Sunday, December 9, 2018

A Walk In The Woods: When The Appalachian Trail Beckons

[This is a review of the book A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Published in 1997 by Doubleday and by Black Swan the next year, A Walk in the Woods chronicles Bryson's attempt to trek and complete the Appalachian Trail. Other travel books by Bryson include Notes from a Small Island and The Lost Continent.]

If you have any semblance of interest in hiking, then I’m sure you’ve heard of the great Appalachian Trail. Fans of brevity simply refer to it as the AT. Stretching for more than two thousand miles along America’s eastern seaboard, it’s the granddaddy of long treks. This gargantuan trail is the muse for Bill Bryson’s book called A Walk in the Woods. In his early forties, Bryson thought it wise to go on an adventure and hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. For company, he brought with him a friend, a weirdo named Stephen Katz.

With their backs bent and burdened by overloaded packs, they embarked on a bittersweet journey through the legendary nooks and corners of the Appalachian Trail. With honesty, cleverness, and humor, Bryson chronicles their exploits on the trails. Bryson has achieved something extraordinary here. You would think that a one-time attempt of completing the Appalachian Trail would only merit an article or two. Bryson said to hell with that and proceeded to write a 350-page book about his attempt. With undeniable storytelling prowess, Bryson weaves stories that inspire you and make you pine for the woods.

I’d like to assume that Bryson wrote the book with hikers and outdoor enthusiasts in mind. The fact that I’m a hiker myself made the book more enjoyable to read. In many ways, the book pays tribute to the perks and tribulations of being a hiker. Yep, I get that reference. Yes, that’s exactly what I felt after a 12-hour trek. Yeah, sometimes I feel like I’d rather push an ice pick through my head rather than go on a long hike ever again. Bryson’s prose connects with you as if you are right there sitting right beside him in a cold shelter along the trail with Katz trying to build a fire with damp twigs just a few feet away.

It’s nice to know as well that Bryson did his research. He gave the book a nice dose of historical stories and anecdotes. You get a quick history lesson about how the Appalachian Trail came about. He connects these historical snippets with his own experiences in the trails. This is a rare talent that only a few writers are able to master. With that said, A Walk in the Woods isn’t just a fun and readable adventure book, it’s also “Exhibit A” for aspiring writers wanting to learn a trick or two on nature writing.

Overall, A Walk in the Woods was an enjoyable read. If you are a hiker, there’s a good chance you will like this book. If you’re not much of an outdoors person, you may not like the topic but Bryson’s humor and good writing might carry you through.
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On that note, I’ll leave you with this quote from the book: “I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings towards the Appalachian Trail 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 civilization and ached for its comforts. All of this together, all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.