Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson is one of my favorite books of all time and will always have a reserved spot on my bookshelf. I am thrilled to finally be sharing it here. It is a hilarious, witty, and self-deprecating account of Bill Bryson’s hiking adventure on the Appalachian Trail, and I laugh each time I read it.

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The premise is this: Bryson–out of shape, middle aged, and accustomed to the comforts of home–decides to hike all 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail as a “welcome back to America” exercise after twenty years abroad. “A little voice in my head said: ‘Sounds neat! Let’s do it!'” he writes, so his adventure begins. (Isn’t that how most of our adventures begin?)

This is an ambitious task as it involves physical endurance, rough weather, and a major investment in new equipment–none of which he is particularly keen on. Knowing he shouldn’t try it alone, he recruits a friend from college to go with him. When this friend shows up, he is even less in shape and less tolerant of adversity than Bryson. Nevertheless, they set off into the wilderness like two fawns entering bear country. What happens next can only be told by Bill himself.

A few highlights and favorite quotes:

  • Bryson’s experience buying equipment – Hysterical and totally relatable, especially to anyone who has ever shopped for gear. He starts off by writing, “My son had just gotten an after-school job there, so I was under strict instructions of good behavior…I was not to say or do anything stupid, try on anything that would require me to expose my stomach, say “Are you shitting me?” when informed the price of a product…and above all don anything inappropriate, like a woman’s ski hat, in an attempt to amuse.”  After experiencing extremely enthusiastic and opinionated salesmen (I think they are a staple at outdoor retailers), Bill ended up with “enough equipment to bring full employment to a vale of sherpas.”
  • History of the National Parks – Bryson weaves the history of our national parks and the Appalachian Trail into his tale in such an engaging way that you are left hanging on his every word. Very informative, and a great backdrop to the entire saga.
  • “Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know.” Preach! This is so true.
  • The hitch hiking experience – Bryson and Katz hitch a ride from a “very handsome, very happy, very drunk young couple” celebrating upcoming nuptials. The car ride that ensues is an absolute riot and will have you laughing out loud.
  • The people they encounter – Some obnoctious, some charming, but all comical. One of my favorite quotes was in regards to the most infamous character they meet on the trail. ““I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the Appalachian woods I would not be spared,” Bryson writes.
  • Bryson hit the nail on the head with this description of hiking:

“Time ceases to have any meaning…You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants….There is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods….At times, you become almost certain that you slabbed this hillside three days ago, crossed this stream yesterday, clambered over this fallen tree at least twice today already. But most of the time you don’t think. No point. Instead, you exist in a kind of mobile Zen mode, your brain like a balloon tethered with string, accompanying but not actually part of the body below. Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing. At the end of the day you don’t think, “Hey, I did sixteen miles today,” any more than you think, “Hey, I took eight-thousand breaths today.” It’s just what you do.”

So true!

In short, this book makes us laugh at ourselves, our fellow hikers, the idiosyncrasies of the hiking culture, while also beautifully capturing the rich history and scenery of our national parks. I hope you enjoy it and that it becomes one of your favorites too.

PS. Giveaway coming tomorrow!

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