A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Doubleday Canada 1997.
When Bill Bryson moved to a small New Hampshire town, he noticed a trail disappearing into the woods at the edge of the village. It was part of the Appalachian Trail, a hiking path that runs more than 2,100 miles through the Appalachian mountains, from Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. (Actually, you can now follow the International Appalachian Trail north from Mount Katahdin to Crow Head in Newfoundland/Labrador, a 1900 mile journey. You can visit a report of our hike on a section of the trail in Forillon National Park linked here.) A germ of an idea began to nag at Bryson. He should make the journey from Georgia to Maine! It would be good for him. He would become fit. He would see the forest first-hand before global warming turned the whole of the Appalachian wilderness into savanna. With a bit of luck, he found a hiking partner, an acquaintance from years ago, Stephen Katz. So it was that in March of 1996, Bryson found himself at Amicalola Falls Lodge, Georgia, setting off on the first leg of his adventure.
Bryson is a wonderful hiking partner. His tour of the Appalachian Trail offers the reader an entertaining and fulsome experience without all the blisters, sweat, bug bites and other inevitable discomforts of hiking more than a few hundred feet. Bryson’s account is often laugh-out-loud funny. I loved his snappy come-backs. For example, when asked what made him buy a particular hiking pack, he answers “Well, I thought it would be easier than carrying everything in my arms.” Bryson’s often-hilarious, sometimes touching, interactions with his hiking partner Katz also enliven the tale.
Along the way, a lively variety of facts and views are gently offered up to the reader to contemplate as you walk. These include a history of the Appalachian Trail and the men most responsible for its development and a more longterm history of the geology of the mountains themselves. Interesting characters associated with the forest are introduced, people such as plant collector Thomas Nuttall, who in 1817 produced the Genera of North American Plants. He also discusses natural disasters such as the blight that wiped out American Chestnuts, four billion trees across the Appalachians, in just 35 years.
Bryson comments on the shortcomings of the National Park Service, not the rangers in the parks but the management responsible for plenty of insanity, from clear-cutting and rampant road construction to overseeing species extinctions. Under the Park Services stewardship, forty-two species of mammal have disappeared from America’s national parks in the 20th century.
Bryson observes that half of all the malls and offices in America have been built since 1980 and Americans have more or less given up walking, with the average American walking just a few miles in a week. I was unable to confirm his figures, which would be dated now anyway, but since this book was published in 1997, obesity has only increased with our continued sedentary car-oriented lifestyle.
At the outset, Bryson was worried about bear encounters, but in the end, he and Katz meet up with very little wildlife, and no bears. If I were hiking the Appalachian Trail on my own or with another woman, it would be human predators that would most worry me. Indeed, in the year that Bryson hiked the trail, two women were murdered near the trail in Shenandoah National Park. He also makes light of people using cell phones. Of course, since 1997, the availability of all manner of electronic devices has explodes. You can even get cameras with built-in GPS devices. No doubt this helps to make the trail a safer undertaking.
I didn’t feel tempted by Bryson’s tale to undertake any extensive hiking expedition myself, but found A Walk in the Woods a perfectly satisfactory alternative to a do-it-yourself adventure.