Bill Bryson: A Walk In The Woods

Cover image of Bill Bryson's 'A Walk In The Woods'
A Walk In The Woods, Bill Bryson

A Walk In The Woods, records in typical Bryson style, his attempt to walk America’s famed Appalachian Trail.

The Appalachian Trail is a marked hiking trail in the eastern United States, extending between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. It was conceived by Benton MacKaye, a forester who wrote his original plan in 1921.

Approximately 2,178 miles (3,505 km) long, the trail passes through the states of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. For those hardy hikers who still need more time to commune with nature,  the International Appalachian Trail extension continues north into Canada where it eventually enters the North Atlantic Ocean!

Why walk the Appalachian Trail at all? you might ask. Because it’s there, seems to be Bryson’s answer, who not long after moving to Hanover, New Hampshire, discovers “…a path that vanished into a wood on the edge of town.” That path turned out to be the Appalachian Trail (or the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, to give its full title – or the AT as it is often called for the sake of brevity).

Bryson’s reaction to discovering the path? Excited by the idea that he could simply set off from his home and walk 1,800 miles through the woods to Georgia, Bryson hears a little voice in his head saying: “Sounds neat! Let’s do it!” And so another Bill Bryson adventure – and book – is born.

Now you might think walking the 2,178 miles of the Appalachian Trail to be an all but impossible task, and for many people it is. However, in 1948, Earl Shaffer of York, Pennsylvania, brought a great deal of attention to the project by completing the first documented thru-hike – a term given to describe completing the full length of the AT in a single season. Later, Shaffer also completed the first north-to-south thru-hike (all thru-hikes before that had been south-to-north). Incredibly, in 1998 Earl Shaffer, at nearly 80 years of age, again hiked the Appalachian Trail, making him the oldest person ever to complete a thru-hike, and quite possibly the only person to walk the AT three times.

But people like Earl Shaffer are a rare breed, and getting rarer. In the mid-1990s, only about 10 percent of hikers actually completed the full walk. As many as 20 percent dropped out the during the first week. So when Bill Bryson and his companion, Stephen Katz set out in March, 1996 with the intention of walking the Appalachian Trail, the odds were heavily stacked against them.

I don’t know if Bill Bryson is a hypochondriac, or if he just enjoys worrying about the possibility of disaster, but he seems to do a lot of worrying in this book.

Then again, maybe there simply wasn’t that much to write about, given that much of the walk is through vast forested landscapes, which by their very nature make it hard to appreciate the grand vistas on either side of the narrow path that seems to be the actual Trail. This literally appears to be a case of “You can’t see the wood (or scenery) for the trees.”

To his credit Bryson and his friend Katz stuck to the task for longer than most people who attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail do, and although they did not complete the walk as they had hoped, they encountered many interesting fellow hikers along the route. They had to contend with storms, regular meals of two-minute noodles, and irregular opportunities to bathe and shower themselves. They argued, got along well for a time, and irritated each other again more than once, leaving one to wonder whether they still speak to each other to this day.

Despite spending a whole chapter running through lists of all the possible hazards one might encounter along the AT – hazards such as black bears, rattlesnakes and copperhead snakes, and such like, the most dangerous thing they encountered seemed to be deer and elk. Hardly the stuff of legends, but for city slickers like Bryson and Katz, even a close encounter with an elk can spur heart palpitations.

As you might expect, any book from Bill Bryson will be full of humor, numerous diversions, and interesting insights, and A Walk In The Woods is full of all of that and more.

Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and after living for many years in Britain with his English wife and four children moved back to America. He is the best selling author of The Lost Continent, Made in America, Down Under, and many other great travel books.

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About Jim Lesses

Jim Lesses is a semi-retired Australian musician, blogger and photographer trying to live up to his personal motto: Love The Life You Live, by travelling on extended journeys as often and for as long as he can. As a solo traveller, Jim has taken himself on two round the world trips since 2008, and is planning his next journey for 2012.
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