A Walk in the Woods with Bill Bryson

Cover of Lost in the Woods by Bill BrysonI must admit that I’m late to the Bill Bryson party.  I’m  not sure how it happened.  I have been reading for well over 20 years; I have been hiking for a solid 15.  Yet, somehow,  I have never read any of Bryson’s books, even though he has a reputation as being a great outdoors writer.

When I was preparing to leave for Thailand, I stumbled across “A Walk in the Woods,” in my father’s bookshelf.   If you’re not familiar, it’s an account of Bryson’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail, a 2,000-mile foot path that blazes up the eastern seaboard from the hills of Georgia to the backwoods of Maine.

It’s a trek that, according to Bryson, thousands of people attempt every year and at which only a scant few succeed.  Bryson, like many of those who dream of conquering the AT (as he calls it) isn’t a professional outdoorsman, but simply a regular guy who likes going for walks in the woods.  One day, after moving to New Hampshire post 20 years of living abroad, he  stumbles onto a foot path in his backyard that leads to the Appalachian Trail.

From there, he drums up a number of rationalizations for attempting to walk the entire thing, which he sums up by quoting the naturalist John Muir, who equated hiking to “wanting to throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence. “

Bryson teams up with his old high school buddy Steven Katz, a comically overweight, reformed alcoholic, and the two set off for a summer of adventures hiking the AT, most of which are relayed in a way that is completely hilarious.  Bryson is not only a good writer, but he is extremely deft at doing one of the hardest things in literature: conveying humorous situations without depleting the humor in them.

But, the real essence of  “A Walk in the Woods,” is not comic relief, but capturing the raw beauty of the wild. Not only does Bryson vividly describe the peaks, valleys and meadows that compose the Appalachian Trail, he also dishes out history along the way, from the origin of the Appalachian Trial, to the deforestation of American’s national parks, to the bizarre story of a 40-year coal fire that is still burning in Centralia, Pennsylvania.

“A Walk in the Woods” is a book that makes you want to hike, makes you want to jump up from the couch, grab your camping tent and your hiking boots and make a beeline for your closest forest.  It’s also a book that reminds the reader of the incredible beauty American holds.

In this day of age, when, according to Bryson, most Americans walk less in one week then a hiker does in 20 minutes, it’s easy to forget the immense natural splendors that exist outside of the bedlam of strip malls and office parks.  In its own quirky way, this book is a call to arms to take a stroll through the woods—whether for a month or an hour—and get reacquainted with the outdoors.

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One Comment

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