Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Many years ago, I took my first solo road trip. I was very proud of myself for mapping out a route that took me through the western part of Kentucky and Indiana. I ended my trip with two nights spent at one of Kentucky's many lovely state parks, Pennyrile, near Dawson Springs.

I tell you this because for some reason during my stay there I decided it would be a fun experience to hike one of the park's many trails.  It was my first experience with solo hiking (or really any hiking for that matter) and one that I won't be doing again. I took off on a very, very gentle quarter-mile loop through the forest. Soon after entering the woods it occurred to me that I was so alone, that no one knew where I was or would miss me if I didn't return to my room (at least until checkout time) and that if there was an axe murderer in the vicinity, he was probably just behind that tree! I told myself not to be silly and continued on stumbling over tree roots, tripping on the smallest rocks, swatting insects, and listening intently for that axe murder. Or even a bear...

Let's just say I couldn't see the forest for the fears.

I survived, of course. But I kept thinking of that experience as I read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, an account of his attempt to hike the entire 2100-plus mile Appalachian Trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine. 

What was he thinking?

Mr. Bryson is one of my favorite authors and I would follow him anywhere - even along the grueling AT, as it is called.

As is his way, Mr. Bryson not only informs but entertains and causes one to smile, chortle, and laugh out loud at his shenanigans. He had a much worse time of it than I did on my little 1320-foot trek. 

He sets off one fine spring day in March with his childhood (and terribly out of shape) buddy, Steve Katz. Soon, spring has turned to winter and they find themselves slogging through knee-high snow. They meet other intrepid hikers along the way. They despair of aching muscles, noodle dinners, soaking wet clothes, struggles with expensive and unwieldy equipment, a million irritating insects, rushing streams, a possible nighttime visit by a bear (never actually confirmed), and a multitude of other horrors that are to be experienced in the deep, dark woods.

And this was just the first day.

To be fair, every now and then along the way they were rewarded for their efforts with a fine view or a shower and a good meal when the trail happened to cross near a town. But most of the trip sounded totally exhausting. And, really, not all that much fun although Bryson makes it sound enticing in a masochistic sort of way.

I read A Walk in the Woods to further prepare me for reading Walden. I was amused to read Bryson's jab at Thoreau:

The American woods have been unnerving people for 300 years. The inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau thought nature was splendid, splendid indeed, so long as he could stroll to town for cakes and barley wine, but when he experienced real wilderness, on a visit to (Mount) Katahdin in 1846, he was unnerved to the core. This wasn't the tame world of overgrown orchards and sun-dappled paths that passed for wilderness in suburban Concord, Massachusetts, but a forbidding, oppressive, primeval country that was "grim and wild...savage and dreary," fit only for "men nearer of kin to the rocks and wild animals than we." The experience left him, in the words of one biographer, "near hysterical."

I feel your pain, Henry.


  1. I love Bill Bryson. When he's funny, he makes me laugh out loud. I read this book several years ago and loved it. I just finished reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which is about a young woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail alone. And not well prepared for it either. Not a laugh out loud book, but interesting.

    We historically move from city to country to city and I find that there's always a period of adjustment. When we moved from Boston to Marshfield, it was so quiet I couldn't sleep. I thought I'd gone deaf a few times! When we moved to Philly, I wouldn't go out at night and found myself scanning faces for the shady ones. (Not unreasonable since we had several violent crimes in our very nice neighborhood shortly after we moved.)

    I love the quiet of the woods and the fields, but they can be scary. We were hiking in Wyoming and a moose stood up about 10' in front of us. He'd been taking a nice nap, I guess, and we disturbed him. The three of us did a credible imitation of the Three Stooges, with the moose being the most graceful. He disappeared silently into the woods while Jack and I ran into each other, knocked each other down, and finally realized it was just a huge (HUGE!) moose, not a bear or a tiger, and not especially dangerous without a calf or not in rutting season, which it wasn't. I mostly like nature from the comfort of my armchair.

    1. Wonderful moose story, Joan. Mr. Bryson also met one and was in awe of the gentle, albeit HUGE animal. I always think of Bullwinkle when I think Moose!

      I do believe my idea of roughing it is settling into a nice country inn with a view of the woods. Iced lemonade at my side and a plate of little tasty pastries close at hand.

      Someone else suggested "Wild" as an experience with hiking on the other side of the country. I will give it a try...from my armchair of course.

  2. I laughed so hard the first time I read this book! Just thinking about it now makes me smile. Bill Bryson is such an entertaining author.

    1. Lark, I don't think I could be friends with anyone who didn't love Bill Bryson! He is a treasure.

      After I finished "AWintheW" I moved directly on to "I'm A Stranger Here Myself" which is a collection of columns he wrote for a British magazine after he moved back to America after 20 years living in England. A hilarious look at the absurdities of American life. Priceless.

    2. I need to read that one. I loved the one he wrote about Australia...In a Sunburnt Country? That's a good one, too.

    3. For the record: So far I have read 'At Home', 'Notes from a Small Island', 'The Lost Continent', and 'AWintheWoods'.

      I have in my TBR pile 'A Short History of Nearly Everything', 'One Summer, America 1927', and 'Neither Here Nor There'.

      I will eventually get to his travels in Australia and his Thunderbolt Kid memoir. So much to look forward to!

  3. A Walk in the Woods was my introduction to Bill Bryson and I've loved him ever since. I loved how he told his story while weaving in interesting bits of history, natural and otherwise. I loved reading this book, but it certainly made me realize I'm not cut out for hiking like that. I would have been "near hysterical" by the end of that first day!

    1. Kathy, one of the things I love about Mr. Bryson's books is his way of informing and entertaining at the same time. He is quite brilliant. I always learn something (even if I don't always remember what I have learned).

      I had to laugh at his comment about Thoreau since I had just read of HDT's experience in Real, Savage Nature in Michael Sims's book. I think perhaps I would be beyond 'near' and be in 'complete' hysteria!

  4. I first read this, laughing, when our book group chose it. We had a lively discussion of the book, one of our best. That was my introduction to Bill Bryson. I then checked out the audio of it for a road trip my husband and I took and enjoyed it anew, especially seeing how much it amused Tom. We also "read" Home via audio.
    Love this quote about Thoreau. Walden is on my pile, Belle. Hope it doesn't just languish there.

    1. I don't know why it took me so long to 'discover' Mr. Bryson, Penny, but he has certainly become one of my favorite authors. Someone told me to listen to his audio book 'The Thunderbolt Kid' which he narrates. I am not much for 'listening' to books but I might have to give it a try.

      So far, I have only read Thoreau's essay on Reading in 'Walden'. He is a bit harsh. Not at all what I expected.

    2. I only listen to audio books in the car, Belle. I find I get to distracted otherwise (though I'm not sure what that might mean about my driving ).

      Oh, dear. Sorry to hear that about this first essay you read. Hope you later reads are a bit less harsh.

    3. Penny, I am planning a road trip soon so maybe I will see about getting one of Mr. Bryson's books to listen to. I tried it once but found the reading tended to put me to sleep. Perhaps it was the book...but, definitely not a good thing when one is behind the wheel. I can't imagine that BB would lull my senses. He's too funny!

      Ah, yes. Mr. Thoreau seemed to be shaking his finger at me because I wasn't reading books in their original Greek or Latin. And that, heaven forbid, I was reading a mystery or a book with some humor in it. He would most likely not approve of our Mr. B.