A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 289 pages, 1997

Rating: 8/10

Reason for Reading: Loved the first of Bryson’s literary travel books I read, In a Sunburned Country.

Synopsis: On a whim, Bryson decides that he wants to hike the 2000-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail. He sets off (hilariously unprepared) with his friend Katz, an ex-party animal that he’s barely seen in the past twenty years, and they hike together (slowly) through snow and heat and things that go bump in the night.

Why you should read this book: Bryson is hilarious in a sneaky kind of way – you don’t realize you’re about to burst out laughing in public until it’s too late. His humour is infused with some seriousness, however, as he relays stories of the disappearing wilderness, but there’s such quirkiness to the stories he’s dug up that you won’t even notice you might be learning something. He also has a penchant for meeting mind-bogglingly weird people, like the reality-challenged Mary Ellen. Even if you start the book without an interest in hiking, by the end you’ll be laughing and thinking ‘if Bryson can do it, why shouldn’t I?’

Why you should avoid this book: Bryson is at the best of his game when relating stories dealing with meeting new people, and the near-solitary nature of the trail just doesn’t provide the opportunity for interaction often enough. The main focus here is the actual hiking, much more than spotting and identifying the wildlife, if that’s the kind of thing you were hoping for.

Opening paragraph:

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.
A sign announced that this was no ordinary footpath but the celebrated Appalachian Trail. Running more than 2,100 miles along America’s eastern seaboard, through the serene and beckoning Appalachian Mountains, the AT is the granddaddy of long hikes. From Georgia to Main, it wanders across fourteen states, through plump, comely hills whose very names – Blue Ridge, Smokies, Cumberlands, Catskills, Green Mountains, White Mountains – seem an invitation to amble. Who could say the words ‘Great Smoky Mountains’ or ‘Shenandoah Valley’ and not feel an urge, as the naturalist John Muir once put it, to ‘throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence’?

Fabulous quotes:

And so we walked, hour upon hour, over rollercoaster hills, along knife-edge ridges and over grassy balds, through depthless ranks of oak, ask, chinkapin, and pine. The skies grew sullen and the air chillier, but it wasn’t until the third day that the snow came. It began in the morning as thinly scattered flecks, hardly noticeable. But then the wind rose, then rose again, until it was blowing with an end-of-the-world fury that seemed to have even the trees in a panic, and with it came snow, great flying masses of it. By midday we found ourselves plodding into a stinging, cold, hard-blowing storm. Soon after, we came to a narrow ledge of path along a wall of rock called Big Butt Mountain.

I shuffled on my knees to the foot of the tent, cautiously unzipped the mesh and peered out, but it was pitch black. As quietly as I could, I brought in my backpack and with the light of a small torch searched through it for my knife. When I found it and opened the blade I was appalled at how wimpy it looked. It was a perfectly respectable appliance for, say, buttering pancakes, but patently inadequate for defending oneself against 400 pounds of ravenous fur.
Carefully, very carefully, I climbed from the tent and put on the torch, which cast a distressingly feeble beam. Something about fifteen or twenty feet away looked up at me. I couldn’t see anything at all of it’s shape or size – only two shining eyes. It went silent, whatever it was, and stared back at me.
‘Stephen,’ I whispered at his tent, did you pack a knife?’
‘Have you got anything sharp at all?’
He thought for a moment. ‘Nail clippers.’

Also recommended: Big Fish by Daniel Wallace; Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon; Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.

Also by this author: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir; In a Sunburned Country; A Short History of Nearly Everything; Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe; The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way; Notes From a Small Island; Bill Bryson’s African Diary; Notes From a Big Country; Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America; I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away; Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words.

Author’s website: randomhouse.com

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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