Bryson, Bill — A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (second edition, 2006) — Review

© 2013 Peter Free


09 December 2013





Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (second edition, 2006) is entertainingly informative and exquisitely funny at the same time.  This is rare in a book.


Despite not being a trail guide, per se, one finishes feeling that one knows what one is getting into — if hiking the Trail looms on the horizon.



The title is connotatively confused enough to hint at the book’s richness


This is not just a gestalt impression of the AT.


Instead, it is a sort of meditative reflection on the absurdity of life, as symbolically manifest in attempting to hike ridiculous distances along a 2,000 mile-plus path — that only marathon mentalities would consider worth beating oneself up to conquer.



My perspective


If I have done any of the Appalachian Trail, it was by accident, while a kid in the eastern US.  Among other very short excursions, I’ve been up Maine’s Mount Katahdin twice.  But from college onward, I have been an unrepentant Rocky Mountain westerner.


I have spent meaningful amounts of time outdoors, predominantly bushwhacking, with occasional paddling forays, off trail and solo.  Usually with no one knowing exactly where I am.


You get the picture.


My most meaningful (long ago) excursions have been in Canada’s northern British Columbia wilderness and in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska.


Thanks to a skilled and very patient climbing friend — who was head-shakingly impressed with my ability to foolishly (and scared out my wits) ascend much above my level of skill — I even managed a notable rotten rock ascent at the latter location.  With wind noticeably rocking the peak’s loose and wet summit, I vowed never to do anything like that again.


And haven’t.  Except for vanishingly pale solo simulations of the same sort of flirtation, danger much elevated by arthritic deterioration, this year and last.  With no witnesses to my bumbling, of course.


If I am going to kill myself with bottomless stupidity and physical ineptitude, I would rather that no one sees me do it.  My lifeless body alone will tell enough of the tale.



Why this personal background matters to this book review


I suspect that most people with wilderness experience will have lost the ability to communicate the issues that Mr. Bryson skillfully and entertainingly does with fresh eyes:


(a) the conundrums involved in selecting proper equipment and balancing utility against weight,


(b) the challenge of putting thoughts of nature’s risks aside long enough to get and stay underway,




(c) the sheer overwhelmingness of Nature’s power to psychically crush and elevate at the same time.


Those who have not been “there” will be receptive to what he has to say.


In sum, a win-win for all of us outdoor-oriented folk.



The key to appreciating A Walk in the Woods — humor


You must have a sense of humor to “get” this book.  A sense for the absurd helps.


My wife thought I had gone round the bend with all the laughing that I did reading it.



Most of Bryson’s wry observations require meticulously crafted context to build


I cannot quote these, without infringing on the book’s copyright protection.


However, there are instances in the book in which a sentence sums the author’s slightly acerbic, yet immensely mild persona.  Like this one:



I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the Appalachian woods I would not be spared.


© 2006 Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (second edition, 2006) (at page 51)



Why the Mary Ellen sentence is funny — and why I chose it to represent the slant that Bryson takes in his more extended forays into Absurdity’s twinkling warmth


The above quoted passage takes an implied, but mostly concealed, swipe at the prevalent American idea that God micro-plans everything that affects single individuals.


Exaggeration then reinforces the hinted point about personal destiny with the bald statement that — not only did God plan for Bill to meet Mary Ellen specifically (in the woods) — but that He also plans that Bill to meet every one of the millions of preposterously stupid people on the planet.  And all of this to happen:


(i) within an approximately 90-year (or so) lifetime




(ii) while Bill is confined to whatever geographic place he is in at the time.


The spiritually seminal question becomes, therefore, why God would torture Bill in this way.  Manifold theological implications are embodied in just one sentence.



The “Katz” hiking companion


Much of the book involves Bryson’s hiking friend, Katz.  A reforming, overweight alcoholic.


Katz’ biting wit, and his willing dispensation of the same toward fools or foolish behavior, is a critically important element in Bryson’s account.


If you share an ex-cop’s distaste for aggressive morons, Katz will voice it in a way that we could not (on the job) and probably still can’t. The guy is deliciously biting and so perfect in his role that Bryson undoubtedly had to edit or manufacture some of Katz’ comebacks.



The neophyte in the wilds aspect


Mr. Bryson does not allow pretended manliness to come between him and both scary and funny episodes that demonstrate the fears and ineptitudes that all of us occasionally founder on in the wilds.


He keeps all this realistically founded with accounts of actual murders, bear and freezing deaths, among other things.



Writing quality


Superb.  Concise and descriptive, without being flowery.  Focused, without being pedantic. Humorous, without being frivolous.



Recommended — without reservations, for outdoor-oriented people of virtually any adult age


Mr. Bryson is now one of favorite authors.  This particular book is a happily information-laden gut-buster.