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Book review: "A Walk In The Woods"

I ran across Bill Bryson's "A Walk In The Woods" in much the same way Bryson ran across the Appalachian Trail.

"Not long after I moved with my family to a small town in New Hampshire I happened upon a path that vanished into a wood on the edge of town," his book starts. From there, he gets the whimsical idea to hike the whole trail -- which, at over 2,100 miles, is the eastern equivalent of the west coast's PCT.

I hadn't thought of reading the book prior to my own hike, although many people had recommended it. What did get me to run down to the library and pick it up was reading kadyg's bedside copy of Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything," an overview book on our current scientific knowledge, which I devoured in a day or two before realizing "Hey, this is that guy who also penned that AT book. He's a good writer."

How did his trip go? Well, worried about bears and other trail dangers, he convinces the "gloriously out of shape" Stephen Katz to travel with him. They reach the trailhead in below-freezing weather and Katz throws out half his gear in a fit of rage in the first seven miles. This is just the beginning of a comedy of errors and reality checks that follows Bryson up the trail and leads to them bailing out of the trip in northern Virginia. From there, Bryson tours some of the trail's highlights by car -- and the book turns into a different sort of travelogue, with a solid sprinkling of natural history and trail history. The pair gets back together for one final hike through Maine's Hundred Mile Wilderness ... and through it all, in half a year of effort and sweat and discomfort, Bryson walks for 890 miles, or only about 40 percent of the trail's length.

Needless to say, this book was not a thru-hiker morale boost.

What it was: Entertaining, funny, and highly memorable. Not just funny -- consistently hilarious. The book is the chronicle of an often disastrous trip, but he laughs at it along with us, turning the hike into the mother of all "This one time at band camp" stories (minus the band). Their hiking companions and other human encounters are colorful beyond all reckoning -- he introduces their first hiking companion with the declaration "I have long known that it is part of God's plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on Earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the Appalachian woods I would not be spared." Meanwhile, Bryson and Katz bicker and banter, share fear and worry, struggle and savor small triumphs, and in the process illuminate the grind of distance hiking ... as well as its simple and unexpected joys.

Bryson is in top form when describing the magnitude of his accomplishment (even though he didn't finish a thru-hike, he still walked several hundred miles, which is not to be taken lightly) and the ways that the thru-hiking world is different from the one we live in. You can't deny his turns of phrase: "When, after ages and ages, you finally reach the telltale world of truly high ground, where the chilled air smells of pine sap and the vegetation is gnarled and tough and wind bent, and push through to the mountain's open pinnacle, you are, alas, beyond caring. You sprawl face down on a sloping pavement of gneiss, pressed to the rock by the weight of your pack, and lie there for some minutes, reflecting in a distant, out-of-body way that you have never before looked this closely at lichen." I found myself nodding in recognition at many of his trail trials; for those of you who haven't ever attempted anything similar, this gets across a good deal of the flavor of the routine I'm setting myself up for.

On the other hand, the book loses momentum as Bryson does. Part 2's more traditional travelogue, after he and Katz abandon the trail and Bryson travels around the East Coast by car trying to get a flavor for the rest of the AT, struggles with a shift in tone and the loss of the high adventure of the hike. There's a great deal more of natural history (much of which, incidentally, is repeated almost word for word in A Short History of Nearly Everything). The book is also scattered throughout with environmental wake-up calls -- which are appropriate and necessary, considering the changing face of the wilderness, but sometimes come off as strident. The book picks back up again near the end, with some northeastern hiking and an appropriately climactic final trip.

On the whole, it's worth reading. You'll learn plenty (the average American only walks 1.4 miles per week) and you'll be entertained. Four stars out of five (mostly because Part 2 drags so much; the first half is stellar).

I hope I make it farther than Bryson did. But failing that, I hope I can write about my trip with as much awe and wit as he did.

Speaking of things to read ... tomorrow's Friday. It's been two weeks since my snow-camping clinic. In order to offer some taste of my own adventures, I'll post my trip journal from that experience over the next four days, in "real time" (with a 14-day delay in case the FCC makes me bleep anything), one entry per day. You'll learn about my new trail name, hopefully see some pictures, and vicariously experience the joy of taking a crap outside in a snowstorm.
Tags: baxwalk pct, books, reviews

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