A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson


Title: A Walk in the Woods
Author: Bill Bryson
Publisher: Black Swan
Release Date: 1998
Rating: 4/5

Yes, another book about hiking and no it’s just not because I’m going hiking myself in three weeks. I’m not saying they’re completely unrelated matters, but it’s not just because of that. It’s also not just because I too desperately want to do some serious long-distance hiking and the Appalachian Trail is at the top of my list. It’s also because it’s summer and summer means outdoorsy time, plus Bill Bryson has been known to be pretty funny. Not known by me, of course, until now.

After moving to the States, Bryson sets out to hike the AT. To avoid doing it alone, he sends words to a bunch of friends, asking if anyone wants to come. His high school friend, Stephen Katz (it seems to be a pseudonym) is the only one who reponds and says he wants to go. The two traveled Europe together in the 70’s and Bryson hasn’t seen him in years, but he’s excited to not be going alone. As it turns out, Katz has gained a lot of weight, has no hiking knowledge or experience, and really doesn’t want to be there. This makes for some pretty funny episodes.

“I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings toward the AT that weren’t thoroughly contradictory. I was weary of the trail, but captivated by it; found the endless slog increasingly exhausting but ever invigorating; grew tired of the boundless woods but admired their boundlessness; enjoyed the escape from the civilization and ached for its comforts. All of this together, all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.”

The book’s subtitle is Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. I have a feeling the witty Bryson is being ironic here, because unlike most travel literature about venturing into the great wide open, that I’ve read, he doesn’t seem have any specific philosophical or spiritual reasons. He’s not setting out to change his life, find Nirvana or go on some sort of nebulous quest. He just wants to go. Sure, he still has thoughts about the trail, what motivates people to go through with all the torment when no one has to be there. Maybe he’s semi-mocking the genre – and taking Katz into consideration this is entirely possible. Or maybe he’s rediscoverying Amerca through the history of the trail and the people he meets there, in some metaphorical way. Either way, all of the grandiose thoughts typical of the genre take a backseat to the actual hiking and the numerous funny and scary anecdotes about bears, interesting history, and enlightening (and depressing) environmental facts.

“I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on Earth…”

But it’s not all backstory. Bryson and Katz do end up in some funny situations and meet a few hilariously annoying people. Bryson is a bit of a snark, though, and is generally pretty harsh on the other hikers, but it all makes for good reading. And Katz, well, you need to experience him for youself – even if Bryson has admitted that most of what Katz does it made up. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny if you ask me, but I did chuckle a few times and I was always interested to see what they would get up to next. Especially considering Bryson’s fear of bears and murderous hillbillies. And while a few people have met their demise on the trail, I won’t spoil the book by revealing whether or not they do run into bears or Deliverance-type rednecks. But I will say that the books definitely hasn’t put me off wanting to hike the AT myself.

Bryson’s language is humorous and relaxed, and his research extensive (it would seem). Overall a great summer read, especially if you’re more interested in the AT area than in Bryson himself. And you don’t need to be a hiker at heart to enjoy it – it might actually help if you aren’t.