Wednesday, August 5, 2009

#99 - "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (1998) by Bill Bryson was another book I found on a "recommended books" list at the back of Queen of the Road by Doreen Orion. From the books on her list that I had already read, it seemed that Orion and I have very similar taste, so I've been using it as a major resource lately.

I haven't read any other books by Bill Bryson, so I wasn't really sure what to expect. Bryson, currently living in New Hampshire with his family, realized that the Appalachian Trail wandered by near his new home, and he decided one day to hike the whole thing. I have, of course, heard of the AT and know that it's in the East and very long, but details and history have always been obscured by my lack of knowledge. So, when I started listening (another Book-on-CD, which I have to stop doing; it's just not the same as having the book in your hands), I was immediately entranced and laughing. I like to camp and hike, so I could relate to Bryson's experiences; but something as formidable and long as the AT is way beyond my tendonitis-riddled body and time management skills, so experiencing the trail vicariously sounded perfect.

Bryson discusses his inspiration, packing, and planning as well as some history of the trail before he heads down to Georgia with his last-minute hiking partner, Stephen Katz. (Bryson is desperately afraid of bears and wanted a partner to help abate his fear--another thing I can relate to). Again, I loved this section of the book. Katz and Bryson's clash of personalities is classic odd couple stuff, and as they begin their adventure, I wondered how long it would take Katz to give up and head back home. But the two stick with it, and I was able to see the challenge, wonder, and fear of beginning such a formidable journey. Katz and Bryson climb mountains, battle snowstorms, and meet a variety of other hikers as they continue north on their quest. Bryson takes some time out to describe some history of the land around him and many of the birds and animals that no longer populate the area.

Spoilers? It is in Gatlinburg, Tennessee when it dawns on Bryson that they are never going to make it the entire way, and they skip a large chunk of trail and start again in Roanoke, Virginia. I was a little disappointed that they weren't going to hike the entire trail. Being a very goal-oriented person myself, if I were attempting to hike the entire trail, anything less would be inadequate. But I was enjoying hearing about life on the trail with Katz and Bryson. They were still traveling huge distances, on foot, by themselves, carrying everything they need. And they're both pretty amusing people--as described by Bryson.

But then they got off the trail entirely: Katz headed back to some work in Des Moines, and Bryson headed out for a book tour. For the rest of the summer Bryson did some day hikes of the AT by himself, and I quickly lost interest. It's one thing to not hike the entire trail, but I don't find much romance, excitement, or adventure in day hikes. There's no survival or independence, just walking back to your car at the end of the day. And without Katz, there were just stories (some interesting) of the neighboring towns and people surrounding the AT. With the great and demanding goal of hiking the AT shredded, I started getting tired of hearing about Bryson's opinions about his surroundings, other hikers, and Americans' views of nature. I was so relieved when Katz came back in order for him and Bryson to hike the last 100 miles in the Maine wilderness. But that ended in disappointment as well.

Although the second half of the book did not live up to my expectations and enjoyment of the first half, it wasn't bad. Bryson was entertaining and witty. In fact, I wonder if some of my annoyance with Bryson was inflamed by the reader, who sometimes rubbed me the wrong way and incomprehensibly mispronounced a number of words. I really wish I could enjoy books-on-cd as much as the real thing, but now that I've tried a number of them, I think I should stick with the written word.


Anonymous said...

Oh dear, sorry to let you know but Bill Bryson is one of our more famous imports. Anglophile certainly, but he's actually from Des Moines. We adapted him as one of our own because he's so nice about us (we're like that) but he really has the strangest accent possible, second only to Lloyd Grossman (who professes to be Bostonian but actually sounds like a Martian). Bryson does read some of his own books but it makes things even more strange - usually they're read by Kerry Shale. But yeah, should have been an American accent reading.

Book Blogger said...

Wow, I totally got that wrong. He talked about coming from England and having kids with English accents, but I guess that makes sense if they grew up in England. Thanks for letting me know--might have to change a bit on the review.