Story by Courtney Scoby, Staff writer
A book title like “A Walk in the Woods” brings to mind images of leisurely strolls through state parks on neatly maintained trails that traverse mostly flat land. Maybe there is a deer or some frisky squirrels, perhaps even a rare bird. Attempting to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (AT) – all 2,000 plus miles of it – is no simple walk in the woods.
To say that thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, a term used to describe hiking the entire length of the trail, is extremely difficult is an understatement.
In the words of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, “Each year, thousands of hikers attempt a thru-hike; only about one in four makes it all the way.”
The AT crosses 14 states and includes a variety of treacherous terrains. Thru-hiking takes the average hiker about five to seven months.
Renowned travel writer Bill Bryson, along with his grumpy sidekick Katz, set out to do just this in the novel. Originally released in 1998 and recently re-released to coincide with the release of the 2015 movie based on the book starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” relates the journey of two men through some of America’s most beautiful and terrifying wilderness.
While the majority of the book is dedicated to the walk itself, the first several chapters detail the extensive preparation that went into the trip. For Bryson, this involved several hours at a local equipment store and many stacks of reference books; for Katz, this involved consuming large amounts of Little Debbie snack cakes and throwing his pack together a few hours before departure.
Not all of the pre-trip research was useful, though. For example, in his recounting of a book on bear attacks, he hilariously calls out the author on the conflicting pieces of advice given for confronting a black bear in the wild, underscoring the total unpredictability of the behavior of wild animals: “To ward off an aggressive black bear, Herrero suggests making lots of noise, banging pots and pans together, throwing sticks and rocks, and ‘running at the bear.’ (Yeah, right. You first, Professor.) On the other hand, he then adds judiciously, these tactics could ‘merely provoke the bear.’ Well, thanks.”
Once the journey begins, the narration of life on the trail is interspersed with long passages of scientific and historical information about the Appalachian Trail. These passages can run a bit too long at times, but to Bryson’s credit, he does condense a massive amount of information into a reasonable number of pages.
This is not to say the information is uninteresting, though. There is a lot to learn here about the ecology, history and politics behind a somewhat secret national treasure. Bryson lodges some serious complaints against the National Forest Service, bringing to light some astonishing revelations about how we think our natural resources are being managed and how they really are.
Fortunately, the humorous tone of the first few chapters carries throughout the remainder of the book, as Bryson and Katz encounter too-strange-to-be-fiction characters, unforeseen challenges, and wildlife of all kinds along the trail.
While the book was written nearly 20 years ago, the environmental and conservation issues discussed in it are still relevant today, arguably even more so considering the accelerated rate of climate change and human exploitation of natural resources.
Bryson writes with a great deal of intelligence, but the text is still easily readable. Equal parts hysterically funny and thought-provoking, A Walk in the Woods is one of the most enjoyable literary walks through nature out there.