Bill Bryson is a humor author. More precisely, he is a baby boomer who first came into my consciousness when my book club read The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir about Bryson’s Midwest upbringing in the 1950s and 60s. It is laugh out loud funny, poking fun at the times, and reliving for his contemporaries the novelty of such innovations as the frozen dinner, and playing in the clouds of pesticide left behind by mosquito spray trucks.
A Walk in the Woods, while not as whimsical, still incorporates a healthy dose of humor as he tells the story of his decision to embark on a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Never mind that he has no experience thru-hiking, or backpacking, or even doing much day hiking or camping. I consider it the pre-cursor to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, only without the drug addiction and extremely self-destructive behavior. But Bryson has one thing that Strayed does not – a healthy (and amusing) fear of bears.
The book alternates between telling the history of the Appalachian Trail; it conception, its development, its increase in popularity over the years, and Bryson and his childhood friend Katz’s long hike. He revels in details that include savoring a soda after a week in the woods, to Katz’s emotional outbursts that result in large portions of their rations being hurtled off the sides of mountains. He also goes into great detail on various bear calamities throughout the United States, providing a who’s who of bear casualties over the last several dozen years.
While reading, you can feel the weight of the pack on your back as you trudge along with Bryson and Katz, up and down hills, over stony trails, and finally collapsing in camp at the end of the night. At which point you sleep soundly… unless you can hear what you think is a bear. He also expresses the joy of a beautiful sunrise or sunset, and the absolute peace in the woods. Any hiker can likely relate to these feelings.
A Walk in the Woods is a quick read – and I enjoyed the serious historical facts that complemented the tale of their excursion. The only part I disliked was when he retold the generalizations about the residents who were removed from Shenandoah National Park, describing them as uneducated and barely functional poor people who were far better off once the government swooped in to relocate them and save the day. But given that this book was written 20 years ago, before the true story was likely known, I’m willing to forgive him for the error.
The book is a worthwhile read, especially if you want to get a sense of what thru-hiking would really be like if you are not a serious distance hiker and camper. Just don’t feed the bears.