Sunday, May 8, 2016
A Walk in the Woods
by Bill Bryson
Anchor Books 2007 (1998)
397 pages Memoir
"After years of waddlesome sloth", author Bill Bryson decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, a 2200 mile path from Georgia to Maine. He let his plan be known, hoping to find someone to hike with him, and an old friend, Katz, a totally unfit, recovering alcoholic, decided to join him. They began at the trailhead in Georgia and started walking North. Many months later, they finished their walk in Maine, after skipping most of the middle, and quitting before they got to the trail's end.
A Walk in the Woods is Bryson's insightful, humorous, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny memoir of that fateful summer's hike. My husband and I read it this spring in preparation for the five miles we intend to walk on the trail at the end of June. "5 miles" you say? "That's nothing!" However, after reading the book, my husband said, "Why in the world would anyone want to punish themselves that way?" So, apparently 5 miles will be plenty for him. We haven't just been reading, but we have been walking in preparation. We haven't gotten to 5 miles yet, but now that the weather is improving, we are aiming for 2 miles this week. (If I had a smiling emoticon, I would put it here.)
The beauty of A Walk in the Woods is not just reading about Bryson and Katz's adventures, but reading all the back story about the trail, its history, and the events in American history that affected the areas the trail covers. For instance, he visits a place near the trail in Pennsylvania where an underground coal seam has been burning for 50 years. The entire community of Centralia, Pennsylvania had to be evacuated never to be lived in again.
Bryson describes the shelters where they spent their nights, the villages where they slept in real beds and ate real food, and the people they met along the way. Katz's lack of hiking skills supplies much of the humor, but Bryson also acknowledges that he could not have made the trip without his bumbling hiking companion. After they suspend their hiking at the end of the spring, Bryson attempts a lot of day trips from his car, hiking his way north from Harper's Ferry West Virginia, but his heart isn't quite in it. Katz joins him in August with the thought that they will hike through the hundred mile wilderness of Maine, but they have lost much of their impetus, and they never make it to the Maine end of the trail. They realize, however, that they didn't need to finish; they had completed enough to be proud of their accomplishment, and of course, Bryson got a great memoir out of the deal.
Bryson writes in such an engaging style that you feel like you know him and his topic very well. Several years ago, we read A Short History of Nearly Everything, and we fell in love with his writing. I also read The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which tells the story of his childhood in Iowa. His newest book, The Road to Little Dribbling is about his travels around his adopted country of Great Britain. We tried watching the movie, A Walk in the Woods, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, but we decided that we had been down the Appalachian Trail once, and we didn't need to go down it twice. By the way, A Walk in the Woods makes a great read aloud.
So why are we hiking five miles on the Appalachian Trail? Our daughter-in-law Jill lives and works in West Virginia. She, her husband, Josh, his brother Micah, and various and sundry other of her relatives are going to walk 40 miles on the trail in West Virginia to celebrate her 40th birthday. Thell and I will hike in from Harper's Ferry on the last day of their trek to meet them and walk out of the trail with them. We hiked in New Zealand on the Abel Tasman Coast Track, and now we can add this to our life experiences.
Here is an article about the real life "Katz" who lives in Des Moines Iowa.