The Appalachian Trail trail stretches from Georgia to Maine and covers some of the most breathtaking terrain in America–majestic mountains, silent forests, sparking lakes. If you’re going to take a hike, it’s probably the place to go. And Bill Bryson is surely the most entertaing guide you’ll find. He introduces us to the history and ecology of the trail and to some of the other hardy (or just foolhardy) folks he meets along the way–and a couple of bears. Already a classic, A Walk in the Woods will make you long for the great outdoors (or at least a comfortable chair to sit and read in).
This is what I learned from my trimester of British Literature in high school: Don’t go in the woods.
My teacher legitimately held that statement as the thesis of the course. That speaks to the inadequacy of the American public school system, but that’s neither here nor there. In Brit Lit, we started with Beowulf. I barely remember anything about it aside from it beginning with the word HWAET but I think bad stuff happened in the woods. Then we read some Canterbury Tales, which featured equally forgotten evil happenings in the woods. Seven centuries and sundry poems, plays, and novels later, it was obvious that there was a marked trend correlating the woods and wickedness.
I’m not a Comparative Literature major, but I’d bet that this is a running theme throughout world literature, or at least literature from forested parts of the world. There’s something distinctly inhuman about the woods. You can get lost in them. People can hide in them. They’re unknowable in a way, both enticing and frightening, a paradox Bryson captures perfectly as he attempts to walk the 2,000 plus miles of the Appalachian Trail.
My introduction has made this book sound dreadfully serious. It’s really not. The author discusses lighter topics too. Disclaimer: I love Bill Bryson. There are few writers in the world who can captivate me when writing about a subject I have no interest in. His success derives from his relatability. He tends to approach subjects as a layman so that the reader, a fellow layman, can connect. It’s also probably because he’s hilarious.
Evidence for previous statement:
“She’s pretty ugly, isn’t she” he said with a big, incongruous beam. I sought for tact. “Well, only compared with other women.”
After reading this description of bear attacks in a field guide—“The typical black bear inflicted injury is minor and usually involves only a few scratches or light bites.”—Bryson responds, “Pardon me, but what exactly is a light bite? Are we talking a playful wrestle and gummy nips? I think not.”
Bryson has this delightful American-British hybrid style. He’s a genius with adverbs and adjectives—take this description of America’s most famous “outdoorsman”: “the inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau.” My only complaint is his humor can be a tad too biting at times. I think some Southerners might take offense to his estimations of them.
A Walk in the Woods inspired me to try hiking and to get over my ingrained fear of the woods. It’s part memoir, part humor, part trail guide, and part investigative reporting.* It plays on the innate human fear of the woods and the unknown but the equally innate human ambition to conquer that unknown. And it’s fascinating.
*As for investigative reporting, I’m thinking of Bryson’s exposé on the Forest Service Rangers. Apparently the purpose of the Forest Service isn’t to host happy family picnics but to accommodate forest destruction for private business interests. Bryson includes another story about how the Park Service “discovered and eradicated in the same instant a new species of fish.” Classic.
4 out of 5 stars