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Bill Bryson Takes a Walk in the Woods

Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, published in 1998, is a classic (and there are rumors that Richard Russo is working on a screenplay for a film adaptation).

As the title suggest, 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. 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 an epic 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.

Readers may never be entirely clear on the purpose of Bryson’s decision to take on the AT. He doesn’t make it clear whether this is a lifelong passion, or why exactly he wants to re-discover America this way. He hints at telling his publishers what he’s doing and that his wife has to put up with a lot.

Overall, a very 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. See if you feel inspired to get out on the trail for a few days (past that first difficult day), and get a feel for the trail. Will you feel compelled to march on, or, as Bryson experiences, that paradoxical tension between loving the neverending trail, wanting to walk simply because “that’s what you do,” and at the same time desperately missing family and the tame comforts of home.

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