Diane'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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it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites, travelogues, humorous, outdoors, audiobooks, environment, nonfiction
Read 5 times. Last read January 2, 2014 to January 7, 2014.

Bill Bryson calls the Appalachian Trail "the grandaddy of long hikes," but for me, this book is the granddaddy of hiking memoirs. I first read it sometime around 1999, and I enjoyed it so much that not only have I reread this multiple times, but it also inspired me to read at least a dozen other hiking adventures. None have matched Bryson's wit.

Before he started writing long books on various aspects of history, Bryson was known for his entertaining travelogues. A Walk in the Woods was his humorous take on attempting a long-distance hike of the Appalachian Trail, which spans more than 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine. Here were his reasons for trying:

"It would get me fit after years of waddlesome sloth. It would be an interesting and reflective way to reacquaint myself with the scale and beauty of my native land after nearly twenty years of living abroad. It would be useful (I wasn't quite sure in what way, but I was sure nonetheless) to learn to fend for myself in the wilderness. When guys in camouflage pants and hunting hats sat around in the Four Aces Diner talking about fearsome things done out-of-doors, I would no longer have to feel like such a cupcake. 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.'"

And so Bryson plans his trip, gets indignant over the high cost of outdoor equipment, and recruits an old friend, Stephen Katz, to walk the trail with him. Katz, an overweight, out-of-shape, recovering alcoholic, adds much hilarity to the adventure. The first day on the trail, Katz falls behind and has a fit, throwing away a lot of supplies in an effort to lighten the load of his pack. Later he gets lost during a stretch when they were dangerously low on water. But he's so pathetic and funny that you forgive him.

Meanwhile, Bryson was having his own problems that first day:

"It was hell. First days on hiking trips always are. I was hopelessly out of shape -- hopelessly. The pack weighed way too much. Way too much. I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared. Every step was a struggle. The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill ... The elusive summit continually retreats by whatever distance you press forward, so that each time the canopy parts enough to give a view you are dismayed to see that the topmost trees are as remote, as unattainable, as before. Still you stagger on. What else can you do?"

After a few days on the trail, they met another hiker named Mary Ellen, who leeched onto them.

"She was from Florida, and she was, as Katz forever after termed her in a special tone of awe, a piece of work. She talked nonstop, except when she was clearing out her eustachian tubes (which she did frequently) by pinching her nose and blowing out with a series of violent and alarming snorts of a sort that would make a dog leave the sofa and get under a table in the next room. 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."

I'm not going to retype entire pages, but trust me that the conversations with Mary Ellen are one of the highlights of this book.

Bryson and Katz spend several weeks on the trail, hiking 500 miles in their first section. Then the two take a break and return home for a few weeks, and Bryson resumes with some shorter hikes in New England. Katz and Bryson reunite in Maine to hike a particularly daunting section of the trail called the Hundred Mile Wilderness:

"The Appalachian Trail is the hardest thing I have ever done, and the Maine portion was the hardest part of the Appalachian Trail, and by a factor I couldn't begin to compute."

Exhausted, filthy and hungry, the two abandon their trek in Maine and hitchhike to a small town, where they're able to make their way home again.

"I have regrets, of course. I regret that I didn't do [Mount] Katahdin (though I will, I promise you, I will). I regret that I never saw a bear or wolf or followed the padding retreat of a giant hellbender salamander, never shooed away a bobcat or sidestepped a rattlesnake, never flushed a startled boar. I wish that just once I had truly stared death in the face (briefly, with a written assurance of survival). But I got a great deal else from the experience. I learned to pitch a tent and sleep beneath the stars. For a brief, proud period I was slender and fit. I gained a profound respect for wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn't know I had. I had discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists ... Best of all, these days when I see a mountain, I look at it slowly and appraisingly, with a narrow, confident gaze and eyes of chipped granite."

One of the things I especially like about this book is the history that Bryson includes along the way. He shares interesting stories about the areas he's passing through and about how the trail was built. He also looks at America's unique relationship with nature, which includes some backwards policies of the U.S. Forest Service and the Parks Service. It's really a delight to read.

This memoir has been criticized because Bryson doesn't hike the entire trail, but regardless of the distance, it's still a damn fine travelogue. This was his experience on the AT, which he shares with much humor and insight. I don't care that he hiked only 870 miles out of 2,100 -- the point was that he attempted it.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
Finished Reading
Finished Reading
August 14, 2007 – Shelved
Started Reading
May 12, 2013 – Finished Reading
January 2, 2014 – Started Reading
January 3, 2014 –
20.0% "I've read this book multiple times -- it's one of my favorites -- but this is the first time I've listened to it on audio. Bill Bryson is such a fantastic narrator!"
January 3, 2014 –
25.0% ""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.""
January 6, 2014 –
60.0% ""When you're on the Appalachian Trail, the forest is your universe, infinite and entire. It is all you experience day after day. Eventually it is about all you can imagine. You are aware, of course, that somewhere over the horizon there are mighty cities, busy factories, crowded freeways, but here in this pat of the country, where woods drape the landscape for as far as the eye can see, the forest rules.""
January 7, 2014 –
80.0% ""In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition -- either you ruthlessly subjugate it, or you deify it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart, as along the Appalachian Trail. Seldom would it occur to anyone on either side that people and nature could coexist to their mutual benefit.""
January 7, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-30 of 30 (30 new)

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message 1: by Dan (new)

Dan Schwent This sounds awesome. Especially since my longest hike has been only 6 miles.

Diane Ha! Dan, yes, it is an awesome book. It's one of my favorite things to reread.

message 3: by Caroline (last edited Jan 08, 2014 09:17AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Caroline I adore Bryson, but this wasn't one of my favourite books. I suspect hiking memoirs are not really my thing. I loved your review though..... you make it sound wonderfully enticing.

Diane Thanks, Caroline. I have a weak spot for outdoor adventures, but I understand that not everyone likes them. I think this was actually the first Bryson book I read!

message 5: by Brendon (new)

Brendon Schrodinger Thanks Diane for the review. I'll have to get around to reading more of his wonderful writing.

Diane Thank you, Brendon. I'm a big fan of Bryson's books. I just started his latest, called "One Summer" about America in 1927. It's interesting so far!

message 7: by Brendon (new)

Brendon Schrodinger Good to hear also. 'One Summer'is near the top of my to buy ebook list. I'm a fan also, but of course my favourite has to be 'A Short History of Nearly Everything'.

message 8: by Daniel (new) - added it

Daniel Villines Great review. This sounds like a fun read if only because your excerpts describe the real (not ideal) vision of myself on the Appalachian Trail.

message 9: by Gary (new)

Gary  the Bookworm I've been meaning to read this...forever! You've convinced me that the time is now.

Jennifer Wilson I threw this book across the room when I finished it (did I even finish it?). HE DIDN'T FINISH THE TRAIL. I think I recall feeling the book was equally flabby. I stopped being a fan with this one.

Diane Thanks, Daniel. Yes, his experience was anything but ideal!

Diane Hi Garmct, I hope you like it! I get a kick out of it every time I pick it up.

Diane Jen, wow, I had no idea you felt this strongly. Precious few people finish the entire trail. I know I could never hike the whole AT, but I like reading books by those who have tried. Are you upset because Bryson got a book deal even though he didn't finish the trail?

Jennifer Wilson I was upset that he got away with being a lazy-ass and then I actually paid money to read about it.

Diane He hiked more than 800 miles! I would hardly call that lazy.

Jennifer Wilson Lazy. And he gets a free pass because he was clever about it. No likey.

Diane Jen, you do have a point in that a nobody, like me, probably wouldn't get a similar book deal if I had hiked less than half the trail. He got it because he was Bill Fucking Bryson, and it ended up being a big bestseller for him. I will make a comparison to Larry McMurtry, who I think has been writing some half-assed shit in the last decade that wouldn't have been published if he wasn't Larry Fucking McMurtry. So I grant you that. However, I still love A Walk in the Woods. It makes me laugh and laugh.

Priti I loved the Mary Ellen parts! She is some character! Your review has made me want to read it again Diane.

Diane Priti, yes, Mary Ellen is hilarious. I tried reading those pages aloud to my husband but had to stop because I was laughing so hard.

Jennifer Wilson Ann Jones's LOOKING FOR LOVEDU is a great story about a trek through Africa, top to bottom, in which her male partner quit on her (because quitting is easy) but she soldiered on (because she is a good reporter). Now THAT'S a great travelogue that covers the entire story and does it with history and energy and humor.

Diane Ooh, that sounds good. Thanks for the rec!

message 22: by Steve (new)

Steve Your review is a true delight, Diane. I can easily imagine how good this must be from the examples you included as well as other Bryson books I've read (or, in the case of "A Short History...", am still reading).

Jason This memoir has been criticized because Bryson doesn't hike the entire trail, but regardless of the distance, it's still a damn fine travelogue.

I kind of liked this memoir BECAUSE he didn't love every minute of the trail. Pure, unadulterated enthusiasm for it would have rung a bit false to me. I'm not sure I trust people who say, "Oh, yeah, even the times it rained for four days straight and all my clothes and gear got soaked were STILL AWESOME!!!"

Yeah, ok.

Michael So well said over my favorite Bryson. Sort of an antithesis to Matthisssen's The Snow Leopard, though still an inward voyage bound to an outer journey.

Diane Thanks, Steve! I'm also reading a Bryson book, "One Summer," about America in 1927. I have "A Short History..." on my shelf and hope to get to it this year.

Diane Good point, Jason. Long-distance hiking has its share of miseries. Anyone who says otherwise is full of it.

Diane Thanks, Michael. Your comment is a good reminder that I still need to read The Snow Leopard.

Heather Fineisen I'm listening to this now and I keep rewinding, or whatever you call it now. Listening to Bryson is a treat and I can see how this is a favorite.

Libby I love this book! I have never reread it but it still sticks with me. If ever I'm speaking with someone about hiking or funny non fiction, this always comes up! Love it!

message 30: by Mona (last edited Sep 05, 2015 04:59PM) (new) - added it

Mona You know, of course, that this is now a movie with Robert Redford and some other big stars

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