A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Book Cover
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

Katz needed bootlaces, so we went to an outfitter's, and while he was off in the footwear section I had an idle shuffle around. Pinned to a wall was a map showing the whole of the Appalachian Trail on its long march through fourteen states, but with the eastern seaboard rotated to give the AT the appearance of having a due north-south orientation, allowing the mapmaker to fit the trail into an orderly rectangle, about six inches wide and four feet high. I looked at it with a polite, almost proprietorial interest-it was the first time since leaving New Hampshire that I had considered the trail in its entirety-and then inclined closer, with bigger eyes and slightly parted lips. Of the four feet of trail map before me, reaching approximately from my knees to the top of my head, we had done the bottom two inches.

I went and got Katz and brought him back with me, pulling on a pinch of shirtsleeve. "What?" he said. "What?"

I showed him the map. "Yeah, what?" Katz didn't like mysteries.

"Look at the map, and then look at the part we've walked."

He looked, then looked again. I watched closely as the expression drained from his face. "Jesus," he breathed at last. He turned to me, full of astonishment. "We've done nothing."

We went and got a cup of coffee and sat for some time in a kind of dumbfounded silence. All that we had experienced and done-all the effort and toil, the aches, the damp, the mountains, the horrible stodgy noodles, the blizzards, the dreary evenings with Mary Ellen, the endless, wearying, doggedly accumulated miles-all that came to two inches. My hair had grown more than that.

One thing was obvious. We were never going to walk to Maine.

They had just traveled the line in red.

I've been thinking of hiking the section of the Appalachian Trail near where I live. I asked someone what it is like to hike the entire thing. They recommended I read A Walk in the Woods, the true tale of Bill Bryson and Stephen Katz's hike along the Appalachian Trail.

Bryson claimed to be a well-equipped amateur hiker with a little experience. Katz was quick tempered, unprepared, out-of-shape, and seemingly went through withdrawal symptoms if separated from snack cakes or X-Files for too long. They proceeded to drive each other crazy as they attempted to hike 2,150 miles from Georgia to Maine, and I cheered for them the whole time.

The first half of the book is entertaining. Bryson describes the various hikers they encounter that didn't stand a chance to those who may hike the entire trail multiple times. The interaction between Katz and Bryson is hilarious. Katz's temper tantrums were somehow endearing, even knowing that I could never be as patient as Bryson with him. Early on, Katz gets mad and throws all their food away because he doesn't want to carry it anymore. Later, the two become separated, and I genuinely worried about Katz rather than mentally saying, "Good! Fuck him!"

The first half of the book contains some interesting trivia about the Appalachian Trail, the backdrop to the story. Later in the book, the Trail information becomes much more prevalent, feeling more like a class lecture about the Trail rather than a story that took place on it. After pushing past the, admittedly large, lull in the book's momentum, the story does pick back up.

This is not a "how to hike" guide in any sense. This is two men's experience hiking the trail. It will not prepare you for the trail, but it will show you a bit of trail hiking culture. There are points where they hate the Trail, but it is in their soul that they must continue trekking. The payoff at the next shelter or bald is always worth the trial. Bryson describes the landscapes beautifully, and I envied their journey for the entire read.

I recommend reading this book. It's humorous, and you don't need to like camping or hiking to appreciate it. Although, that may make the lull more difficult. It took me about a week of constant reading, so an avid reader may be able to read it in 1-3 days.