Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson's name is usually associated with travel, science, and language  books from across the pond, but in this case he returns to his native United States to take on an amazing adventure. The Appalachian Trail (from here on referred to as the AT as in his book) is the subject of this book that was written in 1998 after he moved back to Hanover, NH. The short read is a combination of humorous, botanical, and zoological reflections. 

Hanover is very near a point of the AT that stretches 2184 miles from Maine to Georgia. Being the curious person that Bryson is, he decided that it would be a good thing to hike it, all of it. And so he begins his preparations from being state of the art gear including pack, tent, and clothes. He decides to bring along a friend, Stephen Katz, and the two embark on the journey in March, 1996. They set out to be "thru walkers" - those who walk the entire length of the trail. Katz provides a bit of comic relief through the hardships with his insistence on certain foods, getting used to the equipment, jettisoning supplies and clothes right and left, and interaction with those whom he meets on the trail. 

Bryson and Katz begin in Georgia with all good intentions, but the snow and miserable conditions cause them to rethink their plan. By the time they get to the Smokies and Gatlinburg, TN, they decide to skip a portion of the AT and resume the hike near Roanoke, VA. Unfortunately, the amount of time necessary to complete the entire trail was miscalculated and after a mere 500 more miles, Bryson leaves the AT to go on a book tour. His discussion of Stonewall Jackson and the Harper's Ferry raid was very interesting and insightful, especially for the history minded reader. He managed to do some bits and pieces of the trail after the publicity tour including a walk through Centralia, PA. His description of this abandoned mining town was graphic and disturbing. Could this be what we might find if we allow fracking to poison our land. He meets up with Katz again and they continue to the the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine

The book was enjoyable especially when Katz and Bryson were on the trail and relating their experiences. Some of the descriptions of the geology and biology of the areas were a bit protracted and in too much detail for my non-scientific brain. His style is very much like that of an oral storyteller who can keep a listener's attention through tales and tangents. A good read and an impetus to reread Notes from a Small Island before returning to England.

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