A Walk in the Woods
By Bill Bryson
- Date finished: Feb. 22. 2014
- Genre: Travel, Memoir
- Year: 1998
- Project: n/a
- Reading List: Winter Reading List 2013-14
- Grade: A+(+!)
- Thoughts upon reading:
It is no secret that despite only having read two of his books now, I am a huge, huge fan of Bill Bryson. What can I say about Bill Bryson that hasn’t already been said? He’s funny. He’s witty. He’s smart. His observations of the world around him are not only fascinating but a joy to read. I learn so much from his books. I laugh out loud while reading him.
Really, you can’t get any better. After reading A Short History of Nearly Everything last summer, I was determined to read everything he’s ever written, and A Walk in the Woods was the first, highly-recommended stop on that journey. The book tells the story of Bryson’s decision to hike the Appalachian Trail in the late 90’s, shortly after his family moves back to the States after living 20 years in England. He’s joined by an old friend from Iowa, the foul-mouthed and as the back of the book says “gloriously unfit” Stephen Katz, and together they attempt to hike the 2,200 miles of this historic trail, which runs from Georgia all the way through the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine.
Before reading this book, I did not know much about the Appalachian Trail, but now I want to nothing more than to hike at least a few of its miles. Bryson tells the story of the trail in his book, as well as chronicles his and Katz’s hilarious journey, but really, the book is about so much more. Bryson also tells the story of the American forest and the death of its native trees, the declining population of black bears in the Eastern United States, a mining town in Pennsylvania that was abandoned due to a thousand-year fire burning underneath it, and the history of the hiking movement in the US. He also discusses the crazy characters he meets on the trail, giving readers a slice of Americana as well as our very own brand of American nuttiness.
It’s also a story of personal achievement and overcoming obstacles in your own life. Hiking 2,200 miles is a crazy feat, and to accomplish it requires some kind of supernatural drive and zen. I wasn’t completely sure about Katz for most of the book until the very end, when he opens up to Bryson about his own struggle with alcoholism, and you realize how amazing it is that someone like Katz survived as long as he did on the trail (he’s a little stupid after all – he threw away a water bottle before entering the Hundred Mile Wilderness). The book also brings up the question of what’s an accomplishment: finishing what you set out to achieve, or at least giving it the old college try and learning something along the way? Most people who intend to thru hike the AT barely make it a quarter of the way, but at least they’re out there, trying.
I wasn’t even halfway done with this book when I ran over to my brother’s Facebook wall and insisted that he RUN to the nearest bookstore and buy this book. My brother is currently earning his graduate degree in Environmental Studies and recently accepted a summer internship at the Tremont Institute at the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. He’s a former boy scout and all around outsdoorsy, athletic sort of guy – with quite the streak of liberal environmentalism – and I KNEW he would fall to pieces over this book. Then, as I was talking about the book with him the other night, he said he was thinking of hiking the AT after graduation. And I thought: “Man, I wish I could do something that cool. Get back to nature and do something that grand.” But then, I knew I’d probably drop out pretty quick and, to be honest, I don’t have the time right now. But maybe I’ll hike part of the trail with David, if he ever does tackle the AT. I’d consider it an experience of a lifetime.