Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, published in 1998, is a classic in its own right (and apparently, as of February 2012, Richard Russo was working on a screenplay for the film adaptation). I’d heard a lot about Bryson and what a talented writer he is, and had even bought A Short History of Nearly Everything for my dad last Christmas (which he loved even more than A Walk in the Woods), but I have to admit I had no idea how easy this would be to read. Had I known, I probably wouldn’t have waited some huge span of time to read it. It was given to me as a gift at least a year ago at a time when I was leaving nonfiction reading behind for a whole lot of fiction.
As the title suggests, however, reading this book is a lot like taking “a walk in the woods.” It’s rather casual, informative, and especially funny when Bryson and his foil, Stephen Katz, start (and end) their hike together.
Like Bryson, there was a time when I wanted to walk the Appalachian Trail. It was just a few months before Shelley became pregnant with our first child, probably just a couple years after the book was published actually. I was feeling ambitious and ready to be challenged. Subconsciously, I was grasping for one last straw of freedom. For many reasons, that dream never came close to fruition, but I did try growing my dirt-blond hair into dreadlocks about that time. Creating a wilderness on top of my noggin was every bit as challenging as actually walking through one.
Hiking the length of the AT, it turns out, is so difficult only about 4,000 have ever done it, at least according to Bryson’s 1996 numbers. Of course, there are those who do it all at once, known as thru-hikers, and those who do it as section hikers, sometimes over many years. Regardless, at around 2,200 miles, with some of the most rugged and difficult terrain just waiting for you at the bitter end in Maine (assuming you start in the south as most do), it’s a tough slog. Bryson doesn’t actually do the whole thing, either. He calculates that he ends up doing some 789 or so miles. And that’s good enough.
Which brings me to my only minor critique: I was never entirely clear on the purpose of Bryson’s decision to take on the AT in the first place. What was he trying accomplish? He doesn’t make it clear whether this is a lifelong passion, or why exactly he wants to re-discover America through this particular approach. He vaguely hints at telling his publishers what he’s doing and that his wife has to put up with a lot. Also, after Katz leaves him for a spell, about 2/3 of the way through the book, I felt like the book lost a little tension.
For the most part, though, it’s a rewarding read, teaching you about the Appalachia mountain chain, the fascinating AT, and, as a result, so much about America, especially of America’s attitudes toward nature. There are innumerable lost species of trees, birds, big and small game. The loss of the American Chestnut alone (and the relative indifference we had to this majestic arbor) is enough to make this a tragic tale indeed.
Yet there is still a wilderness out there that has been maintained and is still strikingly non-busy, all things considered. I feel very much inspired now to get out on the trail for a few days (get past that first difficult day), and get a feel for the trail. At least I can do that much these ten or twelve years since my first inclination to give it a gander. I imagine I’ll feel a lot like Bryson does toward the end, that paradoxical tension between loving the neverending trail, wanting to walk simply because “that’s what you do,” and at the same time missing my family and the tame comforts of home. Now that I’m 40, I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.