Published in 1998 Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail details the author’s attempt to walk the entire Appalachian Trail with his friend Katz. The film adaptation with Robert Redford and Nick Nolte comes out in September. The movie and renewed interest in the book is expected to send hoards of hikers to the A.T. over the next few years, making a supposedly already crowded trail that much more crowded with thru-hikers, similar to the effect Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild had on the P.C.T.
Crowded, in reference to a nearly 2200-mile trail, is relative. There are plenty of lesser known trails for those looking for solitude. I’m not sure why more people going on an adventure is a bad thing – as long as they don’t read this book as a How-to or any kind of guide. Bryson makes his inexperience abundantly clear and that’s part of the appeal.
Bryson is in his 40s when he gets it in his system to walk the A.T., all nearly 2200 miles of it (nobody seems to agree on the exact length). His plan is to thru-hike north from Georgia to Maine. After researching the weather – dangers of heat stroke, dehydration and hypothermia – the wild life – bears, bears, murderers, bears -and the annoyances like rodent-infested shelters, he thinks he knows what lies ahead.
I started reading this while waiting in the airport for our plane to San Francisco. It was too early to read, but Bryson’s wit reached through the sleep fog and had me laughing every few pages. I immediately wanted to know what this experience would be like for him and by “him” I mean me. Bryson makes it easy to imagine yourself in his shoes, carrying a 40-pound pack up mountains and through snow, eating noodles every night and drinking chunky coffee because your traveling companion threw out the coffee filters in his mad attempt to lighten his load. Because coffee filters are just too heavy to haul.
What Bryson soon discovers is that walking through woods all day every day is sometimes boring. This kind of boring may be good for the spirit, but it’s not exactly the stuff great travel books are made of. He fills in the gaps between highs and lows with historical information and a few rants on what a fantastic job the Forest Service (and other organizations responsible for preserving these sections of wilderness and plant life) is NOT doing. He calls them out for mucking things up, “monitoring” situations while species of plant and animal life die.
Far from a downer, some of the trivia shows what a strange world we live in:
- He comes across one town in Centralia, PA that was abandoned when a coal fire ignited under ground in 1962. The pavement is still hot to the touch and the fire is predicted to burn for another 1000 years.
- Then there’s the zinc company in Palmerton, PA in Lehigh Valley (where I have family) that, as of ’97, polluted one mountain so badly there’s not a trace of vegetation on the whole thing.
- The coolest thing I learned is that we’re still in an ice age. Am I dummy for not knowing this? The peak of this ice age was 20,000 years ago when 30% of the earth was under ice. Now we’re at 10%.
- Anyone who’s ever set foot on the AT may enjoy learning that the Appalachians were pushed up more than 470 million years ago. Old and worn down now, in youth they were on scale with the Himalayas.
The incompleteness of Bryson’s journey was somewhat disappointing. There aren’t many entertaining books on hiking the AT that I know of, so I wanted this one to be the full package. I wanted Bryson and Katz to beat the odds and hike the entire trail. They lose steam or heart in Tennessee’s Smokey Mountains and sort of bounce along selectively after that. That’s not really a spoiler, the scene in which they decide to change plans is in the movie trailer.
Some moments made me want to grab my tent and go. On certain days in summer you can take Metro-North rail from Grand Central Station to Pawling, NY and pick up the AT. One time I went north for a day hike that wound up way more exciting than I’d expected. There’s an easement through a farm, you see. At the time I crossed through, the pasture had a good amount of grazing cows. Sweet gentle cows. One with horns. This bull (I think it was a bull) didn’t look happy to see me and it didn’t occur to me til I was over the fence that I’d have to cross through again to catch the train. On the way back I met a friendly, hairy thru-hiker named Dustin. He had a hiking stick strapped to each wrist and flew past me, sparing only enough breath to say hello and say I should pick up the pace to catch the train. Dustin must have startled that bull because by the time I got there it was standing alert by the ladder thingy I had to climb over to get past. Having no clue what to do, I avoided eye contact and slowly made my way through half expecting horns in my back. Happy to report the bull didn’t get stabby. He’s probably used to people and gets a kick out of freaking them out.
Coverage of the trail is uneven at best, but this is Bryson’s book and he does what he wants. Humor, subject matter and polished writing make this a delight to read. And he generously gives us glimpses of what may be gained through a long, long walk in these ancient woods. Going days without once feeling clean is the price to pay for sleeping under the stars, wondering what’s rustling the bushes. Everything sounds big in the woods at night, now we know. I enjoyed the parts that painted the lonely sweatiness of their day-to-day. The book does its job and leaves you wanting more, but to get more you have to go climb and walk and sweat for it, I guess.