I usually don’t read many nonfiction books these days, but I’d heard such good things about Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods that I couldn’t pass it up. The book was first published in 1999, so all the real buzz about it has long since dissipated. I didn’t even really know what the book was about, except that it had something to do with nature. At any rate, I picked up an electronic copy for my PDA and managed to get through the whole thing.
As it turns out, A Walk in the Woods is about the author’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. First of all, I had no idea that such a trail existed (call me ignorant, I guess), so I was glad that Bryson took plenty of time to explain the “AT” in such a thorough fashion. Basically, it’s a man-made hiking trail that extends from Springer Mountain in Georgia all the way north to Mount Katahdin in Maine — a total of 2,174 miles (give or take a few). Apparently, this is a very popular hike among hard-core outdoor enthusiasts, and lots of people attempt to do the whole trail, which can take three months or more.
That was Bryson’s ambitious plan, and A Walk in the Woods records the highlights (and lowlights) of his attempt. He was joined on this journey by Stephen Katz, an old high school friend that Bryson hadn’t had much contact with in the years preceding the hike. There was definitely an interesting dynamic between the two men, and that really helped carry the story along.
Even though this is a nonfiction book, there were basically two different plots throughout. First was the one dealing with the actual hiking saga. But there was also a second one that really gave a lot of background information about the AT, as well as info about the various governmental and non-profit agencies that have been in charge of preserving and maintaining the AT over the years.
I found that the parts of the book that covered the actual hike and the interactions between Bryson and Katz on the trail were funny, touching, and interesting. I blazed through those chapters and couldn’t wait to read more.
But then, Bryson and Katz (unexpectedly, given the nature of the book) decided that they simply couldn’t do the entire AT after all. From there, the book went downhill in terms of interest. That’s when Bryson starts giving long histories of animals and plants found along the trail, as well as information about various conservation projects. Plus, he lets loose with several long-winded tirades against the the National Park Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other agencies, all of which I found extremely boring.
Finally, in the end, Bryson ends up driving around (solo) to different points of the trail, hiking for a day or so, then going back to his car to find another section to hike. Even though I don’t know anything about the AT, I think I can safely assume that it wasn’t meant to be “hiked” in that way. After a long absence in the middle of the book, Katz makes an appearance at the end. But it’s depressing in that he continues to act like a noob (throwing away essential food and water because his pack was too heavy) and ultimately causes the two men to quit without reaching any of their goals. How Bryson could write that they “hiked the Appalachian Trail” is beyond me, because it seems as though they fell short of every single goal they set.
Overall, I have mixed feelings about A Walk in the Woods. On the one hand, I liked the way Bryson capture the adventurous spirit of setting off on such an incredible journey and the way he dealt with the reality of how difficult hiking the AT really is. On the other hand, as soon as the book deviated from that path and went off on tangents concerning the governmental agencies, it became a snooze fest. So I’m going to give the book 6.5 stars and recommend that if you do read it, you just skip past the pages that don’t deal with the actual trail. Trust me, you won’t be missing out on much!