Upon moving back to the United States after spending twenty years in Britain, Bill Bryson decided, rather spontaneously, that he would hike the 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.
A Walk in the Woods
The adventure begins well before the actual hike. In the first chapters, readers learn that although Bryson has done a bit of hiking, he is no expert. As such, he does quite a lot of research. His reading leads him to anything and everything that could possibly go wrong on the trail like encounters with wild animals, weather hazards, and even murder. Then, of course, he needs to be properly supplied and is astounded at his own lack of knowledge and to have to pay the price of the necessary equipment.
Just prior to his scheduled departure, Bryson received a phone call from an old friend, Stephen Katz, whom he had not had much contact with over the past twenty five years, offering to join him on his journey. Bryson gratefully accepted. Katz, much more ill-fitted to hike the trail than Bryson, brings out much of the humor in the book as he slips in one-liners and flings necessities out of his heavy backpack.
The beginning stages of the hike, as Bryson and Katz acclimate to each other and the trail, are among the most amusing. Readers will be find themselve hard-pressed to supress outright laughter. Bryson has shrewd observation skills and the most amazing way of describing people and his surroundings, expressing what everyone thinks but never has the gall to say. For example, “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.”
Nearly every chapter also includes factual information, most likely from Bryson’s extensive research in planning out this trip. He outlines a detailed history of the origins of the trail. He goes to great lengths to connect the reader to the importance of the preservation of this undeveloped land. He gives his opinions on the Forest and Parks Services and his contempt about the extinction of many species of nature. But most of all, he is able to captivate readers with his description of vibrant images of the trail and leave them longing to embark on a hike along the trail to unite with the peace of the wilderness.
What may be disappointing to some, is that Bryson never actually walks the entire Appalachian Trail. At about page 100, or 500 miles into the hike, the friends agree that it is more than they can handle and plan to meet later in the year to tackle the last 100 miles, The Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine, together. In the months between, Bryson continues to go on day hikes and explore surrounding areas of the trail that are rich in history.
While Bryson and Katz may not have completed their journey, they learned more about the wilderness, themselves and friendship than even they expected.
The Appalachian Trail
Reports of the total length of the Appalachian Trail vary, but it is agreed that it is over 2,175 miles from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to Katahdin in central Maine. America’s best-known, long-distance footpath, the vision of a MA forester named Benton MacKaye, was designed, constructed and marked with white blazes in the 1920’s and 1930’s by volunteer hiking clubs brought together by the volunteer-based, non-profit Appalachian Trail Conservancy which still oversees the trail.
Some hikers or walkers attempt the entire length in one season, referred to as thru-hiking, but only about 25% reach their goal. Others work on hiking the trail, officially known as Appalachian National Scenic Trail, in sections. Bicycles, horses and motorized vehicles are not allowed along the route. There are many campsites and more than 250 primitive woodland shelters available along the trail that stretches across fourteen different states.
About Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa. He met his wife while on a backpacking expedition in England and stayed there writing for The Times and the Independent. Bryson’s family moved to Hanover, NH in 1995 and then back to England in 2003. His other books include The Lost Continent, In a Sunburned Country, Made in America and most recently, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.
A Walk in the Woods (1998, Broadway Books, ISBN 0-7679-0251-3) is a New York Times Bestseller. In 2005, Robert Redford announced that he would star in and produce a movie adapted from this book.