by Bill Bryson
After living in Britain for the last two decades, Bill Bryson returns to the United States and proposes hiking the Appalachian Trail. He's an out-of-shape middle-aged writer planning to walk over 2,000 miles in one year – what could possibly go wrong? An afternoon in the local outdoors equipment store quickly erodes Bryson's illusions about the trail, but he decides to continue with the project anyway. When spring comes, he hits the trail with his rotund buddy Stephen Katz. After a rough start, the two men find their rhythm on the trail, bonding over the trials of the hiking and the stupidity of the men and women they encounter along the way.
The movie adaptation of this book, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, was released at the beginning of September. I haven't seen it, but knowing that it was coming provided the impetus to finally pick up a copy of A Walk in the Woods and start reading. Part humorous romp through the woods, part critique of handling of American's natural preserves and a plea for better oversight, Bill Bryson's travelogue was impossible to put down. His biting descriptions of fellow hikers are hilarious. An episode in which he and Katz were joined for several days by an annoying woman who constantly chattered at them and asserted her authority on any topic under the sun. When she finally falls behind them on the trail, they feel relieved – and then guilty, because she's a single woman hiking alone. The next day, they run into another hiker who informs them that not only is she doing just fine, she's claiming that she left them because they hiked too slow and were holding her back.
But it's not just mocking humanity that makes the book so gripping. Bryson's descriptions of the trail are hypnotic, and he laces history, botany, and trivia into the story as he stolidly marches along. When he notes the destruction of the grassy balds unique to the southern Appalachians, it is easy to be swept up in his sorrow and outrage.
A recurring theme in the book that always made me smile was Bryson's obsession with bears. He constantly brings them up, whether recalling a particularly gruesome story about a bear attack or trembling in fear because he's certain he hears one lumbering through the trees outside his tent. Bears are something you learn to live with when you grow up visiting national parks like Yosemite on a regular basis, but Bryson's fascination is quite common amongst infrequent and new hikers. Bears are amazing creatures and the appreciation he lavishes on them is well-deserved.
Does Bryson's narrative inspire me to go out and embark on a similar adventure? Yes and no. I find myself longing to go on a season-long hike, but the Appalachian Trail didn't sound quite right for me. (Too long, for starters – no way I'd come close to finishing.) But if the opportunity ever came where I could take some time off of work and hike the John Muir or Pacific Crest trails, I'd go and do it in a heartbeat.
4 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2014: Night of Pan by Gail Strickland
2012: The Secret Life of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen
2011: Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir
2010: Writer's Block: Open Book Test
2009: The King's Rose by Alisa Libby
2008: Want a job? Librarything.com seeks employees.