by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is a stark break from the fictional fare I’d been indulging in lately, and the first creative nonfiction book I’ve read in a little while. It chronicles Bryson’s summer of 1996, in which he set out to hike America’s Appalachian Trail from start to finish in order to catalogue the experience in his next book.
I’ve got this image of Bryson in my mind: a guy who set out to do something intense and admirable, who wanted to believe that this experience would be transformative and revelatory. Maybe that’s not quite right, but you certainly don’t set out to do a task like hiking the Appalachian Trail in a single season without expecting it to be the challenge of a lifetime, that much is made clear to the reader. As it is in life, Bryson finds out that the actual experience is not quite what he expected.
A Walk in the Woods alternates between informational and narrative chapters, leaning rather heavily on the informational, because, let’s face it, walking on a path isn’t exactly riveting material, even if there’s an awful lot of it. Bryson does a lot of fear mongering, making the task seem exponentially more dangerous than the experience ended up being, but it’s understandable. He probably psyched himself out an awful lot before he hit the trail, and there were dangers, even if he avoided them himself.
For the majority of his expedition, Bryson is accompanied by his profoundly out of shape old friend, Stephen Katz, who provides a bit of comic relief to the journey, but to be honest, I found Katz’s protestations more cringe-worthy than funny some times. I’m sure Katz’s idea of what he was in for was even less complete than Bryson’s, and since this wasn’t a cinematic piece of fiction, neither man made any life-changing discoveries. The whole book kind of leaves you asking, ‘so what?’
So what, indeed. Not far into their trip, the pair discover to their dismay that they will not be hiking the entire trail and in all, they end up completing less than half of the 2200-mile journey. And yet, in spite of all the disappointments, I find myself reading A Walk in the Woods and fantasizing about hiking it myself, just like Bryson and Katz. I know, after reading Bryson’s story, that I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I’d like to think, and yet I still want to slap a pack on my back and grab my walking stick. There’s something to be said about the power of a real challenge. Knowing me, however, I’d probably be so disappointed that I couldn’t complete the trail that I wouldn’t want to do it at all to avoid the letdown.
Well, that and I don’t think I could physically haul that much around for several months without losing my mind. One thing is for sure, if you're doing it alone, you better like your solitude. And if you're hiking with a companion, you should be prepared to hate them by the time it's all over.
All said, A Walk in the Woods is a must-read for hikers, outdoorsmen, and aficionados of the AT, but it’s not the most interesting piece of travel fiction I’ve read, as it could get a little bland at times. Bryson tries to spice it up with historical anecdotes about the Trail, but ultimately, the book left me wanting more. Perhaps I will never fully understand the appeal until I set foot on the trail myself.