Stretching from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail offers some of America's most breathtaking scenery. It also offers an irresistible, amusingly ill-conceived adventure to Bryson & his out-of-shape walking companion, Stephen Katz. Mile by arduous mile, these unlikely pioneers walk the Appalachian Trail, along the way surviving the threat of bear attacks, cravings for hot showers & cream sodas, the loss of key provisions, & everything else this rugged territory can throw at them. But Bryson's account also vividly conjures a backdrop of silent forests & sparkling lakes - America's astonishing but fragile landscape. Both a hilarious comedy & a tribute to one of our country's last great wildernesses, A Walk in the Woods is a modern classic of travel literature.
Bryson and Stephen Katz were an unlikely pair. They were friends in their youth but their adult paths diverged. Neither man was in great physical condition. Bryson, at least, was an experienced hiker. Katz's top priority was pursuit of a hot meal and a real bed. But off they went. They met some interesting characters along the way, which Bryson recounted with great humor. He also used this memoir as a platform for giving the National Park Service a performance review for their preservation efforts, and conveying his disappointment in humankind's lack of respect & appreciation for the world around them. Bryson clearly thrived on the natural beauty found on the trail, and the hike itself had a profound personal impact on him, which he managed to communicate without getting overly philosophical. He also wove in a lot of trail history, and useful details for anyone considering an AT hike, such as the best and worst states for trail maintenance, the condition of shelters, and even amenities in some towns near the trail.
I'm unlikely to attempt such a hike myself, but I do enjoy nature writing and stories about taking on a challenge or overcoming adversity. Bryson's memoir was a very enjoyable read in all of these respects.
Anyway, this is a memoir, thus making it nonfiction, thus making it a piece of the written letters I normally do not tread. Regardless, his approach here is very narrative in spirit and makes you feel as though you really want to see this first-person (and his companion) through his journey.
What we have here is a story about a man who decided, somewhat out of the blue, that he wants to hike the Appalachian Trail. This is, of course, quite an undertaking, therefore, he does not wish to do it himself. So, he writes to all of his friends and gets one person to respond much to his surprise. His name is Katz. He is well overweight and has recently stopped drinking due to the fact he is an alcoholic. Plus, as I am sure you, gentlereaders, have guessed, quite out of shape.
Bill Bryson takes note of their journey in a manner that is both hilarious and melancholic. Bryson successfully mixes narration with factoids about the trail, the environment, animals, plants, history all without causing any discomfort.
If there were more writers like Bryson retelling aspects of their lives, I would be more thrilled to read them.
…And, I sort of feel like taking a bit of a walk.
So Bryson's book brought back all those memories in addition to putting the trail, which I really hadn't given much thought to, into context. Like many other readers, I loved the details--the salamanders, the fear of bears and cougars, the chance encounter with a shy moose, the history, and even the statistics. Today, I turn over rocks looking for small salamanders for my grandchildren, and point out which side of a tree moss grows on, as my father did for me as we learned about forests. As Bryce notes, the trail was quite empty in the 50s and 60s; we rarely encountered other families and only an occasional 'hiker' on our weekend walks...even though they were all well within range of a road or parking lot. I suspect the same pattern holds true today. The forest in many parts of America is still thick and relatively unexplored. When, as young marrieds, we chanced upon the crash site of a small private plane dense in the Maine forest and reported it to the local authorities, we were waved off with a "Too much trouble to clean out" (and no one seemed to know or remember if there had been survivors or not).
This is a lovely book, a joy to read--a story enhanced by the author's brio and wildly unsuitable walking companion. My daughter, who loves to run in the woods, recommended it to me, for which I will be forever grateful. If you, too, like to walk in forests, I heartily recommend A Walk in the Woods.
Regarding the hike, Bryson muses: “Life takes on a neat simplicity, too. Time ceases to have any meaning. When it is dark, you go to bed, and when it is light again you get up, and everything in between is just in between. It’s quite wonderful, really” (p.100).
An example of learning and laughter combined regarding a time in America where bounties were paid for the killing of predatory animals and wherein some became extinct or endangered as a result: “Rationality didn’t often come into it. Pennsylvania on year paid out $90,000 in bounties for the killing of 130,000 owls and hawks to save the state’s farmers a slightly less than whopping $1,875 in estimated livestock losses. (It is not very often, after all, that an owl carries off a cow.)” (p.291)
“A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old” (p. 347).
This book was so much better than I thought it would be. Bryson had me screaming with laughter and pounding the arm of my chair when he described his imagined reaction to hearing a bear outside of his tent. I loved his honesty and the realism of the story (of course, it's a true story, but such things often get embellished). Bryson's point is not to brag about how far he and a friend got on the trail, nor is it to try to persuade others to take on the hike. He simply describes his often funny experiences on the trail, from the people he saw to the food he ate and the wildlife he encountered (or, really, that encountered him). I also liked the tidbits of information about how the trail came to be and how it is managed. People often overlook these important facts, and reading about them made me appreciate how hard people work to keep the trail open for generations to come. It made me want to at least hike a little bit of it someday, even though I'd have to get on an international flight to get there.
Great, funny read. Highly recommended.
At the beginning, I was all in. It was funny and light-hearted and very enjoyable. As they are walking the trail, he tosses in some history and facts of the trail which was quite interesting. I loved his characterization of other hikers. I didn’t realize when I first began reading that he was eventually going to delve more into political and controversial aspects. There was a whole dissertation about the failings of the US Forestry; a part about tree science; and even his views on evolution. I rated A Walk in the Woods at 3.5 out of 5.
Bryson is a skilled craftsman with words, and gives vivid, memorable accounts of his ramble through the trail, all the while interjecting his own persona, his witty observations relating to the woods, environmental issues, the lore of the trail, without diminishing the powerful presence of the nature and environment in which he moves. As a very average Joe, in many respects, it becomes easy for the rest of us to identify with Bryson, with his fears and failures on the trail, with his frustrations and his triumphs. We are left with all the emotions and experience of the trail but without the bumps and bruises.
But it was Bryson’s easy-going style and engaging manner that won me over as well as his commentary on the mismanagement of the trail by the National Forest Service; the under-funding of the National Parks system; the history of the rebirth, erosion and rebirth of the Appalachian Mountains, over and over again, over millions of years; the demise and almost total abandonment of the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania where a fire in an underground coal seam has the potential to burn for a thousand years; and the presence of the savage moose on the trail in Maine:
”Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old. That’s all there is to it. Without doubt, the moose is the most improbable, endearingly hopeless creature ever to live in the wilds. Every bit of it---its spindly legs, its chronically puzzled expression, its comical oven-mit antlers---looks like some droll evolutionary joke. It is wonderfully ungainly; it runs as if its legs have never been introduced to each other. Above all, what distinguishes the moose is its almost boundless lack of intelligence.” (Page 241)
I loved this book, its style, its happy-go-lucky author and all the history about the trail and its surrounding regions. Highly recommended.
Taking up hiking and starting with such an extraordinary adventure is kind of like taking up running and immediately signing up for an ultra marathon. While Bryson researched this trip for nearly a year before starting, the lack of actual experience meant he was still woefully unprepared. Bryson conveys the history of the trail, history of certain landmarks along the way, and the culture of fellow hikers throughout the course of the book.
Slowed down from the start by unusually brutal weather, Bryson and Katz quickly fell off the pace required to finish in the typical 7 months it takes for successful hikers to complete the journey. Side trips to towns get a little longer, and start to expand beyond a night in an inn and some hot gruel. Before long, they are renting cars, and catching up on the distance deficit the easy way. In the end, they actually hiked nearly 40% of the trail -- a good effort, and Bryson spins this into a fine story. I like to hike, but I've never been tempted by the AT (not after watching Deliverance when I was a kid). Reading this book makes me less inclined -- the hardships endured were real, and the "this is why we do this" moments seemed too few and too far between. I'll stick to day hikes for now, when I know what to expect when I get there, and can choose to endure bad weather or not.
I often became bogged down in the daily details, they were all the same, get up, have coffee, hike, etc. Occasionally they met interesting people along the trail. I did not like the way Bryson and his companion made fun of others (their weight, dialect, etc.); it was just plain mean.
Although this was a average good read, I probably would not read another of his books. 397 pages 3 stars
But this is also a story of the friendship between Bryson and his hiking companion, Stephen Katz. Unlikely friends, unlikely hikers, the evolution of their relationship along the Trail is a touching story within this very entertaining travelogue.
That's not true. I'm sure I could be persuaded by a hefty dollar amount.
While I enjoy hiking and experiencing nature and new things, from my own personal experience with hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, I am very much an "indoor girl."
But that's what was so great about Bryson's writing. I could be inside in air conditioning, with a bottle of water next to me and absolutely no mosquitos, and still felt as if I was experiencing the trail with him. I felt as if I was there when he first set foot on the roughly 2,100 mile hike, felt exhilirated with the feeling of unknown adventure, terrified when his friend went missing, awed when he came face-to-face with a moose, and held my breath when something - or some thing - was just outside his tent in the middle of the night with nothing but a pair of staring, glowing eyes. I learned the importance of always packing (and double-checking that you packed) waterproof gear and how quickly the weather can change on a mountain. All of this took him months to learn and experience while fighting heat, exhaustion, rain, and wildlife. It took me just over 24 hours.
There are few books that I will read in less than 48 hours, and even fewer that I will read more than once. A Walk in the Woods has now fallen into both categories.
I enjoyed his wit (his humor is much the same as my own, which always makes a book more fun) and the hilarious banter between him and his friend Stephen Katz (who did most of the hiking with him). One aspect of the book that was incredibly informative but just as incredibly sad was the statistics that Bryson would seamlessly transition into when he reached a new part of the trail or came across a specific animal. I learned a lot about the different problems facing moose, bears (or the problems they present to us), and even specific species of trees.
This is a book I highly recommend. It's one I wish I hadn't waited to read.
Five out of five stars.
Bryson's descriptions are invariably amusing, as he takes us along his slow journey. He intersperses descriptions of trail life with interesting bits about the creation and history of the trail and certain locations along the way -- or in one case, almost on the way.
Although I've never hiked the trail, Bryson's details seem accurate, providing a feel for the pain, giving way to monotony, giving way to acceptance, giving way to wonder. It continuously posits the question, "Why would anyone do this?" even as it suggests a few answers, including discovering a different type of life away from our modern conveniences and our modern schedules.
Several people have written books about hiking the Appalachian Trail over the years. Many are by hikers much more experienced than Bryson and his companion, but it's difficult to imagine any that are more entertaining. Of course, all is not fun and games, there is one story of true terror in the book, unexpected, which demonstrates Bryson's skill as a storyteller.
Likely this book will appeal to a broad audience. One does not need to be a forest ranger to understand or appreciate Bryson's story. And given that these hikers start with little experience, there's no wilderness jargon that will bewilder the uninitiated.
I guess his writing would fall under the category of ‘Travel Writing” but as he inserts himself into the story, it is taken to a different level, and allows the reader to participate in a fun adventure without leaving the comfort of your home. His writing is comfortable and cozy, but he does manage to insert plenty of facts and figures about the creation of the trail and it’s upkeep and history, along with many small tidbits about misfortune that has or could befall the hapless hiker.
I found myself really looking forward to picking up the book and losing myself on the Trail with him and Katz. I also drove my husband to distraction trying to read portions aloud to him, I finally gave up and will just pass the book along for him to enjoy quietly on his own. I recommend this book for the humor, the education, and the author’s basic love of the outdoors which shines through.
The book chronicled the author’s hiking of various segments of the Appalachian Trail in the spring, summer, and fall of 1996. Mr. Bryson made most of the hikes with his friend Katz and their lack of fitness often resides at the center of a funny story. Bryson’s writing style was very interesting in that he would spend 5 – 10 pages detailing something historic about the trail, a surrounding area, or nature in general before returning to the journey underway. For me, it made the book more readable and kept me engrossed in the story. I learned a little and then I laughed a little. He didn’t try too hard to make me laugh the entire time – which would have been extremely tough – nor did he write a textbook. Nicely blended Bryson!
There were so many comedic bits that I hesitate to even choose one. However, since I’m a sucker for bits about flatulence/poop (come on…you know it’s funny…), I’ll give this one when Bryson is relating stories he’s researched about campers facing bear attacks in the wild:
“What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at children’s parties – I daresay it would even give a merry toot – and bleed into a messy death in my sleeping bag.”
I concede that taking the bit out of context doesn’t do it justice. As such, I implore you to read the book. It’s funny! (And this is the only poop-related bit that I remember too…)
There were also some startling facts that made me reflect such as:
“Now here’s a thought to consider. Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American walks in a week. For 93 percent of all trips outside the home, for whatever distance or purpose, Americans now get in a car. On average the total walking of an American these days – that’s walking of all types: from car to office, from office to car, around the supermarket and shopping malls – adds up to 1.4 miles a week, barely 350 yards a day. That’s ridiculous.”
I couldn’t agree more. It actually saddens me and makes me consider my personal habits.
Read the book. Read one of his other books. We can all use a good laugh and I’ve heard from so many others that they’ve enjoyed his books. I feel confident that you will too.
This book hits a bit of a sour note, though, the numerous times that Bryson castigates the National Park Service for general incompetence. I won't presume to say that he's entirely wrong in his criticisms, but I do think that he takes it a bit too far, and that an organization with tries to do so much good with so few resources deserves a bit more respect.
I didn't love it. I was actually bored for most of this book. I do admit that this isn't the kind of book that I usually read but a humorous non-fiction story about hiking the Appalachian Trail sounded fabulous. I really did enjoy the parts of the book that focused on Bill and Stephen's adventures on the trail. I just wish that the focus of the book would have stayed with Bill and Stephen.
The problem was that there was just too much other stuff crammed into this book. I sometimes felt like I was reading a textbook....a well-written textbook...but a textbook nonetheless. In this short little book, I learned about the history of the Appalachian Trail, some geology, information about bears, trees, the National Park Service, birds, and various other things. A lot of the time the book just felt dry and information packed. I was glad that some of this information was shared in a fun way that actually put a smile on my face. All too often, I felt like skipping entire sections of the book so that I could get back to the actual hike.
I had hoped that this was going to be one of those side splitting funny kind of books. It had its moments of humor but nothing that made me do anything more than crack a smile. There was no laughing out loud and the parts that were funny seemed to be rather sparse. Don't get me wrong, I can tell that Bill Bryson is a very funny guy but I need a lot more of those kind of moments to offset the parts of the book that were dry.
I did notice that there is a movie based on this book that is soon to be released. I actually am looking forward to that movie because I suspect that it will focus on the parts of the book that I really enjoyed....the actual hike. I don't think that there will be too many geology or history lessons found in the film. I am thinking that I actually want to go an see the movie when it comes out and I never go see movies.
I am not going to be recommending this book but I am seriously in the minority with this one. I would tell readers to pick it up if it sounds interesting to you. You may be one of the many who really love it. I still really wish that I was one of the many readers who love it.
I received an advance reader edition of this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of providing an honest review.