's a town in PA called Centralia under which a coal fire has been burning since the 1960s?--but the momentum that the pair of them had on the Trail is gone, so the book doesn't have quite the same feeling. It was still funny and enjoyable, though, so I can't complain too much. In fact, I'm planning on slipping in a few more books by Bill Bryson before the end of this year because I enjoyed this one so much.

This used to be a road in Centralia, PA. Roads aren't
supposed to look like this. 

There really isn't anything to complain about with this book. There was never a point where I was like, "Why am I reading this again?" There were even sections that I enjoyed so much that I reread them. Two of my favorite passages--one because it's hilarious and the other because it just sounds so nice--are as follows:
I formed a number of rationalizations. It would get me fit after years of waddlesome sloth. It would be an interesting and reflective way to reacquaint myself with the scale and beauty of my native land after nearly twenty years of living abroad. It would be useful (I wasn't quite sure in what way, but I was sure nonetheless) to learn to fend for myself in the wilderness. When guys in camouflage pants and hunting hats sat around in the Four Aces Diner talking about fearsome things done out-of-doors, I would no long have to feel like such a cupcake. I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, "Yeah, I've shit in the woods." (p. 4)
You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, "far removed from the seats of strife," as the early explorer and botanist William Bartram put it. All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge. (p. 71)
As it was recommended to me, I now recommend it to you. If you haven't read A Walk in the Woods, I'd say give it a try. Even if you have no outdoor experience, even if you hate going outdoors, this book is a great read. Bryson's writing style is fun, unique, and beautiful. It's even lyrical at moments. He deftly juggles humor and seriousness, anecdotes and information. It's a hell of a trek up the Appalachian Trail and Bryson story is a testament to that. I'm sure that there are parts of this book that are exaggerated or made up but that doesn't make me like it any less and it doesn't make me find it any less inspiring.

I'm giving A Walk in the Woods five Gabriels.


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