Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Walk in the Woods: Who knew a hiking memoir could be so awesome?

Oh, Bill Bryson. You intrigued me with your A Short History of Nearly Everything. It took me a couple of months to get through it, but I felt like a better, more enlightened, and more amused person after having read it. So I decided to try another book you wrote on the recommendations of my book club friends. I chose A Walk in the Woods because it featured Virginia in some parts of it, and I grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, spitting distance from your subject matter of the Appalachain Trail. My friends, they did not do justice to how awesome this book is.

Imagine, if you will, a middle-aged, slightly overweight guy living in New England. He's pretty happy with his life, but some part of him wants a new challenge. Don't we all go through that with some regularity? Don't we all want to do something different from time to time so we don't stagnate? Well, Bill Bryson is perhaps more ambitious than most. He decides he's going to hike the Appalachain Trail (or as you'll come to know it in the book, the AT). All 2,000-some miles of it, from Georgia to Maine. He's an amateur hiker at best; a Sunday walker at worst. He has no training and no real idea of what the AT is like when he decides it. After he starts his research, he begins to get very nervous - but he's now told everyone he knows that he's going to do it, so he feels bound to complete the mission. At the last minute, an old buddy asks if he can come along. An old buddy who has driven him insane on previous trips, who is incredibly overweight and out of shape, who is prone to complaining about less-than-ideal conditions. Bryson is so thankful not to have to do it alone that he gleefully welcomes this companion. And the adventures begin.

I loved this book. Every blessed minute of it. It could have me in stitches one second and contemplating earth conservation the next. Bryson is an absolute genius at weaving together hysterical personal anecdotes with meticulous research and poignant observations. My absolute favorite moment of the book comes early - when he is in a camping store purchasing all of his equipment to make the trip. His description of meeting with the store owner, an experienced AT hiker, going through the list of supplies the owner tells him he'll need, complete with items that sound to him like he's going on a moon excursion instead of hiking in the woods. I also learned a great deal, about the history of the AT and how it's currently maintained, about the history of native flora and fauna all along the Appalachains and how they have fared, and how our dear National Parks Service has been responsible for completely eradicating several species of both plants and animals from the area.

The book is both educational and a complete riot. It's like Thoreau and Dave Barry rolled together with a famous biologist (sorry, I was never good at biology, and Darwin seems too cliche!). It works brilliantly. Five stars.


  1. Hi, Jen! This is one of my two most favorite Bryson's, and I've read all of them but the dictionary. This book rises above most of his others because beyond the pithy humor, it is really moving. (Spoiler here, for those who haven't read it...) When Bryson and Steve have to face the fact that they simply are not up to the job, that moment of deep humility is really very moving. Unforgettable. Great book! Carrie

  2. Agreed, Carrie. It's hilarious and human, and so well-written. I devoured it, and I know I'll read it again.