Review: “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail”, by Bill Bryson

December 30, 2011 in General Topics

I’ve had a fantasy for years of traveling on the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine to my home state of Georgia, and I’ve often wondered about the realities inherent in crossing several states via remote trails winding through verdant wood. Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” manages to paint a rich history of the trail while providing an oft-comical portrait of his and his friend’s attempt at the hike. Like any hike, though, the book is not without its obstacles.

Bryson’s book centers largely on personal anecdotes from trail life, and the rich collection of characters they encounter along the way — from the enigmatic to the ill-prepared. Best of all in this lineup of fellow travelers is one Stephen Katz, a recovering alcoholic and Bryson’s good friend from years earlier, who joins Bryson on his trail hike seemingly at a whim. Katz is ill-suited for a walk to the corner gas station, much less a hike along jagged mountain spires, so it makes for great comedy. Frequently bailed out by Bryson’s more reasoned approach to the trail, Katz comes across as something of an ill-tempered hobbit to Bryson’s scruffy Gandalf. He’s forever lagging behind, seeking out rest stops, over-indulging in food, and finding things to complain about.

The two embarked on the trail sometime in 1995 or 1996. At the time political tension between the left and right in the country was perhaps even higher than it was now, and it has to be said that Bryson dips a little too far into politics for this reader’s taste. It struck me as ironic that Bryson, marveling at the natural beauty of the North Georgia mountains, and the helpfulness of the locals he encounters, then often turns around and slams the same. In one mystifying stretch, he explains he simply had no desire to remain “this far South” any further, and dovetails that with an indignant explanation of Tennessee’s education policies. It’s this kind of behavior that knocked my respect for Bryson down a few pegs. For a man that can laugh at so much, and demonstrates a wonderful grasp of our absurd times, he’s quite partisan, and in this work he displays striking absolutism and rigidity.

What Bryson lacks in temperament is made up in passion, and this shines through when he details the effects contemporary life has on America’s fragile natural beauty. With stark prose he describes the experience of returning to civilization — and its Wal-Marts and suburban sprawl — after so many days on the trail. He dedicates entire passages describing the draw of Gatlinburg as a non-too-subtle metaphor for America’s shallow pursuits, laments the erosion of the trail by road departments, and even saves some pages for criticizing the Forestry Service.

Amongst all this comes a fascinating history of the mountain range’s oddities and lost history. Chief among these, and greatly appreciated, was a history of the botanical wealth of the forest — and how so much of it is lost or threatened, such as the mighty American Chestnut. He details famous and infamous historical figures’ exploits through the range, stringing together tales of explorers, murders, and miners with ease and aplomb. Special attention is paid to the sheer act of hiking, the makeup and composition of the trail itself, the unique culture that exists beneath the canopy, and the many and elusive animal species that call the mountains home.

Perhaps the best moments of the book come when we are trudging alongside Bryson and Katz, feeling the isolation of remote portions of the woods, or savoring the awe — and at times, fear — inherent in encounters with the creatures of the forest. In other moments, such as the gripping ordeal on Mt. Washington, we truly wonder for our hikers’ safety.

If I had one lingering complaint, outside of the political commentary, it’s that Bryson and Katz somewhat sold out. The book implies (and is certainly billed by Bryson in the earlier pages) as a thru-hike of the entire trail, but in truth Bryson and Katz skipped large portions of it, and Bryson’s reasoning and attempt to smooth that over for the reader falls short. One cannot escape the fact that the two men took the easier route. Towards the end of the book, Bryson is even day hiking the most prominent points of interest on the trail, getting at the trail heads by car, and little else.

Is that to say Katz and Bryson shouldn’t be proud? No. I’ve hiked rough terrain long distances in my time, and I’ve done nothing like what they did, and at the time they were both middle-aged. But the book’s jacket never mentions the abbreviated hike, and the reader should certainly be excused if they feel a little ripped off.

One gets the impression that all the back story and extra tidbits, such as Bryson’s experience touring a battlefield, were filler placed by an author attempting to fill pages with material that would have — and probably should have — centered on trail experiences.

So while “A Walk in the Woods” is a fine travel book in its own right, and a terrific illustration of a national treasure, it’s like we’ve only lifted the lid on the metaphorical chest partway. Rather than a true thru-hike, it is just a long walk, and — solid prose aside — it comes across as a rushed project.

3/5 Stars.

Stay tuned.

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