Monday, August 8, 2011

Review: "A Walk In The Woods" By Bill Bryson

I recently finished a copy of Bill Bryson's "A Walk In The Woods" and thought I would share my opinions. The book tells the story of two out-of-shape middle-aged men, Bill Bryson and his friend Stephen Katz, and their experience of hiking (part of) the Appalachian Trail. The tale begins with Bill purchasing his equipment (and the sticker shock that ensued), meeting his "friend" Katz for the first time in many years, and them setting off to Georgia amidst one of the coldest winters that Springer Mountain had seen in quite some time. While neither of them actually hiked all of the 2,200 miles of the trail, and they never make it to Mt. Katahdin in Maine (it's just "'Another mountain,' ..., 'How many do you need to see, Bryson?'" p. 271), it is a amusingly witty book that plunges the reader into their version of the Appalachian wilderness and all that that entails.

Apart from the many hilarious moments and comments, such as his reason for attempting the hike ("I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, `Yeah, I've shit in the woods.'" p. 4), it contains a slew of historical information that is expertly woven into his narrative. It's not often that you can find a book that talks about a man, Katz, being chased around a town by the husband of a 300 pound woman who he helped at the laundromat by untangling her oversized underwear from the washing machine in one chapter, and then discusses the rise and decline of the tourism industry around Mt. Washington in another.

Although he manages to tell their tale with a generous helping of satirical humor, some may find some of the actions taken by the two men slightly distasteful. For example, there are several occasions in the book where Katz throws items ranging from coffee filters to woolen sweaters from his pack into the woods to lighten his load. Some have said that for a book that attempts to praise the ideals of the Appalachian Trail and the opportunity it provides for anyone to experience the serenity of the trail, this brazen disregard for nature detracts from the story and message. Others have said that it feels as though it is just a story of two whining men that can't wait to get to the next hotel. In part this is true, but the fact that they are not children of nature is what makes the story so memorable. If they were die-hard hikers, most of the funny and sometimes downright stupid (throwing rocks and sticks at a pair of eyes in the dark that Bryson thinks may be a bear), would not have happened.

So, if you are looking for a fun, well-written story about the experience of two men and their experiences along the Appalachian Trail sprinkled with nuggets of historical information, then I would most certainly recommend this book. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a guide that explains how to prepare for a hike, or are completely incensed by littering, then I would stay clear. For my part, I thoroughly appreciated the humor of the book and enjoyed reading several chapters of it on my own hike of the Pemi Trail.

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