Schmacko's Reviews > A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
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Nov 30, 2008

really liked it
Read in January, 2009

Remember that old chestnut about how life is about the journey and not the destination?

Bill Bryson is a writer who certainly proves that to be true. A wry, inquisitive and philosophical writer, Bryson has written about everything from his time in England to his childhood in Iowa to his gustatory travels through Europe.

In A Walk in the Woods, Bryson records his attempt to walk the 3200-some mile Appalachian Trail; he was 46 at the time. He discusses the Trail’s history, ecology and society along the way, peppering the narrative with sound and wise personal opinion and sardonic humor.

He meets several colorful characters along the way, but his most constant companion is Stephen Katz, a recovering alcoholic and general laze-about. Bryson and Katz once traveled through Europe in their college years; the accounts of Katz’s escapades for women, drink and drugs in that book have become legendary. In A Walk in the Woods, Katz hasn’t changed much from his undergraduate years; he’s perhaps become only more irascible and a little slower in his middle ages, knocked down a few pegs by the difficulties of his life coupled with his drinking problem.

In fact, it’s easy to say that—though Bryson is intelligent, engaging and often humorous, and though the Appalachian Trail is fascinatingly portrayed—the star of the book is Katz. (He’d remind you of Thomas Hayden Church’s character in Sideways, I think.). Katz’s choices are usually unwise and often downright dangerous and comedic. His commitment to curmudgeon behavior provides some of the book’s biggest laughs—like when eating with some sanctimonious Christians, he loudly exclaims, “And thank Allah for the mashed potatoes!” In fact, there is a sense that Bryson and the Trail wouldn’t have made an interesting book without Katz.

That being said, Bryson’s discussions about geology or agriculture along the trail can go on a page or two too long. Also, Bryson is so even-tempered and sensible throughout most of the book that he comes off as a bit of a saint. A little unexpected reaction, indignant rage or unsound decision-making may endanger Bryson’s life more often, sure, but it wouls also make for a slightly funnier and edgier book.

“Edgy” is just not ever a word one would use is describing Bryson or his writing. However, all in all, he is appropriately humorous and sensible, and his observations are sound. The Trail is portrayed without waxing poetic; Bryson even points out its flaws and complications. Finally, Bryson’s massive hike is delivered with modesty and a sense of human frailty. Still, thank Allah for Katz and his terrible temperament, his out-of-shape body and his supremely bad decision-making.
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