A Walk in the Woods
I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up this travel book, an account of Bill Bryson’s hike of the Appalachian Trail. I’d heard of people walking the trail, or parts of it, and I was interested in reading about his experience. Bryson set an impressive goal for himself. The AT is approximately 2,100 miles long and runs from Georgia to Maine. With the threat of encountering large and dangerous animals, struggling over difficult terrain and facing changeable weather, I was excited to live vicariously through Bryson and his college buddy, Stephen Katz. I’d heard the book was hilarious and smiled at the idea of two out-of-shape, middle-aged men walking a couple thousand miles.
The beginning of the book is indeed very funny, with tales about bears and about gearing up for the big walk. But once Bryson and Katz hit the trail, the stories become sarcastic and judgmental, with harsh criticisms of the people he meets along the way, about the National Park Service and their terrible maps. It’s all told with an unpleasant intellectual snobbism and I cringed at his comments about stupid locals, an annoying female hiker and the backward towns he passed through.
I also felt misled by A Walk in the Woods because it turns out Bryson didn’t actually walk the entire trail or sleep under the stars every night. He took a month off in the middle of his adventure and, after his rest, he sampled the trail in various spots, skipped a lot of miles, dabbled in some day hikes, and gave up completely somewhere in Maine. In the end, he completed about 870 miles, or close to 40 percent of the trail. That’s certainly a lot of miles, but a look at the book jacket makes a deceptive promise:
“Back in America after twenty years in Britain, Bill Bryson decided to reacquaint himself with his native country by walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail.”
A careful read of this sentence reveals there is no promise of completion, but I felt duped nevertheless.
To be fair, Bryson includes a lot of interesting descriptions about the history of the trail, about its plant life and wildlife. He’s clearly at his best in these sections and has a talent for bringing life to otherwise dry subjects. But I just couldn’t get past his disdain for the people around him. In the remote chance we ever met on a trail, Bryson would be one hiker I would make every effort to ditch, to honor the “annoying” female hiker he and Katz abandoned in the wild.
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