A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

Ah, the great story-teller, Bill Bryson.  I have heard about many of his books but in my 32nd year on this planet, I have finally picked one up and turned the pages.

Moving  back to the states in the 1990s, Bryson settled in New Hampshire, just a few hundred yards from the great Appalachian Trail.  He heard stories of crazy hikers walking the trail in entirety, from Georgia to Maine, nearly 2200 miles, and decided to go on the big walk himself.  As he researched and bought camping equipment, he also sent out several letters inviting friends to accompany him on the trail.  Stephen Katz was an old friend who showed interest, they had, in fact, traveled Europe together several years before.  Bryson was a little leery because they had grown sick and tired of each others company after a few weeks together in Europe, but welcomed the friend to join if he thought he was up for it.  Katz showed up quite overweight and not looking like the image he portrayed to Bryson.  Katz was a former drug addict and alcoholic, who was currently walking everywhere anyway, because his license was revoked due to legal issues. Katz also had a medical condition in which he had to eat sugar frequently due to a bad batch of drugs in his not so distant past.  Not exactly the ideal partner for a 2000 mile walk in the wilderness.  Though his partner might have some difficulties, Bryson’s biggest fear became the realization that the wilderness held a multitude of deadly animals rarely seen from the public standpoint of cities and highways, more specifically, bears.  Bryson relayed several stories of bear attacks in the history of the trail, eventually coming to the conclusion that there was no sure way to avoid them, and no clear reason why they attack or why they may simply walk away from the fearful hikers. Other than bears, there were also venomous spiders, deadly snakes, mountain lions, and bobcats, though Bryson never confirmed a single sighting of any of these on his summer on the trail.

Bryson and Katz began in Georgia in March of 1996, hiking Northward.  It was hell starting the trail. Katz became frustrated and threw several packs of food and necessities to lighten his load, not even considering the situation he was in.  They had weighty packs and several days of snow and below freezing weather those first few weeks.  One evening, they opened their tents to find snow waist-deep.  They slowly hiked through and by the end of the day the sun had melted most of it.  The most joyful parts of the book were when they happened to be close enough to a town to restock supplies, stay in a hotel, and have a restaurant dinner- always a welcomed treat in comparison with the daily ration of noodles they came to tolerate. After several weeks, they reached Virginia where they took a break from the trail.  Katz went back to Iowa to work construction for a few weeks while Bryson returned home.  During those weeks, Bryson took day hikes to stay in shape and hiked several mountains near New Hampshire.  One hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains quickly found him on the edge of hypothermia.  He had started on a sunny July morning and the sudden mountainous weather had changed for a freezing fog half way to a lodge he was headed to.  Being that it was sunny most days, he had only packed a sweater for warmth and neglected to pack waterproofs.  The cold and moisture was penetrating.  For over an hour he bared the elements and made it to the lodge just in time to warm up and drink some hot coffee while the the weather turned back to the sunny day that it had started with.

Katz returned in August and the pair went off to hike the end of the trail in Maine.  Though it is the last 200 miles, the trail in Maine is torturous.  Thick woods and large elevation changes make the trail a real challenge.  They planned on going through the 100 Mile Woods, then to the summit of Katahdin to finish the summer.  After hiking a few days, they made it several miles into the 100 Mile Woods when Bryson left Katz to go ahead on the trail and filter and refill the water bottles.  When Bryson went to find Katz he was nowhere to be found.  Bryson walked several miles up and down the trail looking for any sign of Katz. Fearing the worst, he even looked over the cliffs to check if his friend had taken a fall to his death.  No sign of Katz.  Bryson set up camp and decided to continue on the trail in the morning in the case that Katz might have missed the rendezvous and was ahead of him.  Sure enough he was waiting several miles ahead and they agreed that it was time to head home.

As a part-time traveler, this book was a nice read.  I’m not sure I would ever be up for conquering the trail, but it was an entertaining read.  I enjoyed the stories Bryson supplemented about the history of dangerous tales of the trail.  It would really make a gung-ho, aspiring hiker think twice about wandering off into the woods for a few weeks. The details of the scenery, the towns, and people Bryson encountered made the book a complete modern adventure, and I have to say I look forward to more from Bryson when the time comes.

Rating: *********9/10

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2 thoughts on “A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

  1. My favorite scenes were the imaginary hillbilly kidnappers in the basement–“Virgil, git tha rope!”–the nighttime bear scare with the nail clippers, and “wetting themselves lavishly” at the sight of ugly human cities after all those weeks in the lovely forest.

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