Broadway Books, 1998. 274 pages, $15.99
I love hiking, camping, fishing. Anything outdoors, really. Most of my outdoor adventuring is restricted to summers when I have more flexibility in my work schedule. But once classes start in September, I turn to outdoor literature to satisfy my imagination.
Last March I reviewed Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild. Wild is part outdoor adventure, part gratuitous sex and drug abuse. Strayed’s nature writing was thrilling enough to keep me coming back, despite the intermingled nonsense she felt she needed to pepper throughout her story. It is a good book that could have been great if Strayed had stuck to nature writing and left the Hollywood sensationalism out. In all fairness, though, I can imagine that a sexy, thrilling rated R motion picture is worth a lot more money than a clean outdoor adventure book.
Like Wild, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods is an exciting outdoor adventure book that has been made into a major film. Unlike Wild, though, Bryson’s tale combines vivid descriptions of mountains, rivers, and forests with American history in a way that helps the reader to participate in the life of the Appalachian Trail in a deeper way than just a story about walking ever could. And Bryson keeps his story mostly free of drugs and sex scandals. Yet somehow Hollywood has embraced A Walk in the Woods with just as much enthusiasm as it did Wild, casting superstars Nick Nolte, Robert Redford, and Emma Thompson.
But here we are talking about the book A Walk in the Woods, not the movie. If you see the film, you’ll have to let me know how it is.
The Appalachian Trail, or the AT as hikers refer to it, stretches for more than 2100 miles, winding through 14 different states from Georgia to Maine. More than 2 million people hike sections of the AT every year. Around 3,000-4,000 hikers attempt to walk the entire AT each year, but only about a quarter of them succeed. AT terrain ranges from mountains to valleys, nearly all forested, and includes some natural gems: Great Smokey Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park, the Cumberland Valley, and the White Mountain National Forest.
In the mid-1990s, writer Bill Bryson moved his family to New Hampshire and soon found himself preparing to thru-hike the AT with his friend Stephen Katz. He says that his purpose was to get in shape and visit an endangered ecosystem, the eastern hardwood forests. The result was a wonderful story of friendship, exertion, and unparalleled natural beauty. With each new habitat, Bryson philosophizes about American history, politics, environmental policies, and people.
A Walk in the Woods is a great read if you appreciate American history, hiking, or both. Parents, be warned that the book is R-rated for language: words like s**t, pu**ies, f**k, and on down the line are used as proper English. Furthermore, both Bryson and Katz make numerous sexual references, though there are no overtly sexual scenes in the book.
Bryson uses the story of hiking the AT with Katz as a skeleton, hanging flesh on it in the forms of American and natural history, commentary on American consumerism, and sociopolitical analysis. His observations are harsh at times, insightful at others.
In the end, A Walk in the Woods is a fun book that makes you want to get off the couch, pick up a walking stick, and start out on the trail.
Check out some of my previous book reviews at the links below: