Bill Bryson – A Walk in the Woods

It’s not so long ago that I read Neither Here Nor There Bryson’s account of his travels around various European locations with his friend Stephen Katz. That book was hilarious and so when I saw A Walk in the Woods going cheap in Tesco I snatched it up. There have been posters up around various train stations for the Robert Redford film based on the book and again I realise that I am perhaps missing an opportunity to do a Movie vs Book post, but I’m not likely to see the film until it appears on Netflix in a year or so.

A Walk in the Woods describes Bryson’s walks on the Appalachian Trail, the ‘longest continuous footpath in the world’, with his friend Stephen Katz. You would have thought Bryson would have learnt his lesson about travelling with Katz from his European adventures, but as he was the only one who responded to Bryson’s request for a ‘wingman’ on this lonely and sometimes dangerous trek, he didn’t have much choice but to accept his companionship.

The journey is certainly made more interesting by Katz’s presence and at times it seems that Bryson is not only taking a trip into the woods of North America but also into what friendship means between two grown men who have known each other for years. As is typical of Bryson’s work, the book is a mixture of comedy, history, ecology, sociology, and commentary on the people who frequent the trail or live in the neighbouring towns and villages.

Bryson begins with a naïve and over-ambitious goal of walking the majority of the trail with his overweight chum. After hiking a distance that would put most American’s to shame they discover that despite all the hardships they have suffered they have barely made a dent on the total mileage involved in completing the trail. The plan is revised and they instead cherry pick parts of the trail that might give the most impressive scenery and fulfil Bryson’s requirements in terms of having something interesting to write about.

After walking almost 800 miles the duo temporarily part company. Bryson returns home and goes on a book tour followed by various solo rambling adventures and Katz returns to Iowa to work.

When Bryson reunites with Katz to hike Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness he soon discovers that during the break Katz has fallen off the wagon and has begun drinking again. This threatens to break up the trek before it has even properly begun and adds to the woe of the trial which is much harder than either of them expected. After going for water, Bryson accidentally loses Katz and there is a real sense of danger to his disappearance. Eventually he does turn up, although covered in mud and scratches after venturing off the trail and getting lost. They agree to give up on the trek and find the nearest road and hitchhike to a nearby town where hot water, proper food and comfy beds provide a stark contrast to the emptiness of the trail.

With a cast of eccentric ramblers, elusive wildlife, a lurking danger of black bear attacks, bizarre weather and lots and lots of trees, A Walk in the Woods is a really great book. Bryson has a brilliant turn of phrase, he is educational and humorous in equal measures without ever coming across as trying too hard to be intellectual or a satirist, and he is not scared to provide commentary on the bad as well as the good points around the development and maintenance of the Appalachian Trail.

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