Today I review Bill Bryson‘s very entertaining account of his attempt at walking the entire Appalachian Trail alongside Katz, an ill-prepared friend, who becomes the highlight of the book.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson is published by Black Swan with beautiful line drawings by David Cook – though as I read I did wish it was lavishly illustrated with photos! On several occasions throughout my reading, I turned to Google Maps and Google Images, and I feel I know a lot more about the USA than I did before.
The book opens with several pages of preparatory thoughts and research about the Trail, which presents a fireworks display of comic writing and is almost painfully funny to read, as Bill gets the idea, tells his nearest and dearest, starts reading books about it, listening to horror stories, stocking up with equipment, and trying to persuade one of his friends and acquaintances to come with him. Ultimately the most unlikely person of all volunteers: which is after all the stock-in-trade of the comic writer.
The 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail takes walkers from Georgia to Maine through fourteen eastern states in America; it is a huge challenge, and many set out but do not finish it. Anybody who sets themselves a goal to walk the entire trail wins my admiration, whatever else may be their weaknesses or foibles. Bill Bryson’s travelogues often shine their brightest through the inclusion of hilarious conversations with different people along the way. In this book, my favourite character is his friend Katz, who is totally relatable, setting out unfit, overweight and inadequately prepared. The author’s conversations with Katz are often very funny.
Bryson rarely includes any kind of emotional sense of connection with the mountains and forest which to my mind would make a huge wilderness challenge worthwhile. A lot of the story is about the physical duress involved. I can understand the addiction to walking, the compulsion to keep going, and the desire to complete the challenge. But it does make me think that when one sets out upon an enterprise like this, the major benefit is simply pitting oneself, in all one’s weakness, against a force which threatens to overwhelm you, and proving you can survive it.
So there are very few nature notes or descriptions of wildlife or the natural wonders of the trail. We find a factual and historical piece about the great American chestnut tree and its ultimate fate, and one lovely passage about a surprise meeting with a moose, and one reference to being surprised by bears at night, but he doesn’t see them: only their eyes shining in his torchlight.
Within this book, we find several passages where the author recounts different types of facts like an encyclopaedia, and laments government decisions in many areas including their failures of planning, inadequate employment of knowledgeable rangers and responsibility for the severe lack of good quality shelters.
Also, the regular consumption of junk food intrigued me! I wondered why the two walkers didn’t stock up with better quality food like rice and beans, and relied so much on noodles. Perhaps that’s because noodles are lighter to carry, don’t involve cans, and are quick and easy to cook after an exhausting day of walking and climbing!
Although Bryson gets a lot of humour out of the annoying fellow hiker Sue Ellen, and out of Katz, I couldn’t help admiring both of them anyway, for even embarking on such a challenge in the first place. That in itself requires strength of character and resilience. In fact, those supposed personal characteristics make their determination even more remarkable. The wry humour in setting out for an enterprise like this with inadequate supplies and preparation does tend to make the readers feel not so bad themselves about “falling short”.
I couldn’t help comparing this account at times to Raynor Winn’s narrative of her journey with her husband Moth along the South-West Coastal Path in Cornwall, England in The Salt Path. Both she and Bryson write disparagingly about people who walk with expensive high-quality walking gear, equipment and clothes, seeming to take pride in it and considering themselves superior. It becomes a source of satire, perhaps because the writer sees that some people use the “wild experience” as an excuse to show off wealth, style and taste, overlaying the experience with the false values of the very consumer society they’re supposed to be getting away from.
The end of the book denies the reader any kind of glib spiritual or psychological epiphany, to compensate for the intense and sustained physical discomfort. But that in itself says something deeper about the experience: its ultimate value cannot be immediately felt, but works its way out in subsequent years.
Reading interviews online I get the impression that Bill Bryson struggled quite a bit as he tried to decide how to pitch this account. He observes that a walk of a similar length in the UK would entail many more meetings with other people, who do after all provide the lifeblood of his humorous travel writing. He eventually decided to fictionalise certain aspects of ‘Katz’. However, I read an interview with the friend, who stated that most of it is true, and ‘just about how it was’.
The end of the account comes as abrupt and slightly sad. One might say at first that ultimately the wilderness defeated them. But this of course would not be true, when viewed long-term. They learned from the wilderness, and this kind of experience would stay with you for life. And especially for a writer, of course, it’s pure gold!
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