Tuesday, February 4, 2014

An Appalachian Adventure

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Bill Bryson calls the Appalachian Trail "the grandaddy of long hikes," but for me, this book is the granddaddy of hiking memoirs. I first read it sometime around 1999, and I enjoyed it so much that not only have I reread this multiple times, but it also inspired me to read at least a dozen other hiking adventures. None have matched Bryson's wit. 

Before he started writing long books on various aspects of history, Bryson was known for his entertaining travelogues. "A Walk in the Woods" was his humorous take on attempting a long-distance hike of the Appalachian Trail, which spans more than 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine. Here were his reasons for trying:

"It would get me fit after years of waddlesome sloth. It would be an interesting and reflective way to reacquaint myself with the scale and beauty of my native land after nearly twenty years of living abroad. It would be useful (I wasn't quite sure in what way, but I was sure nonetheless) to learn to fend for myself in the wilderness. When guys in camouflage pants and hunting hats sat around in the Four Aces Diner talking about fearsome things done out-of-doors, I would no longer have to feel like such a cupcake. I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, 'Yeah, I've shit in the woods.'"

And so Bryson plans his trip, gets indignant over the high cost of outdoor equipment, and recruits an old friend, Stephen Katz, to walk the trail with him. Katz, an overweight, out-of-shape, recovering alcoholic, adds much hilarity to the adventure. The first day on the trail, Katz falls behind and has a fit, throwing away a lot of supplies in an effort to lighten the load of his pack. Later he gets lost during a stretch when they were dangerously low on water. But he's so pathetic and funny that you forgive him.

Meanwhile, Bryson was having his own problems that first day:

"It was hell. First days on hiking trips always are. I was hopelessly out of shape -- hopelessly. The pack weighed way too much. Way too much. I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared. Every step was a struggle. The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill ... The elusive summit continually retreats by whatever distance you press forward, so that each time the canopy parts enough to give a view you are dismayed to see that the topmost trees are as remote, as unattainable, as before. Still you stagger on. What else can you do?"

After a few days on the trail, they met another hiker named Mary Ellen, who leeched onto them. 

"She was from Florida, and she was, as Katz forever after termed her in a special tone of awe, a piece of work. She talked nonstop, except when she was clearing out her eustachian tubes (which she did frequently) by pinching her nose and blowing out with a series of violent and alarming snorts of a sort that would make a dog leave the sofa and get under a table in the next room. 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."

I'm not going to retype entire pages, but trust me that the conversations with Mary Ellen are one of the highlights of this book. 

Bryson and Katz spend several weeks on the trail, hiking 500 miles in their first section. Then the two take a break and return home for a few weeks, and Bryson resumes with some shorter hikes in New England. Katz and Bryson reunite in Maine to hike a particularly daunting section of the trail called the Hundred Mile Wilderness:

"The Appalachian Trail is the hardest thing I have ever done, and the Maine portion was the hardest part of the Appalachian Trail, and by a factor I couldn't begin to compute."

Exhausted, filthy and hungry, the two abandon their trek in Maine and hitchhike to a small town, where they're able to make their way home again. 

"I have regrets, of course. I regret that I didn't do [Mount] Katahdin (though I will, I promise you, I will). I regret that I never saw a bear or wolf or followed the padding retreat of a giant hellbender salamander, never shooed away a bobcat or sidestepped a rattlesnake, never flushed a startled boar. I wish that just once I had truly stared death in the face (briefly, with a written assurance of survival). But I got a great deal else from the experience. I learned to pitch a tent and sleep beneath the stars. For a brief, proud period I was slender and fit. I gained a profound respect for wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn't know I had. I had discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists ... Best of all, these days when I see a mountain, I look at it slowly and appraisingly, with a narrow, confident gaze and eyes of chipped granite."

One of the things I especially like about this book is the history that Bryson includes along the way. He shares interesting stories about the areas he's passing through and about how the trail was built. He also looks at America's unique relationship with nature, which includes some backwards policies of the U.S. Forest Service and the Parks Service. It's really a delight to read.

This memoir has been criticized because Bryson doesn't hike the entire trail, but regardless of the distance, it's still a damn fine travelogue. This was his experience on the AT, which he shares with much humor and insight. I don't care that he hiked only 870 miles out of 2,100 -- the point was that he attempted it.

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