Many people consider Bill Bryson to be one of Americas best travel writers. He may be. But he is not the world’s greatest hiker, as we found out in “A Walk in the Woods.” His book is his story of returning home to the U.S. after 20 years in Europe and deciding to hike the Appalachian Trail across the eastern states. He and his overweight friend Stephen decide to start in Georgia and proceed north to Maine, where the more than 2,000 mile trail concludes. He made it no further than Gatlinburg when he abandoned the quest and resorted to a strategy of “dabbling” in the trail by completing a series of day hikes. He returns to the final state to do a two week final hike and he and Stephen last about three days.
I’m leading with my frustration here, if you haven’t already noticed. This was a book club book that was supposed to be light and funny. On that point, it succeeded. He rattles off some wickedly funny insults of his traveling companion and some of the people he meets along the trail. Bryson is wry and his sense of comedic timing is similar to Dave Barry’s. For once Becky kept me up late while I was trying to sleep because she was giggling at all of Bryson’s adventures and observations. (And indeed, as the bookclubbers rattled off their favorite parts, my memory was jogged by the many passages I did find funny, especially the perfect description of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.)
Yet somewhere along the trail, I got annoyed. I was frustrated by his partner and their odd relationship. They weren’t even really friends and their conversations were conducted in exclusively “caveman-ese.” Maybe if he had traveled with someone who pushed him, he wouldn’t have been so quick to abandon the trip.
The history of the trail was the most interesting part. Nothing too detailed, just a nice overview of the basic creation and development of the trail. He did a fair job describing the beauty of the terrain, but after not too long, it all kind of blended together. (It’s quite possible that the terrain blended for him too and so maybe that’s his point.) I also enjoyed his criticisms of various environmental policies.
Everyone he met was interesting enough, but for the most part, unmemorable. That is with the exception of a really annoying woman who Bryson and Stephen meet and unconscionably dump after a few days. I did wonder if the characters were real or if they were “fictionalized.”
My biggest criticism was that he quit. I was surprised that he had the gall to hike less than half of the Appalachian Trail, write a book about it, and then end the book with this triumphant sentence: “We hiked the Appalachian Trail.” No, actually, you didn’t. You didn’t climb Everest if you took a helicopter to 1,000 feet from the summit and finished the stroll from there. You didn’t read “War and Peace” if you skimmed a few chapters. And you didn’t finish the 96-oz steak at Bill’s House of Meat unless you ate all the gristle that goes with it. No t-shirt for you.
My final critique was of a scene near the end of the book when Stephen falls off the wagon and starts drinking again. It’s a relatively brief encounter and Bryson’s reaction is stern. It leads to an awkward talk between two grown but immature men tired from hiking hundreds (but not thousands) of miles. The talk and the life lessons dispatched in such a moment could have been the high point of the book, but instead it was just another difficult mountain along the trail that these two individuals handled without any real grace.
Bryson did indeed go for a walk in the woods, and he did leave us with his witty and informative observations of the U.S. and the Appalachian Trail. But if you were expecting bear encounters, a diary of a two-thousand mile hike, or a book filled with life lessons, then I’d follow a different path.
My final thought: I recognize fully that it is unlikely that I could walk 800 miles in a few months, let alone a lifetime. I also recognize that it is doubtful that I could sell as many books as Bryson did. So he’s got me on both counts.
Thanks for reading.